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The Lord of Ten Thousand Years

The Last Emperor is one of the purest historical epics I have ever seen. It is a brilliant spectacle, an incredible story.

It follows the life of Pu Yi, who was crowned emperor of China in 1908 at the age of three. Four years later he was forced to abdicate as ruler of the Chinese, but he continued to live in the Forbidden City as a sort of figurehead until 1924 when he was forced to leave and eventually returned to his birthplace in Manchuria.

Seven years after this, of course, Manchuria was invaded by the Japanese. In 1934, the Japanese set Pu Yi up as the puppet emperor of Manchuria, a position he retained until he was captured by the Russians at the end of WWII. He was returned to the Chinese in 1950 and spent the next 10 years in prison, being “re-educated” by the Communists to live as an “ordinary citizen.” When he was finally released, he became a gardener. He often visited the Forbidden City as an ordinary citizen, and finally died in 1967.

That is the bare-bones account of the amazing life of the last emperor of China . . . the movie version is quite a bit more engaging and moving. The movie jumps back and forth between its “present time” in the 1950s and flashbacks to Pu Yi’s life as emperor and figurehead.

It won 9 well-deserved Oscars in 1987 (Best Writing, Sound, Picture, Director, Music, Editing, Costumes, Cinematography, and Art Direction/Set Decoration). Of particular note are the gorgeous costumes and locations . . . it was the first feature film that China allowed to be filmed in the Forbidden City, and it takes full advantage of this privilege. The historical, cultural, and geographical atmospheres are, as a result, flawlessly immersive throughout the 60 years of Chinese history that the movie spans. The wonderful music is a welcome element as well.

The acting is also excellent . . . I particularly enjoyed the performance of the boy who plays the child emperor at age three. Peter O’Toole as Reginald Johnston, the emperor’s Scottish tutor, is superb, as always.

There is a great scene near the very beginning where, shortly after Pu Yi’s coronation, the little boy becomes bored with a droning ceremony and starts to squirm. Then he stands and begins to jump up and down on his throne. His horrified “advisors” try to shush him, but he climbs down and runs giggling outside . . . to be greeted by the staggering sight of thousands of his subjects bowing before him. He toddles aimlessly among them, and you see that he hasn’t even noticed the spectacle. He is searching for the cricket that he can hear chirping somewhere in the crowd . . .

In the next scene, his imperial majesty decides that he no longer likes baths. He yells this loudly over and over as he crashes like Godzilla through a small model of the Forbidden City . . . The royal retainers finally convince him to get in the tub, and as his back is scrubbed he asks, “Is it true I can do anything I want?”

“Of course, your majesty . . . anything you want. You are the Lord of Ten Thousand Years.”

The response? He starts splashing water on the four men who are trying to bathe him. He stands up in the small tub and starts kicking water at them, loudly crying, “I’m the son of heaven! I’m the son of heaven!”

This sets the tone for most of the rest of his life, and sets up the personality and attitudes that the Communist guards are doing their best to get out of his system during his time in prison.

What I particularly liked was how the movie stayed focused on Pu Yi’s life and on the chief issue of whether he can overcome his imperial background and accept his new, lowly place in China. Can Pu Yi finally escape the consequences of a seemingly predetermined sequence of events that have trapped him into the life he leads?

It didn’t go out of its way to judge any particular regime or side or set of traditions (and believe me, there are plenty to choose from during this period). Moviemakers as a rule seem to find it nearly impossible to avoid tossing in their two cents on such things, but by the end of this movie, I simply felt that I understood the intricacies of the facts of the period and of the main character’s life better . . . not that I had been manipulated by someone’s interpretation of history. This is, perhaps, merely a sign of more artful manipulation, but if so . . . Well, good for them.

The final scene is both poignant and perfect . . . the last sequence of scenes, in fact (featuring, in particular, a fascinating peek at the Cultural Revolution). The freeing of the cricket . . . That’s all I’ll say. You need to watch it.

And yes, I watched the 220 minute extended version. I wasn’t bored once . . . Be sure that this is the version that you see . . . the theatrical release was a full hour shorter, and I don’t know how this movie could possibly lose an hour. This is the right way to make a crazy long movie, let me tell you this!

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~ by Jared on August 3, 2004.

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