Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci
Based on the autobiography of Henry Pu-yi
Screenplay by Mark Peploe, and Bernardo Bertolucci
Starring: John Lone, Peter O’Toole, Joan Chen, Victor Wong, Ric Young
Pu-yi was crowned as the Emperor of China when he was three years old. Pu-yi’s (Lone) childhood and royal upbringing includes the education he gets from his tutor, Reginald Johnston (O’Toole). This charmed life soon gives way to a harsher reality with the changes in Chinese government and their war with Japan. The turmoil in his country is matched by the turmoil within his own life. As he continues to survive, he becomes a witness to the rise of Mao and the Cultural Revolution of China.
This is a wonderful film from every aspect, earning the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1988. Based on the autobiography of Henry Pu-Yi, the film takes an epic look at almost sixty years in his life. The story was adapted for the screen by Mark Peploe (The Passenger), and Bernardo Bertolucci (Once Upon a Time in the West, Last Tango in Paris). The screenplay earned them an Oscar for Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium. Bertolucci also directed the film, earning an Oscar for Best Director. Thanks to a great production team, the film went on to earn six additional Oscars. The cast was also incredible, featuring a great performance by John Lone (Year of the Dragon). Peter O’Toole (Lawrence of Arabia) is also great in this film, as are Joan Chen (The Little Flower), Victor Wong (Seven Years in Tibet), and Ric Young (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom).
The acting is a mix of intimate and powerful performances and massive scenes with hundreds of extras. The film features over 19,000 extras enlisted from the Chinese army. These large-scale scenes are impressive, but it’s the intimate moments that capture the essence of the story. John Lone is incredible, transforming from the young arrogant man, to an older humbled former leader. His ability to present the emotions of his character with a sense of honesty is so important to the story. Peter O’Toole is also great, bringing a nice contrast with his performance. Despite being the biggest name in the cast, his performance does not overwhelm the film. Instead he simply becomes part of the bigger picture, and does it wonderfully. The rest of the cast is also great. The cast as a whole is great in this one. Surprisingly, there were no Oscar nominations in the acting categories from this film.
The unprecedented access to the Forbidden City gave Bertolucci a unique opportunity while making this film. Much of the movie was filmed on location, with the cooperation of the Chinese government. This allowed the epic nature of this film to shine through the images. The emotion of the film is directly tied to the locations used, and helped to bring the story to life in ways rarely seen in cinema. The vibrant colors and use of the locations is incredible throughout the film. It’s no wonder that the film went on to win Academy Awards for Best Cinematography and Best Set Decoration. The film also won for Best Costume Design thanks to the wonderful work of James Acheson. It’s also important to recognize the efforts of Gabriella Cristiani, who won an Oscar for Best Editing. This is a wonderfully paced story, and it helps to justify the length of the movie.
The score for this movie is moving and wonderful. It’s the kind of score that makes for great listening away from the film. Throughout the movie the music seems to fit into the landscape of the story, adjusting as the action does. This is a subtle adjustment that doesn’t undermine the story or overwhelm the moment. The team of Ryûichi Sakamoto, David Byrne, and Cong Su earned an Oscar for best Score for their work on this film. The movie also won for Best Sound thanks to great sound design.
This movie spans almost six decades while keeping the characters stories intact. After almost thirty years the movie has not aged, and is a must-see for anyone who loves movies. I would suggest this not only to fans of history, but also to fans of art. The visuals and sounds come together wonderfully to tell this interesting story. I would also recommend this one to anyone who loves Peter O’Toole, or any of the other stars of the film. I give this one 5 out of 5 stars.