By Hannibal El-Mohtar

Taiwan’s cinemas are among the only on earth that are currently open. In May, movie theaters in Taipei are screening Bernardo Bertolucci's remastered The Last Emperor on its 32nd anniversary.

Why would anyone, in the middle of a crippling pandemic, choose to see a rereleased classic over a new blockbuster? It won nine Academy Awards, including Best Director and Best Picture, in 1988.

It is easy to understand why this old film still draws crowds decades after its initial release. A legendary film score by Ryuichi Sakamoto, masterful technicolor camerawork by Vittorio Storaro, and the direction of Bertolucci make The Last Emperor more a work of contemporary art than of visual entertainment.

Only the cinema screen can fully capture the majestic shots of the Forbidden City and the epic story of the last emperor of China, Puyi.


A colorized portrait of Puyi, the last emperor of China.

The mark of an enduring masterpiece is its universal relevance in times of calm and turmoil. What can we learn from The Last Emperor about life in Covid-19 confinement?

The film begins with hundreds of war criminals disembarking a steam train and entering a communist labor camp. In the spartan dining hall, some of the incarcerated begin kowtowing to another inmate — Emperor Puyi — asking him to save them. Powerless to help anyone, Puyi locks himself in a washroom and attempts to commit suicide.

Puyi is resuscitated and brought before his captors to stand trial and recall his lifelong confinement before the labor camp.


Photo Credit: Applause Entertainment

Trapped in the Forbidden City

In 1908, the three-year-old Puyi is separated from his mother and summoned to the deathbed of Empress Cixi in the Forbidden City. She names him the successor to the Qing throne before dying. Puyi looks up to his father and asks to go home. His father only bows silently before his son.

During his accession ceremony in the Hall of Supreme Harmony, one of the most vivid and powerful moments in the film, Puyi is restless on the dragon throne. He plays with his golden, sun yellow robe. As he stands and flaps his sleeves, like a juvenile bird trying to fly from its nest, his father assures the emperor, his unfortunate choice of words belying an unwitting prescience, that “it will all be over soon.”

The restless boy dashes towards a billowing, sepia drapery covering the hall’s entrance. As he caresses and pushes against the fabric with his hands, the curtain is blown aside. The boy sees thousands of his subjects — eunuchs, academics, future generals, and ministers in ceremonial dress — kowtowing in formation as far as the eye can see.

Despite this deifying symbolic value, Puyi’s early life is a meaningless period spent bound in golden chains. He is prohibited from leaving the Forbidden City to see the streets of Beijing. When he arrives at the gate riding the bicycle his British tutor gave him, his own guards refuse to let him leave. He knows the Beijing beyond his walls only as “the city of sounds” that he occasionally hears from his isolating palace.

Captive to the Japanese

His wish to leave the Forbidden City is granted when he and his retinue are expelled by the latest warlord to take Beijing. Puyi and his court escape to a villa in the Japanese concession in Tianjin, before his installation as a puppet ruler for the Japanese in his ancestral Manchuria.

Duped into thinking Emperor Hirohito of Japan would look to him as an equal, Puyi is instead a closely watched hostage of the sadistic Masahiko Amakasu, head of the Manchuria Film Association. During his time in Manchuria, Puyi rubber stamps his overlord’s incremental annexation of his home.

Meanwhile, Puyi’s wife, the empress, is a captive to both a loveless marriage and the same crippling opium addiction that killed Puyi’s mother.


Photo Credit: Applause Entertainment

Freedom through squalor

The film’s greatest irony is that only during Puyi’s incarceration in the labor camp does he begin to realize some form of agency over his life.

Separated from his servants, he must learn to brush his own teeth, make his own bed, and tie his own shoes. After 10 years, he is deemed to be rehabilitated. He is allowed to return to the city of sounds and live as a gardener, smiling as he rides his bike.

After standing up for his former prison warden against Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, Puyi purchases an entrance ticket and returns to the Forbidden City. The film closes as he wanders before his old throne not as an emperor, but content as a tourist.

Finding meaning in confinement today

Made a god and emperor at the age of three, Puyi lives as a powerless figurehead in gilded captivity amid China’s bloody struggles for national renewal. Only after a life of striving in vain for a higher purpose does Puyi find elusive solace at the end of his life, as a humble gardener.

Throughout his life, Puyi attempts to find meaning in the very places he loses all joy and autonomy: the pomp, ceremony, and regalia of imperial life. This is apparent when Puyi crowns himself emperor in Manchuria, where he attempts to recreate the enthronement he was too young to understand.

This time, there is no Forbidden City. The open-air enthronement, in a vast desert with only ruins behind the raised throne, diminishes the scale of his already lonely entourage. Puyi prays to Heaven, Earth, Sun, Moon — prayers that are never answered. The empress resumes her position as well, but they are king and queen of nothing.

From the day of three-year-old Puyi’s installation, he is given an impossible task: fulfilling the mandate of heaven in a rapidly changing world that has no place for it.

Puyi’s contentment as a gardener hints that his most restricting confinement of all was not the walls or gilded cages, but rather his attachment to the splendors of his position. Once he learns to leave this behind, he is free from the life ascribed to him.

What does this teach us? Everything can be lost in life, above all that which others give us and others make of us. Crowns and palaces and servants can evaporate in the blink of an eye. But our pride in our daily labor, that which we earn during our waking hours is ours to keep.

READ NEXT: 6 Best Taiwanese Films to Watch on Netflix During Quarantine

TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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