Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor
Hazy childhood movie memory – Pu Yi goes from child emperor (Richard Vuu) to teenager (Tao Wu), either doing group martial arts warm-ups or military warm-ups with the Communists within the Forbidden City. That’s probably not how the movie actually goes.
My first film class showed Visions of Light, where it talks about this film’s use of symbolism through colour. Red means tradition and authoritarianism. Yellow, apparently is transition but I think it’s actually marks discovery. I haven’t seen Visions in a long time. I remember Pu Yi’s tutor Reginald Johnston’s (Peter O’Toole) bike being yellow. Lastly, green, and thus all the cool colours – even brown, strangely enough – means change, abdication, moving away from Pu Yi’s (John Lone) Imperial past. The words ‘open the door’ are often said with hostility in this film. This is the first movie I remember to use blue as a feminine colour, worn by women in the Forbidden City, or blue lighting/screen to depict an escape where the women are in focus and in their most troubled and precarious. Or white for loneliness. Great cinematography from Vittorio Storaro, Bertolucci’s longtime collaborator.
I’ve tweeted that a big chunk of The Last Emperor is the Asian Conformist, which is reductive, yes. Bertolucci’s about style and morally cold-hearted characters, a combination he masters here. The film is essentially political, as it publicly calls out authoritarianism’s hypocrisies. I suppose knowing that Pu Yi wasn’t that nice of a person makes the film more morally complex. It makes an emperor’s story relatable because it’s about any individual’s growth from unwanted independence to confusion to selfishness to adult self blame to resignation. Lone performs this rollercoaster of an arc beautifully, like playing hide and seek with the character’s moral ambiguities, changing depending on the man’s place in life. Other great performances include O’Toole’s enunciation, Maggie Han as Easter Jewel and Ric Young as an interrogator, the latter two camping it up without distracting from the film’s even tone.