Movie #93: The Last Emperor (1987)

Director: Bernardo Bertolucci

Starring: John Lone, Joan Chen, Peter O’Toole, and Tao Wu

Academy Awards (1988):

Best Picture: Jeremy Thomas

Best Art Direction: Ferdinando Scarfiotti, Bruno Cesari, Osvaldo Desideri

Best Cinematography: Vittorio Stararo

Best Costume Design: James Acheson

Best Director: Bernardo Bertolucci

Best Film Editing: Gabriella Cristiani

Best Music, Original Score: Ryuichi Sakamoto, David Byrne, Cong Su

Best Sound: Bill Rowe, Ivan Sharrock

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium: Mark Peploe, Bernardo Bertolucci


Plot Summary: The story of the final Emperor of China. (

Puyi (Wu/Lone) became the Emperor of China at age 3.  The Last Emperor begins in 1950 with Puyi’s transfer to a Chinese prison as a political prison and war criminal.  Exploring his life through a series of flashbacks, Puyi’s story unfolds through his ascension and abdication of the throne, his education with Reginald Johnston (O’Toole), his marriage to Wanrung (Chen), installation as Emperor of the Japanese puppet state Manchukuo, and capture by the Soviet Union.  Following his re-education, Puyi becomes a peasant gardener in Peking, and visiting the Forbidden City late in life.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed watching this film the two times I’ve now seen it.  Though it runs nearly three hours, the story engages me throughout and Bernardo Bertolucci uses the life of Puyi as the “prism through which to address a national’s history.”

The various actors who portray the Emperor do a great job of conveying each stage of life.  At age 3, Puyi continually asks when he can go home.  At age 8, his wet-nurse, and only real friend, is taken from him, and Tsou Tijger portrays the broken heart the young Emperor has over this loss.  Tijger also does well with the antics of an 8-year-old child who is denied nothing.  Tao Wu does great in expressing the conflicts and awkwardness of adolescence as Puyi gets married to an old girl who is 17.  All of these actors possess both the character traits of that particular age, but also the inner turmoil that exists with feeling like a prisoner in the Forbidden City.


John Lone continues elements of the man who was Emperor, became a commoner, but keeps the desire to be ruler again.  It’s interesting to see how blinded by power he is to assume the role of puppet leader, despite the objections from virtually everyone in his inner circle.  Lone’s portrayal of Puyi from early adulthood to his final years is also commendable.  The progression through his re-education and eventual contentment as a gardener in Peking is interesting in contrast to the bratty spoil child his character started as.

The Last Emperor was filmed entirely in the People’s Republic of China.  It was also the first film that the Chinese government gave permission to film in the Forbidden City.  Though the city is composed of over 250 acres and 9,999 rooms, there is a balance of being both grand in scale and intimate in content by focusing on the life of Puyi.

the-last-emperorotoolePeter O’Toole does a great job in this film.  His character is both personable to Puyi while also being a realist and stern with the young Emperor.  As with many of his other characters, O’Toole’s demeanor and film presence gives a sense of professionalism and proper-ness.

The Last Emperor tells China’s history through the eyes of the final Emperor, Puyi, from the early to mid 20th century.  The grand scale of the film is made personable by looking at this history through Puyi’s perspective.  Though it’s not one I’ll probably go out of the way to see again, the historical content and engaging portrayal have made it enjoyable to me, and of course I’d recommend it.

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.


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