[1987] The Last Emperor

There is no such thing as objective memory. Even with documented and recorded evidence, different witnesses will recall an event differently. It might have to do with a person’s inherent bias (what a person is willing to hear versus what is actually being said) or it might have to do with the passage of time, and the reshaping of history that has always happened. Someone will benefit from misinterpreting an inconsequential detail or changing the language to separate story from historical context. The Last Emperor, winner of 1987’s Best Picture award, is an example of manipulating memory for the sake of narrative. Its intentions seemingly innocent and non-biased, The Last Emperor dramatizes the life Puyi, China’s last emperor before the 1911 Xinhai Revolution that ended millennia of godly endowment of power to a single human. In a single, somewhat swift populist demonstration against dynastic rule, Puyi’s story is often forgotten in favor of more modern Chinese history, with world history curriculum almost erasing two-thousand-plus years of progress (and strife) in the process. Some students believe that the People’s Republic of China has always existed, and that is exactly what that institution would want those students to believe.

This story, and certainly why The Last Emperor won in 1987, demonstrates the power of history in shaping one’s memory. As an adult, whose career choices might steer far from history, details of Chinese history may never cross his path and she will remember nothing from having not studied it. But how China has evolved since 500 BC has affected almost every aspect of one’s life. Majored in economics? What country has dominated manufacturing since the mid-1900s? Majored in political science? What country presents a quasi-credible threat to global, US hegemony? Eat takeout? The point is there, too. China has influenced so much of American culture. An inquisitive mind will ask: why? An even more intrigued student will want to know: from where? The Last Emperor plugs a hole in the institutional memory of global history through film. It is accessible and epic; it is thoroughly dramatic. And it is in English.

The language choice is an example of revisionism that makes a difference not only in what we remember, but also how we form new memory. Director Bernardo Bertolucci makes this conscious choice to tell a thoroughly Chinese story through an Anglo-American lens, and it affects how we can access this story, as a Western audience. It also affects how we remember the information presented to us. Had this film been in Chinese, the story would have been too dense and anti-consumer; the language is simply too different to convey the ideas to an audience of English speakers.

Or is it?

Thirteen years later a film called Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon received widespread acclaim from an Anglo-American audience even though it was written and released entirely in Chinese with subtitles. And yet the audience can recall the most jarring moments: the hyperreal fight scenes and the clever narratives clearly as though having just seen it. Clearly the language is not a barrier to access here. Is it genre-specific, then? The evidence is not clear here, but the intention is. The authors of Crouching Tiger want a Western audience to remain distant from the ‘foreign’ of their film; The Last Emperor demands rapt attention. Both films emphasize the importance of Chinese history as worthy of Western attention, but only one attempt to mask the folklore in favor of realism. Without The Last Emperor an astute student of film might just as well believe that the entirety of Chinese dynasticism is left to the trees.

I wrote this review over two months after watching this movie. I remember the language choice as the most striking stylistic choice that director Bertolucci made, and I remember Puyi’s life as a decadent symbol for the entirety of Chinese history before 1911. But I remember very little world-building detail, and that seems to be fine. I also expect other viewers to have had visceral experiences to this film, and those who saw in 1987 to have remembered Mao’s Cultural Revolution, post-WWII. Because there’s no substitute for experience, and if everyone’s is different, how can we learn anything? The late 1980s ushered in the late 1990s, and lest we forget a simpler time when the populist revolution was left off the web. Had Fatal Attraction won this award in early 1988, The Last Emperor could have been left on a shelf, forever, along with the history of Emperor Puyi, and all of China before Mao declared his country glorious in the wake of its history. Lest we forget it.


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