If a European had visited southern China in the year 1200, he would have felt like he had landed on another planet. And, frankly, a planet inhabited by a superior species.
Song Dynasty China had undergone an Industrial Revolution. The Chinese were producing more iron per year in 1200 than all of Europe … in 1775. They were exporting so much porcelain that rich people from Bologna to Baghdad began calling their finest plates and bowls “china.” There was so much commerce that they had to invent paper money. There were so many literate people with important things to communicate that they invented the printing press – hundreds of years before Gutenberg.
So, you ask, what the heck happened to China?
First, the Mongols invaded in the late 13th Century, ending the Song Dynasty and dismantling the Confucian bureaucracy. Then, China was plagued by centuries of inattentive, increasingly powerless emperors. The emperor became a mere figurehead, completely isolated from the Chinese people and leaving his country without leadership.
This strange situation had reached a breaking point when “The Last Emperor” begins. It’s 1908, and two-year-old Puyi has been crowned emperor of China.
Famed Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci explores the absurd reality of a divine right emperor who rules the 180-acre Forbidden City but absolutely nothing else. In 1912, China became a constitutional Republic and Puyi became a six-year-old has-been.
Bertolucci shows us the ugly period of Puyi’s life when he acted as puppet Emperor of Manchuria, which was actually a brutally exploitive Japanese colony. Middle aged Puyi paid dearly for his collaboration with the Japanese, spending a solid decade in Communist prison.
Finally, elderly Puyi returned to Beijing to live out his golden years as a humble gardener.
“The Last Emperor” is beautiful, lavish, and educational. But it did not deserve to win Best Picture. The film has some serious problems.
The movie is somehow both too long and too short.
It’s three hours long, but Bertolucci never shows us Puyi’s humanity or inner life. We never really understand him or empathize with him.
The film brushes past hugely important events in the blink of an eye. It’s like the “Forrest Gump” of Chinese history, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. The Empress Dowager? One scene. World War II? One scene. The Cultural Revolution? One scene.
Bertolucci seems to argue that the 10 years of interrogation and reeducation in the Communist prison camp was good for Puyi and he died a happy, humble man. That is a troubling conclusion. I know that Bertolucci was a proud and outspoken socialist, but I am hoping that his main inspiration for “The Last Emperor” wasn’t just to whitewash the horrors of Red China.
Finally, Bertolucci perpetuates the Western myth that the Chinese were little more than backward colonials. Imperial China lasted for 4000 years and was often more civilized, cultured, and advanced than Western Civilization. But you wouldn’t know that from this mediocre movie.