Finally discovering a cinema classic after 34 years

Still image from The Last Emperor
Columbia Pictures

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.

One-sheet poster for The Last Emperor.
Columbia Pictures

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.



Categories: art, cinema

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8 replies

  1. Loved this film when it first came out. Sparked my interest in going to China, which I did twice in the mid to late 1990s.

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    • That’s great that you were inspired by this picture to visit China! How did your experience there in the 1990s contrast with the 1950s China depicted in the film?

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      • Hmm, well it was very regimented. We visited a school and my students asked the Beijing students what they would like to study at University. They were surprised to learn that they did not have a choice. They would be sent to whatever course the authorities picked out for them. We witnessed some heavy treatment of people by people in military uniforms, but sometimes it was people wearing old uniforms and we were not sure who they were representing. You had to have a guide with you all the time… either a city guide or a national one.

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        • That’s a bit unnerving. I’d be in constant fear of committing an innocent misstep, so a guide would be quite useful! How unfortunate these students’ passions played no role in their higher studies. Thanks for sharing that, Candia!

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  2. I knew Tijger Tsou – he played the role of Pu Yi (ages 8-12) personally.
    I once invited him to hold the award ceremony at an event in a large shopping mall.

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  3. I found his Facebook profile gut it doesn’t reveal much. This probably was his biggest gig. He is a very sympathetic, handsome guy.

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  4. I had loved Robocop too equally 😊

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