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Film / The Last Emperor

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"The Emperor has been a prisoner in his own palace since the day that he was crowned, and has remained a prisoner since he abdicated. But now he's growing up, he may wonder why he's the only person in China who may not walk out of his own front door. I think the Emperor is the loneliest boy on Earth."
Reginald Johnston

A 1987 film directed and co-written by Bernardo Bertolucci, The Last Emperor was the biopic of Pu-Yi, The Last Emperor of China. David Byrne, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Cong Su composed the soundtrack. Sakamoto also had a role in the film.

The story, based on Pu-Yi's autobiography, tells how he ascended to the throne at the age of three. In his brief reign, he was confined to the Forbidden City, not knowing of the world of his people. When he is forced to abdicate at nine, the rest of Pu-Yi's life is one of desolation and impoverishment. After serving as the ruler of a Japanese puppet government of China during World War II, he becomes a political prisoner of the Soviets and then of the Communist Chinese. When finally released in the 1960s, Pu-Yi dies in obscurity.

This film proved very successful at the Academy Awards, winning all nine of its nominations, including Best Picture, tying the record set by Gigi nearly thirty years earlier.


This work features examples of:

  • Adapted Out: Pu-Yi had two other consorts while Emperor of Manchukuo (one died in 1942 under questionable circumstances, the other in 2001), and then a wife during his last five years until his death. She died in 1997. All three are excluded from the film.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: Pu Yi lashes out noting that everyone wanted to use him all his life and even the Communists are no different, trying to make him a useful citizen. To which the governor replies:
    "Is that so bad? To be useful?"
  • Artistic License – Biology: There is no way in hell a cricket could live that long, especially in a closed container without food or water.
  • Artistic License – History:
    • Overall, Pu-Yi is given a Historical Hero Upgrade and made less abrasive and volatile. The real Pu-Yi's tormenting of his servants went far beyond forcing them to drink ink, he would order floggings and beatings for his own amusement, and as an adult was prone to outbursts and domestic violence.
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    • The film completely skips over Pu Yi's brief July 1917 restoration that led to the aerial bombing of the Forbidden City, the first in Asian history.
    • In the film Pu-Yi maintains romantic relationships with his consorts. In reality, Pu-Yi was notoriously sex-averse, referring to his consorts as "wives in name only" and leading to long-standing rumors that he was gay or even asexual.
    • The film shows Yoshiko Kawashima (aka "Eastern Jewel") seducing Wanrong for her own ends. Kawashima's real-life bisexuality is largely speculative, and whether or not she ever actually seduced the Empress is debatable. There's also no evidence that she had a relationship with Masahiko Amakasu.
    • In the film, Amakasu commits suicide with a self-inflicted gunshot in front of Kawashima. In real life, he killed himself with a cyanide pill, and Kawashima wasn't present as she'd likely already fled Manchuria.
  • As You Know: The governor helpfully tells Pu-Yi, and the audience, that the Japanese put a puppet state in Manchuria called Manchukuo and even tells the date, even though Pu Yi knew all that because he was there at the time.
  • Break the Haughty: Numerous examples, but the whole movie is basically about Pu-Yi's journey from emperor of China to emperor of Manchuria to gardener. Pu-Yi's prison experience results in Character Development.
  • A Child Shall Lead Them: Not for long.
  • Chummy Commies: The detention centre overseer (played by Ying Ruocheng) who oversees Pu-Yi's re-education genuinely seeks to help him take responsibility and become a good citizen. Pu Yi slowly matures and undergoes Character Development under his care. Bertolucci noted that this made the Chinese different from the French and Russian revolutionaries, both of whom killed their kings; historically this was Mao's aim, to demonstrate the superiority of Chinese communism.
  • Convenient Miscarriage: This is the Japanese officials' explanation for the death of Wan Rong's love child. In reality, the baby girl is poisoned to death as soon as she's born.
  • Dastardly Whiplash: Masahiko Amakasu (played by Ryuichi Sakamoto) has an appropriately sinister set of facial hair.
  • Depraved Bisexual: Eastern Jewel sleeps with everyone, including Empress Wan Rong, in order to gain power.
  • Dirty Communists: The film shows the early stirrings of Mao's Cultural Revolution and Pu Yi is shocked to see that his kindly and genuinely committed overseer becomes a target for re-education by the young kids of this movement. Bertolucci who is a Marxist and had flirted with Maoism as a youth intended this as a Take That Me.
  • Driven to Suicide: Pu-Yi's mother. And much later, the Japanese official, Amakasu, who pushed Pu-Yi around.
  • Eunuchs Are Evil: There are thousands of them in the Forbidden City and while some do try to help raise the Emperor fairly well, many steal from him and hinder anything that would benefit him at the cost of their own privilege.
  • Evil Cripple: Amakasu has one arm and no soul.
  • Gilded Cage: The Forbidden City.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade:
    • Pu-Yi's meeting with Empress Dowager Cixi did not go nearly as smoothly as the film depicts: he started crying loudly, and when one of Cixi's servants tried to calm him down by offering him candy, he threw it aside and screamed for his wet nurse, prompting an exasperated Cixi to send him away.
    • The film glosses over Pu-Yi's Sanity Slippage during his tenure as Emperor of Manchukuo, during which he began consulting oracles obsessively and randomly beat his servents for minor (or imaginary) offenses.
    • The film implies Pu-Yi had no awareness or involvement of his half-daughter's murder until it was too late. While he wasn't directly involved with or aware of the killing, he certainly wasn't as broken up about it as he appears in the film, going so far as to lie to his wife and claim she had been adopted by a wet nurse.
  • Hot Consort: Two of them, Empress Wang Rong and First Concubine Wen Xiu. It doesn't go well, in the end.
  • How We Got Here: The film starts as Pu-Yi returns to China as a prisoner and it works its way backwards.
  • Important Haircut: Pu-Yi gets rid of his Manchu Queue.
  • It's All My Fault: Pu-Yi goes through a phase of this during his imprisonment when he signs confessions admitting his culpability in pretty much everything bad that happened in the country while he was the emperor. When the prison overseer confronts him that he is being ridiculous since he did not even know of all of that happening at the time nor did he have the power to prevent it, Pu-Yi retorts that as the emperor he should have known better and he should have been able to do better.
  • Just a Stupid Accent: Eastern Jewel has an odd, pseudo-British lilt to accentuate her "exotic", cosmopolitan nature. She's the only person in the film who sounds this way, and the only one putting on an accent that isn't the actor's own.note 
  • Kicked Upstairs: What the movie doesn't say is that, after getting deposed, Pu-Yi is put on the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, a multi-party "advisory body" to the Chinese Government.
  • Large Ham: Amakasu is a one-armed, mustache-twirling megalomaniac who gives grandiose speeches about conquering China, and throws theatrical displays of displeasure. He IS played by a rock star after all.
  • The Last Title: The title.
  • Lonely Rich Kid: Pu-Yi.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: For trying to sincerely mentor Pu-Yi into rehabilitation, the prison governor is taken captive by the Red Guard in the 1960s to subject him to re-education and public humiliation.
  • One Steve Limit: Averted. There are at least three separate characters named Chang. One is the head eunuch of the Forbidden City, the second is the Japanese-installed Prime Minister of Manchukuo, and the third is Pu-Yi's personal chauffeur who impregnates the Empress Wanrong.
  • Perfectly Arranged Marriage: Pu-Yi wanted a modern wife who could follow the new dances and was educated outside China. He found her in Wang Rong. But it didn't last.
  • Polyamory: Pu-Yi marries Wan Rong and has Wen Xiu as his First Concubine, and things don't go very well.
  • Pretty in Mink: A few furs, like those worn by the consorts.
  • Puppet King: Puyi as the emperor of Manchukuo.
  • Puppet State: Manchukuo.
  • The Quisling: Puyi to Japan as the puppet leader of Manchuria.
  • Real Person Cameo: Jin Yuan, the real detention camp governor who oversaw Pu-yi's imprisonment, appears opposite his film counterpart in the scene were Pu-Yi is pardoned. He's the one who reads off the pardon in Mandarin before his actor re-reads it in English.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Unlike his radical and vengeful comrades, the overseer of the prison where Pu-Yi was incarcerated was more kind and helpful in trying to reform Pu-Yi.
  • Re-Cut: A version prepared for television reinstated a hour's worth of footage cut for the theatrical version. Unlike some extended versions of films, Bertolucci considers the shorter version as his director's cut.
  • Roman à Clef: Pu Yi's wet nurse's name was changed from Wang Wen-Chao to Ar Mo at the request of the Chinese government. The name of the detention camp governor (Jin Yuan) is likewise redacted.
  • Royal "We": Pu-Yi when emperor of Manchukuo.
  • Scenery Porn: It was filmed in the Forbidden City itself.
  • Shown Their Work: During the ceremony where the Japanese "officially" make Pu-Yi the emperor of Manchukuo, his handler, Masahiko Amakasu, snaps his photo with an Exakta camera. As Amakusa is missing his right hand, that particular camera was ideal for someone like him or anybody just left-handed.
  • Starts with a Suicide: Attempted by Pu-Yi in the beginning to kick off the story.
  • Take Over the World: The Japanese make clear their goal of conquering Korea, China, Indochina and India.
  • Translation Convention: The majority of on-screen dialogue from Chinese characters is in English, while text and background dialogue not immediately pertaining to the plot are in Mandarin.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?:
    • Trope Namer. The title character violently throws his beloved pet mouse offscreen. There's no sound of the mouse hitting anything, but it's never seen again in the theatrical cut, leaving its fate ambiguous. The Extended Cut released on DVD, though, does answer the question. The answer: About what you'd expect when a mouse is thrown against a wall... (The mouse used for the shot was not real and no mice were injured in making the film.)
    • More seriously, the ultimate fates of Wen Xiu after she leaves Pu-Yi, Wanrong when Pu-Yi's in custody, and Eastern Jewel after Japan's surrender are not explained in the film. note 
  • White Man's Burden: Peter O'Toole as wise tutor Reginald Johnston.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Bad times for Wan Rong and her love child.


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