Thursday 18 May 2023

AT CINEMA REBORN 2023 - Jing Han introduces THE LAST EMPEROR (Bernardo Bertolucci, UK/Italy/China, 1987)

Editors's Note: This is the third of the introductions to films screened in Cinema Reborn 2023. Professor Jing Han, Director of Institute for Australian and Chinese Arts and Culture Western Sydney University shared the introduction with Linda Jaivin  the author of twelve books including seven novels and nonfiction including the acclaimed "The Shortest History of China". 



Following Linda’s introduction of the film, I’d like to provide some contextual understanding around the shooting of the film in China. 

In the late 1970s, Deng Xiaoping announced China’s open door policy and reform, initially as an economic reform. But when the door was opened, Chinese people just embraced the world. In the mid to late 1980s, there was a liberal and intellectual movement in culture, arts and literature, which is historically often referred to as “The Culture Fever”. Chinese intellectuals and creative minds enthusiastically explored their bold ideas and new forms of creativity.

Bernardo Bertolucci with John Lone in Beijing during 
the filming of "The Last Emperor" in 1987.

When the filming crew applied for permission to shoot the film, to everyone’s surprise, including the director Bernardo Bertolucci, the Chinese authorities not only gave the film crew the full access to the Forbidden City, including inside the Hall of the Supreme Harmony Tai He Dian, but also, apart from some names and references, required no changes to the script. Since the establishment of PRC in 1949 and ever after the shooting of this film in 1986, no other film crew has ever been given the permission to shoot inside the Hall of Supreme Harmony – a few film crews were allowed in the Forbidden City, but mainly limited to the areas that were also open to the public. So the film The Last Emperor was and has been the one and only which was filmed inside the Hall of Supreme Harmony where the Coronation of the child emperor was held. 

What many may not know is: the late Queen Elizabeth visited China in 1986, becoming the first British monarch to visit the country following the adoption of its Open Door Policy. During her state visit, the Queen was given access to the Terracotta Warriors in Xi'An and toured sites such as the Great Wall, but she was denied the visit to the Forbidden City because The Last Emperor was shooting on that day - an extraordinary thing that went down in history.

The period of 1982 to 1989 saw the freedom of expression like never before. That certainly contributed to the unprecedented approval being granted to The Last Emperor filming in China. It was also believed that Bernardo Bertolucci being a longstanding member of Italian Communist Party was also a positive factor. He was trusted and supported, so much so that the then Deputy Minister for Culture Yin Ruocheng was given leave of absence to play the Governor of the Detention Camp. By the way, the famous Chinese director Chen Kaige who directed Yellow Earth, Farewell My Concubine and more, was also cast in The Last Emperor as the Captain of Imperial Guards.

The guard of the city gate in the movie is the 
great director Chen Kaige.

To protect the Hall of Supreme Harmony, no camera crane or track or lighting stands were allowed inside. There was only one cameraman using Steadicam shooting the scene wherein the child emperor sat on the Dragon Throne. The entry into the Hall was so strictly monitored that once Peter O’Toole forgot to bring his pass, he wasn’t allowed in. 

For the Coronation scene, 2000 soldiers from PLA were recruited as extras and had the front of their heads shaved. And about 100 kilos of human hair were imported to make the elaborate wigs and plaits. 50 Chinese were trained for ten days to pin wigs and plaits onto 2,000 extras in under two hours. Also, for the shooting of this film, an Italian chef was brought in to cook for the international cast and he brought 2000 kilos of pasta with him, plus olive oil and ground coffee. Of course, these things are available in all supermarkets in China. Time has changed, but not the charm of this film.

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