movie review by
David Ng

The Last Emperor

 

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The original version of The Last Emperor has a running time of 160 minutes, and in that time, the main character, Pu Yi, China's final monarch, never emerges as a complete human being. Like an existential anti-hero, Pu Yi lacks a series of personality definitions. He is an open-ended character, like Meursault in Albert Camus' L'Etranger, who confounds any attempt to pin him down. Now, eleven years after the original, director Bernardo Bertolucci has released The Last Emperor: Original Director's Cut. It is a blissful (and ass-numbing) 219 minutes long (nearly four hours long including the intermission). The new footage fleshes out minor characters and adds a few more vistas to its already plump visual cornucopia. But it doesn't offer anymore insight into the last emperor himself. In a film marked by doors opening and closing, Bertolucci keeps the door to Pu Yi resolutely shut.

For this, we should be thankful. Too many historical biopics fail because they over interpret their heros, resulting in narrative tunnel vision. Bertolucci, in contrast, insists on a cool and even brutal detachment. Without boundaries, Pu Yi is able to respirate in the audience's imagination, and the result is a freer movie.

The director's challenge is to transform the distant and amorphous Pu Yi (played as an adult by John Lone) into an empathetic creature. In short, Bertolucci must alienate and engage the audience all at once. He accomplishes this nearly impossible task through a sort of inverted character development. Instead of showing who Pu Yi is, Bertolucci shows who he isn't. Take for instance the famous coronation scene, with its bright yellow curtain revealing an even more brightly dressed sea of eunuchs, all kow-towing in ritual unison. The scene outwardly suggests reverence, tradition, and importance. But the subtext implies the exact opposite. The three year old boy, dressed in a robe too big for him, is dwarfed by his environment: his insignificance is, in effect, inverted and reflected back at him. The more visual splendor Bertolucci heaps on, the more insignificant Pu Yi becomes.

Herein lies the source of empathy. Because Pu Yi lives in a world in which his own worth is severely distorted, he assumes an automatic innocence. He cannot be held responsible for his self-delusions since no one has the nerve to tell him the truth. As a dupe for nearly every major political force to sweep through twentieth-century China, Pu Yi's astonishing gullibility makes him nearly unbelievable. He moves from one self-delusion to another, never learning, never questioning those who say they are his friends and who then rob him of his basic personal liberties. But these flaws are forgivable. He is, after all, a grown-up who can't even button his shirt properly. When he is finally forced to flee The Forbidden City, it is a veritable expulsion from Eden: he emerges, baby-like, into the harsh light of twentieth-century China, naive and unprepared.

The bulk of the new footage in The Last Emperor: Original Director's Cut focuses not on the emperor, but on his entourage -- his wet nurse, tutors, and valet. With scenes detailing their personal lives, these secondary characters take on a depth that they sorely lacked in the original. We learn of the sacrifices, the political intrigue, and the repressed anger they must endure for the sake of the emperor. As they emote as fuller characters, Pu Yi's own shallowness becomes more pronounced, and the entire film takes on an added layer of wasted glory.

The best scene of the new footage is perhaps the briefest. Ordered by Communist reformers to write the story of his life, Pu Yi pitifully stares at the blank pages of his shabby notebook. Those blank pages, arresting in their whiteness, are the most terse symbol in the film. At one level, they communicate the pristine emptiness of his life. On a higher level, they show what a risk Bertolucci took in making a four-hour film about a man whose life's work isn't worth writing about.

Still, the most resonating image remains that of Pu Yi writing his name: he scribbles the characters furiously, and then, ever so slowly, he withdraws his trembling hand. Like the audience, he is unsure of who he is.

Powerful images like these prove that The Last Emperor is a visual story. Its symbols and images, not its words, embody the most important points of the screenplay (by Mark Peploe and Bertolucci). The real power of Bertolucci's visuals lies in his skillful juxtaposition of opposites. There is opposition in color: the lush reds and golds of The Forbidden City contrast the icy blues of Manchuria. In clothing: the dilapidated Mao uniforms versus the intricate court costumes. In forms of transportation: a monstrous locomotive gives way to an imperial palanquin. And in scale: an epic-sized longshot followed immediately by a close-up of a child entranced by a cricket.

The last juxtaposition is the most thought-provoking because Bertolucci keeps returning to the human face. In a film of David Lean grandeur, he harbors a surprising intimacy. His close-ups don't reveal thoughts or sentiments in the usual cinematic convention. Rather, Bertolucci borrows, from the French New Wave, the use of the human face as an object of speculation. In his article on French New Wave close-ups, Iain Morrison writes that "the close-up is no longer a vehicle for confirming our expectations regarding the joy or distress of the characterů we are forced to take note of it and not merely to that which lies beneath it." The face of Pu Yi is equally mysterious: it seals him off. The ambiguity of his expressions is frustrating (we're never sure how much he really knows) but fascinating at the same time. The poster for The Last Emperor has a close-up of Pu Yi as a child: his face registers a disquieting melange of confusion, delight, and awe.

Bertolucci also tends to visually upstage Pu Yi. In nearly every scene, there is something or someone louder, brighter, bigger, or weirder. This tactic becomes more apparent in the director's cut, especially when Vittorio Storaro's camera lingers lazily on anonymous ladies-in-waiting and faceless servants, while the emperor carries on off-screen. It is also no coincidence that Peter O'Toole, who plays the emperor's tutor, Mr. Johnston, is a good two heads taller than his teen-aged pupil, and almost as regal. The effort to visually marginalize Pu Yi reinforces his triviality. He becomes more inconsequential simply by his lack of screen domination.

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Of all the directors in today's cinema, Bertolucci is perhaps the most ego-centric. Whether he is espousing his precocious Communist ideology in Before the Revolution or parading his Humbert-like fascination with Liv Tyler in Stealing Beauty, Bertolucci uses the screen as his own private confessional. It is appropriate that he should make a film about a man-child who is just as self-centered. However, this poses a problem with perspective. How can one make his ego-centrism alluring while still maintaining detachment? Bertolucci's solution is to take a voyeur's perspective. When the thirteen-year old Pu Yi breast feeds, the ladies-in-waiting watch from afar through binoculars. When his Western tutor introduces radical ideas, the palace guards stare warily from behind corners. When, as an adult, the emperor neglects his drug-addicted wife (Joan Chen), a Japanese spy captures it all on camera.

If film is a voyeuristic medium then Bertolucci is its premier exhibitionist. Paul, the Marlon Brando character in Last Tango in Paris, is an undisguised compilation of Bertolucci's own sexual ambivalence. On the set of Last Tango, Bertolucci reportedly told Brando, "You are the embodiment, or the reincarnation... you are the... symbol of my prick."

That kind of arrogant self-reference while thankfully missing in the original version of The Last Emperor surfaces once again in the director's cut. There is a new scene in which the emperor prances about with a phallus-shaped dagger while his two wives dance the quick-step on the landing outside. Later, in an act of rebellion, he uses the dagger to cut off his queue. The innuendoes are obvious and somewhat intriguing: Pu Yi, like Last Tango's Paul, is experimenting with uncontrolled sexuality as a form of liberation. But the scene doesn't belong in the film for a number of reasons: it contradicts Pu Yi's child-like asexuality; it adds too many constraints to a character who, by Bertolucci's own decision, is undefined; and it ultimately allows some of Paul to messily spill over into Pu Yi. In her original criticism of The Last Emperor, Pauline Kael correctly warns that by repeating the imagery of his past films, Bertolucci is verging dangerously on self-parody.

This crucial misstep, along with other scenes that serve no other purpose but to increase the running time, makes the director's cut a weaker film than the original. It lacks the original's paradoxical mix of taut narrative structure and loose character development. Even the editing, by Gabriella Cristiani, has lost some of its edgy innovation, and now feels a bit pedestrian. But the most egregious flaw of the director's cut is that it really has no reason to exist at all. It doesn't radically reinvent the film the way the rereleases of Blade Runner and Touch of Evil have. Nor do its new visuals overwhelm us the way the new special effects in The Abyss or Star Wars did.

Director's cuts need a sufficient raison d'etre. There needs to be a reason for audiences to devote renewed critical attention. Bertolucci's new cut doesn't offer any new ideas or perspectives: it just adds to the ones already there. The original film is based on the idea that Pu Yi is a non-person. His self-esteem, his personality, his mannerisms are all dictated by the political climate du jour. How can Bertolucci possibly make an empty character any emptier? Adding nothing to nothing, he has merely produced a longer, more ego-centric film. Like its bewildered anti-hero, The Last Emperor: Original Director's Cut never justifies its own luxurious existence.