`Last Emperor' an international film. Chinese government cooperated, opening Forbidden City to Western cameras
New York — ``The Last Emperor'' is a most cosmopolitan movie. Made by an English production company, it was directed by one of Italy's most controversial filmmakers, Bernardo Bertolucci, and photographed almost entirely in China with help from the Chinese government. The history of the production dates back to 1984, a time when the Italian film industry was not thriving. On the lookout for a fresh and stimulating project, Bertolucci approached the Chinese government with a couple of ideas for major films. China agreed to support him in filming the life of Pu Yi, who became the nation's last emperor, in 1908, under very ironic circumstances.
According to Columbia Pictures, the film's American distributor, the on-location shooting in China included eight weeks of photography in the Forbidden City, which was for 500 years the traditional home of Chinese emperors.
It's called the Forbidden City because neither commoners nor foreigners were allowed to enter without special permission - or to look at the ruler once they were inside. ``The Last Emperor'' is the first Western film production to be admitted into this closed area of palaces and treasure houses.
Indeed, it's billed as the first Western movie about modern China to be made with the Chinese government's full cooperation. It probably won't be the last, though. The impressive Shanghai episodes of Steven Spielberg's ``Empire of the Sun'' were also made in China, and it's claiming to be the first major Hollywood movie with scenes photographed there.
Production of ``The Last Emperor'' was a complicated affair. Thousands of Chinese extras were employed; thousands of Chinese costumes were brought in from Europe; and vast amounts of pasta were imported to keep Italian crew members happy.
The cast is just as varied - featuring John Lone from Hong Kong, Joan Chen from China, Peter O'Toole from England, and Ryuichi Sakamoto from Japan, among many others.
And what have so many talents from so many lands come up with as a finished product?
``The Last Emperor'' turns out to be two hours and 45 minutes of grandiose, Hollywood-style claptrap that Cecil B. DeMille himself would have been proud of. It's complete with all the mass-market trappings: syrupy music, broad performances, enough titillating sex to pull in a PG-13 rating, and settings as exotic as the Forbidden City itself.
The story begins when Pu Yi receives his crown at the tender age of 3. He has a great time ruling in the Forbidden City until he grows up a little and realizes that his kingdom doesn't extend any farther.
China has become a republic. And the government allows him to carry on tradition - ruling over a vast horde of relatives and servants - only as long as it's all make-believe within the walls of the imperial domain. This disappoints Pu Yi, who's been dreaming of the great reforms he'll bring to his nation when he's grown up. Things get worse when a new regime kicks him, and his two wives, out of the country altogether.
Pu Yi spends much of the roaring '20s as an irresponsible playboy. Then he moves back to Manchuria, where he was born, and makes a comeback as emperor with Japanese help. After World War II he lands in a Russian prison, then in a Chinese prison, where he's ``reeducated.'' He ends up as an ordinary gardener in China, quietly living out his days while the Cultural Revolution of Mao Tse-tung explodes around him. Occasionally he still dreams of the time when a mighty nation almost called him its lord.
Pu Yi's life story has so many different facets that every moviegoer will find something to enjoy, even if it's just the opportunity to see performers of so many nationalities sharing the same screen. Also sure-fire is the exquisite photography by Vittorio Storaro, who has filmed the wonders of China and Manchuria with great skill and imagination. The performances are less reliable, but the leading roles are handled well, including Pu Yi at four different periods of his life, played by four different actors.
``The Last Emperor'' contains some moments of bad taste, with a bit of bathroom humor and a long scene of the sexual groping that's one of Bertolucci's dubious trademarks. (One of his past films is the sexually explicit ``Last Tango in Paris.'')
And don't look for lessons from history or subtleties of human nature here. ``The Last Emperor'' is an uncomplicated movie that tells us when to laugh, when to cry, when to yawn, and - just once or twice, most notably in the Cultural Revolution episode - when to think for a moment.
The story is colorful and sometimes unpredictable, so it's rarely boring. But it's rarely much deeper than the emperor's favorite rice bowl.