It’s a little spooky seeing the 1987 Best Picture for the first time in 2022. Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic (approaching four hours in length) is not only a spectacular visual achievement but a telling reminder of just what can happen when one despotic county (Japan then; Russia now), decides that the rest of the world rightfully belongs to them—at any cost. Happily-sadly-importantly, imperialist Japan was—after too much unneeded misery—put in its place. The demise of Putin and his greedy cronies has not yet been written into the annals of history, but should be equally “spectacular”.
It falls to purposely bespectacled John Lone to hold most of the production together. Playing the Manchurian emperor, Pu Yi from three years old (with believable stand-ins on the road to maturity: Richard Vuu, Tsou Tjjger, Tao Wu), Lone conveys a believable, gullible, selfish, public adulterer (what’s wrong with two wives) who, like all long-standing world leaders succumbs to the mistake of believing his own “press releases.”
Offering comic and thoughtful relief is Peter O’Toole as tutor-with-a larger-purpose, Johnston. The scenes with the lots-to-learn emperor are some of the finest moments in the production.
From the women, Maggie Han as the spy-at-any-price Eastern Jewel easily takes the honours with a wonderful air of lascivious duplicity.
Perhaps the finest star of all is Vittorio Storaro’s superb cinematography, deftly capturing the magnificent cast-of-thousands spectacles down to the intimate, often brooding headshots.
In the music department, the original score (David Byrne, Ryuchi Sakamoto, Cong Su) will keep any ear engaged (except—possibly--for the Red Army accordion band that sounds like fingernails on a chalkboard). Best of all is the elegant seen where Pu Yi, apparently reinstated as Manchurian emperor, celebrates that achievement with a fancy dress ball, accompanied by—what else?--Johann Strauss’ Emperor Waltz.
Bertolucci and his writing trust (including Pu Yi’s autobiography, and help from Enzo Ungari, and Mark Peploe) have crafted not just a welcome look at one of Asia’s important 20th century’s historical figures but, inadvertently—unbeknownst to them—a cautionary tale of unbridled egotism currently playing out in real time in Europe and America. JWR