Friday, March 07, 2008

10,000 Years and Imperial Yellow

I've spent several nights this week making my way through the four disc Criterion issue of The Last Emperor, and it's worth every second and every dollar ($55+ retail, $41 if you'd pre-ordered as I did). It not only holds up but actually exceeds my expectations. It is not unlike the Forbidden City itself, opulent and overwhelming in scope but filled with glorious ornate doors that take us into serene little gardens and tiny jeweled golden cubicles.

I wondered if it would still feel as mannered and stilted as it sometimes did when I first saw it two decades ago. It often does, but that is also appropriate for Pu Yi's surreal, stilted world. It's not as odd of a vibe as, say, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, but both have a score and acting by Ryuichi Sakamoto which is always a good thing.

John Lone is as appealing to me as he was in 1987, and it's a crime that he was not afforded more roles in films of equal quality. Many people praise Joan Chen, who is superb in her evolution from a teen bride to a drug addled, spitting shell of herself at the end. However, I am still drawn more by Maggie Han's portrayal of Eastern Jewel that borders or camp but is my favorite bisexual double crossing female pilot of all time. ("I'm a spy, and I don't care who knows!)

In the commentary, Bertolucci addresses Pu Yi's not so ambiguous sexuality that is at least hinted at in scenes such as the sheet play with the eunuchs. Ultimately it is not so much a David Lean epic as it is an Ozu domestic theatrical drama, finding grace in the path towards nothingness. The sense of dread and isolation that runs throughout still resonate with me on a deeply personal level, especially the sense of privilege and adoration being a form of prison.

The film came out at a pivotal time in my life, when I was just beginning my career in international work, when I purchased my first house, when I was beginning what would be the most long-term romantic relationship of my life which was intertwined with Asia. Perhaps it's fitting that the film is being re-issued 20 years since it swept the Oscars (a hollow ceremony that usually honors sewage such as Titanic and Forest Gump), at the Centennial of Pu Yi's ascendancy to the thrown and in the Year of the Rat, the point in the zodiac when he was removed and became a figure head.

In the meantime, I will keep praying that one day there will be an objective, non-racist portrayal of the much maligned Dowager Empress Cixi, one of the most fascinating women to rise to power in modern history.

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At 9:43 PM, Blogger jason said...

I remember seeing that in the theater.
It's the first and only time I ever saw it, and yet every thing you mention is clear in my mind. That's a pretty good testament to it I think.

At 9:56 PM, Blogger Ladrón de Basura (a.k.a. Junk Thief) said...

Jason - Thanks, I'm honored that I did it justice. I'll be honest that although I admire the artistry and historical impact of the film, it's John Lone that has stuck with me the most through the years. I had a huge crush on him then and still due.

At 1:06 AM, Blogger The Blue Elephant said...

Not one to purchase DVDs as they are so readily available on NetFlix* nevertheless the first one I did purchase was THE LAST EMPEROR. (*This week, finally, I rented and watched Agnes Varda's CLEO FROM 5 TO 7 -- all the more precious since I delayed that pleasure -- What a feat of moviemaking.)


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