The story of the final Emperor of China.
Year 1, Day 192
BEFORE: Time to go back a few decades, and back to biographical films, this time in China for The Last Emperor. Winning all nine of its nominations, including Best Picture and Director, this film (based on the incredibly short plot description below) seems to be akin to Gandhi which I watched two days ago. It will be interesting to see another take on the biographical genre.
AFTER: The Last Emperor accomplishes one important task set before biographical films: imparting knowledge about a person/historical event. But for this genre of film to really succeed, like Gandhi, there needs to be more than just raw information; it needs to be organized and presented in an entertaining way.
As I say with pretty much all of the historical/educational films I watch, I don’t know the history of China very well. I knew the Emperor was overthrown, Mao Zedong took over, and it’s now the People’s Republic of China. So when it comes to judging the film based on historical accuracy I’m not a good judge of that. Based on my very rudimentary understanding of the history and the amount of detail put into the film, I’m willing to take the filmmakers words and visuals as fact. And to give credit where credit is due, the filmmakers seem to have put a lot of work into the depiction of the characters and the events that took place and I now know a lot more than I did two and a half hours ago.
But instead of learning from a funny and charismatic teacher, watching The Last Emperor was like sitting through a big lecture class where half the people are drifting off or are on their phones playing games. The first thirty minutes or so had me really engaged and attentive as to what was happening. They were using a structure that is similar to Gandhi or Titanic in that there is a present time, the 1950s with Pu Yi (John Lone) in a prison, that unfolds in real-time with flashbacks to the past, beginning in 1908 and progressing forward to 1950. But I was very quickly lost and had trouble understanding why they were telling the film this way. Gandhi just showed the absolute end and then worked its way there from the beginning of the story. Titanic kept coming back to the present day and used narration to help further the story. The Last Emperor on the other hand just seemed like a random assortment of time periods. It was very easy to tell what year you were in but it isn’t as easy to understand why. I think the film would have been much better had they started with Pu Yi in the prison, went back to his childhood and ascendence to the throne, and left it alone until it they got back to the 1950s. The way it is now, you keep going back to the prison as you see brief cut scenes of Pu Yi, his poor life there, and later on telling his “confession” of what he did. It takes you out of the flow of the story and frustrated me that I kept going back to this prison where nothing was happening.
If you couldn’t tell, The Last Emperor is not one of my favorite biographical films. You do learn a lot and there is much promise in this wealth of information and attention to detail, but it is spoiled on the structure and organization of the film. History buffs should probably watch this, film buffs should also probably watch this as it was a big award winner in 1987 and there are many great things about the film technically (music, cinematography - especially the scenes in the Forbidden City - and the costumes). But for anyone else, I wouldn’t recommend putting this on your must see list.
RATING: 3 out of 5