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Little White Lies, Chinese Film Issue

This year will see the 20th anniversary of the release of Bernardo Bertolucci’s //The Last Emporer//.  Running at 156 minutes in it’s original version (219 minutes in it’s recently released Director’s cut), covering some 60 years of Chinese history, and involving hundred of extras, lavish costumes, and brilliant cinematography by Vittorio Storaro, it was perhaps the last great historical epic of the 20thCentury. 


The film’s lustre of historical significance as the first feature film allowed into the Forbidden City, and a canvas of De-Mille-like proportions, made it eminently Academy friendly.  It was awarded 9 Oscars, winning in every category for which it was nominated. Only 2 years later, the student protest in Tiananmen Square was crushed.  


Perhaps the most striking thing about The Last Emporer is not its huge scale, but its subtlety.  Far removed from the narrative certainties of sweeping historical drama, the film relishes the sensitivities and ambiguities of both events and characters.  Most notably, the film is highly unusual in negating its principle subject, Aisin-Gioro Pu-Yi,as  protagonist, presenting him more as a mere agent of historical forces.  


That this is a conception of history that Marx would be proud of is perhaps no coincidence.  Bertolucci is an avowed Communist and makes deliberately political, though not polemic, films (//The Conformist, 1900//) which, as with the work of Visconti and Pasolini, fuse the political and personal. Such  politics presumably did no harm when persuading the Chinese authorities to allow the film to be made. 


I asked Joyce Herlihy, who worked as Associate Producer on the film, how it came about.


//There was an Italian who had made a film about the silk roads and he had made friends with the Chinese. That was the beginning of being allowed to make The Last Emporer.//


Bertolucci offered the Chinese authorities two scripts, one for //The Last Emporer// and drawing heavily on //Twilight in the Forbidden City//,the memoirs of Reginald Johnston, Pu-Yi’s tutor, the other an adaptation of Andre Malraux’s existential novel //La Condition Humane (Man’s Fate)//, which is principally set in Shanghai. 


//I suppose when you look back on it, it wasn’t all that hard.// says Herlihy. //It was long! It was 5 months, but they (the Chinese) cooperated... On the whole it was a wonderful experience.//


It is perhaps easy to see why the Chinese government favoured //The Last Emporer//, with its consistent narrative ambiguity, as a project. The film remains emotionally detached from its subject to an extent that is almost frustrating. The audience are hardly allowed to empathise with Pu-Yi at all, the few moments of emotional intimacy being between him and his wet-nurse or concubines.


Pu-Yi is presented as virtually a non-person, a historical construct, emblematic to each regime he found himself in either as ruler or citizen.  To Qing dynasty China, the //Son of Heaven//, //Ruler of 10,000 Years//, to the succession of increasingly hostile revolutionaries that seized power from 1911, the embodiment of a corrupt and cruel regime.


When I ask Joyce Herlihy what she felt the Chinese authorities gained from the film, her answer is more prosaic.


//Well, money, plenty of money//


Who?  The State?


//Yes, it would be the state.//


Did you have any interference from the authorities?


//Not really no. There was always the feeling of being watched.  I lost my camera.  It had gone out of the door in my office... one Sunday we went out near a little inlet and there was a man there in the most amazing diving suit. And I took a picture and, I don’t know, I could be absolutely wrong, but I think that’s why my camera went.//


//Tiananmen Square came after, and I think things changed//


One especially poignant scene in //The Last Emperor// shows the student protests of 1919, inflamed by the Republican government’s corruption and German concessions in China being ceded to Japan by the Treaty of Versailles. In one making-of documentary, a Chinese crew-member explains proudly that the protests demonstrated the student’s patriotism and the dawning of ‘a new awareness’, ‘the ideology of a new age’. In the film, the students are met by a wall of troops, their bayonets fixed.  The irony is inescapable.


Having been expelled from the Forbidden City in 1924, Pu-Yi became puppet Emperor of the Japanese state of Manchukuo in 1932, and following Japan’s defeat in the Second World War, was captured by the Soviets and repatriated to China where he was ‘re-educated’ under Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Interviewed at the time, Bertolucci was at pains to stress that the re-education process undergone by Pu-Yi was ‘not..brainwashing’, that  ‘they never ask him to be a Communist, they just ask him to understand his mistakes’and that ‘the idea of Chinese justice is not just to punish, but to make understand’. 


Bertolucci may have had a number of reasons for representing the episode in a positive light, not least his dependence on Pu-Yi’s arguably unreliable memoirs.  However, it would be a mistake to assume that the Chinese government would have refused to allow any criticism of the Cultural Revolution.


In fact, under Deng Xiao Ping, a critical reappraisal of the Cultural Revolution had been permitted, initiated in the //Beijing Spring// of the late 70s. This is perhaps best evidenced in a scene where Pu-Yi’s own prison governor is arrested and humiliated during the Cultural Revolution. The role is played by an actor who was also the Chinese Deputy Minister of Culture, Ruocheng Ying.


In 1986, while the film was being shot, Perestroika was gathering force in the Soviet Union, and Deng Xiao Ping was instigating a series of moderate economic and political reforms, including the thawing of international relations. Largely as a result of the agreement on the transferral of Hong Kong, The Queen visited China the same year, being denied access to the Forbidden City as it would interfere with filming. 


Deng Xiaoping even indicated a possible reappraisal of the Maoist Sino-Soviet Split, inviting the newly elected Gorbachev to visit Beijing in 1989. His visit partly inspired the Tiananmen Square protest, and the brutal suppression that followed effectively ended the brief period of liberalisation.


//The Last Emperor’s// importance is hence as more than mere historical drama, but as a rare example of film that embodies its narrative content in its own back-story. It is a glimpse into both China’s distant past, and its recent history, testament to a fleeting moment when walls were falling, and Forbidden Cities across the world seemed to be opening their doors.

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