When David Byrne composes the score of a feature, a director must feel they are in safe hands. Bernardo Bertolucci and Byrne have odd chemistry with one another. A vague repertoire for The Last Emperor is birthed. As Bertolucci adapts the life of Puyi to the screen, one of the last emperors of China is brought to attention. All good things must come to an end, the Qing dynasty not being a good thing, but certainly coming to an end. That much is securely shown within this epic-length feature, whose costume designs and merits are a strong production of the period. It shows the tensions and intensity of the Qing dynasty and its final days.
Puyi is a fascinating figure, and Bertolucci at least captures that with significant gusto. His life as a prisoner in the early opening is contrast nicely with the flashback to his early years within the Forbidden City. His wishes are far away from those needed to become Emperor, and it is the capability of Richard Vuu and Tijger Tsou in the early days of Puyi’s life that provides us with at least a degree of sympathy to apply to the last emperor. All he desires is his home, which he has been removed from forcefully, and shall never return to. He is the figurehead of a country in turbulent times, and despite Bertolucci depicting the fall from grace and puppet state of Manchukuo, Puyi is always the emotionally troubled victim of a system that would soon crumble.
At least we can read into that often, and throughout The Last Emperor, a sympathetic tone is struck. A boy is groomed into a regal lifestyle, and there is an inescapable feeling of contempt for not just who he grows into being, but those around him too. Bertolucci can at least convey a level of horror in this lifestyle, one that was never graced with happiness, peace or serenity. Not much of it, anyway. Much of Puyi’s life was mired by the consequences of those that came before him, or the cultural reactions to war, greed and complacency. He is the loneliest boy in the world for a great deal of time, and even when Bertolucci sways to controversial sides of history, The Last Emperor looks and sounds superb. With exceptional performances from Peter O’Toole and Joan Chen, a conveyance of sympathy for Puyi is kindled. But should we feel sympathy for him? That much is never really answered by Bertolucci.
Its soundtrack is the neat bow that wraps up this feature. A magnificent cast encompasses so much of the great depictions throughout, and The Last Emperor benefits exceptionally well from the technical talents Bertolucci can bring. It is a feature that blurs so many of its assets together and does so with defiant, boastful visuals. Bleak introductions to war criminals open the film, but where the controversy of this feature lies is in the merit of its facts and the accuracy of it all. But even then, enough is depicted to provide a topical and engaging interpretation of Puyi and his leadership, even if Bertolucci sometimes wavers on showing the severity of his reign.