I have seen this film twice now, and am still not sure how to formulate a proper opinion of it. I do know that it is a masterpiece and probably one of the few large-scale epics that managed to work; not a small feat, considering David Lean was not involved. This may have to do with the fact that, even though it uses a forgotten historical figure, the film still uses a sort of universal message of finding ones place in life. Pu Yi was never able to make decisions for himself, despite the fact that he was supposedly the most powerful figure in China. He was part of events that were beyond his control. He could not even assert his power when the traditional Chinese government was challenged – he was at an age that was incapable of that kind of reason. He only truly gained a life toward the end – but did not live long enough to enjoy it.
Is this what all human lives are like? We are in a position of imagined power and only find control when we relinquish it?
This is the real story of Emperor Pu Yi, the last emperor of China. He gains power at age three, abdicates it at seven, is forcibly removed from his palace in his early twenties, a captive of the state. He is later jailed in a gulag for being a “counter-revolutionary” and ends his life working as a gardener, forgotten but seemingly content.
What’s incredible is how much Bertolucci revealed about the waning days of traditional China. First, this was the first Western film (OK, fictional Western film) that was allowed to be filmed in the Forbidden City. Bertolucci utilizes this for all it is worse. The film looks incredible, with the best scenes taking place in Pu Yi’s early childhood, surrounded by adoring citizens. He plays in flags of the primary colors and dresses in ornate robes. The films technical credits are amazing – and are well contrasted between the scenes in the gulag, which are dark and may as well have been filmed in black and white.
But the primary reason to watch this film is to watch the evolution of Pu Yi, and how he was destroyed by the very nation he was meant to save. There is very little discussion given to the politics of the day aside from a few brief mentions on the radio. This perfectly matches Pu Yi – he has been isolated his entire life from the outside world, not even aware that he has given up power until after it has already been done for him. We hear items about the Japanese invasion on the radio, as well as items about Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese civil war. But we rarely see them; we share Pu Yi’s frustration about being disconnected from his people and the outside world. It’s all so well done that I cannot even complain about the fact that a film about China in the early 20th century does not show the China that existed.
Even the slightly slower second act still contains many interesting and well executed moments that it is easy to forgive the fact that the film slows down. This is because we are viewing Pu Yi when he was at an age of reason in his life and would have had the power to do something. But he failed due to his own hubris and inability (or refusal) to see the future. A bit of a history lesson; Pu Yi was reinstated as emperor by the Japanese after their invasion of Manchuria and the creation of the puppet state Manchukuo. In the film, Pu Yi tries his best to use his leverage to turn Manchuria into an independent state. Again, we feel his frustration, particularly in a scene in which everyone listening to one of his speeches walks out. He merely speaks louder, going from diplomat to a man on a soap box in Hyde Park in the span of about thirty seconds. Scenes like that make the film. It is about making the emperor into a man – one that could be used by everyone for their own gain. Even the characters in the film forget he is a man.
One of the greatest scenes ever is the penultimate scene, in which the aging Pu Yi returns to the Forbidden City. It has been designated a tourist site; his childhood is now behind velvet rope. Another child confronts him, and he speaks about his rule in the same way a grandfather talks about how candy used to cost a nickel. It’s all well acted and buried subtext (including a sixty year old cricket) that I am still trying to figure out. Is the cricket Pu Yi’s soul? Is the child his alter ego? Has the Forbidden City become representative of his mind or China in general: a relatively bright spot at a time in which everything seemed hopeless? I think the answer to all may very well be yes.
This film, despite winning a gigantic set of Oscars when it was released, seems to have largely been forgotten. No one discusses it anymore in any setting. This is not only unfair, but downright criminal. Everything about the film is an epic, from its design to its examination of the human weakness.