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Oscars Challenge #32: The Last Emperor (1987) Movie Review


The Last Emperor Poster

It is not unusual when you stumble upon a certain movie that lets you learn a new thing about history. It could be a biography film, a historical event, or just something that was derived from the real thing. More often than not, I am glad that films like these exist because to me what's important is that we as the audience learn from them.


1987 brought us the biography film, The Last Emperor. I may have heard of it a few years back but never dared to watch it because I thought it might not be interesting or downplayed its importance in history. This time I am glad I didn't pass on this chance even though the one I watched is the extended one which is more than 200 minutes long. The theatrical release was only about 160 minutes.


The film details the story of the last Emperor of China, Puyi. It was divided into several sections from different stages of Puyi's life.


In 1908, when he was still a toddler he got appointed as an emperor since the current Empress Dowager is dying and the previous Emperor has also passed away earlier. After the coronation, Puyi is surprised by his new surroundings. Despite being surrounded by a lot of servants he only treats his wet nurse as his true friend.


During his teenage years, he is still locked inside the Forbidden City and never permitted to go outside. His younger brother Pujie visited him and told him that he is no longer an Emperor of China since the country has become a republic. Also, a British instructor, Reginald Johnston was appointed to tutor Puyi on the ways of Western civilization. Also during this time, he married Wanrong with Wenxiu as a secondary consort. He reformed the Forbidden City and expelled those servants that steals and betrays him.


When Puyi was expelled from the Forbidden City by the republican soldiers, he went to have a playboy lifestyle in Tientsin. At the same time, he sides with Japan when they invaded Manchuria. Wenxiu divorced him while Wanrong became addicted to Opium. The Japanese crowned Puyi as the Emperor of Manchukuo, their puppet state. Wanrong gave birth to the child but was killed by the Japanese who declared the death as stillborn. He was then captured by the Red Army and sent to prison.


Puyi was persuaded by his interrogators to formally renounce his involvement in the Japanese army during the second Sino-Japanese war. After the warden watched a film detailing their atrocities, Puyi was deemed rehabilitated and set free.


Now in his later years of life, he became a gardener during the rise of Mao Zedong's cult of personality. He later saw the warden who now became a political prisoner and told everyone that he is a good man. The movie ends when an old Puyi visits the Forbidden City one last time and proves to a young boy that he was a Tianzi / Son of Heaven. He died in 1967.


Toddler Puyi

Almost half of the film was shot in the Forbidden City. It was incredible and an amazing sight to really see what's inside that majestic location. I can't imagine the structural complexity of that place. The walls, palace grounds, and even the side streets felt like a different version of society. It's almost like you are in a different world. I wonder if you live during the early days of China, or when the Forbidden City was first used was it really like that? It kind of felt to me that I want to visit there someday.


I am not familiar with the real story of Puyi or if it was even taught to our school, but regardless I like that I get to learn something from this film. It felt like his life was forced to divert by the changing culture around China. If I would summarize his life from being a toddler who was forced to be an emperor to a normal gardener, it would be like a real rollercoaster ride.


Puyi tutorial session

This is also the first film I saw where the war atrocities of the Japanese during World War 2 were shown especially the Rape of Nanjing even though it was shown for less than a minute. A Japanese film company tried to remove it without the director's consent but was then restored.


Some scenes were kind of a bit weird to me. When Puyi was a child the consorts inspects his poop for some substance to check if his diet is right. The food he was served was too traditional, but I guess it's because of the ways the Chinese people live back then. During the prison scenes, Puyi cannot do normal people's chores like changing clothes or brushing his teeth. However, despite all of that I had a ton of respect for these ways despite it being too old or traditional because it was a part of history and should not be removed from any books, films, or any form of media.


Puyi arrested

There are bits and pieces that were dragging the film that made it too slow for me. The pacing was all over the place as well. Some scenes went by so fast while some were slow-burn. I still like how it was structured though.


As usual for historical films like this, there are a couple of historical inaccuracies such as the true personality of Puyi when he was young. Similar to those that I have watched before, I certainly do not care much about that and just the movie itself.


There were a lot of extras used to make this movie possible. There were around 19,000 people employed and some of those belong to the People's Liberation Army.


Old Puyi

The movie garnered many accolades. In the 60th Academy Awards, it was nominated in 9 different categories and won everything. This movie really speaks for itself. It also won in other film festivals and competitions.


If you are really into films that tell history or if you want to learn something, then this movie is the right one for you. Just don't let the long screen time intimidate you. I am pretty sure that despite its weird pacing in some scenes you will definitely enjoy this film. It has the right kind of drama, comedy, adventure, and tragedy that makes this really enjoyable to watch.


For all its worth I think this film deserves a 3.5 out of 5 stars.

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