The Film Society at China Institute Explores “China Through the Western Gaze” in Two-Part Screening of The Good Earth and The Last Emperor
By Michael Buening, China Institute’s Director of Operations
For the February series of the Film Society at China Institute we screened two works by Western filmmakers, The Good Earth and The Last Emperor, to consider how they presented stories about China to the West. These screenings offered us the opportunity to look at how films from different eras, beloved and critically acclaimed in their time, resonate today. We opened this series with The Good Earth and concluded on Wednesday, February 27 with The Last Emperor.
The Last Emperor is based on the autobiography From Emperor to Citizen by Pu Yi, the last emperor of imperial China. The story charts his life from the time he entered the Forbidden City as a young boy to the fall of the imperial government, his reign as the Chief Executive of the puppet state Manchukuo during World War II, and his later years as a prisoner and citizen in the People’s Republic of China. Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, it was a critical and commercial success, winning all nine of the Academy Awards for which it was nominated, including Best Picture and Best Director.
The film’s is perhaps best remembered for its incredible scenes shot in the Forbidden City. The Last Emperor was the first Western film production allowed to shoot in the Forbidden City and film cinematographer Vittorio Storaro took advantage of the opportunity to capture iconic images of the palace’s massive halls, labyrinthine alleys, and the bold colors used in traditional imperial ceremonies.
The official response to the film in China was positive. Following the 1988 Oscar ceremony, UPI quoted Ministry of Radio, Film and Television officials as saying, “We are very happy, this is a good sign that Chinese film is moving into the world.” In both China and the United States there were some criticisms of the film’s historical veracity, with some accusing the storytelling of following the Communist Party of China’s preferred slant of the emperor brought low through self-criticism. But the critical response was largely positive; Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader writes “Bernardo Bertolucci’s visually ravishing spectacle about the life of Pu Yi is a genuine rarity: a blockbuster that manages to be historically instructive and intensely personal at the same time.”
Similar to how The Good Earth may have generated sympathy towards China among its American audience in the years leading up to World War II, The Last Emperor played a role, if minor, in elevating China in the American cultural zeitgeist. Simultaneously, China was opening up under Deng Xiaoping and becoming more prominent on the global stage. This confluence was well timed. Bertolucci cast some fifth generation directors, including Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou, and I wonder if his film helped prime Western audiences for the deeply sumptuous and widely successful films they would subsequently release like Raise the Red Lantern and Farewell My Concubine.
Speaking of Zhang Yimou, we will be saluting film star and frequent Zhang Yimou collaborator Gong Li by showcasing two of the actress’s greatest performances in The Story of Qiu Ju, (1992) on March 20 and Zhou Yu’s Train (2002) on the 27. We hope you will join us for these and additional screenings and discussions.