Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Last Emperor

My wife and I re-watched this Best Picture Award winner (1987) together last night. For those unfamiliar, the film is a biopic about the last Chinese Emperor, Puyi, who assumed the throne in 1908 at just under three years of age, and lived (in deposed obscurity) well into the Communist era.

First, there are a few things I don’t like about this movie. Whether this reflects some personal bias on the part of the film’s director and/or producer or represents a sort of compromise which was necessary in order to secure and retain the good graces of the Chinese government (which made the astonishing allowance for the movie to be shot in the Forbidden City) I couldn’t say, but there is a subtle yet definite attempt to tug the viewer’s sympathies in the direction of the Communists. The manifold cruelties and atrocities perpetrated by the Reds are conveniently ignored or somehow painted quite benignly for the most part, while those of others (the Japanese) are not. Most notably, the warden of the Communist prison is portrayed sympathetically as a stern yet essentially kind-hearted individual interested in genuine “reform”. (Incidentally, my dad has travelled extensively in China and was actually in the train station in Harbin, which is featured in the opening scene, right around the time of the filming. I was discussing this with him today and he concurred with the above assessment, while offering further insight into some of the political intrigue alluded to in the film.) There are some scenes of decadence that, despite restrained handling, are a bit hard to watch and this fact, taken in light of the film’s 164 minute overall length, does create a bit of a drag in the latter half.

Be all that as it may, the movie certainly didn’t win nine Academy Awards for nothing. It is a very moving drama, full of very deep ironies which provide much meditative fodder on how much the world can change within just one lifespan. It is gorgeously shot and boasts perhaps the most stunningly beautiful opening credit sequence that I know of—a graphic designer’s garden of delights. (I have access only to an old VHS edition and am wondering if any of the recent DVD or BluRay releases include any special features which highlight this aspect of the production?) The score is delightful (some of it composed by David Byrne of Talking Heads fame), and, while the storyline is decidedly un-redemptive, there is nonetheless a very touching stroke of magic in the final scene which amply rewards the viewer’s willingness to endure the more tedious stretches of the film’s middle portion. All told, it exemplifies the cinematic medium in that it tells the story primarily by showing the story, in graphic images which leave an indelibly rich impression upon the audience’s psyche.

One final, personal tidbit. I have long admired the font (Carlton) which is used for the main title, and have employed it myself, both in the masthead for this blog and in my own company logo.

1 comment:

  1. It's always been one of my favorites. We saw it in an empty theater, save two elderly Chinese women, in Lubbock Texas. We stayed until the final minute of credits passed, sobbing (with our Chinese companions). It's just as you say, gorgeous, but flawed. The soundtrack is magical, as is the costuming, and cinematography. That is so neat about your dad being there. Mr Grungy sure does get around.