This gorgeous 1987 epic by Bernardo Bertolucci is about Pu Yi, the last of the Chinese emperors.
Pu Yi (played for most of the movie by the wonderful John Lone) spent his life swept by the winds of twentieth-century Chinese history. He came to the throne in 1908 at three years old after the dowager empress died. He abdicated at seven when the empire became a republic; the new president, Sun Yat-Sen, allowed him to stay on in the Forbidden Palace with his army of servants. As a teenager he was taught English by Reginald Johnstone (Peter O'Toole) and married to the new empress Wan Jung (Joan Chen). At 19, the naive and unworldly teenager found himself used as a pawn by various warring factions; eventually he was exiled by the Nationalists. The Japanese gave him asylum and when they invaded Manchuria and renamed it Manchukuo, made him a puppet emperor. Once again he found himself superfluous, with no real purpose or power, and he adopted a playboy lifestyle. When the communists took China he was imprisoned for ten years and re-educated; newly humbled, he watched the Cultural Revolution unfold. He became a gardener and died in 1967 in Beijing.
This is an epic story, and Bertolucci tells it in the appropriate manner, slowly, taking time, beautifully illustrating the sweeping changes that carried China through the twentieth century. The pageantry of the palace is breathtaking - Bertolucci was the first westerner allowed to film in the Forbidden Palace - with thousands of eunuchs bowing down to the boy-king and lacquered concubines posed in the gardens. The jazz-age decadence of Manchuko contrasts sharply with the harsh grimness of the Communist prison, while the mass hysteria of the Red Guards is a frightening spectacle of another kind. John Lone's inscrutable Pu Yi is perfect as the passive spectator swept on this tide of history, unable to exercise any meaningful control over the events that swirl around him, buffeted by powers so much bigger than himself. Though some find the movie too slow and devoid of tension and drama, I thought it perfectly paced and structured to tell this amazing story of personal and political change.
This movie set a record at the Academy Awards, winning in all nine categories it was nominated for, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Sadly, Lone wasn't even nominated.
An interesting side-note: I saw this movie twice in Bangkok, Thailand. The first time it was newly released and was entire, but a week later some scenes, such as when Pu Yi is forced to clean a toilet while in prison, had been cut. Even to suggest that royalty could be brought so low was seen to be risky, not just because the Thai revere their king, but also because lese majeste is a punishable offense in Thailand.