Top Fifty Films of the 80s — Number Sixteen


#16 — The Last Emperor (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1987)
The Last Emperor almost certainly won the Best Picture Oscar because of its bigness. Its impressive scope, in terms of individual scenes bustling with extras and spectacular feats of art direction as well as the daunting historical span of the story, is unquestionably one of the facets of the film’s high art that dazzles. Still, it’s hard not to think that Oscar voters felt beholden to only that aspect of director Bernardo Bertolucci’s approach, given the way that the grandest, most epic film usually dominated the awards, especially during this era. In my mind, that makes The Last Emperor one of the most deserving winner’s of Oscar’s top prize that still won for all the wrong reasons. I love it, too, when the the toddler version of Pǔyí, the last person who could claim the title of Emperor of China, goes running past billowing red curtains to find himself before a vast kingdom he can’t even begin to contemplate. The contrast between his diminutive youth and the considerable power he unwittingly wields is conveyed by Bertolucci with this iconic imagery, immediately and forcefully demonstrating the way film can tell a full story in a moment unlike almost any other medium. As impressive as all this is, I think the film is truly special because of the way Bertolucci and his collaborators approach the small moments, boring in the intricate details and the nuanced particulars of character with a level of evident passion that makes it clear they had no intention whatsoever of coasting on the soaring spectacle of the film.

Scripted by Bertolucci along with Mark Peploe, the film follows Pǔyí from his boyhood as ruler of the massive Asian country through his years as a young adult, defined by a certain feckless privilege that comes from a lifetime shaped by unaccountable authority, into his time as a prisoner after the Communists took over and his subsequent existence as a forgotten man, living as a humble gardener. The shifts in his story are almost beyond belief, but always conveyed by Bertolucci with the relaxed certainty of genuine history. The grounding in truth adds a structural soundness to the film’s explorations of the emperor’s psychology, the ways he cracks and perseveres. By necessity, the character is played by several different actors at different ages, but John Lone plays him through the enormous changes of his adulthood. Lone is strikingly, at times staggeringly good in the role. Without becoming transparent in his signaling, Lone consistently conveys the inner motivations of the character, and, perhaps most impressive, finds the little ways he teeters inwardly, even when he’s supposedly at the peak of his power. There are nice supporting turns from Peter O’Toole and Joan Chen in roles of great significance, but the film belongs to Lone as assuredly as the empire belongs, at least for a time, to Pǔyí.

At least it belong to Lone among the actors. Overall, of course, the ownership of Bertolucci is unequivocal. The director shepherds the film with a extraordinary precision, finding the poetry in moments both small and large. The weight of destiny, tragedy and history itself hangs upon the film, and yet it’s light and deft, channeling strident, moving human emotions into a carefully wrought story that moves with the precision of classical dance. The Last Emperor may first stun the senses with its stirring enormity, but, like the tender cricket that entrances Pǔyí as much or more than anything else in his domain, it’s the elements that require a closer look that are most special.

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