1987 • The Last Emperor

The Last Emperor, 1987 Best Picture

The Last Emperor, 1987 Best Picture

Wow, we’re really back on track on this project now! Lauren and I spent our Sunday night watching 1987’s Best Picture, The Last Emperor, the biopic of Puyi, the last boy to be named emperor before the nation became the People’s Republic of China and adopted a president instead.

I think one must know something about the history of China going into The Last Emperor, unlike me who knew nothing. Some things are vaguely explained, but I think it’s the viewer’s responsibility to have background on the subject. I was very disappointed that the Plot section on the Wikipedia page for the movie went into very little explanation for various events; I usually rely heavily on Wikipedia to get me through these Best Pictures that are way over my head! Reading the article on Puyi was much more educational.

The movie begins with a 50-year old Puyi attempting to commit suicide after being taken prisoner, apparently by the Soviet Union as a war criminal. To his dismay, Puyi lives, but as he is lying unconscious he begins to experience flashbacks. He is a three-year old, assuming the emperor position and realizing the Eunechs assigned to follow him around will do whatever he says.

Later in life, Puyi finds out that while he still holds the title of emperor and is still allowed to rule within the Forbidden City, he no longer rules China. He is expelled from the Forbidden City and eventually becomes emperor of the Japanese-controlled state of Manchuria, but is nothing more than a puppet emperor, doing only as told by the Japanese. He later learns of war crimes in Manchuria by the Japanese and realizes he is at least somewhat responsible. He is released from prison after ten years and lives quietly as a gardener until his death in 1967.

There are a few scenes of surprises, like frontal nudity of 3-year old Puyi, and later the breastfeeding of 10-year old Puyi. Much later in life, Puyi’s wife is seen eating whole flowers at a ballroom to feed her opium addiction. This might be to blame for her baby being born dead… didn’t really follow that part.

Even though I found myself oftentimes confused as to what was happening and why, I would say I still enjoyed the movie. The parts I made sense of were pretty good. I usually respond well to biographies, much like 1982’s Gandhi. The visuals in the movie were great, especially the elaborate sets and costumes used in the Forbidden City. The lead acting of John Lone was solid, as was Peter O’Toole as his English tutor.

The downsides, as mentioned, mostly revolved around scenes that I failed to understand fully, which made it difficult to follow. I also thought it was odd that the characters in the movie spoke English rather than Chinese. This seems like it would have been a good candidate for a subtitled film, but I suppose it was easier to follow this way.

Overall, I found The Last Emperor to be a bit too far over my head for me to fully appreciate. But I still will rank it somewhere in the middle third of the list, I think.


  1. […] 1986′s Platoon, an Oliver Stone Vietnam War film. And on Sunday, we took on 1987′s The Last Emperor, the story of China’s—you guessed it—last emperor, Puyi. None of the three ranked higher […]

  2. The reason her baby died was because the Japanese were testing chemical/biological warfare agents on babies born in Manchukuo. It wasn’t born dead, they inserted a syringe of ??? into its arm and that killed it. Glad I could help.

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