Monday, July 19, 2010

The Last Emperor (1987)

Alright, so I’ll be honest. Before beginning this project I’d only viewed 24 Oscar winners, but I’d at least heard of the majority on the list. The Last Emperor (1987) is one of the few exceptions. I’d never heard of the film (granted I was two when the movie was released) nor had I heard of anyone in the movie, except for the wonderful Peter O’Toole (who I recently watched in his stint on Showtime’s The Tudors, he makes an excellent Pope). What I knew of the movie before I watched it was the two sentence synopsis on my Netflix On Demand screen. What I knew of Chinese history, the topic of this movie, was nil. So let’s just say that watching The Last Emperor was a learning experience on many fronts.

As the name may suggest, The Last Emperor tells the story of the last emperor of China, Pu Yi. The movie takes place throughout his life from 1908 to 1967. It begins in 1950 at a Chinese train station. A prison train pulls into the station and prisoners of war empty out of the train. The prisoners wait in the train station and a few bow down before a fellow prisoner who is Pu Yi. They are led away by guards. Pu Yi walks to the bathroom, locks the door, and slits his wrists.

We’re then transported to 1908 when three year old Pu Yi is taken to the Forbidden City and crowned the Emperor of China. He is an absolutely adorable little boy and I wish scenes of young Pu Yi would have lasted longer. There are a few strange moments when we see the imperial physician check Pu Yi’s stool and the young emperor in bed with his wet nurse.

The film flips back to 1950 and Pu Yi’s suicide attempt has failed. He is then taken to prison.

We next see Pu Yi in 1914 when he is eight. His brother comes to visit. The two boys play together and things go well until his bother informs Pu Yi that he isn’t the real emperor of China. Pu Yi gets pretty pissed and, in order to prove that he is emperor, makes his servant drink ink. Nasty. The boys climb the walls of the Forbidden City and see a man in a car. Pu Yi’s brother informs him that the man in the car is president of China. His advisors tell him that China does in fact have a president and is a republic. Tough break for such a young dude.

The brothers meet again in 1950 at the prison. The prison governor begins to read a book about Pu Yi’s life written by his tutor.

The film flips to 1919 and we see Pu Yi meet his tutor, who is from Scotland. This is the beginning of Pu Yi’s fascination with the Western world. His tutor, Reginald, quickly becomes his best friend and confident. Pu Yi seeks his advice and Reginald often speaks to the emperor’s advisors on his behalf. The emperor marries two women in 1922, Wan Jung who is the empress and Wen Hsiu who is his secondary wife. They all have sex together. There do seem to be some perks to being a fake emperor of China.

Back in prison Pu Yi is brought to testify to his war crimes. We quickly learn that Pu Yi had a relationship with the Japanese and that is why he is now in prison.

In 1924 the Chinese government expels the emperor from the Forbidden City. They make arrangements to go to the British Embassy, but instead flee to the Japanese Embassy. The Japanese had offered to help Pu Yi and his family who were no longer considered Chinese citizens. Pu Yi sells many family possessions and lives a comfortable life with his two wives. He parties, drinks, and sleeps with many women. He still dreams of moving west. Pu Yi and Wan Jung have even taken western names ‘Henry and Elizabeth’. Wen Hsiu decides that she’s sick of playing second fiddle in this marriage and leaves.

Then trouble arrives. A Japanese spy named Eastern Jewel (I’m not making this up) arrives at the home of Pu Yi and Wan Jung. She gets wan Jung hooked on opium and also sways Pu Yi to the side of Japanese.

Back in prison we learn that Pu Yi claimed that he was kidnapped and taken to Japan against his will. In a flash to 1932 we see that Pu Yi went to Japan of his own free will. He convinces the Japanese to allow him to become the emperor of Manchuria, a portion of China that is no longer under Chinese rule. He becomes incredibly power hungry and his life begins to fall apart. His wife, who is so hooked on opium she sleeps with another man and is impregnated, is sent away. The Japanese surrender in 1945 and Pu Yi is forced to evacuate Manchuria. As he attempts to escape, he is captured by the Russians, who eventually turn him over to the Chinese. This is how he arrived in prison.

Pu Yi admits that he is responsible for his actions and serves nine years in prison before his release. The movie ends in 1967 with Pu Yi’s return to the Forbidden City.

Whoa. Trust me, that was the brief version. Watching the movie will definitely provide you with more detail, but you get the picture.

I’d also like to put a disclaimer on this film. If you’re thinking this would be a great way to teach your children about Chinese history, I suggest you find a G rated film. Unless you’re ready to explain why the emperor has a wet nurse until he’s nine, why he sleeps with two women at once, and why the empress is kissing women. And of course, this is a movie, and something were changed for time and plot continuity – it’s not exactly spot on historically.

The Last Emperor was nominated for and won nine Oscars including Best Musical Score which was A.MAZ.ING.

Here's the trailer, which will give you a great snippet of the music.

I really liked this film and feel that I definitely need to view it again, because I’m sure I missed many things. This one is a four out of five statuettes.

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