Monday, September 20, 2010

The Last Emperor: Pu Yi's Latter Life (1986)

The Last Emperor: Pu Yi's Latter Life (1986)

September 23rd, 7:00PM in Garland 104 (2441 E. Hartford)

The figure of Puyi has always been a derisive one, a seemingly odd man out who finds himself at many of the crucial moments of modern Chinese history. For this film, writer, director Li Han Hsiang presents a more subdued portrait of the man. The figure of Puyi (Tony Leung Ka Fai), last Qing Emperor of China and later the figurehead of Japanese occupied Manchuria, looks back at his life in a kind of bewilderment. As an old man living in the shadows of his youth, he is truly haunted.
The story of Puyi is also a story of sweeping transition, and the film itself exists in a small way as part of such a wave of change. The films director, Li Han Hsiang, began as a university student in his native Beijing, studying the art and architecture of forbidden city first hand. By the end of the civil war he had immigrated to Hong Kong, finding work in the Mandarin dialect film industry. During the next decade he would invent or popularize a series of genre including the Hongmei Opera film and a wide range of sweeping historical epics. Later during the mid 1960's he established the first modern studio in Taiwan before returning to Hong Kong in the early 1970's. At this point he created a string of episodic sex comedies that were many of the most popular films of that decade. This allowed him the clout to direct a string of high concept Qing palace films, leading to the conditions under which he would return to work in the Mainland.
The reality that Hong Kong would indeed be returned to China really hit its political high note in the early 1980's. Negotiations between Great Brittan and China proved troublesome, and the delegations of prominent local Chinese figures sent to the Mainland were frequently treated with contempt and mistrust with a few notable exceptions such as the author Jin Yong. But on one count relations were healthy to say the least, and that is through cinema. It was decided that a prominent Hong Kong director would be invited to make films in China. Among Chinese film makers of this era, Li’s Qing court dramas had become well known and respected and in many ways he became the logical choice. To this end he agreed to direct a series of film on the condition that he had complete creative control.
His first two efforts were a two part film dealing with the destruction of the Summer Palace and rise of the Empress Dowager, The Burning of the Imperial Palace and Reign Behind the Curtain (1983). These proved successful and so he set his sights on more contemporary issues in an examination of Puyi. These three films also helped to launch the career of Tony Leung Ka Fai, a discovery of Li’s. For a Hong Kong director to make films on the mainland was no small leap of faith, he was the first to do so in contemporary times. The reason for this is that any such director would have their film banned in Taiwan, which amounts to commercial suicide. But someone of Li’s stature doing so had such an effect as to begin to open Taiwan cinematically to the mainland.
It would be impossible to talk about this film without noting Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1987 epic film of a similar English title. Li’s film predates the later effort by a year, representing the first time a Hong Kong director had shot in the Forbidden City. But on other levels the two films are worlds apart. As a Western perspective Bertolucci’s film tends to have a fetishistic relationship with the foreign trappings of China. Li’s film is arguably more centered upon a character study of the man, and of course it is set much later in his life. Some of those involved in Li’s film, including his own son claim that the later film was directly influenced by Li’s work, to the point of attempting to cast several of the same actors. This is debatable, but one thing is for sure, Li’s work stands on its own merits and continues to be a historically important film in its own right.

Mainland China, Directors Li Han Hsiang, Cast Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Poon Hung, Margaret Lee Din-Long and Lee Din Hing, 88 minutes, in Mandarin with English subtitles

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