In college, I took a class on modern Japanese history, focusing particularly on the twentieth century and the era of Emperor Hirohito. The professor had just won a Pulitzer for his book about Hirohito, and while I enjoyed his writing, I found him to be a terrible instructor. I mention this not because I have confused Japan with China, or to excuse my ignorance of this era and region of history, but because I have to start somewhere.
The truth is, I only know bits and pieces of Asian history, either in the World War II era or throughout the entire twentieth century, and I’m a little ashamed of it. Even things I ought to have learned from that class (which was essentially an elective for me, considering I wasn’t a history major) have now faded into memory. I recognize names like Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao Zedong, but would be hard-pressed to associate them with a specific year. The fact that an emperor still held power of any kind in this same general time period surprised me.
Pu Yi becomes emperor in 1908, just shy of his third birthday, and lives isolated in the Forbidden City, surrounded by his imperial eunuchs. As he grows up, he gradually learns of what transpires outside, summed up as political upheaval (I sum it thusly because I don’t have a sophisticated enough understanding of the situation to be more detailed). Pu Yi is Mongolian, from a territory that has recently been overtaken by the Japanese, and so when he is exiled, he decides to ally himself with Japan and its emperor, who is roughly his age (see? There was totally a connection).
I spent an early chunk of the film marveling at the fact that this was a movie made for a Western audience and featured an entirely non-white cast. Then, thank God, they threw in a mostly unnecessary white guy just so we white folk didn’t get lost. Much of the movie was based on Pu Yi’s autobiography, as well as a book written by Reginald Johnston, a Brit who had been employed as a tutor to the young emperor. I wonder how the story might have been affected by its audience – for example, might the Expository Empress seen in the beginning have wasted a little less time explaining how the transfer of power would work to Chinese viewers who probably knew more about it? The camera lingers on other objects and people, exoticizing them as they show them, daring us to goggle at an emperor having a threesome with his empress and second consort.
Somehow, I’ve made it this long in my post without even mentioning the most important part: the framing device. As I’ve said before, I’m a big fan of framing devices, and apparently so was the eighties. There was the confessional frame of Amadeus, and we see essentially the same thing here, meeting Pu Yi at the first moment of his incarceration in a post-war prison camp, where he’s been accused of colluding with the Japanese. The problem with frames that involve jumping back and forth in time is that eventually you catch up to the present, leaving you to wonder why one particular “present” was more significant than another.
What is it like to be a figure treated as a near-divine and all-power being almost from birth, and then to come back down to earth to live among the rest of us? At some point, all royalty has had to make that transition, if they’re lucky enough to have been spared the guillotine or the firing squad. I didn’t know Pu Yi existed before, but now I wonder.
Theme: Time of Transition
First Time Watching? Yes
Final Verdict: And now there are tourists in the Forbidden City