Perhaps the saddest line in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Oscar-sweeping epic, comes early when the 9-year-old Emperor Pu Yi (Tijger Tsou) naively tells his brother that an emperor can do anything he wants. The bitter irony is that this is only true so long as the emperor does not want to do anything that matters to the people of China. He spends his childhood as a prisoner of his court’s need to have an emperor, in order to justify their own position.
The beginning of the movie finds the adult Pu Yi (John Lone) as a political prisoner just after the 1949 Communist revolution. After a failed suicide attempt, he flashes back to his rise to the throne in 1908, after being torn from his family at the age of two and follows him as grows to young adulthood as a figurehead after he has been forced to abdicate his throne. One of few positive influences in his early days is his Scottish tutor, Reginald Johnston (Peter O’Toole), perhaps the only person willing to speak honestly and directly to the Emperor. It is through his eyes that we witness much of the early parts of Pu Yi’s life.
After being forced from the Forbidden City, where he has spent most of his life, Pu Yi flees to his native Manchuria, now under Japanese control. There he is installed as a decadent puppet Emperor, along with his unhappy wife, Wan Jung (Joan Chen), who descends into opium addiction and an affair with a Japanese spy. It is for his collaboration with the Japanese that he spends ten years in a Chinese prison, ending his life as a simple gardener, probably the happiest and the freest he has been in his entire adult life.
What is somewhat amazing about this movie is how it is about a man who does virtually nothing with his life and manages to be fascinating. It doesn’t hurt that the cinematography is simply beautiful, especially during the scenes shot inside the Forbidden City, the first time the Chinese government allowed this to happen.
I viewed this film on the new Criterion Collection four-disc DVD, released late in February. This features an absolutely beautiful transfer that really shows off the beauty of Vittorio Storaro’s photography. There is an element of controversy among film purists, however, due to Storaro’s decision to reformat the film with 2.00 to 1 aspect ratio compared to its theatrical presentation of 2.35 to 1. The cinematographer performed the same surgery on his work for Francis Ford Coppola when Apocalypse Now was prepared for DVD. He maintains that this is his preferred aspect ratio for home video but film buffs are almost religious in their belief that movies should be presented exactly they were shown in the theaters. While I have to side with those who wish that Storaro had left his original work alone, I will also admit that the film was not irreparably harmed by this change. I hope, however, that he is not given as much control on future projects.