Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, 29 years on

Nostalgia is a particularly compelling emotion among my generation, perhaps because of how dramatically the world around us seems to have fast-forwarded during our formative years. It’s funny how re-experiencing creative works from those years, then, can produce such drastically different experiences.

Some — like old episodes of Power Rangers or X-Men — show their age, the crudeness of their production glaringly apparent in every frame. Others — the Star Wars or Indiana Jones trilogies make popular examples — are timeless classics whose enjoyability hold up even over decades.

Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, though, is something else altogether. It holds a certain significance for Yours Truly for a few reasons: 1) birth Year Best Picture; 2) one of the family’s handful of repeat viewing favorites; 3) some vague, distant sense of kinship with the protagonist, given my Manchurian surname (at least according to the consulate worker who last renewed my passport), and my birth name alluding to “coronation” (given an opportunely timed solar eclipse).

With precious little history passed on by oral tradition in my family, this seminal 1987 biopic of Aisin-Gioro (Henry) Pu Yi (the titular Last Emperor of Imperial China) is as much a reference point for my past — my legacy, even, if I were to be grandiose about it — as it is a sweeping overview of modern China (both the state and the people)’s origins and worldview-shaping turning points.

Whenever my last viewing was (I have long since forgotten), it was understood through a decidedly difference lens than the one I’m using now. Until my American life began at age 8, I had grown up with the narrative that the Qing and the Republicans → Nationalists had been on the wrong side of history, their corruption, incompetence, and downright treason responsible for all the disaster that befell China, before the Communists came along and paved the way for the state’s place of strength in modern times. Through American high school, and even a bit of college, I still had a hard time swallowing the opposing narrative in the few places it arose, namely that China had “fell” when the Reds took over and it was one of the worst outcomes the world could have hoped for at the time. (Classmates may remember my rather ill-advised class president campaign using Communist iconography during my period of fascination with it senior year…the irony, needless to say, was lost on many.)

My first discovery during this past Tuesday’s viewing: most of the film was actually in English, not in Mandarin like I had somehow remembered. Maybe my family had always watched it with a Mandarin dub (appropriate, given the context), in a weird meta-reversal of the typical language dubbing norms.

Moreover, I was able to catch on to a lot more themes/subtexts this time around, from the aforementioned analogue to China’s early-to-mid-20th century history, to Manchurian enmity towards China proper for the excesses of the latter’s Republican/post-Imperial era backlash, to Pu Yi’s enduring loneliness and progression through a series of decreasingly comfortable prisons throughout his life.

Most notably, though, I finished this viewing without any feeling of moral judgment on most of those depicted, and (oddly) only a little for the Japanese military of the time, who turned the ex-royal family into a wartime instrument for their own ends.

Here was a story not of a man who knowingly helped betray his country for personal gain, but who was swept up by the great waves of history and placed — despite the numbers seemingly at his beck and call — in a particularly inopportune position to outplay the game compared with his contemporary heads of state. At age 6 — 4 years into his reign — he had essentially already lost when the military (any state’s primary instrument of enforcing its power) took a life of its own, separate from carrying out the will of the monarchy, forcing themselves into control of the government before fragmenting into warring regional factions.

And herein lies the cinematic tragedy that resonated the most with me: unlike what the movie poster tagline below might lead one to believe, for most of his life Pu Yi ruled little more than a succession of hollow kingdoms: a bloated household that pilfered the imperial coffers while isolating him from the harsh, rapidly changing outside world; a romantically-embellished, but largely empty 1920s/30s royal court, comprised mostly of Japanese minders who imposed their will on him with few pretenses of deference for his station; a couple of household servants who carried on the motions of old traditions during his prison camp years; and finally, an unremarkable Beijing greenhouse before he died in anonymity, a Citizen X, as China continued on its path of political upheaval that has only reached something approaching stability in the past two decades.

Given the increasingly larger gray area of geopolitics in the last two decades (and certainly, within entertainment storytelling, in a post-Game of Thrones world), one of the few certainties of existence is that there is ultimately only those with power and those without. There are few, if any, moral absolutes in history, especially given the exceedingly long lifecycle it takes for the full impacts of important events to play out. Were it not for Pearl Harbor, maybe I would instead be watching a glorified take on a national hero, a Chinese Meiji, Victoria, or Roosevelt (!), who restored moral certitude & purpose to a Great Power and brought it into modernity.

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