1987 Movie Review: THE LAST EMPEROR, 1987

Movie Reviews

Directed by: Bernardo Bertolucci

Starring: John Lone, Joan Chen, Peter O’Toole

Review by Travis Seppala


A dramatic true history of Puyi, the last of the Emperors of China, from his lofty birth and brief reign in the Forbidden City, the object of worship by half a billion people; through his abdication, his decline and dissolute lifestyle; his exploitation by the invading Japanese, and finally to his obscure existence as just another peasant worker in the People’s Republic of China.


A few weeks ago I reviewed “Gandhi”, a Hollywood made historical biopic that was a fantastic film and deserving of its win of the Oscar for Best Picture. Now I’m reviewing “The Last Emperor”, a Hollywood made historical biopic that was a fantastic film and deserving of its win of the Oscar for Best Picture. Why couldn’t they have shown us these Oscar winning historical films in high school history class instead of those boring documentaries that were mostly just photographs zooming in and out while some old guy narrated? I’m sure a lot less of us would have fallen asleep (although, to be fair, I’m sure there would be some people falling asleep as this movie is nearly 3 hours long)!

“The Last Emperor” is not told in sequential chronological order. Instead, it bounces back and forth in time from Puyi as an adult in a POW camp to his history from birth until adulthood giving us two splintered time lines of the same persons life (each flashback is in chronological order, and each“present” scene is also in chronological order).

A big deal was made of Puyi’s birth as he was next in line to be Emperor of the Manchu Qing dynasty of China. He lived a life of absolute luxury and became Emperor at the age of 2 and reined until just after his 6th birthday. During that time, he was still breastfed and treated so lavishly he didn’t know how “normal” people lived. All that changed once he and his family were forced to leave their palace in the Forbidden City and he was exiled.

Years later, once the Japanese had invaded China, Puyi was seated on the thrown in Manchukuo as a puppet ruler- he was Emperor, but everything he did or said for Manchukuo was the will of the Japanese forces. He met a woman and fell in love only to have that love falter and die before being hauled off to a be a prisoner of war.

After years as a prisoner of the Japanese (and being forced to go through Communist rehabilitation) Puyi was released as a “reformed citizen” and began working as a gardener. He got to see his Communist re-education teacher suffer during the anti-revolutionary parade as a political prisoner and later, at the end of his life get to return to the Forbidden City to see his former thrown, now as a simple tourist.

To go into much greater detail than that of the happenings of “The Last Emperor” would make this review much too long as it’s a nearly 3 hour movie which portrays a very VERY detailed representation of the life of Puyi, the last Qing Emperor. Just know that there is much MUCH more to the movie that what I’ve outlined here.

In some movies where the time line is shifted all around like it is here, the story can get hard to understand as you try to remember where in history each aspect occurs. In “The Last Emperor”, however, the transitioning from one segment of Puyi’s life to another is flawless and flows so perfectly that there almost doesn’t feel like flashbacks and fast forwards. It plays out like one story unfolding normally.

The acting is unbelievable. The costumes are stunning. The use of vibrant colors is jaw-dropping and the interesting camera work is… well… interesting! Every member of the cast and crew of “The Last Emperor” did their job exceedingly well and the director brought their talents together to make this movie flow like a will tuned piece of machinery… a detailed work of art.

“The Last Emperor” is a beautiful and enticing film to behold as well as being an interesting history lesson on the fall of Imperial China and the invasion of Communist Japan during both world wars in their sequence. It’s a little on the long side, I agree, but everything in the film is absolutely necessary and could not be cut. So make sure you get comfy and have your snacks and drinks handy and whatever else you need to sit still for 3 hours, because “The Last Emperor” is definitely worth your time!

 the last emperor

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