Guess what day it is
Jan 01, 2014
The 2013 What-If College Football Tournament
Dec 08, 2013
Oscars running blog, 2013
Feb 24, 2013
The What-If NCAA football Tourney, 2012
Dec 02, 2012
Road Trip, day ten
Mar 15, 2012
What most Americans know of the history of China includes the fact that it used to be an Empire and now it’s communist, and not much else. The period in between those two systems is the subject of the best picture of 1987, The Last Emperor.
It follows Chinese Emperor Pu Yi from the time he ascends to the throne in 1908 at the age of 3 until the communist takeover leads to his imprisonment and his eventual release to spend the rest of his years as an average citizen in Beijing. The bulk of the movie is told as a flashback while Pu Yi is in prison being "reeducated" by the communist government in 1950.
This movie puts on a clinic on how to use cinematography to show shifts in time frame. The movie keeps jumping back and forth from Pu Yi’s reign to his imprisonment, but is never confusing since the scenes in the prison are shot in drab, dreary colors and flashbacks are shot in vibrant color. Costuming also plays a role with Pu Yi wearing ceremonial robes in the forbidden city, a tux during his brief stint as a playboy rubbing elbows with rich westerners before the war, and wearing drab gray prison garb with a short haircut after the communists take over.
The history is right on, for the most part. Most historical epics get vast swathes of the actual history wrong, but other than a few details this one is dead on. The movie does omit a five year stretch after the war when Pu Yi was a prisoner of the USSR and begging Stalin not to turn him over to the Chinese, and it never really touches on rumors that Pu Yi was gay, though it does go into the Empress’s opium addiction and her rumored affair with a Chinese woman working as a Japanese spy and drug pusher.
Pu Yi is an interesting subject to take on, and an interesting view from which to take it. He never really sees what is happening outside the walls of the forbidden city in 1911 when the thousand years of imperial rule come crashing to an end. His life goes on much as it was, except one day he’s a five year old who rules a nation, and the next he’s a five year old who rules nothing. He is still surrounded by sycophants and confined to imperial customs, but there is no longer a purpose to it all. And should we sympathize with him? Representative democracy is certainly preferable to monarchy, but the warlords who took over the nation after only a few years of democratic rule were hardly any better than the Empire.
And there is the further complication of how much blame must Pu Yi hold for his own actions during World War II. He took the Japanese up on their offer to restore him to the throne, not of China, but of the puppet state of Manchukuo, Pu Yi’s ancestral homeland in northeast China. There is no way he knew exactly what the Japanese were up to with the rape of Nanking, and an argument could be made that he was justified for siding with them. What allegiance did he owe China after they deposed him? Plus, Japan seemed likely to win the war so it would have been a safe bet to side with Hirohito, who as the movie states, was about the same age as Pu Yi and sympathized with his situation.
Acting-wise this movie is superb, despite having almost nobody you’ve ever heard of. Peter O’Toole is the only big name actor in the movie, playing Pu Yi’s Scottish tutor, and Joan Chen who would later show up in Twin Peaks plays the drug addicted Empress. John Lone is wonderful playing the deposed Emperor as an adult, the only notable role in a career that consists mainly of Hong Kong cinema and Rush Hour 2.
The only other nominee that year that was any good at all was Hope and Glory, the story of a young British boy’s experiences during World War II. Not nominated was Empire of the Sun, about a young British boy’s experiences in China during World War II. There were quite a few other notable movies, including Predator, staring the Governor of California and the former Governor of Minnesota, Full Metal Jacket, which made R. Lee Ermey a star, Wall Street which was Oliver Stone’s last movie before falling in love with himself, the Untouchables, which was made before we all realized how annoying Kevin Costner could be in large doses, and Raising Arizona, the first major effort from the Coen brothers which launched them on a run that included Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski, and O’ Brother Where art Thou. However the one movie that stands head and shoulders above all of them is Princess Bride. Now, it simply cannot compete with Last Emperor in terms of costuming and cinematography, and no offense to the big guy, but John Lone is a bit better at acting than Andre the Giant, but Princess Bride is just a hell of a lot more fun. By the end of Last Emperor you start looking at your watch, something that would never happen while watching Princess Bride, even if there is kissing. Now, I like the way the ending of Last Emperor bookends the movie by having Pu Yi buy a ticket to see the forbidden city as a tourist, but the half hour that immediately precedes it just drags by. I could make an argument for any of these movies being the best of the year (I can’t make any argument for some of the other best picture nominees. Moonstruck? For fuck’s, sake who in the blue hell thought that was a good movie?) but something must be said in support of entertainment value, and my guy tells me that Princess Bride, while not artistically perfect, is the best of the group.