The Last Emperor (1987)

last emperor poster 1987 movie
9.0 Overall Score
Story: 9/10
Acting: 9/10
Visuals: 9/10

Good looking, good intro to the story

Still hard to grasp a lot of the political aspects occurring during the film

Movie Info

Movie Name:   The Last Emperor

Studio:   Recorded Picture Company

Genre(s):   Drama

Release Date(s):  October 4, 1987 (Tokyo International Film Festival)/April 15, 1988 (USA)

MPAA Rating:   PG-13

last emperor forbidden city puyi

At three, I had action figures…he had action people

Puyi (John Lone) has lived a life that many cannot imagine.  As a boy (Richard Vuu) in 1908, he was made emperor of China only have the title become honorary as the political power changed in China.  Now a prisoner in the Forbidden City and a teen (Wu Tao), Puyi rebels, but when Puyi once again has his world rocked, he finds himself with dangerous allies that could threaten China itself and force him to pick a side in the conflict.

Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, The Last Emperor is a dramatic biopic of the Puyi (or Pu Yi) who lived from 1906-1967 and reigned from 1908-1912.  The film was critically acclaimed upon its release and won the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Costume Design, Best Sound, Best Film Editing, and Best Original Score.  The Criterion Collection released a remastered version of the film (Criterion #422).

I’ll be honest.  I don’t know a lot about Chinese history, their ties to Japan, and how the British figure into everything.  I have seen The Last Emperor multiple times and still don’t grasp all the political intrigue, but it is a good (probably dumbed-down) mini-intro to the subject.  The film also has some great visuals to go with the telling.

last emperor puyi reginald johnson peter otoole wu tao

The Emperor does what he wants!

Most biopic movies aren’t very accurate and the same can be said about The Last Emperor, but when compared to some movies, most critics say The Last Emperor’s story is essentially true.  Some periods of his life were taken out and other parts were downplayed, but most of the big moments were there.  That being said, it is amazing to look at the Chinese life surrounding Puyi’s life and compare it to how America was at the time of the story…it shows the vast variety that the world has to offer in people, beliefs, and culture.

John Lone plays the adult Puyi is the primary focus of the story.  He’s imprisoned and telling his life to his captors for a majority of the movie (explaining his ties to the Japanese in the puppet state of Manchukuo).  He is strong but so are Richard Vuu, Tiger Tsou, and Wu Tao who play Puyi as a youth.  Peter O’Toole steals his scenes as Puyi’s tutor Reginald Johnson.  Joan Chen is strong as Puyi’s wife and the Empress while Wu Junmei plays his second wife.  Another scene stealer is Maggie Han as Kawashima Yoshiko the famed Chinese spy for the Japanese.

last emperor wangrong kawashima yoshiko maggie han joan chen

I want more on Kawashima Yoshiko

The movie looks great.  The filmmakers had to work with the Chinese government to shoot a lot of the film and the film is the first Western film to be allowed to shoot in the Forbidden City.  It is the Forbidden City scenes that make the movie and show the isolation and strange childhood that Puyi faced.

The Last Emperor is a long film, and it is hard to understand portions of the film without some background on Chinese history (despite attempts of the movie to explain things).  It is however worth seeing because it feels like there weren’t a ton of big epic pictures from this period of film (the epic really seemed to return in the late ’90s and early ’00s…of course now they are multi-parted).  The Last Emperor manages to feel both like a modern movie and a throwback to old big pictures of the past.

Author: JPRoscoe View all posts by
Follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd @JPRoscoe76! Loves all things pop-culture especially if it has a bit of a counter-culture twist. Plays video games (basically from the start when a neighbor brought home an Atari 2600), comic loving (for almost 30 years), and a true critic of movies. Enjoys the art house but also isn't afraid to let in one or two popular movies at the same time.

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