Picks and Pans Review: The Last Emperor

updated 12/07/1987 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/07/1987 01:00AM

At last a real, thought-provoking, eyeball-popping movie epic. After years of such bloated boondoggles as Out of Africa, The Mission and the current Cry Freedom, a sluggish genre has been goosed into thunderous, thrilling life by director Bernardo (Last Tango in Paris) Bertolucci. The aging, heirless Empress of China chooses a 2-year-old boy (a distant relative) and has him declared Emperor. He lives like a god caged in luxury until civil war erupts and he is forced out of his palace in 1924. He goes for the good life, singing torch songs in nightclubs like a Westernized playboy. He also becomes a pawn of China's enemy Japan, and later a prisoner of the Russians and Maoists. At 62, he ends his life as a humble gardener in Beijing. Pumped-up Hollywood hogwash? Not a bit. This is the true story of Pu Yi, China's last imperial ruler, who took the throne in 1908 and died in 1967. Bertolucci and co-scenarist Mark (The Passenger) Peploe spent two years negotiating to film within the vast, opulent Forbidden City. They won permission in exchange for Chinese distribution rights. A bargain for them, a bonanza for the moviegoer. Camera wizard Vittorio (Apocalypse Now) Storaro provides images of staggering spectacle and sensuality: There's the baby Pu Yi (played by Richard Vuu) waddling through a courtyard ablaze with color from the robes of the thousands bowed before him; the teen Emperor's delight one night in discovering he can take his two wives to bed at the same time; the captive ruler's suicide attempt in a prison washroom; and a haunting shot of the gardener sneaking back to the palace to sit one last time on his old throne. Eurasian actor John (Year of the Dragon) Lone plays Pu Yi with a devastating calm. The childish, arrogant ruler doesn't grow to understand himself or his puppet's life until he is past 50. Lone builds the role with astonishing grace and sympathy; it's a great performance. Joan (Tai-Pan) Chen is wonderfully strong and sexy as the Emperor's first wife, addicted to opium and a lesbian aviator, done in high style by Maggie Han. Peter O'Toole pops up—more eccentric than ever—as Pu Yi's Scottish tutor. But it is Bertolucci's compassion for a man trapped by the forces of history that makes this the most enthralling movie epic in ages. Obey his bid to spend nearly three hours inside these China gates. A grand experience awaits you. (PG-13)

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