It Was Mother

It Was Who

It Was Who
Wayras Olivier
JULY 2018


W HO WAS IT THAT SAID “Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all others because you were born it”? Hint: he’s a playwright and a socialist. If you said George Bernard Shaw, note the year he died. It’s the same year that the last emperor of China, Aisin-Gioro Puyi, also left this plane for another—a prison, where he was tutored and refined, in 1950. Take it one step further. Shaw’s most enduring play, Pygmalion, itself a kind of trial, deals with reform, remolding and ideological re-education too. How bracing it was to watch a presumptuous Professor Henry Higgins flag the unpolished thinking and elocution of Eliza Doolittle so it could be properly raised in society and proudly waved. And how lowering it was to watch the reverse occur in The Last Emperor, Puyi flapping at half-mast in 1967, no longer introducing himself as the once-ruler of China, but instead a meek and humble gardener to a group of flag-waving Red Guards.

One can’t overlook the imperishable Peter O’Toole playing the tutor Reginald Johnston and the orthogonal relationship it has to Higgins. When asked by a Doolittleish Puyi, years before he is imprisoned, “Why are words important?” Johnston instructs, “If you cannot say what you mean, your majesty, you will never mean what you say and a gentleman should always mean what he says.”

“I’m not a gentleman,” Puyi (played by Wu Tao & John Lone) responds. “I’m not allowed to say what I mean. They are always telling me what to say.” They being Puyi’s council in The Forbidden City, who keep his mind and body imprisoned; safe from the outside world, for his own good.

Protected from the outside world for his own good, Gautama Siddhartha—naïve, spoiled, and sheltered—was in a similar position, his reality partitioned from suffering until his accidental exposure to it galvanized his contemplation of it, eventually transforming him into the Buddha.

Analogous is Puyi’s transformation when in prison he is exposed to bloodcurdling newsreels, a “vision” of China’s lavish destruction. Consistent with Buddha’s conversion, Puyi too must contemplate suffering and ask himself how complicit he was in nurturing its potency by remaining ignorant (however innocently) of its existence. (The specifics of this “vision,” Manchuria becoming Manchukuo—Japan’s puppet state—was supposedly cut from The Last Emperor’s theatrical release in Japan. Distributors thought it would disgrace audience members and be bad for business to remind them of their country’s participation in the horrors of Unit 731 and The Nanjing Massacre.)

Puyi gets his conviction in prison (the apposition of those two words is a deliberate conundrum, as Puyi’s release from prison hinges largely on whether or not he confesses to the crime of being consciously ignorant as a ruler.)

It’s a masterstroke of filmmaking to reincarnate an identifiable quisling, who never left his country, and show how he was repatriated to his country as an unidentified patriot. In 1989, less than two years after The Last Emperor’s release, another unidentified patriot was born on film. Whilst facing a cavalcade of ungentle tanks, he remained monarchical outside the gates of The Forbidden City—where he was captured.

W.