'The Last Emperor,' directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, is mesmerizing in its lush depiction of the reign of Pu Yi, who was crowned emperor of China when he was just 3 and died a poor and forgotten gardener in 1967.
And in filming the radical changes that country has seen in the last century, 'The Last Emperor' also provides a backdrop for the personal changes the emperor himself chose -- and was forced -- to go through.
The film is satisfying on both levels, both as a spectacle of history and as a chronicle of a lonely and proud man who both feared and longed for freedom for himself and his great country during the years of World War II, when the Japanese occupied the northeast corner of China, the emperor's ancestral home.
But this story of China's last emperor must almost take a back seat to the overwhelming grandeur of Peking's 'Forbidden City' and the culture that helped it become the world's most elegant prison for Pu Yi.
Bertolucci has reconstructed the splendid opulence of that era at the turn of the century in the city within a city. For the boy-king, those years where he could be as imperious as he wished, and even be naughty at no special risk are depicted as both a joy and a misery. The child is trapped in his kingdom with no friends and no family near him, and as he grows into a young man, his fondest wish is to escape beyond the walls of the Forbidden City. But the young man's longing for his own freedom becomes one and the same for his desire for some nebulous 'reforms' for his people, undergoing radical changes at the hands of a series of greedy warlords and corrupt politicians in the 1920s.
The 21-year-old emperor is at last taken by the Japanese to his homeland, Manchuria, where he is installed again as emperor, but only as a puppet ruler for the invading Japanese. At the end of the war, he is 're-educated' in a prison camp for 10 years, and lives long enough to see yet another change in government, the regime of Mao Tse Tung.
'The Last Emperor's' brightest moments in the three-hour film epic are in its concentration on the youngest years of the boy-king in his splendid 'Forbidden City,' and his coming of age with the help of a proper Scotsman, played by Peter O'Toole. As the emperor is thrown against the realities of WWII, the film takes on a bleakness and sadness that is hardly shook off until the bittersweet moment that ends the film. The reds and golds of the early years is replaced during the emperor's adult life by brownsand greys and the film literally seems filmed in the dark, the characters appearing more a part of a black-and-white documentary of decline and hopelessness.
It is the grandeur of the boy king and his unreal opulent world that is best remembered, splendid and isolated, and at last, because of its loneliness, sad.
The emperor is played as a youngster by Richard Vuu; as an adolescent by Wu Tao, and as an adult by John Lone. They are all singularly fine, and manage to make Pu Yi indeed seem one very bright and interesting character of modern history.
This film is rated PG-13. Movie contains violence.