The Last Emperor (1987)

Dir. Bernardo Bertolucci

I know that I wouldn’t recommend this to Joel, Jill, Don or Larri–although I don’t think they would think it was a bad film. Of the other idiots, I have a hard time deciding. I can’t think of anyone that I feel confident strongly recommending this to, although I’d pick Mitchell (because of what I know of his tastes) and Kevin. Still, it’s not something I’d strongly recommend to them either.

The film is about the life of the last emperor in China. By following his life we also see the political and cultural upheaval China experienced in that time. This film received a lot of Academy Awards (nine, I believe). Except for the costumes, set pieces and perhaps cinematography, I don’t know if the film is deserving of such attention.

Based on a few films, I’m not a big fan of Bertolucci, although I will say that his films have some nice visual moments. The same is true for this film. The costumes and sets are very good and hold up fairly well–this is probably the most noteworthy part of the film, at least for me; on the other hand, I think films like Hero and House of the Flying Daggers sort of lessens the sets and costumes.

As for the story, I found it fascinating, but I wanted to see a deeper exploration of the themes and psychology of the main character. The film covers a lot of ground so perhaps only a book could satisfy what I was looking for. The story does feel a little too compressed and probably needed more time.

I saw the first half when I was in college and liked it a great deal. Never did see the rest, ‘though I’ve listened to the soundtrack on multiple occasions (David Byrne and Ryuichi Sakamoto). Unless the second half makes it a worse picture, I’d guess that I would like this film based on what I’ve seen. You didn’t think the score was Oscar-worthy, huh? I like it. A lot.

I glad you mentioned the score because it was one aspect of the film I forgot to mention. (Now, I’m thinking of other.) I recall liking the score, but I felt it didn’t fit the movie. The score had too much of a contemporary and even pop feeling (Sakamoto has this melodic sense that I associate with contemporary Japanese soap operas and movies), but the movie spans from the 40s to the 60s. Used in the film, it felt obtrusive, distracting and inauthentic.

The other problem I had was the main characters speaking in English rather than Chinese. (This stood out when extras spoke in Chinese). I felt this took away from the authenticity and made it more difficult for me to buy and inhabit the world the filmmakers were trying to recreate. I got used to it, though.

If you liked the first half, you’ll probably like (or at least not hate) the second half.

Would it have been better if all the characters had spoken Chinese-accented English?

I’m trying to remember what the course was in which I saw this. I think it was World Civ, the second half, a course I took with Byron and Gregg in summer session. Gotta ask them if they remember.

I don’t think that would have helped, and it probably would have made it worse, especially if the accent sounded phony.

…yet aren’t you the one who disagrees with me that it’s stupid when movies set in Europe feature actors speaking English with British, French, or German accents? It’s one of my peeves.
What hurt my film experience is that I’ve seen other Chinese films that cover the same time period and similar subject (not Pu Yi, the last emperor), and these films, like the The Blue Kite and Farewell, My Concubine, among others, seemed much more authentic, and they looked really good. The Hollywood treatment is written all over The Last Emperor; it feels like it was made for American mainstream audiences.

Re: accents.

I vaguely recall having a conversation with you about English speaking characters speaking with German, French accents, etc. But I don’t think I have as much a problem, for some reason, with those than I do in the Asian situation. Do you remember the specific context?

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