The Life of Puyi

The Last Emperor is the first western film aloud entry into the Forbidden City. A fact the movie takes advantage of by showcasing the beauty and mystique of the golden palace. I was always curious to see The Last Emperor, but like the Forbidden City itself, I remained totally blind to it. Though directed by the Italian Bernardo Bertolucci and filmed in English, The Last Emperor is the first predominantly Asian movie to win Best Picture. Unlike Gandhi, screen legend Peter O’Toole is the only major western actor in the movie. Something about him in a foreign land seems to attract awards attention. Not since Gigi has a movie won all 9 of its Academy Awards. Including Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design, Film Editing, Original Score, and Sound. Once again there were no acting nominations even though most of the Chinese cast deserved recognition.

John Lone plays Puyi, the titular last emperor of China who took the throne when he was just 2 years old. The film is framed with Puyi in prison, but nearly 3 hours are spent covering his entire life from emperor to citizen. As a toddler, Puyi is too childish to make his own decisions or appreciate the significance of his power. He wants to leave his sheltered life several times, but he does learn to accept his role later in life. As a child, Puyi tries to hold onto his youth, but it costs him his beloved wet nurse. The Last Emperor is actually the first PG-13 Best Picture winner. There’s one F bomb and some violence, but it’s mostly instances of brief nudity and sexual encounters. As a teenager, Puyi is given spectacles and his choice of an Empress.

Joan Chen plays his mostly content wife Wanrong who ultimately succumbs to opium addiction. Vivian Wu plays his unhappy secondary consort Wenxiu who ultimately leaves him. I know Puyi was probably harsher in real life, but the movie holds back a bit. Though he has many servants, Puyi’s most productive connection is with his English tutor Reginald Johnston played by O’Toole. Puyi learns a lot about western culture, but leaving the Forbidden City isn’t by choice. I don’t fully understand eastern politics, but I know Puyi ended up a puppet of the Japanese during the war when he reclaimed his title as Manchurian emperor. When the Red Army imprisons him, Ying Ruocheng plays the warden who reeducates him. When his sentence is up, the movie comes full circle when the elderly Puyi visits his former throne. The Last Emperor is a powerful story with humble beginnings.

The Last Emperor

Puyi sits on his throne

2 thoughts on “The Life of Puyi

  1. Heard a lot about this one, but they never show it anywhere, and they aired it too late when TCM did the 31 Days of Oscar. I have a book on directors that’s in storage somewhere, and one of the interviewee’s was Bernardo Bertolucci, and I remember him saying he was quite proud of what he accomplished with the film. The first Western view of one of China’s most famous and mysterious places, that’s very cool.

    Liked by 1 person

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