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Film / The Last Emperor

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Nothing prepared him for our world of change.

"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 in Beijing, 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.

Not to be confused with The Last Empress. John Lone plays adult Pu-Yi. Joan Chen is Wanrong, Pu-Yi's wife. Peter O'Toole appears in the earlier parts of the film as Pu-Yi's British tutor, Reginald Johnson.

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 for 55 years, especially in a closed container without food or water. Then again, the entire scene is probably meant to be symbolic of Pu-Yi's death.
  • 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.
    • 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 Eastern Jewel (aka Yoshiko Kawashima) seducing Wanrong for her own ends. Kawashima's real-life bisexuality is mostly speculative, and whether or not she ever actually seduced the Empress is debatable. There's also no evidence that she had a relationship with 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 probably 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.
    • Specifically, Pu-Yi's jail overseer sees that, despite the fact that Pu-Yi has been reduced to a political prisoner in a cell, he still has two remaining servants in the cell with him, tying his shoes, fixing his bedding, and putting toothpaste on this toothbrush. The overseer makes a point of untying Pu-Yi's shoes and making him do it himself, before separating him from his servants and giving him menial tasks such as sweeping the floors and cleaning the toilets.
  • The Cassandra: Both Wan Rong and his chamberlain tell Pu-Yi that agreeing to go to Manchuria as the Japanese puppet dictator is a terrible idea, that he will be seen as The Quisling, that he actually will be The Quisling. He ignores them, because, as his Communist interrogator tells him in 1950, he just wanted to be an emperor again.
  • 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.
  • Composite Character: Chang, the chauffeur who impregnates the Empress, is a composite of Li Tiyu and Qi Jizhong. Both were servants to Pu-Yi who (separately) had affairs with Wan Rong, it's unknown which of them was the father of her daughter.
  • Convenient Miscarriage: This is the Japanese officials' explanation for the death of Wan Rong's love child. In reality, the baby girl is killed by lethal injection 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.
  • Framing Device: Much of the film is a series of flashbacks in which Pu-Yi, being interrogated by his Communist captors in 1950, narrates his life.
  • Gilded Cage: The Forbidden City. Pu-Yi lives in splendor as emperor, but he is not allowed to leave, ever. His tenure as Emperor of Manchukuo isn't any better, being at the Japanese's beck and call despite all the pretensions to power.
  • Gracefully Demoted: The film ends with Pu-Yi seeming to have found inner peace of a sort as a humble gardener, after having started out life as the Emperor of China.
  • 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 servants 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.
  • Horrible Judge of Character: As Pu-Yi grows older, he begins making more ill-advised and outright foolish decisions, much of which come back to haunt him while in captivity.
  • Hot Consort: Two of them, Empress Wan 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.
  • Hypercompetent Sidekick: Pu-Yi's brother, Pujie, is revealed to be the more astute and competent of the two. Historically, it's also in part because of him that Manchukuo didn't fully collapse or lose what little "sovereignty" it had.
  • Important Haircut: Pu-Yi tells his Communist interrogator that he wanted "reforms", which is followed by a scene of him getting rid of his Manchu Queue. It seems like it's more a means of impressing his wife.
  • It's All About Me:
    • One consistent trait about Pu-Yi is his myopic ego and often self-serving personality. These come to haunt him as his life falls apart around him, and later on as during his time in captivity.
    • In prison, Pu-Yi lambasts his former subordinates in Manchukuo as little more than corrupt, opportunistic sycophants who couldn't care less about who they serve, whether it's the Japanese or the Communists, so long as they reap the rewards. It's at that point, however, that Pu-Yi undergoes a Heel Realization by realizing that he helped enable them in the first place.
  • 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 
  • Karma Houdini:
    • After encountering some of his former ministers from Manchukuo in prison, Pu-Yi realizes that their seeming "re-education" as loyal Communists is an act, and are instead planning on doing the same things they had done under the Japanese once they're free.
    • Years later, now a forgotten nobody, when Pu-Yi tries to object to the way the Red Guards are treating his former prison overseer, the Guards dismiss Pu-Yi as a crazy old man and only shove him aside. Had the Red Guards known who he once was, Pu-Yi might've ended up being included with his former overseer in the prosecution parade.
  • 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:
  • The Last Title: The title.
  • Lonely Rich Kid: Pu-Yi, who as emperor lives in the Forbidden City with a whole court but with no family or friends. He has no playmates, isn't allowed to go outside, and only sees his mother once in several years before her eventual suicide.
  • Look on My Works, Ye Mighty, and Despair : The once Emperor of China ends up as a humble gardener. "I was the Emperor of China!"
  • Magic Realism: Dips into this by the end, with the somehow still living cricket hidden in the throne that Pu-Yi gives to the boy, and possibly with Pu-Yi himself vanishing into thin air offscreen when the boy looks away and back again.
  • Mood Whiplash: The Cultural Revolution procession, where the public humiliation of people judged as undesirables/enemies of the state is immediately followed by a peppy song and dance routine by Red Guard girls.
  • 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.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Downplayed by Reginald Johnston. He initially comes across as an aloof Westerner out of place with his new surroundings. It doesn't take long, however, before he begins showing his in-depth knowledge of Chinese culture and catches on to the court eunuchs plotting against him.
  • 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.
  • Only Friend: The only people in Pu-Yi's life who can even be remotely called genuine friends and remained on cordial terms with him could be counted with one hand namely his brother Pujie, Reginald Johnson, and later on the prison governor.
  • Perfectly Arranged Marriage: Pu-Yi wanted a modern wife who could follow the new dances and was educated outside China. He found her in Wan 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. He does what the Japanese tell him to. This is brought home to him in a scene where he gives a speech to his court about how Manchukuo is a for-real country and not a Japanese colony—and everyone in his court walks out.
  • Puppet State: Manchukuo. The term "puppet state" was coined to describe Manchukuo, which was a Japanese colony in all but name but which the Japanese pretended was an independent nation.
  • 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 calls the Emperor's name before the Governor reads the proclamation.
  • 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.
  • Recurring Riff: In addition to the movie's main theme, another recurring musical motif is the myriad renditions of "Without the Communist Party, There Would Be no New China" in the prison sequences. First sung haltingly and half-baked, by the time Pu-Yi is reformed, the song comes across strong and bombastic.
  • 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.
  • Redemption in the Rain: Wen Xiu has tired of life as Pu-Yi's mistress and decided to leave him. She hurriedly runs out of the Japanese legation as it pours rain outside. A legation staffer brings her an umbrella, which she walks away with briefly, before saying "I do not need it! I do not need it!", and tossing the umbrella aside. It's symbolic of her casting away her old life as the emperor's second consort.
  • Roman ŕ Clef: Pu Yi's wet nurse's name was changed from Wang Lianshou to Ar Mo at the request of the Chinese government. The name of the prison governor (Jin Yuan) is also redacted.
  • Royal "We": Pu-Yi refers to himself this way 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 arm, that particular camera was ideal for someone like him or anybody just left-handed.
  • Spiteful Spit: The last that Wan Rong is shown, she returns to spit on Eastern Jewel, the now-dead Amakusa, and the remaining Japanese guards after Japan's surrender is announced.
  • Starts with a Suicide: Attempted by Pu-Yi in the beginning to kick off the story.
  • Stocking Filler: The scene where Eastern Jewel presumably has sex with Wan Rong begins with Wan Rong sticking out a long, stocking-clad leg as she tokes on an opium pipe. Eastern Jewel proceeds to slowly peel the stocking off—and then she sucks on Wan Rong's toes.
  • Take Over the World: The Japanese make clear their goal of conquering Korea, China, Indochina and India.
  • A Threesome Is Hot: It's undeniably hot when Pu-Yi's wife and first consort crawl under his bedsheets, although the moment when their lovemaking is interrupted by the eunuchs setting fire to the storeroom foreshadows how everything will go wrong.
  • Time-Shifted Actor: Four different actors play Pu-Yi, as a toddler, a small boy, a teenager, and a grown man (John Lone).
  • Translation Convention: A very complex example:
    • Inverting Just a Stupid Accent, in his early life when Pu-Yi speaks accent-free English, it means he's speaking Chinese (since he would be speaking Chinese without an accent); when he speaks accented English, it means he's actually speaking English in-universe (since he would speak English with an accent). However, at times he speaks with his wives in accented English, even though he would be speaking Chinese with them, presumably because it would have looked ludicrous for the actor to switch rapidly between accented and unaccented speech.
    • By contrast, most other characters have a light accent when speaking English (because it would be jarring for them to sound like a native English speaker), and we're meant to understand they're speaking Chinese in-universe.
    • That said, characters are often seen speaking Chinese, usually in ensemble shots where we're not meant to focus on the dialogue (singing, aside comments, etc.) As soon as we need to understand what a speaking character is saying, though, they're speaking English (to represent Chinese), even if they were speaking Chinese moments before.
    • The convention in this film is so complicated (and yet basically intuitive to viewers) that philosopher and computer scientist Douglas Hofstadter singled it out for discussion in his book on translation, Le Ton beau de Marot.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Pu-Yi himself comes across as one when trying to recount his crimes and life story before his Communist captors, thanks to his self-serving memory. This comes back to bite him when the prison governor notices discrepancies between his testimony about being dragged to Manchukuo against his will and the account from Reginald Johnston's memoirs of what really happened.
  • 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, Wan Rong when Pu-Yi's in custody, and Eastern Jewel after Japan's surrender are not explained in the film. note 
  • Would Hurt a Child: Bad times for Wan Rong and her love child. The baby is murdered by the Japanese immediately after birth.