The Last Emperor

The Last Emperor (Italian: L'ultimo imperatore) is a 1987 epic biographical drama film, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, about the life of Puyi, the last Emperor of China, whose autobiography was the basis for the screenplay written by Bertolucci and Mark Peploe. Independently produced by Jeremy Thomas, it was directed by Bertolucci and released in 1987 by Columbia Pictures.[4] Puyi's life is depicted from his ascent to the throne as a small boy to his imprisonment and political rehabilitation by the Communist Party of China.

The Last Emperor
Promotional poster
Directed byBernardo Bertolucci
Produced byJeremy Thomas
Screenplay by
Based onFrom Emperor to Citizen: The Autobiography of Aisin-Gioro Puyi
by Puyi
Music by
CinematographyVittorio Storaro
Edited byGabriella Cristiani
Distributed byColumbia Pictures
Release date
  • 4 October 1987 (1987-10-04) (Tokyo)
  • 23 October 1987 (1987-10-23) (Italy)
  • 26 February 1988 (1988-02-26) (United Kingdom)
Running time
163 minutes[1]
  • United Kingdom
  • Italy
Budget$23.8 million[2]
Box office$44 million[3]

The film stars John Lone as Puyi, with Joan Chen, Peter O'Toole, Ruocheng Ying, Victor Wong, Dennis Dun, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Maggie Han, Ric Young, Vivian Wu, and Chen Kaige. It was the first Western feature film authorized by the People's Republic of China to film in the Forbidden City in Beijing.[2] It won 9 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, at the 60th iteration of the event.[5]


In 1950, Puyi has been kept in custody for five years, since the Red Army captured him during the Soviet Union entry into the Pacific War in 1945. In the recently established People's Republic of China, Puyi arrives as a political prisoner and war criminal at the Fushun Prison. Soon after his arrival, Puyi attempts suicide, but is quickly revived and told he must stand trial.

42 years earlier, in 1908, a toddler Puyi is summoned to the Forbidden City by the dying Empress Dowager Cixi. After telling him that the previous emperor had died earlier that day, with her last words, Cixi tells Puyi that he will be the next emperor. After his coronation, Puyi, frightened by his new surroundings, repeatedly expresses his wish to go home, which is denied. Despite having scores of palace eunuchs and maids to wait on him, his only real friend is his wet nurse, Ar Mo, who accompanied him and his father to the palace on the Empress Dowager's summons.

The next section of the film continues the series of chronological flashbacks showing Puyi's early life intermixed with his imprisonment in the 1950s. His upbringing is confined entirely to the imperial palace, which he is not allowed to leave. When he is about ten, he is visited by his younger brother, Pujie, who tells him he is no longer Emperor and that China is a republic; that same day, Ar Mo is made to leave him. In 1919, the kindly Scotsman Reginald Johnston is appointed as Puyi's tutor and gives him a Western-style education. Puyi becomes increasingly desirous to leave the Forbidden City. Johnston, wary of the courtiers' expensive lifestyle, convinces Puyi that the best way of achieving this is by marrying; Puyi subsequently weds Wanrong, with Wenxiu as a secondary consort.

Now the master of his own home, Puyi sets about reforming the Forbidden City, including expelling the thieving palace eunuchs. However, in 1924, he himself is expelled from the palace and exiled to Tientsin following the Beijing Coup. He leads a decadent life as a playboy and Anglophile, and when the Japanese invade Manchuria he sides with them. During this time Wenxiu divorces him, but Wanrong remains and eventually succumbs to opium addiction. In 1934 the Japanese crown him "Emperor" of their puppet state of Manchukuo, though his supposed political supremacy is undermined at every turn. He remains nominal ruler of the region until his capture by the Red Army at the end of the Second World War.

Under the "Communist re-education programme" for political prisoners, Puyi is coerced by his interrogators to formally renounce his forced collaboration with the Japanese invaders for war crimes during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Finally, after a heated discussion with the camp commandant and upon watching a film detailing the wartime atrocities committed by the Japanese, Puyi recants his previous stance and is considered rehabilitated by the government; he is subsequently set free in 1959.

The final minutes of the film show a flash-forward to 1967 during the rise of Mao Zedong's cult of personality and the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. By now, Puyi has become a simple gardener who lives a peasant proletarian existence. On his way home from work, he happens upon a Red Guard parade, complete with children playing pentatonic music on accordions en masse and dancers who dance the rejection of landlordism by the Communists. His prison camp commander, who helped him greatly during his rehabilitation, is forced to wear a dunce cap and a sandwich board bearing punitive slogans, and is one of the political prisoners now punished as an anti-revolutionary in the parade.

Puyi later visits the Forbidden City as an ordinary tourist. He meets an assertive little boy wearing the red scarf of the Pioneer Movement. The young Communist orders Puyi to step away from the throne. However, Puyi proves to the boy that he was indeed the Son of Heaven, proceeding to approach the throne. Behind it, Puyi finds a 60-year-old pet cricket that he was given by palace official Chen Baochen on his coronation day and gives it to the child. Amazed by the gift, the boy turns to talk to Puyi, but the emperor has disappeared.

In 1987, a tour guide is leading a group through the palace. Stopping in front of the throne, the guide sums up Puyi's life in a few, brief sentences, concluding that he died in 1967.




Bernardo Bertolucci proposed the film to the Chinese government as one of two possible projects – the other was an adaptation of La Condition humaine (Man's Fate) by André Malraux. The Chinese preferred The Last Emperor. Producer Jeremy Thomas managed to raise the $25 million budget for his ambitious independent production single-handedly.[6] At one stage, he scoured the phone book for potential financiers.[7] Bertolucci was given complete freedom by the authorities to shoot in The Forbidden City, which had never before been opened up for use in a Western film. For the first ninety minutes of the film, Bertolucci and Storaro made full use of its visual splendour.[6]


19,000 extras were needed over the course of the film. The Chinese army was drafted in to accommodate.[8]

In a 2010 interview with Bilge Ebiri for, Bertolucci recounted the shooting of the Cultural Revolution scene:

Before shooting the parade scene, I put together four or five young directors whom I had met, [including] Chen Kaige — who also plays a part in the film, he’s the captain of the guard — and Zhang Yimou. I asked them about the Cultural Revolution. And suddenly it was like I was watching a psychodrama: They started to act out and cry, it was extraordinary. I think there is a relationship between these scenes in The Last Emperor and in 1900. But many things changed between those two films, for me and for the world.[9]


While not included on the album soundtrack, the following music was played in the film: "Am I Blue?" (1929), "Auld Lang Syne" (uncredited), and "China Boy" (1922) (uncredited).


Hemdale Film Corporation acquired all North American distribution rights to the film on behalf of producer Thomas,[10] who raised a large sum of the budget himself. Hemdale, in turn, licensed theatrical rights to Columbia Pictures, who were initially reluctant to release it, and only after shooting was completed did the head of Columbia agree to distribute The Last Emperor in North America.[2] Hemdale licensed its video rights to Nelson Entertainment, which released the film on VHS and Laserdisc.[10] The film also received a Laserdisc release in Australia in 1992, through Columbia Tri-Star Video. Years later, Artisan Entertainment acquired the rights to the film and released both the theatrical and extended versions on home video. In February 2008 The Criterion Collection (under license from now-rights-holder Thomas) released a four disc Director-Approved edition, again containing both theatrical and extended versions.[11] Criterion released a Blu-ray version on 6 January 2009.[11]

The Last Emperor had an unusual run in theatres. It did not enter the weekend box office top 10 until its twelfth week in which the film reached #7 after increasing its gross by 168% from the previous week and more than tripling its theatre count (this was the weekend before it was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture). Following that week, the film lingered around the top 10 for 8 weeks before peaking at #4 in its 22nd week (the weekend after winning the Oscar) (increasing its weekend gross by 306% and nearly doubling its theatre count from 460 to 877) and spending 6 more weeks in the weekend box office top 10.[12] Were it not for this late push, The Last Emperor would have joined The English Patient, Amadeus, and The Hurt Locker as the only Best Picture winners to not enter the weekend box office top 5 since these numbers were first recorded in 1982.

The film was converted into 3D and shown in the Cannes Classics section at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.[13]

Critical response

The film received critical acclaim. On Rotten Tomatoes, it has a 91% "Certified Fresh" score based on 65 reviews, with an average rating of 8.11/10. The site's consensus states: "While decidedly imperfect, Bernardo Bertolucci's epic is still a feast for the eyes."[14] Metacritic reports a 76 out of 100 rating based on 15 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[15]

Roger Ebert was notably enthusiastic in his praise of the film, awarding it 4 stars out of 4; he wrote that "Bertolucci is able to make Pu Yi's imprisonment seem all the more ironic because this entire film was shot on location inside the People's Republic of China, and he was even given permission to film inside the Forbidden City - a vast, medieval complex covering some 250 acres and containing 9,999 rooms (only heaven, the Chinese believed, had 10,000 rooms). It probably is unforgivably bourgeois to admire a film because of its locations, but in the case of "The Last Emperor" the narrative cannot be separated from the awesome presence of the Forbidden City, and from Bertolucci's astonishing use of locations, authentic costumes and thousands of extras to create the everyday reality of this strange little boy."[16] Jonathan Rosenbaum, comparing The Last Emperor favourably to Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun, claimed that "[a]t best, apart from a few snapshots, Empire of the Sun teaches us something about the inside of one director's brain. The Last Emperor incidentally and secondarily does that too; but it also teaches us something about the lives of a billion people with whom we share this planet—and better yet, makes us want to learn still more about them."[17]


At the 60th Academy Awards, the film won all nine Oscars for which it was nominated:[5]

45th Golden Globe Awards
Other awards

Historical omissions

In Japan, the Shochiku Fuji Company edited out a thirty-second sequence from The Last Emperor depicting the Rape of Nanjing before distributing it to Japanese theatres, without Bertolucci's consent. The Rape of Nanjing — in which hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians were brutalized and massacred by the Imperial Japanese Army — is an event disputed by some Japanese, and a diplomatic stumbling block with China. Bertolucci was furious at Shochiku Fuji's interference with his film, calling it "revolting". The company quickly restored the scene, blaming "confusion and misunderstanding" for the edit while opining that the Rape sequence was "too sensational" for Japanese audiences.[19]

Jeremy Thomas recalled the approval process for the screenplay with the Chinese government: "It was less difficult than working with the studio system. They made script notes and made references to change some of the names, then the stamp went on and the door opened and we came."[8]

Alternate versions

The film's theatrical release ran 160 minutes. Deemed too long to show in a single three-hour block on television but too short to spread out over two nights, an extended version was created which runs 218 minutes. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and director Bernardo Bertolucci have confirmed that this extended version was indeed created as a television mini-series and does not represent a "director's cut".[20]

The Criterion Collection 2008 version of 4 DVDs adds commentary by Ian Buruma, composer David Byrne, and the Director's interview with Jeremy Isaacs (ASIN: B000ZM1MIW, ISBN 978-1-60465-014-3). It includes a booklet featuring an essay by David Thomson, interviews with production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti and actor Ying Ruocheng, a reminiscence by Bertolucci, and an essay and production-diary extracts from Fabien S. Gerard.

See also


  1. "THE LAST EMPEROR (15)". British Board of Film Classification. 16 November 1987. Retrieved 28 March 2016.
  2. Love And Respect, Hollywood-Style, an April 1988 article by Richard Corliss in Time
  3. "The Last Emperor". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 29 September 2016.
  4. Variety film review; 7 October 1987.
  5. "The 60th Academy Awards (1988) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 31 July 2011.
  6. McCarthy, Todd (11 May 2009). "'The Last Emperor' - Variety Review". Variety. Retrieved 6 February 2013.
  7. Jafaar, Ali (11 May 2009). "Producers team on 'Assassins' Redo". Variety. Retrieved 7 April 2010.
  8. Lieberson, Sandy (11 April 2006). "Jeremy Thomas - And I'm still a fan". Berlinale Talent Campus. Archived from the original on 24 May 2010. Retrieved 7 April 2010.
  9. Ebiri, Bilge. "Bernardo Bertolucci Dissects Ten of His Classic Scenes". Vulture. Retrieved 22 September 2018.
  10. "FindLaw's California Court of Appeal case and opinions". Findlaw. Retrieved 23 January 2018.
  11. The Last Emperor (1987) The Criterion Collect
  12. The Last Emperor (1987) - Weekend Box Office Results Box Office Mojo
  13. "Cannes Classics 2013 line-up unveiled". Screen Daily. Retrieved 30 April 2013.
  14. "The Last Emperor (1987)". Rotten Tomatoes. Flixster. Retrieved 28 March 2016.
  15. "The Last Emperor reviews". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Retrieved 28 March 2016.
  16. Ebert, Roger (9 December 1987). "The Last Emperor Movie Review (1987)". The Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 22 September 2018.
  17. Rosenbaum, Jonathan (17 December 1987). "The China Syndrome". Chicago Reader. Retrieved 22 September 2018.
  18. "Cronologia Dei Premi David Di Donatello". David di Donatello. Retrieved 27 June 2017.
  19. The Rape of Nanking. Chang, Iris. Page 210. BasicBooks, 1997.
  20. Kim Hendrickson (3 January 2008). "Final Cut". The Criterion Collection. Retrieved 19 December 2009.
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