Classic Film Review: The Last Emperor (1987)

And the Oscar Goes to:

The Last Emperor, 1987

Directed by: Bernardo Bertolucci

Starring: John Lone, Joan Chen, Peter O’Toole, Ying Ruocheng, Victor Wong, Dennis Dun, Ryuichi Sakamoto


The Last Emperor is a biographical film about the life of Puyi (John Lone, adult; Richard Vuu (aged 3); Tiger Tsou (aged 8); Wu Tao (aged 15)), who was the last Emperor of China, and uses his own autobiography as the basis for the screenplay. It starts off with Puyi as a child, who ascended to the throne at that young age (in 1908), before his forced abdication in 1912. The film continues throughout his life from his tutelage, his marriage and his rebellion and exile. All of these are done in flashbacks, from when he is a prisoner in the 1950’s.

Firstly, I must admit that this film looks amazing, and the editing is done so clearly to match the tone of the film. The musical accompaniment to it is also brilliant. However the film itself, to me, isn’t that good. Its running time of over two and a half hours is too much, and the film would have ran better at a two hour mark with a few things sped up or cut out (there’s a lot of parts to this film which felt slow and unimportant). And also Puyi’s life, while impactful, didn’t have the same level of drama as that of Braveheart, A Beautiful Mind or The King’s Speech (other Oscar-winners based on the life of one). The whole film seems very laid back and very slow.

While set during Puyi’s childhood, though, there are some really nice moments of his desire to leave; he is constantly put through obstacles, despite being the Emperor, and this causes a real sadness towards his life. He’s a caged animal, a leader without power in his own home. And his friendship with Reginald Johnston (Peter O’Toole) has some nice touching moments, as we see Puyi learn about the real world. These moments end as Puyi grows up and is forced out of the forbidden city. There he teams up with the Japanese and rules a new nation of Manchukuo, before his capture.

As noted before, the music in this film is brilliant, and matches the tone perfectly. And the visuals to this film (a rarity at the time that a film was allowed to be filmed in China), getting the attires and the surroundings all beautiful. Especially when matched with the forward world where Puyi is a prisoner.

While beautiful features to the film certainly add to it, overall I found it to be a quite slow film without much drama. Some really emotional scenes with Puyi as a child are soon forgotten about and he becomes a character simply chasing a throne without doing much chasing, with a lot of stalling and slow scenes along the way.


Plot: * *

Acting: * * *

Writing: * * *

Presentation: * * * *

Overall Rating: * * *


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