Wednesday, December 16, 1998

The Last Emperor

Posted By on Wed, Dec 16, 1998 at 12:00 AM

Apart from a rather sheltered life inside carefully guarded fantasies of power, the most difficult thing to accept about great dictators is their vulnerability. When Anthony Hopkins played Hitler in The Bunker a few years ago, he was shocked to discover that, at the end of his absurd career, the Führer was nothing but a pathetic old man.

However, Pu Yi, the last emperor of China, the Son of Heaven, Lord of Ten Thousand Years, was not a great dictator. Crowned at the age of 3 and forced to abdicate at the age of 6, Pu Yi spent 16 years of his life inside the high red walls of the Forbidden City, the Palace of 9999 rooms, home of the ruling dynasties of China.

Described by Bernardo Bertolucci as "the set Hollywood dare not build," the Forbidden City with its jigsaw of alleys, courtyards and gardens tells stories of inaccessibility and desire. Designed as a Chinese box whose parts contain -- and are contained within -- other parts, the Forbidden City invites and, at the same time, tricks the inquisitive eye of the camera. This tension between the permissible and the forbidden, between exterior and interior, between the illusion of freedom and captivity, between light and darkness becomes the organizing principle of Bertolucci's spectacular epic, seduced by its own theatricality.

Loosely based on the memoirs of Sir Reginald Johnston, the emperor's Scottish tutor (Peter O'Toole), and Pu Yi's (John Lone) autobiography, From Emperor to Citizen, The Last Emperor chronicles the major events of modern China, its histrionic and bloody transitions from empire to republic and then to a communist state. Told in now-expanded, successive flashbacks which paint an innocent and sympathetic portrait of the boy emperor, the film draws a remarkable parallel between Pu Yi's desire to reach the world outside his palace and the spectator's fascination with the emperor's exotic land. But ultimately, The Last Emperor reads like a psychopathology of imprisonment: Held prisoner in a Maoist reform camp, the emperor remembers his pleasant though restless days of captivity in the Forbidden City.

Not interested in the simple recording of the historical truth -- should such a category exist -- this original director's cut, containing 49 additional minutes, addresses almost obsessively the power of cinema to stage and reinvent the past.

"I didn't try to make the film a historical documentary," comments Bertolucci. "What I'm interested in is history refracted by imagination."

What is unbelievably impressive, when this utopic restoration nears its end, is the vulnerability of its main character -- a patient of history, much more than a historical figure, whose silent suicide attempt reminds us of the devastating seriousness that can be sometimes found in the eyes of children.

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