Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Problem of the Biopic

The Last Emperor (1987) / Bernardo Bertolucci

The major achievement of The Last Emperor is that it finally finds a way in which to deal with the most critical question of the film biopic : what happens after the ‘glory’ is over? It is not particularly tough to portray a character when he/she is winning (which is why there are so many biopics about ‘winners’), but it is a rather awful conundrum to ‘show’ them when bad times fall upon them (which is why there are so few about ‘losers’ – Raging Bull, Pollock and?). The scheme of victory is not intricate, the scheme of loss is rather messy; abridged, the Tolstoy quote may read – ‘Winners are all alike; losers lose in their own way’. The Last Emperor arrives at a solution: it smudges its lead character’s victory with his loss into an indistinguishable blot.

The past segues into the present, the present into the past. The structure of the film permits a tiny schism through which the two eras seep into one another – so the entire film is a long interspersed chain of sequences of Pu Yi’s (eponymous emperor) ‘glorious’ past in the Forbidden City, and his present as a state prisoner. By showing Pu Yi’s eventual fate – his status as a prisoner accused of siding with the enemy, before we have any personal acquaintance with the character – Bertolucci ensures that The Last Emperor is the story of an entire nation (China) funneled through one of its citizens (Pu Yi) rather than the other way around (symptomatic of the Hollywood biopic, wherein the individual cause disperses into the national or social cause). 

Of course, in the ‘present’, the prisoner Pu Yi is a conventional ‘loser’ – he is clearly a misfit in the Maoist China; a superfluous remnant of times when humans ruled over other humans. Bertolucci is perfectly relentless in condemning Pu Yi as well – he spares no sympathy for him, because unlike the Hollywood biopic that locates heroism in casual tomfoolery, he locates tomfoolery in what may seem like ‘heroics’. Pu Yi’s individual belief system (one of shrewd compromise and convenient hypocrisy as we later discover) cannot stand firm in the face of a national overhaul – he lies humbled by the forceful colossus called ‘change’. The old Pu Yi is nothing but a specter, a spirit of the past, an emblem of nostalgia. He is a ghost, because what are ghosts but symbols of a past that has accidentally overflowed into a present that has no use for it. Bertolucci literalizes it with the last shot of the film : Pu Yi, the emperor, sits on his ancient throne and slowly, his physical form dissolves into the image – essentially, the throne is a suction portal that soaks him back into time, thereby restoring him to his rightful place : a historical myth. He disappears ‘into’ the image and his ghost is finally exorcised, he integrates with history.

1 comment:

  1. This makes me want to watch the movie.
    So, I would say, well done. :)