Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1987 film The Last Emperor is a work of art. Bertolucci did almost a flawless job in translating the story into one with full body of emotions. The use of image in the film successfully delivers the story of the tragic life of Pu Yi.
Color plays a key role in telling the story. The film reveals the different worlds Pu Yi experiences by the use of color. His days in the Forbidden City are full of vibrant colors – a lot of red and gold which symbolize prosperity, wealth, and royalty. His days outside of the Forbidden City show contrast – gray, or absence of color. Recalling the scene when young Pu Yi tries to escape from the Forbidden City, as Pu Yi runs towards the outside world, the surroundings lose color. When you find Pu Yi in jail, there is no color besides when he attempts to commit suicide; he slits his wrist and you see blood. No color can be found besides blood or red writing on the wall with propaganda, which resembles revolution and blood. The absence of color conveys the message that there is absence of life. It reflects Pu Yi’s loss of hope and life. When Pu Yi gets released from jail and visits the Forbidden City, the stale gold color speaks lost glory and reveals his old glamorous days as an Emperor. The use of color brought color to the film (sometimes through absence of color!).
Bertolucci uses point of views to tell the story. Pu Yi’s subjective point of view was often used to portray how he views and feels about the world. Young Pu Yi, captured in the Forbidden City, only sees the outside world through the huge gate he cannot go across. Only other time he gets a view of the world is when he attempts to escape; He climbs the wall and gets to the roof to take a peak of the outside world. The subjective point of view recreates the perspective of the character. By providing limited point of view, it allows the audience, too, to feel trapped and sympathize with the Emperor. When Pu Yi looks outside the world from the wall, everything is from a high angle and unapproachable. It creates distance between Pu Yi’s world and the real world.
Framing is also used to create a wall between the outside world and the Forbidden City. The choice of framing makes clear of the wall that exists between the outside world and the Forbidden City. When showing both worlds, the frame included the dividing wall to emphasize Pu Yi’s world and the world he cannot enter. Proximity of film frame was used to tell the story and to reinforce the emotional effects. The film is about Pu Yi’s life. When the camera zooms in on Pu Yi’s face, it brings an honest moment. When Pu Yi initiates negotiation and collaboration with the Japanese, his wife questions him and attempts to tell him the Japanese intention behind their offer. The close up shot of Pu Yi’s face almost attempts to probe on his true thoughts on his intention. His eyes, then, reveals his selfish ambition. Close ups were often used to tell a story for Pu Yi’s first wife as well. After being rejected by Pu Yi, who is blinded with ambition, she goes upstairs and lets Eastern Jewel, the Japanese spy, soothe her by licking her toe and massaging her leg. Close up of her face, however, allows us to sympathize with the emotions she may be feeling. Her eyes carry deep pain, anger, regret, and bitterness. The long close ups are effectively used to leave deep impressions and sympathize with the character.
Overall, the film efficiently used cinematography, especially through the different use of images. The plot, without the image, could not have successfully told the story. The use of image brought story and emotions to life.