Empty is the head that wears the crown in "The Last Emperor," Bernardo Bertolucci's lavish biography of Pu Yi, the sheltered sovereign who found himself out of work when China became a republic in 1912. Pu Yi's personal tragedy has become Bertolucci's three-hour epic of obsolescence, opulently visualized. It's docudrama that dazzles, but basically Pu Yi was a bore.
Based in part on Pu Yi's autobiography, "From Emperor to Citizen," the spectacular spans a 60-year period that saw the end of the Qing Dynasty and the founding of the People's Republic. Here Pu Yi thinks back on his life as he is reeducated in a Communist prison -- a journey from darkness to light, says Bertolucci, from caterpillar in brocade to drab Maoist butterfly.
But Pu Yi is most interesting as a larva -- a 3-year-old placed on the Dragon Throne, the sleeves of his imperial robe dragging on the ground. He remains cloistered in the Forbidden City until his ouster at age 18 by a republican warlord. For a few years, he dallies as a playboy, then returns to China in 1931 as a puppet emperor backed by the Japanese.
The Hong Kong-born John Lone plays the adult Pu Yi, a phlegmatic sort whose personality is reflected in the film's pace, already weighty with grandeur. Lone, an intense, energetic actor, is dispassionate here by necessity. Pu Yi was an empty vessel, a boy who grew up without rules, a sense of reality or much education. Though forced to abdicate, he remained toy royalty, like Wales of Windsor. Only he was kept on the palace grounds, hermetically sealed in with 1,500 adoring eunuchs and a slew of courtesans.
Nevertheless, poor Pu Yi was as lonely as the script is bland. Aside from his wet nurse, who suckled him till he was a teen, he had no acquaintances until he got a tutor. That role falls to Peter O'Toole. His is not a grand performance, but at least now there's somebody else on the screen.
And so we have "The King and I." The tutor, a tough-minded Brit, gets the boy a pair of glasses, the first step out of the Middle Ages. Meanwhile, Chinese actress Joan Chen joins the cast as the opium-addicted Empress Wan Jung, along with Wu Jun Mei as the official consort Wen Hsiu. And the yawning opus picks up its pace momentarily.
Bertolucci, a sensuous Marxist, paints a scene of creepy carnality and corrupted innocence when the knowing, Western-educated Wan Jung covers Pu Yi's pale face with sticky, red Revlon kisses. Later, she too will be corrupted by a malevolent Japanese lesbian spy who plies her with opium as she nibbles her toes. This is, after all, a movie by the director of "Last Tango in Paris," who here is giving us an elegant parallel between drugged sexuality and political stupor.
But we need more than elegant parallels and lavish production values. We need tension, characterization, drama. Meticulously composed as it is, "The Last Emperor" is no drama. It's a treatise on how great it is to be one of the masses, on how gold can wither the soul. The Last Emperor, at area theaters, is rated PG-13.