IN "THE LAST EMPEROR," a sweeping epic about Manchurian emperor Pu Yi, director Bernardo Bertolucci has an overwhelming task. And he comes so close to succeeding at it.
Bertolucci (with cowriter Mark Peploe) must show the lavish trappings of Pu Yi's life -- the 9,999-roomed palace of the Forbidden City, complete with dowagers, concubines and servants; outline the political history of China -- Sun Yat Sen, Mao-Tse Tung and Chiang Kai Shek, the Japanese invasion in World War II, etc.; and most significant, tell of a boy who assumed power at the age of three but grew up as an imprisoned puppet.
That Bertolucci -- with his momentous visual choreography, and Vittorio Storaro's velvety cinematography -- manages to touch on all of this makes "The Last Emperor" a remarkable achievement. The politics and pageantry tend to overrun the story at times, but it seems appropriate -- Emperor Pu Yi was overwhelmed by such things.
We are introduced to Pu Yi (John Lone) while he is interned in a Chinese deprogramming -- or programming -- camp after the war. Interrogated regularly by a camp governor (Ying Ruocheng), he must produce a detailed confession about the imperial folly of his ways. "Emperor" cuts between these interrogations and extended flashbacks. Lone gives Pu Yi a tragic winsomeness -- a political criminal still unable to tie his own shoes, getting used to becoming a "normal" citizen, comparing his version of the past with the Maoist version.
The past is a concentrated story of the young emperor, his dealings with the eunuch servants, his tutoring by Reginald Johnston (Peter O'Toole, playing Peter O'Toole) and his questionable dealings with the Japanese -- primarily to maintain his dream of remaining emperor of an independent Manchuria. There's a lot to chew here -- the film lasts two hours and 45 minutes -- but, in the end, it's actually too short.
It's also strange to hear "Chinese" spoken as Chinese-accented English (especially when a Maoist Red Guard, fist aloft, says, "Join us or - - - - off."). But it's no worse than Masterpiece Theater declaring Gielgud British the official language of ancient Rome.
It's a pleasure to see an epic that isn't 2,000,000 galaxies away, and builds its exoticism on a human scale. There will doubtless be unanswered questions and frustrations in your mind after "Emperor," but that post-movie mulling will be more than worth your time. THE LAST EMPEROR (PG-13) --
At area theaters.