28 May 2001 | shardik
The Last Epic
The Last Emperor, like Once Upon a Time in America, is an epic saga that delves, among various aspects, into the realm of Time and the ensuing effects it has on a human being and his culture as it passes through his lifetime. The Last Emperor of the Qing dynasty, Pu-Yi, was coronated in 1909 at the age of three and due to his youth ended up being a puppet to his adminstration. Bertolucci successfully shows us a young man who while understandably spoilt by many luxuries of monarchy, is in actuality a tender hearted, independent thinker (not doer) who is passionate about his homeland (Manchuria) and has a ravenous desire for experiencing life in the outside world. His caged lifestyle in the Forbidden City (Beijing) is definitely a major contributor to this mindset. From his infancy the director takes us through a chain of historical events that ultimately lead to Pu-Yi being an ordinary man (we know this from the beginning, however flashbacks explain his situation at the start). However, it is not the desired lifestyle that he sought as an Emperor in his youth.
The Last Emperor is breathtaking in its cinematography and Bertolucci's direction is impeccable. A lot of criticism was directed at his film '1900' (1976) due to its sheer length. The Last Emperor clocks in at 215 minutes (director's cut) and barring 10 minutes of a marriage related scene, it never lets up. Bertolucci seamlessly interweaves the flashbacks with Pu-Yi's situation in post-WWII China by providing us with a real life tragedy that epitomizes human weaknesses, vices, love and loyalty. Here is a film that is a true story but goes beyond mere narration or simple depiction - it is a three and a half hour, non-stop attention grasping journey through the spectrum of humanity that defines our lifetime through the eyes of an unfortunate soul who was a victim of circumstances like many are. Any questions that the viewer will have concerning an event in the plot will be immediately answered through the rich tapestry that Bertolucci shows when depicting Pu-Yi's imperial life.
On a technical note, the acting in this film is brilliant. John Lone deserved atleast an Oscar nomination for best actor due to his seamless portrayal of Pu-Yi. He makes his portrayal of a 21 - 60 year old Pu-Yi seem like an effortless act. Through his performance the audience feels an even greater compassion for the last emperor as we come across a man who despite all the hardships he endured was very compassionate and soft centered. The sheer down to earth nature of his character as a 55-60 year old who walks with a tired smile, forever accompanied by his loving brother, is a testament to Lone's ability to portray any age and move the audience.
Once again, it takes a Hailey's comet like event for the Academy to nominate someone from the eastern world (or non-British, non-American when it comes to best actor). The rest of the cast is also brilliant barring Ryuichi Sakamoto (who portrays the one-armed Masahiko Amakasu) who, for the most part, presents us with a classic display of Japanese overacting. Although I wouldn't call it overacting in a Kurasawa-esque/Japanese film environment, it becomes quite hilarious in a production such as this.
This apart, the film is brilliant. It is the last great epic (yes, Gladiator is very good, but is far from an epic in my mind) and somehow I hope it is rediscovered and re-appreciated as it once was back in the late eighties.
While the Oscars have always contrived to ignore the true best picture for most of the last two decades, here is an example of a best picture winner which beat the competition by miles.