"The Last Emperor": Interweaving Historical Facts and Imagined Metaphors


"The Last Emperor" is an epic film released in 1987, co-produced by the UK, Italy, and China. It was directed by the renowned Bernardo Bertolucci and tells the story of modern Chinese history. The movie achieved significant recognition, winning awards at the Belgrade International Film Festival, the César Awards in Paris, and nine Oscars at the 60th Academy Awards. It also performed exceptionally well at the box office in the US, Europe, Japan, and Taiwan.

The film had the unique privilege of being allowed to shoot on location in the Forbidden City with complete cooperation from the Chinese government. Over 19,000 extras were involved in the production, and Puyi, the last emperor himself, was an advisor. This collaboration with a Western director, even one with ties to the Italian Communist Party, in portraying a previously taboo period of history in a "communist regime" naturally sparked significant debates. These factors contributed to the film's extraordinary impact and laid the foundation for its success.

Even over 20 years later, revisiting the film reveals many layers of content. It portrays not only the personal struggles of an individual as a "hostage to history" and the director's skill in unearthing hidden historical metaphors through expert visual storytelling. These metaphors convey laughter, tears, and sorrow specific to these unique characters.

As viewers, we are fortunate to capture traces of the past through memory. In this sense, Puyi's life is divided into two distinct halves. In the latter part of his life, he attempted to recover and critically examine every memory, providing them with a more complete and rational experience. This negation and self-critique were not voluntary but rather spontaneous. Puyi's narrative, "My Former Life," suggests the film's ideological direction.

1. Puyi, the last emperor

According to classical historical philosophy, there is always a manipulator behind every passionate performance, someone who embodies history. This figure is unassailable and capable of dissolving any misunderstandings in human performances. However, only some feel content after their performance, particularly those left behind by the relentless course of history. Puyi embodies such a tragic figure. When he unintentionally steps onto the stage of history, all he sees is the dust stirred up by the departing bus of the past.

The film doesn't delve extensively into Puyi's ups and downs, but it tells his story in a well-structured, chronological manner, starting from his return in 1950. As Bernardo Bertolucci explained in an interview, he initially viewed Puyi's story as a parable blending "history, politics, and morality." Thus, Puyi is molded as a parabolic character, representing the ideal film audience. This foundation is further enhanced by various supporting characters and antagonists, creating a comprehensive parabolic character system.

The film's central theme revolves around the desire for power. Even as a puppet emperor like Puyi, controlled by specific power discourse, he must still display a frenzied joy in gaining power and the anguish of losing it. One particularly intriguing scene occurs when young Puyi and his brother, Pujie, play in the palace and quarrel over Puyi's "emperor" status. To prove his imperial dignity, Puyi orders a eunuch to drink ink and tells Pujie that he's the one to be punished for misbehaving. Pujie informs him that the world now has a "new emperor" as the Republic of China's President Yuan Shikai and his entourage enter the Forbidden City. The grand procession symbolizing imperial glory suggests Puyi's "power" has already been usurped. Even though he still addresses himself as "The Majesty" and doesn't allow the "commoners" in the palace to look at him, his limited viewpoint and trapped perspective reveal his loss of power.

Throughout his life, Puyi was always under the control of a broader authority, starting with the Qing dynasty's remnants and ailing eunuchs. His second significant custodian was Reginald Johnston, a British gentleman who appeared as a Western savior, introducing Puyi to Western education and reformist ideas but neglecting the more profound political reality. When Puyi asked him about the events of May 4, 1919, outside the palace, Johnston casually brushed them aside. He only ignited Puyi's enthusiasm for surface-level Western trends like suits and tennis rather than helping him break free from the high walls of illusion and understand the real world. After studying under Johnston for a few years, Puyi was expelled from the Forbidden City by the National Revolutionary Army. Despite the inevitable arrival of political reform and the death of his small court, Puyi remained indifferent, symbolized by his dark sunglasses and hesitant steps beyond the palace gates. He left one prison only to enter another. The Japanese led Puyi to believe they would help him restore his rule, making them his third custodians.

Scenes from the Manchukuo period recall a scene from Bertolucci's "The Conformist," filled with "dazzling fascism" symbols, including Puyi's residence in a drab and monotonous building like the Forbidden City and a playboy singing "Am I Too Wounded?" These images of decadence explicitly suggest that Puyi's life is gradually heading towards ruin. The coronation ball is a dramatic metaphor for this new imprisonment. We see Ryuichi Sakamoto, playing the Japanese military commander, ordering the photographer, and the blinding film lighting creates a contrasting world in which the dancers cast long shadows. Only Joan Chen, playing Puyi's wife Wanrong, protests their manipulation, self-destructively tearing flower petals. Just as Puyi once realized under Pujie's influence that he wasn't the true emperor of all China, he increasingly became aware of the Japanese manipulation. However, due to his unquenchable desire for imperial power, he suppressed these "facts" with countless illusions. In the end, Puyi's emperor's dream is shattered completely, and he is sent to the Fushun War Criminals Management Center, a re-education camp under the new Communist regime.

The uniforms, the armed guards, and the sternness in this environment suggest a different world. Here, the prison director becomes Puyi's final custodian. He says, "We believe that humans are inherently good, and we believe that the only way to reform is to confront the truth." His purpose is to help Puyi break free from the control of others and learn to observe himself. The director is arguably Puyi's best custodian, but the film doesn't offer an idealistic conclusion. When Puyi is granted amnesty and finds a job as a gardener in Beijing, the Cultural Revolution unexpectedly begins. The director, who wanted Puyi to become a "person" again, is now regarded as a monster, subjected to abuse by the Red Guards. Puyi can't comprehend this behavior and tries to defend him, but he is violently pushed to the ground by a Red Guard, representing the "revolution." Once again, Puyi becomes an observer of history. If Puyi was not entirely forgotten by history during his earlier struggles, at this point, he is completely excluded from it. This is the inevitable result of his transformation into a "citizen." He needs help understanding what is happening, what he should do, or how to act. Finally, Puyi goes to the palace with a young student wearing a red scarf and tells the child stories from his memories about the palace. The child's "Prove it" response makes Puyi smile, revealing a hint of innocence and charm he has never shown before. Does this signify his escape from the siege of "power"? Perhaps history intends to retain its unique mystery, unwilling to provide us with a definitive answer.

2. People and Objects

In "The Last Emperor," beyond the compelling character portrayals, the most intriguing aspect lies in its exploration of the relationship between people and objects. When we delve into Puyi's ascension to the throne, the director marshals an extensive ensemble of human resources and production that might recreate the majestic opulence of an emperor's inaugural moments in a feudal dynasty. Within these grandiose settings, there exist numerous intricacies deserving our attention. A youthful Puyi, brimming with impatience, dashes away from the Dragon Throne, poised to burst out of the Hall of Supreme Harmony. In that very instant, a colossal yellow curtain is stirred by a gentle breeze, sparking intense curiosity within young Puyi. As he pushes his way through this veil, he is greeted by innumerable officials, both civilian and military, kneeling in profound veneration. The astonishing impact created by such delicate elements underscores Bernardo Bertolucci's exceptional prowess in encapsulating subjectivity, the sense of loss, and the psychological interplay with the audience.

The second curtain manifests as an extended white cloth, safeguarding Puyi as he engages in playful escapades with eunuchs while guarding his "dragon body" from their reach. Through Puyi's lens, his playmates emerge as mere silhouettes, and he cannot genuinely perceive himself through these shadows. The third curtain unfolds as a component of another game, with Puyi and his two wives playing hide-and-seek beneath brocade covers. As spectators, we only discern their physical contours while an unseen fire rages in the Forbidden City's storage rooms. This fire is ignited by eunuchs, who harbor apprehension regarding Puyi's potential discovery of their embezzlement. The final curtain assumes the form of the Red Guards' red flag during the Cultural Revolution, fluttering gallantly in the hands of fervent young adherents in the Cultural Revolution procession. These curtains do not merely stand as partitions, veiling the inner worlds of the characters, but also operate as ideological partitions. The parallel structure of these two juxtaposed segments, with color variations, reveals the director's implicit discourse. Colors such as yellow, white, and green dominate the earlier segments, enabling Bertolucci to convey alterations in Puyi's inner world and establish the tumultuous and chaotic social backdrop in China during that era. Conversely, the segments illustrating Puyi's life post-1950, apart from the portrayal within the prison, are engulfed in an unending sea of red. This crimson hue symbolizes revolution, blood, sacrifice, and the grand future of communism. Bertolucci subtly accentuates the overwhelming potency hidden beneath the veneer of fervor.

3. The Use of Light

The director's adroit utilization of light and shadow attains artistic sophistication. The film relies almost exclusively on natural light and widely employs wide-angle shots to convey the characters' inner states through the ebbs and flows of luminance. Bertolucci articulated, "Puyi never experienced direct sunlight from birth to 18 years of age; he perpetually resided within the shadows. During this life phase, he remained intellectually isolated from the outside world. Later, as he absorbed more knowledge from his mentor, Reginald Johnston, the light began to cast upon him. The contest between light and shadow gradually unfolds, akin to the struggle between consciousness and the unconscious within oneself. In the segment illustrating Manchukuo, where Puyi becomes a puppet emperor for the Japanese and harbors dreams of reclaiming his empire, shadows nearly engulf the entire frame. It's akin to his return to childhood. Subsequently, within the prison, he reflects upon his life. The greater his comprehension, the more evident the balance between light and shadow becomes. He ought to conclude his existence within the perfect equilibrium of light and shadow in a tranquil tone. My aspiration solely lies in realizing this vision." As the film's cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro regards "incorporating light into narrative and expression" as one of the fundamental tenets of his cinematographic craft. Storaro expounds on the comprehensive lighting design of the film, stating, "Chinese emperors inhabited a confined realm—within city walls, perennially in the shadow of roofs and parasols. Hence, for the film, we instituted a semi-shaded atmosphere. Light epitomizes a spirit of freedom."

Here, light epitomizes openness and exuberance, while shadow signifies confinement and melancholy. The dialectical interplay between light and shadow renders Puyi, a character with an extraordinary life voyage, exceptionally multi-dimensional, on the silver screen. Aside from the central character, Puyi, the cinematographer has conceived distinct lighting arrangements for other characters and numerous scenarios, such as the scene in which Wanrong proposes divorce to Puyi in a vehicle, distinguished by a bluish tonality or the sequence in which Wanrong becomes drenched in the rain. This constitutes a nocturnal depiction of daytime rain, employing high-temperature lighting, with the lighting variations mirroring Wanrong's emotional fluctuations.

The film's conclusion infuses a touch of surrealism into the narrative. A red scarf unfurls to unveil a cricket box, which Puyi retrieves from beneath the throne. Out emerges a cricket that has withstood half a century of vicissitudes. The child gazes upward, yet Puyi has inexplicably vanished. Subsequently, the strains of the American song "Yankee Doodle" resonate from a tour guide's bugle. The guide leads a cohort of Western tourists on a tour of the palace, recounting the history and mythos of the imperial palace, the last emperor, his joys and sorrows, and the history and legends that have faded into obscurity within that era. The surreal cricket symbolizes an enduring element, one that enters our field of vision just when we assume it has long vanished. This timeless facet can be perceived as a representation of the story itself. The lucid language of the tour guide is abruptly interrupted by the film, as it becomes evident that the guidebook's symbolic language can merely articulate the "lowest common denominator" of Puyi's persona. "The Last Emperor" addresses the issue of an individual's confrontation with history at this level. Whether it pertains to individuals or objects, Bertolucci has not forsaken the exploration of this ultimate query.

4. The Use of Music

Equally profound is the role of music in the film. The film secured nine Academy Awards, including the Best Original Score category. The film's musical score was a collaborative creation involving three individuals: a young music virtuoso named Su Cong, British composer David Byrne, and Japanese musician Ryuichi Sakamoto, who also assumes a role within the film. Although the trio of composers possesses distinct backgrounds and musical styles, they collectively resonate with the enchanting outcome of the confluence of Eastern and Western cultures following their intersection. They devised a fitting soundtrack for this Eastern film, crafted by Western filmmakers. Throughout the film, orchestral compositions harmoniously intertwine with thematic variations of Chinese traditional music, effectively establishing an appropriate backdrop for Puyi's legendary odyssey.

Foremost among these is the film's notable opening composition, the "Main Title Theme." In this piece, David Byrne seamlessly amalgamates the distinct attributes of Eastern and Western music. Commencing with the resonant beats of Chinese drums, the composition proceeds with the sonorous chimes of a marimba. The presence of percussion instruments forms a continual backdrop. Soon, the plaintive melody of a violin gently emerges. Despite its simple structure, the melody captivates the audience, evoking an undulating sense of Eastern allure. After the initial presentation of the main theme, the melody undergoes subtle changes, becoming more compact and dance-like. The overall composition maintains a steady tonal structure and rhythmic uniformity while evoking a sense of layers. Within this atmosphere of courtly refinement, an elegant and distant ambiance resonates, replete with imagination and mystique unique to the observation of Eastern culture from a Western perspective.

In the film's depiction of the Cultural Revolution's final scene, the music features the iconic melody of the red song, "The East Is Red." This musical selection bears a rich imprint of its era. The Red Guards, fervently chanting revolutionary slogans, maintain orderly formations, engaging in collective singing and dancing. Following their fervent performance, the film transitions to a scene showcasing a line of elementary school students, each holding an accordion, united in a coordinated performance. Their harmonious yet discordant music accentuates the zealous tumult of the Red Guards' struggle against "counter-revolutionaries" and the inner disorientation of the protagonist.

Bertolucci segments the narrative into three phases: the Forbidden City, Manchukuo, and the reeducation camp. The latter phase serves as the narrative framework, connecting the prior stages through a reverse chronological narrative, elucidating Puyi's dramatic life story. Bertolucci acknowledges that he is not a historian but, rather, a storyteller through imagery. He once offered an astute analysis of Puyi's transformation, remarking, "What transformed him was freedom. From birth until he was 18, he was confined within the Forbidden City, never venturing outside. Subsequently, he was imprisoned for 15 years in Manchukuo, five years in Siberia (1945-1950), and nine years in Fushun Prison (1950-1959). Finally, he achieved his liberation for the first time. He could ride a bicycle or take public transportation freely and acquire a pair of black cloth shoes like those Chinese peasants wore. For the first time, he became a free man, just like everyone else. And thus, he was transformed. This transformation is the result of his reflection on his past actions." This reflection extends not only to the past but also to the future, encompassing not only individuals with stories akin to Puyi but also the broader populace. While the film might carry an inescapable "Orientalist" interpretation and a tendency to mystify and symbolize China, it is important to recall the pitiable and almost comical experiences of individuals such as Antonioni, who arrived in China from Italy fifteen years ago, intending to capture a true depiction of China. Shouldn't we, therefore, offer our deep respect to them?

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