The Last Emperor


In 1987 the movie The Last Emperor swept the Oscars winning nine of them including best director and best picture.   It is the fact-based story of Pu Yi who at the age of three was crowned emperor of China…the last one.  While he was growing up inside the gates of the Forbidden City in Beijing, the world was undergoing tremendous change until he was finally forced to abdicate in 1912 and left the Forbidden City for the first time as a young man.  We follow the course of his life both as emperor and then when he abdicates we follow him first as a playboy and then as the Japanese manipulated puppet emperor of Manchuria and then as a prisoner undergoing rehabilitation for ten years and then finally as a common gardener in the final years of his life.


Bernardo Bertolucci, the Italian filmmaker, helped write the script and does a marvelous job as the director.  The film is shot on location in China and stars John Lone as the Emperor and Peter O’Toole as his tutor and Joan Chen as his wife.  This is as close to perfect a film as you are likely to see and gives you a wonderfully insightful view of a part of Chinese history.


(Other films by Bertolucci that you may want to watch are The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris, and Little Buddha.)


Lots of valuable lessons can be discovered in this fine film.  Among them are:


We are all prisoners of one paradigm or another---what is the one you are prisoner of?


If you tell me you are not such a prisoner, then I suspect that you are simply unaware of the cage in which you are entrapped.


Freedom is only possible through our letting go of the paradigm.


On another level it is about power and the abuse of power.  It is about how power is an illusion.  It is about how this illusion can destroy that which we love the most in our futile efforts to hold on to power.


It is also about the inevitability of change and how some change for the better can also create victims.


(Note on Joan Chen: Chen is a very talented actor but she is also skilled in all areas of filmmaking.  She helped write, produce, and directed the film Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl that came out in 1997.  This film depicts a part of modern Chinese history that censors did not want produced so that Chen had to engage in guerilla filmmaking to get it done.  During the Cultural Revolution in China students were sent to the provinces and this film follows one such girl.  In 1975 she is sent to a remote corner of Tibet to learn horse training.  As the months roll by and she begins to realize that she is stuck there, she lets influential men have sex with her in a desperate attempt to get them to support her desire to return to her home city.  She gets pregnant and is treated despicably.  Finally, the one person who has treated her well, the horse trainer that she is learning from, commits a mercy killing in order to save her from what is becoming a prostituted life.  The film is a powerful indictment of Chinese policy from that era, a period of history that the government would prefer to forget.)