The Last Emperor

"Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor won nine Academy Awards® unexpectedly sweeping every category in which it was nominated - quite a feat for a challenging multilayered epic directed by an Italian and starring an international cast. Yet the power and scope of the film was and remains undeniable - the life of emperor Pu Yi who took the throne at age three in 1908 before witnessing decades of cultural and political upheaval within and outside of the walls of the Forbidden City. Recreating Qing-dynasty China with astonishing detail and unparalleled craftsmanship by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti The Last Emperor is also an intimate character study of one man reconciling personal responsibility and political legacy." (text taken from Amazon)
Year Released
Running Time
163 min
Criterion Collection
Average: 4.1 (9 votes)


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The Last Emperor: The Oxymoron of Restrained Spectacle

Field of Interest/Specialty: Literature & Art
Posted On: 05/01/2019

Bernardo Bertolucci's 1987 epic The Last Emperor, winner of nine Academy Awards, tells the story of Pu Yi, a toddler who was created emperor of China in 1908 by the dying but still formidable Empress Dowager Cixi. From the moment Pu Yi steps foot in the Forbidden City, he is the tool of those who would be powerful. Yet, Bertolucci's tale reminds us that power is fleeting for all as we watch the characters in the story batted about by history with detached cruelty. From Imperial China to the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, from a child virtually imprisoned by his throne to a teacher tormented for speaking truth, the uncredited star of this film is cruelty itself. And, like the other characters in this film, cruelty is virtually emotionless and indiscriminate about those it victimizes.
While the performances are deliberately restrained almost to the point of resembling a Stanley Kubrick film, the scenery (filmed in the Forbidden City itself), costumes, and colors of Pu Yi's world are lush and vivid. Rather than employing complex dialogue or emotive performances, Bertolucci tells his epic tale through striking cinematography, pregnant pauses, and stoic facial expressions that betray only the characters' well-trained ability to control emotion at all times. John Lone (Pu Yi) can express pages of exposition or dialogue in one shift in his hard-set jaw that subtly hints at the turmoil and frustration of the young emperor who falls prey to powerful manipulators again and again.
This dearth of snappy dialogue, however, combined with slow but luxurious pacing over nearly three hours, might make this film a hard sell for today's secondary school students. In addition, scenes with nudity, implied sexual encounters, and drug use would preclude showing the film in its entirety to this population. Nevertheless, teachers could select many scenes to highlight themes of the rise and inevitable fall of the powerful. Further, Bertolucci has taken pains to include some historic and cultural details that students will have read about, such as the yellow color exclusive to emperors, the massive seals used to mark approval of documents drafted in red ink to show that they are the edicts of the emperor himself, the Little Red Books carried by the teen puppets of Chairman Mao, and the giant black pearl placed in the Empress Dowager's mouth to see her to the afterlife.
In Pu Yi's story, students can also draw comparisons to both ancient and modern tragic heroes--mostly empathetic characters who found themselves in power and contributed to their own fall through a personal flaw to which they were blind.

The Last Emperor Review by JLowe

Field of Interest/Specialty: Elementary
Posted On: 11/16/2017

From his childhood succession to the throne, teenage self discovery, young adult empowerment, and navigating life choices, this film is that’s showcases the stages of the life of the last emperor of China Pu Yi. Taking the throne at the age of 3 and losing real power at 10, the emperor remains as a figurehead of the Forbidden City. When an English tutor arrives, Pu Yi’s world is expanded to life outside of the walls that blockade him from the world beyond the wall. With a broader perspective of ideals, the emperor decides to reform the Forbidden City of the old eunuchs and reduce corruption. After changing the city he desperately wanted to leave for the better, he is kicked out. Pu Yi makes a connection with the Japanese and becomes the puppet emperor of Manchuria but this again does not last long. The ending is bittersweet as a young boy meets an older Pu Yi in the now tourist location in the Forbidden City. It shows that years may change, but the challenges never really do as they take on a new face or name.
The Last Emperor is a good film to illuminate court life, privelage, the intricases of ancient Chinese Forbidden City, and the events that lead to the Peoples Republic of China. I found it interesting that when choosing a tutor for the young impressionable student, the selection was for a scholarly Englishman. Not only was Pu Yi tutored by an Englishman, but is preselected wife was tutored by an American. The notion of idealized western culture is present through the second half of the film from the clothing and the music. I can see how this picture won nine Oscars especially for its cinematography. The film exudes the classics 1940s film angles as well as the dramatics. It is visually stunning with the colors, architecture, and scale of extras.
The greatest takeaway I had from the film was Pu Yi’s search for importance as well as self empowerment. This man spent his life trying to live a purposeful life and be apart of a change. As a teacher, it reminds me of the role we play in our students goal of self empowerment. We push our students until they take the reigns themselves. Living a purposeful life is a lesson that can be taught every single day to those willing to listen.

The Last Emperor

Field of Interest/Specialty: English
Posted On: 11/29/2016

As an English teacher who is not at all well-versed in this type of history, I was a bit overwhelmed by everything that I was to learn/gather/glean from The Last Emperor. Initially, I had no choice but to approach it as a very fanciful “Intro to Chinese History” course. So I watched it, paused it, asked my husband (whom I owe an expensive dinner out for watching it with me instead of the Penn State game) what was going on about 7 times, went to Google and Wikipedia when he couldn’t help me, and finally got the gist of this history.
Then, God help me, I watched it again. ALONE this time. All 2 hours and 43 minutes of it.
Despite the vast array of Academy Awards it collected, none of them were for its acting. Visually arresting, a cinematic masterpiece, definitely. Superbly directed! How could it not be as it was shot from within the Forbidden City with over 19,000 extras? It’s either going to be a hot mess or a breathtaking work of art, and it was certainly the latter. I found the acting to be rather flat and uninspiring though, but upon watching it the second time through, and with a different lens, I allowed myself to become more critical and contemplative about why the performances were uninspiring and somewhat tepid.
To put it plainly, Pu Yi’s own life (at least as it was depicted) was uninspiring and tepid. Once I could focus less on the history, I was able to recognize that the history-the historical events that were beyond his control—shaped his life and made him completely ineffectual. He becomes emperor at the age of two, and he is completely cloistered. He must abdicate all imperial authority to republican forces at age seven. His marriage is arranged and an utter failure. He is kicked out of his palace and sent to Tianjin. Then the Japanese reinstate him as a figurehead ruler when they want to legitimize their control over Manchuria. Then he spends time in a Russian prison before he is repatriated to China and re-educated for ten years. A ruler who never ruled. A movie about someone who, in many ways, was no one. Simply put, the character of Pu Yi is not exceptionally memorable because the emperor himself is not memorable. The movie uses flashbacks and flashforwards to show parallel forms of confinement, and in both, he is a rather pitiable creature and a means by which we simply witness a China in transition. During the scenes in 1950, when Pu Yi is an imprisoned war criminal being re-educated, it occurred to me that his entire life has been lived in a state of imprisonment of sorts. Whether thousands of eunuchs are prostrating themselves at his feet as a child emperor, or his cell mates (former subjects) are tying his shoes for him in prison (because he always had the eunuchs or someone else to do it for him), it is clear that his life as a powerless ruler was one that lacked any relevance. Stripped of his titles, he ultimately becomes a gardener; the first time I watched the movie, I thought to myself, “From emperor to gardener. . . what a fall from grace!” But upon watching it again, I realized that there was no grace and dignity in the fact that he was a puppet, a pawn, and a very lonely human being. His time as a gardener might have been the most dignified, noble, and purposeful period of his life.
The movie and the emperor himself are both grand spectacle in which/for whom very little happens. I have no idea if this parallel was in any way Bertolucci’s intention, but it’s what I came away with. I’m not sure if this perspective would be of interest to history teachers, but perhaps it would have value as a film study.

Great historical film

Field of Interest/Specialty: World History
Posted On: 11/18/2016

This three-and-a-half-hour movie begins with Pu Yi in prison after being captured by the Red Army as a war criminal. He then recounts his childhood as Emperor of China where the viewer gets a glimpse of his privileged, yet sheltered life. During his reign as Emperor, Pu Yi was not permitted to leave the Forbidden City and was uninformed of the events occurring outside of the city walls. In various scenes early in the movie, Pu Yi laments that he wants to leave the Forbidden City, and wants to have his own opinion and voice, but is unable to do so. In 1912, when the Emperor abdicated the thrown, he remained in the Forbidden City and pushed for reform. Eventually he was driven out of the Forbidden City and sought refuge in Manchuria which was under Japanese control and became a puppet ruler.
The video in its entirety would not be appropriate to show in a secondary classroom due to scenes with nudity. However, there are scenes that could be effectively used in the classroom. Scenes throughout the movie show the majestic nature of the Forbidden City, since the director was granted permission to film on location. Additionally, the costumes and make-up depict the various positions throughout the Forbidden City. One interesting costume piece is seen in scenes such as when the Emperor is being shown pictures of possible brides, the woman is wearing nail covers which symbolizes a position of high status since long nails were a symbol that the woman did not have to work. This can also be seen in the early scene depicting Empress Dowager Cixi and her death. Later in the film, scenes with the Red Guard and propaganda could be used within the classroom.

The Last Emperor

Field of Interest/Specialty: Social Sciences
Posted On: 10/20/2015

The Last Emperor is an excellent movie that was filmed in the Forbidden City and other Beijing locations. It is a beautifully made film that tells the story of the Last Emperor in China Pu Yi. It followed his life as an infant Emperor, his childhood, being forced out of the Forbidden City by the Japanese and his life during World War II and his post war life in Communist China. It is well acted and has the cinematography is excellent throughout the film. It is an epic film that is both entertaining and a huge historical recreation of the last emperors life and the culture and traditions of the Forbidden City and of China as a whole.
I think this would be a great movie to show selected scene of the movie to students in grades 7-12. I don't think it's necessary to show the entire movie to students but you can learn a great deal by watching selected scenes the to show Chinese history, culture, life in the Forbidden City, and of course the life of the last emperor. I would recommend the movie to teachers if they would select specific scenes to show the class while studying China and Chinese history.

The Last Emperor

Field of Interest/Specialty: History
Posted On: 12/01/2014

Lisa Sydeski
10-12 grade
20th Century Shaping the Modern World
AP European History
The Last Emperor was released in 1987 and won nine Oscar awards. The film chronicles the life of Pu Yi and the evolution of monarchical China to Mao’s communist state. The extended version of the movie runs 218 minutes of the Emperor’s extraordinary yet convoluted life. The overthrow of the Last Emperor ended 267 years of (Manchu) Qing dynastic rule and 2,000 years of monarchical rule. Pu Yi was coroneted at the age of 3 (1908-12), abdicated by the age of 6, prisoner within the walls of the Forbidden city, puppet Emperor of the Japanese territory of Manchukuo (Manchuria) (1934-45), and prisoner/war criminal (1950-59) until attempting to return to become an ordinary citizen until his death in 1967. The film is based on Pu Yi’s autobiography From Emperor to Citizen published in 1965.
The film in its entirety would be very difficult to use in the classroom as there is significant adult content, language, and nudity. Ambitious students who have an interest in 20th century China could watch the movie for enrichment with parental permission only. Certain clips, however, could be useful in the classroom to provide images of the pageantry and coronation of the Emperor and the beauty of the Forbidden City as seen in the beginning of the film. Additionally, the images of the red guards, propaganda, and re-education of supposed enemies being paraded through the streets with dunce caps and signs confessing to be “capitalist roaders” could be a useful clip to share with students when discussing the Cultural Revolution.
Thematically, Pu Yi’s life is filled with constant struggle and parallels China’s struggle to evolve from the past. From his childhood Pu Yi is taken from his mother and placed in the care of a wet nurse and eunuch male servants as he is unaware of the revolution taking place beyond the palace walls. Once exiled from the Forbidden City he becomes a playboy desiring to go to Oxford and buying western products: cars, chewing gum, as well as learning how to two-step dance. Pu Yi’s struggles seem to parallel the larger struggles of China trying to westernize yet trying to reconcile with 2,000 year old cultural traditions. The end of the movie is especially poignant as there is a subtle suggestion of how paradoxically Mao’s Communist China is in many ways strikingly similar to the dynastic past. A critical discussion and interpretation of the movie’s conclusion where a young Communist Red Guard meets the former Emperor Pu Yi nearing the end of his life could serve as a good spring board to compare how China is both the same, yet different, from the dynastic past. Additionally, PBS provides a good film guide that includes key terms, timeline, and critical questions to accompany the movie www-filmeducation-org_pdf_film_lastemperor.pdf which may be helpful for students who are interested in watching the film outside of class in its entirety.

The Last Emperor - Review

Field of Interest/Specialty: History
Posted On: 03/10/2013

Joseph Laviola
Middle School Social Studies
Commonwealth Connections Academy
The Last Emperor chronicles the life of Pu Yi, final ruler of the Qing Dynasty and last emperor of China. Pu Yi's life could be described as that of the perpetual pawn, puppet and prisoner. The film begins in 1950 with Pu Yi as a political prisoner of Communist forces in Manchuria. During a failed suicide attempt, he slips into a memory and the story takes us to 1908 and his early life as the child emperor. The two locations and political realities are drastically different, as superbly conveyed by the drastic changes in scenery; Communist Manchuria is characterized by gray concrete, solemn faces and overcast skies while the Qing Dynasty is portrayed with life, color and music. These settings and characterizations are fantastically interwoven into the film, which continuously alters back and forth between his life in a Communist reeducation camp and his memories of happier days. The mere color and framing of each scene could elicit weight powerful emotions even if the film were a silent production.
After abdicating his rule in 1912, Pu Yi becomes a prisoner within his own palace, the Forbidden City, where he exerts no real power and is unable to leave. Outside of the city walls, the Republic of China is the true political power within his realm. In 1934, desiring to return to the role of ruler granted by his birth, he returns to his ancestral home in Manchuria and functions as the Emperor and political puppet of the Empire of Japan. In the days following the defeat of Japanese during the Second World War and the the victory of the People's Republic of China, he is captured and reeducated in the ideology set forth by Mao Zedong and his followers.
The music and cinematography of The Last Emperor are fantastic and the film won nine Oscars in 1988, including Best Picture, Best Cinematography and Best Original Score. Depictions of court life, music, food and imperial culture will be both deeply engaging and utterly foreign to anyone, even those who have not studied East Asian culture or society at any great length.
Incorporating this into a middle school curriculum for Social Studies could pose challenges for teachers who are restricted to American History, but would offer a fantastic insight for the students of those teaching World History since the film does such a superb job of conveying the color and character of Chinese culture and society during the pre-Republican era.

The Last Emperor: A Feast for the Imagination

Field of Interest/Specialty: History
Posted On: 07/02/2012

Tim Jekel
High School History
World History I & II, Western Civilization, AP US History, AP European History
West Shore Christian Academy
From a purely esthetic point of view, The Last Emperor is a stunning achievement in film. Richly filmed in a sumptuous recreation of the Forbidden City before its fall, Bertolucci captures the exotic appeal of the Chinese emperors in their glory.
The story follows the life of Pu Yi, appointed as Emperor at the age of 3 in 1908. The life of Pu Yi tracks closely with the fortunes of the nation as a whole from its struggle to westernize following the debacle of the Boxer Rebellion, through the strife during the early republic ruled by warlords, to the rise of the Nationalists under Jiang Kai Shek, the invasion of the Japanese, and finally to the rise of the communists culminating in the Cultural Revolution.
The genius of this film is that there is story telling both at the surface through the plot and characters, and on a visual level through symbolism and even color. The basic premise of the film is that call it what you will, communist rulers have adopted much of the tradition of the Chinese emperors and used it to justify their legitimacy. This represents continuity between China’s past and present which is easy to overlook. One way Bertolucci presents this is through the use of color. The predominance of the color yellow early in the film is reinforced as the representation of the Qing Dynasty and is richly woven into the visual story that unfolds. After a colorless portion of the film in depicting the 1930’s through the early prison years in the 1950’s, color once again returns in bright displays of communist red during the Cultural Revolution.
The basic story line focuses on the personal struggles and disappointments of the boy and then the man Pu Yi. As a boy he struggles with normalcy as he goes years without seeing any other children. This produces a profound loneliness in the boy. He is also forbidden from seeing his mother who after giving up her firstborn for the emperorship has descended into opium addiction. As a teenager thirsting to participate in the world outside the walls of the Forbidden City, he is prevented from leaving by self-serving courtiers who refuse to lose their meal ticket. This is especially difficult to accept for Pu Yi since the Republican Revolution has stripped his real power anyway, leaving a shell of the court to function only within the walls of the Forbidden City.
When the Kuomintang finally expels Pu Yi and his court, he is freed to be who he will, and is forced to forge a new life for himself in a China that no longer needs him. His ambition remains, however, as he has been raised to rule, and when the Japanese offer him the Emperorship of the new puppet state of Manchukuo, he accepts believing that he can outmaneuver the Japanese and gain control of the new state. He soon realizes that he was chasing an impossible dream, and that he is trapped by the Japanese every bit as thoroughly as he was as a boy in the Forbidden City of his youth.
Through the film, Pu Yi’s reeducation in a communist political prison forms the narrative center of the film. Pu Yi experiences his childhood in flashbacks that emerge in the midst of his interrogation by the communist prison leaders. In the end, he accepts his final fate, to be an ordinary citizen, and becomes a gardener and is released. He witnesses the Cultural Revolution up close and in the end visits the Forbidden City of his youth, now a tourist site.
The film captures the corruption of power and the entrapment of ambition without washing out the depth of the characters. Many of the themes and scenes depicting life in the court of Manchukuo for example, show human personality twisted and grotesque. Unfortunately, there is much material throughout the film that is not suited to a high school audience. Early scenes show breastfeeding with an exposed breast - even breastfeeding a 10 year old boy. Later scenes show twisted sexuality, suicide, and infanticide. As a prisoner, the main character is taught to urinate quietly by hit the sides of the bucket. While these scenes can be justified for an adult film, I believe a teacher will find that only isolated scenes can be shown in their entirety.
I have used this film extensively in the past as a backdrop for the events of the first half of the 20th century. I have a version on VHS that I heavily edited for use in the classroom. Using an unedited version would be tricky and would require good knowledge of what to skip and when. The film provides a useful answer to students who ask whether the Chinese system of dynastic rule will ever return. The film suggests in a way it never ceased, it simply adapted itself to the modern world and its demands.

The Last Emperor

Field of Interest/Specialty: Social Studies
Posted On: 04/26/2009

Personally, this is one of my all time favorite films. The imagery is absolutely stunning and breathtaking. For years I have thought about how to use this in my high school World History classes, but unfortunately I have never figured out a way to do it. Part of the problem with showing this film to high school students is that it is very long and has complicated sequencing. The story of Pu Yi, China's Last Emperor is fascinating and I think most people would be interested in learning more about his life from oppulence to obscurity. For anyone wishing to see what the life of the Emperor was like they should see this film. I believe this was the first time that the PRC permitted the filming of the Forbidden City by foreigners.