This isn’t necessarily a review, but rather an experience I had recently. I remember when Bernardo Bertoluuci’s The Last Emperor swept the Oscars in 1987, winning all nine of the honors for which it was nominated. To my angsty teenage sensibilities, this was unimpressive. Truth be told, I likely resented the fact Robocop wasn’t in the running for Best Picture that year.
Thankfully my taste in movies has broadened, though I still have a soft spot for Robocop. But in my appreciation in the ensuing years of all things film, The Last Emperor remained one of those pictures I’d get around to someday. About a week ago, I finally gave it a look, and immediately regretted my apathy. Everything about it had its hooks in me—the performances, the story, the production design, the cinematography, the music, the costumes. All the things for which it was bestowed the industry’s highest honors were there in front of me.
The picture tells the story of China’s last emperor from the age of three, Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi, through his recollections while imprisoned by the Red Army in the 1950s. We share his rudimentary view of the world from within the Forbidden City, an imprisonment in itself as he is not permitted to venture outside its walls. As a revolution eventually pervades the country, he is ill-equipped to grasp the complexities of the political world from which he has been carefully sheltered.
Dramatic storytelling via a perfect marriage of sight, sound, and emotion: this is the stuff great cinema is made of. At this writing, The Last Emperor can be seen on HBO Max if you’d like to discover—or revisit—it yourself. It’s also available on home video as part of the Criterion Collection.