Sunday, October 10, 2021

Notes on THE LAST EMPEROR(directed by Bernardo Bertolucci) as Reviewed in Counter-Currents

 When I first saw Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (1987), it struck me as a remake of Doctor Zhivago. Both narratives begin in glamorous and archaic empires that fall to Communist revolutions.

Still, the differences are more striking than the similarities. Besides, the great fall of empire or civilization as backdrop has been a staple of historical epics. The stable eras of a civilization are rather humdrum and hardly make for grand drama. No wonder America’s greatest pop-historical-romance-epic is set during the Civil War: GONE WITH THE WIND. The momentous parts of any civilization are the rise or the fall OR the rise and the fall. Due to time limitation, the full span of rise-and-fall is usually relegated to books and maybe long TV historical series; movies either deal with the triumphant rise or the tragic fall. To be sure, intrinsic to any rise is a fall and vice versa. For a new order to triumph, the old one must crumble. THE BIG COUNTRY is about the tragic twilight of the rancher barons and the dawning of a more civilized Mild West. (GIANT, on the other hand, has to be the most static historical epic ever, not least because the aptly named Rock Hudson was more monument than man.)

Movies can treat both rise and fall on the individual level, the stuff of countless gangster movies where some punk shoots to the top only to crash and burn, like in LITTLE CAESAR or SCARFACE. But, movies usually deal with the front-end or back-end of civilizations. GONE WITH THE WIND, the biggest movie ever, has the fall as backdrop. (So does THE BIRTH OF A NATION.) It is tragic Southern Romanticism. The tragic element lends weight and 'wisdom'(as even the shallow Scarlett O’Hara learns a thing or two from her tribulations), as well as plenty of melodrama. In that regard, DOCTOR ZHIVAGO and THE LAST EMPEROR not only resemble one another but many other historical epics with similar backdrops of tragic fall and brutal regeneration. What unites DOCTOR ZHIVAGO and THE LAST EMPEROR is their central characters aren’t the main agents of history. Zhivago keeps his distance from events but trampled just the same. Puyi, in contrast, does try to play a role but never rises above a symbol or puppet. Zhivago as a doctor is too much of a precious commodity in wartime to be left alone, and Puyi as a symbol is irresistible to the contending powers. That said, the illusions of a poet are nobler than the delusions of a puppet.

Movies that seem closer to THE LAST EMPEROR are GANDHI(by Richard Attenborough, too much of a crowd-pleaser to be Lean's successor) and KUNDUN, Martin Scorsese's masterpiece. It also bears some resemblance to Sergio Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA with its scrambled chronology and conflict of reality and myth. And I’m sure Bertolucci had THE GODFATHER PART 2 in mind, a work that compares and contrasts the rise of the young Vito Corleone and Michael’s make-or-break rivalry with Hyman Roth, the US government, and traitors in the family. (Though Michael triumphs, it nevertheless closes on a tragic note.) Among Luchino Visconti’s works, it is closest to LUDWIG II, a story of a weakling lord who prefers the dreamworld. The tragically butchered version of THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS also comes to mind as it’s about a spoiled rich brat in for a rude awakening when his insignificance in the grand scheme of things finally dawns on him. What both works have in common is tragic sense needled with absurdity. When the long-delayed comeuppances come due all at once, he finds himself all alone without even the mockery of the townsfolk who've passed away, moved on, or forgotten him altogether. All his life, he took Amberson glory as the law of the universe and strode about town like a local deity but realizes he means nothing, not even worth remembering just to hate. His life was a prolonged delusion sustained by parental affection and dwindling fortunes. No one knowing or caring is perhaps crueler than the whole world pointing its finger at you, as the latter would at least acknowledge your existence and significance, which is the case with Puyi, who never quite lost his 'celebrity' status, culminating in a sumptuous movie epic based on his multifaceted life and myth.
What distinguishes MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS from THE LAST EMPEROR is Welles' magic touch in the tragicomic mode. From the beginning, gaiety is paired with gravitas. The Amberson estate is both the mansion of the town's preeminent family and playpen for the princeling brat. It has the aura of prestige and clamor of petulance. When the fortunes fade and illusions dry up, it is finally a haunted house, but worse, one in which he can no longer remain. (It turns into Midwest Gothic — THE SWIMMER with Burt Lancaster is like East Coast Gothic.) 

In contrast, Bertolucci’s formal strategy is so uniformly stately in the pre-1950 scenes and so uniformly grim in the post-1950 scenes that the tragicomic dimensions of Puyi’s life go missing. As if profusely grateful for having been allowed to shoot inside the Forbidden City, Bertolucci and Vittorio Storaro the cinematographer, as gracious guests, over-emphasized magnificence at the expense of eccentricity that would have made the story more interesting as well as involving. The consistently graceful style unfurls like a red carpet and smooths over even the absurdities of Puyi's ridiculous life. And the prison scenes tend toward the didactic and miss out on the comic irony of it all even though it works pretty well on its own 'serious' terms. The problem is made worse by the casting of John Lone who hardly resembles the ungainly and unattractive Puyi. It’d be like casting Paul Newman as Woody Allen or Robert Redford as Steve Buscemi. Puyi wasn’t merely a puppet-emperor but lacked even the modicum of innate regality that makes monarchy partly palatable. Because John Lone plays it so smooth, smart, and sensitive, it feels as though the real historical injustice was Puyi never got to be a real emperor. Actually, the real Puyi looked awkward in his shoes as emperor, real or puppet. So, his story only makes sense as tragicomedy, a juggling of David Lean and Mel Brooks(or something like what Lina Wertmuller pulled off in SEVEN BEAUTIES or what Shohei Imamura did with EIJANAIKA). In addition, John Lone’s ‘Eurasian’ features and the choice of English(in various accents) for the Asian actors make it more exotic than it needs to be. Just like DOCTOR ZHIVAGO never seems authentically Russian, THE LAST EMPEROR is ultimately an ‘Orientalist’ vision of the East, though I don’t use the term as epithet but descriptor. (Oddly enough, authenticity makes for less exoticism as the latter is as much about one's way of seeing as about the strange way of the Other. Authenticity at least makes the apparent strangeness ordinary and mundane in its own world, whereas exoticism implies self-consciousness of one's own strangeness. The Manchu/Chinese characters in THE LAST EMPEROR seem to be citizens of Bertoluccity than inhabitants of their own world. On the other hand, given the rift that modernity and/or communism caused between New Asia and Old Asia, modern-day Asians may find their own past to be exotic and feel more normal & natural with Western modes of dress and thinking. Also, it must be admitted Puyi came of age in a time of identity crisis, i.e. when China was adopting foreign ways as new social norms to regain national sovereignty, i.e. adopt foreign ways and reject native ways to repel foreign forces and restore native power. What had been alien became second-nature and what had been second-nature became 'exotic', all the more complicated by Japan's play for Manchuria.)

At any rate, Bertolucci was too heavily invested in monumental filmmaking to tease out Puyi the man. (Even when Puyi learns to be just a man under prison reform, it’s merely a detail on the fresco. Puyi is like a figure in a painting than a character in a story.) Thus, the result is more like an ordained procession than lively narrative. John Lone's Puyi is no less free as a character on Bertolucci's canvas than as a tool of the eunuchs, the Japanese, and the communists. He flutters in the wind like an emblem.

The Magnificent Ambersons, directed by Orson Welles
As character study, it falls way short of MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS and IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. The former is about a prince-about-town with no special qualities, and the latter is about a pauper-about-town with superior qualities. One is a prisoner of his own vanity while the other is a prisoner of his own conscience.

What the two movies share is a sense of discrepancy between power/privilege and quality/worth. THE LAST EMPEROR too is about a man caught between two(or three or more) worlds, but Bertolucci's ear, tuned to grand operatics, is deaf to Puyi's pulse as a man. (His way is more akin to that of the eunuchs than Johnston or the 'governor' of the prison who, in their own way, try to hear Puyi out.) Even the most intimate and quirky moments of Puyi’s life are rendered as spectacle, exhibition, or life lesson. Its lack of textural irony makes it more comparable to FORREST GUMP, which would have us suspend our doubts and believe history(and heaven) could be on the side of a total retard.
Another movie set in China released in the same year was Steven Spielberg’s EMPIRE OF THE SUN that somehow managed to both avoid and indulge in Bertolucci’s pitfalls. A director has every right as ‘auteur’ to make the material his own, but it must be in sync with characters and story. Spielberg got so much right in the first third but then un-loosed his fairytale whims, turning the movie into an amusement park, rather like the bloated comedy 1941. Bertolucci never quite lost sight of the material in that way but failed to focus on Puyi as an individual. In one scene, Johnston realizes Puyi has poor eyesight and needs bifocals. THE LAST EMPEROR has clarity as spectacle and exhibition, a historical fashion show — it is gorgeous and impressive in that regard — , and John Lone's features are finely etched on screen, but Puyi's inner life remains a blur. The subjugation of the personal to the epochal resulted in a museum-display than a memory-play. Also, there's a problem with Bertolucci and Peploe's contrivance of the recurring pattern of Puyi always being abandoned — his futile pursuit of those who desert him or are taken from him is reminiscent of Zhivago’s pining for Lara’s fading image in the distant. But, it comes across as operatic imposition upon than considered exhumation of Puyi’s inner life. The emotional sweep leaves little in the way of poignance.

On some level, Bertolucci probably identified with Puyi. Bertolucci was a pampered member of the bourgeoisie playing at Marxist(like many of the post-war generation), and besides, since the fall of Rome, Italian power was more bluff than tough. He had the eye of a (fascist) fashion photographer but paid lip-service to Marxist-proletarian credo, somewhat similar to George Lucas swooning over galacto-fascist mega-technology that his movies ostensibly condemned, but then Cecil B. DeMille's movies were more entertaining for their displays of pagan excess. This love/hate contradiction is probably at the core of human psyche. After all, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is about the dignity of the common man, but the small town community is lost without George Bailey who has exceptional gifts of intelligence, resourcefulness, and courage; he is made of superior stuff, in a way, the ‘richest man in town’. And even though Forrest Gump is supposed to represent humility and good will, it’s as if he is the favored of the gods. But then, the French Revolution, in the name of the People no less, led to Emperor Napoleon.

Of course, that could just be due to the fact that the Chinese Revolution was something of a remake of the Russian Revolution.

Again, more differences than similarities. They both gained victory in the aftermath of larger forces fatally weakening or annihilating one another. The Bolshevik Moment followed the bloodletting between the Kaiser and the Tsar(& Kerensky). Likewise, Mao came to power because Japan crippled the Guomindang(the Nationalists) and in turn got destroyed by the US, leaving a political vacuum in China to be filled. The Sino-Japan War was a manna from heaven for the communists. Once driven to near-extinction, the war with Japan gave them a second chance.

But there are key differences as well between the Russian Revolution and the Chinese Revolution. Events happened so fast in Russia that even the Bolsheviks were caught off-guard. The fall of the Tsar, followed by the delegitimization of Kerensky’s Provisional government, left power in the streets for the taking for any movement with the strongest will. And it was the fanatical Bolsheviks. Fortune fell on their laps. They almost couldn’t believe their luck.

Even though Mao had amassed key advantages by the end of World War II, it took a grueling Civil War for his side to finally come out on top. In contrast, a horrendous civil war followed AFTER the Revolution in Russia.
Also, if Mao had the advantage of the countryside, it was the Whites who held the rural areas while the Reds held the cities in the Russian Civil War. However, if Mao’s message had considerable appeal among the Chinese peasants and the youth, the Whites ultimately failed to inspire the Russian peasantry with talk of God and the Tsar. Chinese Communists won the war and then the Revolution, whereas Bolsheviks won the Revolution and then the war.

both of which depict Communism as recapitulating the old forms of despotism but as vulgar and brutal farces, stripped of all refinement. Both films also end on a note of hope. But what gives cause for hope is the reemergence of precisely what Communism sought to abolish. Thus both Doctor Zhivago and The Last Emperor are not just anti-Communist films, they are reactionary anti-Communist films. But in the case of The Last Emperor, this is hard to square with the fact that director Bertolucci was himself a Communist.

This is projecting one’s ideological biases on the movie. The only farcical thing in DOCTOR ZHIVAGO’s depiction of communism is when the mob confiscate property from Zhivago’s much-diminished household. Otherwise, the presentation is grim but also empathetic. Besides, Strelnikov and Yevgraf, while not exactly refined, have an air of dignity about them, all the more so as they come across as so impeccably British. They deserve respect as men of discipline and conviction. They seem nobler than the partiers at the Christmas ball with their fancy dress and champagne, which is little more than fancified excess.
And there’s nothing farcical in the depiction of communist power in THE LAST EMPEROR except at the very end with the Red Guards  doing their silly song-and-dance number. The bulk of Puyi’s experience under communism concentrates on his re-education and better-late-than-never actualization as a man.

THE LAST EMPEROR presents Puyi as having two good teachers(and friends) in life. The Scottish Reginald Johnston not only taught but befriended Puyi as a boy, and the prison official(the ‘governor’) reformed him as a man. Indeed, the latter takes umbrage when Puyi calls Johnston a liar. Whatever the distance between Johnston and the ‘governor’ in matters of ideology and culture, they've tried to help Puyi. The ‘governor’ is offended by Puyi’s insolence toward the memory of his former tutor who went out of his way to be a confidante and advisor, even a savior(as, at least according to the movie, it was his dogged insistence that persuaded the court to allow Puyi to wear glasses). This side of Puyi is shown as petulant and egotistical, not above sullying the name of a good friend to save his own skin. (Indeed, the most touching scenes in the movie are between Puyi and Johnston. The World regards Puyi as either an outdated symbol or a total joke, but to Johnston he is the 'loneliest boy in the whole world'. Puyi is a stranger to larger forces that have power over his domain and surrounded by servants within the walls; it’s a world of hierarchy, of masters and servants, not a world of free men. As such, even men of power are bound to the rigid system and its duties and rituals.

Also, Johnston has a real appreciation of Chinese history and culture, in some ways more so than the Chinese themselves for whom their culture has merely become decorative backdrop for their real specialty, petty corruption and inane superstition. Johnston's learned theory of China as a civilization has little resemblance to its actual practice of power and privilege, and he is all too acutely aware of it. He has deep admiration for the old but understands China's only hope is with the new.
Johnston’s homosexuality may have led to special empathy with Puyi. Puyi is imprisoned in splendor, Johnston is closeted in vanity, as homosexuality certainly wasn’t synonymous with ‘pride’ in them days. Tooty-fruitkin nature tends toward aristocratism, and surely a homo who kept a lid on his flamboyance could sympathize with a boy king hampered within walls of propriety, however splendorous they may be. It’s almost as if the emperor was both the ultimate power and the ultimate taboo. The myth of invincibility(and its hollowness in light of court intrigues and foreign invasions) could only breed more cynicism as justification for corruption or more superstition as the last refuge of hope.

The film makes a distinction between run-of-the-mill communist repression(driven by dogma and/or personal animus) and heroic effort to remold man in body and soul. Ric Young as the shrill interrogator represents the cold face of communist authority(made worse by personal animus owing to family tragedy, which is revealed in the long version), while the ‘governor’ represents the power of Tough Love. Also, his personal wish(perhaps in deviation from the official agenda) isn't to turn Puyi into yet another puppet. Upon learning that Puyi confessed to ALL the crimes, even ones he didn’t commit, the ‘governor’ tells Puyi that he’s guilty only for what he did. He doesn’t want to Puyi to go from spouting old lies to new ones but to own up to what HE is guilty of. The 'governor' is clearly meant to be the most admirable character in the movie, further illustrated when he later refuses to bend under Red Guard pressure to confess to false accusations, which is why Puyi is moved and tries to intervene on his behalf. My guess is this isn’t based on historical fact but a case of dramatic license, borrowing from BEN-HUR, where the titular character, having once been given water by Jesus, tries to return the favor but to no avail. 

When Puyi was finally released, the ‘governor’ said he will remain in prison longer than him. In a way, he too is a 'prisoner', but that’s okay because he’s bound to what he believes to be a just cause. Free or unfree,  life derives meaning from a sense of duty and obligation. One must be ‘useful’. The real question is ‘useful to what?’ Being useful to the Japanese and being useful to the nation are both being useful, but one is treason while the other is patriotism. The main personalities of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE and WOMAN IN THE DUNES are 'prisoners' in a way but ultimately accept their lot because it offers meaning and purpose. 

Needless to say, Puyi’s life as boy ’emperor’ with Johnston was infinitely fancier and more refined than his life in prison under the watchful eye of the ‘governor’, but this has less to do with ideology than station. In Imperial China, refinement was for the few as most people were dirty stinking peasants, and prison conditions would have been dire.

And even in communist China, the upper crust had their privileges, even refinement not least because a good number of communists reasonably well-educated for the time. If anything, one of Mao’s rationales for the Cultural Revolution was the CCP was following in the footsteps of the dreaded Soviet elites and adopting ‘bourgeois’ ways.

Regarding refinement and vulgarity, it’s not always easy to tell one from the other. Refinement breeds decadence that breeds excess that breeds vulgarity. The aristocrats of Europe could be plenty vulgar in their debauchery. Marquis de Sade arose among the elites, not the masses. The Chinese elite culture developed a mania for foot-binding, something the Manchus actually disdained. And Confucian scholars grew their fingernails long(and one wonders how they wiped their ass — the Edward Scissorhands Conundrum). They also disdained manual labor and physical exertion of any kind. They grew pale & sickly and relied on weird concoctions derived from exotic animals or strange animal parts. Simple food and exercise would have done them good, but they sat around eating refined foods, scribbling calligraphy, pondering the goldfish, and dreaming of foot-sex with ‘hooved’ women. It was perfumed rot or refined ugliness, but the conceit of ‘refinement’ concealed the true extent of the decay. As often as not, ‘refinement’ is vulgarity wrapped in style.

Somewhat similar are the ways of the current elites. Their conceit of being well-educated and ‘more evolved’ lends them an air of sophistication, blinding them to their utter fraudulence as human beings. Their haute vanity amounts to what these days? Celebration of globo-homo buggery among men and planting ‘gay’ symbols in churches; George Floyd as new saint and the washing of Negro feet, which the Devil Pope is also into; pontificating about ‘liberal democracy’ and ‘western values’ when their modus operandi is anarcho-tyranny and craven servility to Jewish gangsterism.

What is trashier and more vulgar than ‘gay pride’ parades, but the current elites smugly feel superior because in their endorsement, or is it acquiescence? (But then, there’s a long history of Western aristocracy having their cultures corrupted by fruity influence, especially in dress and manners. It also happened in China: Consider the decrepit rich old man in FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE who acts as patron of the arts but is also a slimy pervert who chases after young boys.)
The spread of homo influence, much of it ridiculous and laughable, suggests most people have weak autonomy on morality, truth, and aesthetics and look to trend-setters for what’s ‘in’ or ‘out’. The current PC combines moral righteousness and status vanity. Did the elites, would-be-elites, and wanna-be-elites really think long and hard about such matters as globo-homo and BLM? No, it's really because Jews control the ivory tower from which they spray the cuck-goy elites with golden showers. Those with a weak sense of self rely on others to provide meaning for them, even as to what they are, which explains all the nonsense with pronouns. 

The story EMPEROR HAS NO CLOTHES is suggestive of how vulgarity can so easily be the flipside of refinement. Refinement may elevate but it can also blind because its value relies so much on status anxiety. People don't refine themselves but repeat what others do. Among the French, eating moldy cheese is a sign of refinement. In the story, the Emperor walks through the streets half-naked but believes he’s adorned in the finest fabric, and most townsfolk go along with the charade because of all the pomp and aura. It’s the boy who notices the obvious vulgarity of it all. Most people look for cues than clues. So many ridiculous fashions sprung from Paris and spread across Europe because insecure and shallow aristocrats lacked autonomy of taste. So, if ridiculous powdered wigs and the latest fruity dance were ‘in’, they were soon seen in the Polish court. Isn’t it amusing that, so often, what was deemed haute and refined in one era seems gross and gaudy in another, in which it was suited only for a circus clown show? It's like what was once 'cool' becomes 'fool'.
There's also the problem of inner-nature, something no one can really shake off. People are essentially the nature they are born with, and 'culture' and 'refinement' mainly serve to cosmetize what is essentially crude and brutish, or childish and shallow, or worse, vile and vicious. For every person born with naturally fine(r) qualities, there are many more within the same social rank, especially if hereditary, who are born naturally gross but learn to fake it. So, even as they are brought up with all the advantages of schooling in manners and wisdom, they remain trashy and stupid inside. George W. Bush and Hunter Biden were christened in privilege and sent to the best schools, but look how they turned up. Many aristocratic brats were hardly better because character is largely something one is born with, rich or poor, privileged or unprivileged. The utter failure of the Russian monarchy and aristocracy on the eve of the Revolution is testament to the sheer discrepancy between posture and stature. Never mistake style for substance: Mussolini’s New Rome of He-Man Italians was really a nation of ill-equipped cowards. When a civilization runs out of steam, it desperately props up the Image of Invincibility as a crutch, a last ditch effort to fool the world(and itself) when, in reality, it is but a shell of its former self. Elite self-delusion is still very much with us. Universities pride themselves as centers of rational inquiry and intellectual pursuit but have become brain cancers of the modern world. The discrepancy between refined demeanor and lowly character among the aristocrats was not unlike the discrepancy between the conceit of principles and corruption of power among the current elites.

The central theme of communism wasn’t vulgarity but the dignity of the common. If anything, its stress on discipline, organization, and restraint frowned upon conspicuous excess more associated with capitalism(and even the nobility). Communism could be crude, brutal, and thick-skulled, and yes, their pageantry could be kitschy and tasteless, but it generally discouraged wallowing in any kind of excess(except rounding up class enemies for persecution or worse). Anarchists, what with their spirit of revelry, were more prone to vulgarity. And, the likes of the Antifa aren’t really of the Left but essentially consumer-capitalist degenerates for whom radicalism is just a brand, like punk rock.

Of course, the mob will always be crude and vulgar, but that’s regardless of social system or ideology. Strelnikov and Yevgraf in DOCTOR ZHIVAGO are many things, but they are not vulgar. Their new order isn’t about letting the mob run wild(or about populism) but shaping them into the New Man(and if anything, vulgarity had some value as resistance AGAINST communist rigidity and moralism: blue jeans and rock n roll). Communism could be culturally philistine, especially in its overblown propaganda and tiresome parades. But as an ideology centered on prole pride and dignity, it sought to chisel-and-hammer the masses into an ideal(and, in that, had something in common with Fascism). It had a spartan quality in stripping frills off the essence. It was like secular Protestantism.

And, even if we concede the refinement of aristocrats, how many people got to partake in high-born privilege? Only a handful while the rest were denied the most basic rights(by modern standards). It was snotty privilege for the few on the backs of the toiling masses. Modernity, in recognizing the potential of dignity in every man, could no longer tolerate refinement for the few based on hardship for the many. (If communism and capitalism proved one thing, it’s that variants  of aristocratism keep cropping up. Still, the reason why people don’t want to return to monarcho-aristocracy as official policy is because modern ideologies, at least in theory, recognize that all men should equally be bound by the law, whereas monarcho-aristocracy denies even this basic right.) 

In the advanced West, communism came to be condemned as punishing the well-deserved success of free individuals, but in more backward parts of the world with little or no tradition of Rule of Law and property rights but with heavy legacy of class/caste power and privileges, it could be seen as punishing the undeserved wealth and privileges of reactionary and/or corrupt elites. Context matters. Surely, taking the wealth of those who work is different from taking the wealth of those who don’t work. Much of aristocratic wealth was inherited and unearned. But communism’s fatal flaw grew out of the misperception that bourgeois wealth was more the product of parasitism than industry. Ironically, Karl Marx didn’t see it that way and knew all too well of the tremendous productive power of the bourgeoisie, the real problem being over-production and ruthless competition; but communist regimes hardly made a distinction between the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy when it came to wealth appropriation, not least because communism first came to power in relatively backward nations with insufficient capital development and where aristocratic elements, often in dalliance with the nascent bourgeoisie, still held considerable sway. At any rate, communism could only be brutal because it mostly came to power in pre-industrial or at best semi-industrial nations. Karl Marx had meant for communism to inherit the wealth and industry created by capitalism, but most communist nations had to build industry, and there was no classic Marxist formula for doing that. As capitalist incentives were out of the question, the only option was ideological fervor, and when that flamed out, the whip.

DOCTOR ZHIVAGO and THE LAST EMPEROR could be deemed ‘reactionary’ only from the hardline communist perspective but not from a liberal/conservative one — what is most 'conservative' about them is the style, not the message, but then plenty of Soviet movies were made in the 'classical' style once experimentalism was branded as 'formalist' or 'adventurist'. There’s no indication in DOCTOR ZHIVAGO that Lean or Bolt hankered for the Good Old Days of Tsarist rule. Rather, the movie laments the brutality and violence of the Revolution and the Civil War while fully sympathizing with the need for change. And the whole point of THE LAST EMPEROR is how Puyi attained meaning simply as a man, one who ties his own shoelaces, one no less or no more deserving than any other man. There isn't a hint of suggestion that China should turn back the clock, though there is an elegiac quality — for every gain, there is a loss — intrinsic to historical epics; one thing for sure, it may have been, along with Akira Kurosawa's RAN, the last-emperor-of-cinema,  the kind that makes you say with a mix of wonderment, nostalgia, and sadness, "they sure don't make 'em like that anymore." There is a bit of irony in the title as the Last Emperor of China was really Mao. Mao restored humanity to Puyi but gave up his own in pursuit of power as the new god-emperor under heaven; but then, did any Chinese emperor, at least since the first one, wield the kind of power that Mao did?

The Bertolucci that made THE LAST EMPEROR was hardly a communist. He'd mellowed with age and with the Age. The Italian Communist Party lost its luster by the 80s. Few in the West believed in revolution anymore. Also, horror stories about Mao’s China had turned from trickle to a flood, sometimes with the approval of the new regime that invited Western scholars and journalists to share the tales of the survivors; it was a useful way to legitimize the new path of deo-Mao-ization against the hardliners who, though out of power, were still present. So, Bertolucci who made THE LAST EMPEROR was not the same man who made 1900. He was also warming to Buddhism(just as Jean-Luc Godard became interested in spirituality in the 80s, though without becoming religious), soon to be the case with Oliver Stone as well. Both men sought a certain detachment from the great betrayals of the 20th century; ideological fervor and the dream of heaven-on-earth were no longer enough. Bertolucci gave up his willful naivete about communism, and Oliver Stone presented Mao as a dark figure in NIXON. LITTLE BUDDHA and HEAVEN & EARTH suggested new horizons.

But even Bertolucci’s earlier communism had been more a faith than a conviction. In a way, his other movie that most resembles THE LAST EMPEROR is his first, BEFORE THE REVOLUTION, a story about a privileged bourgeois youth playing at radical chic. Bertolucci always knew of this tension, that his communism was more an article of faith(a communion) than a matter of commitment. (In the film SPIDER'S STRATAGEM, it turns out the communist hero-martyr was really an informant for the Fascists, or a rat; and to redeem himself and salvage his reputation, he plots his own assassination with his distraught comrades to make it seem like the Fascists done it. It becomes a-riddle-wrapped-inside-a-mystery-in-an-enigma and may have been a commentary on the origins of Christianity, in which case communism could be seen less as the prophecy of Moses-like Marx than as secularized continuation of the Catholic Tradition. At any rate, Bertolucci, a bourgeois narcissist playing at Marxist radical, would have identified with the ambiguity-riddled hero-martyr-traitor in the film.) For many 20th century Italian artists and intellectuals, communism was simply a replacement for Christianity. Something to preach but not really to practice. Something to dream of but not really to strive for.

Most of Christian History wasn't about Europeans acting Christian but playacting Christianity through arts, music, and ceremony. The appeal of Marxism was similar to educated Westerners.  Just like most Christian elites were wary of theocracy, Western Marxists didn't want an ideocracy; they preferred Marxism as a lifestyle than a life. They wanted communism as faith, a ‘spiritual’ compass with far-off prophecy, which always kicked the revolutionary can down the road, like Little Orphan Annie singing about how Tomorrow is always a day ahead. What they really wanted was to keep living(and living-it-up) in a liberal bourgeois order where they could indulge in all manner of individual freedoms, much of them having nothing to do with communism. (Consider the yacht-owning ‘communists’ in Lina Wertmuller’s SWEPT AWAY. The American actor Sterling Hayden once said he joined the communist party and bought a yacht on the same day.) Indeed, it’s difficult to think of a film artist more self-indulgently bourgeois than Bertolucci, the man who wanted to have the cake and eat it too. It’s like white elites trying to gain extra ‘woke’ points by confessing their ‘white privilege’, which only elevates them a few notches more in the hierarchy.

Perhaps, communism’s appeal to Italians was as Protestantism-by-other-means. Protestantism became associated with Northern Europe that far surpassed the Latin Catholic South in science, philosophy, industry, and even the arts. And yet, because Catholicism had become so baked into the Italian cake, especially with the presence of the Vatican in Rome, it was too late to switch faiths. Besides, what would have been the point of switching faiths in a secularizing age? At any rate, Catholicism had come to be associated with corruption, bureaucracy, lethargy, indulgence, and even decadence. One big empty spiritual fashion show, like what Fellini lampooned in his ROMA. In contrast, communism had a hardy spartan spirit. Catholic Church preached justice but lacked the levers of power. Fascism had power but seemed deficient in justice. In contrast, communism promised power + justice. Communism was driven by devotion and commitment, like the stark piety of Protestantism. 

Furthermore, to many Italian intellectuals, both Fascism and Catholicism amounted to little more than pomp and hype; they lacked substance. Communism, in contrast, was about getting to the heart of the matter and putting on brass knuckles, the ultimate combination of justice and power. And communism gained considerable traction as the face of resistance against the Fascists and the Nazis in Western Europe. Later, Maoism appealed to certain segments of Western European intellectuals as a neo-puritanical crusade against the quasi-catholicism of the Soviet Union grown sclerotic with bureaucratization. They also drew inspiration from ragtag communists in Cuba and Vietnam who, though far out-matched materially, gave the American Empire the fight of its life. (To be sure, plenty of non-communist and even anti-communist movements succeeded as well in gaining independence from imperialism. Europeans, left and right, also suspected America was supporting anti-colonialist movements just so it could take the place of Europeans as the new hegemon.) Of course, the China of the Western Imagination was nothing like the real thing, one big mad-house gulag. Even though Bertolucci was never exactly a Maoist(unlike his hero Jean-Luc Godard who immersed himself in My-Private-Mao-daho for several years), he was nothing if not a man of fashion and couldn't resist the tectonic effects of May 68, especially as it was followed in August by the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia. There was the sense in the air that Old School Leftism no longer embodied the new spirit, and many began to lionize the Third World as the real breeding ground for revolution — besides, it was safer for Western Leftists if the revolutions were happening in faraway places. And China exploited this to the hilt, though the world would soon be shocked by Nixon’s meeting with Mao.

By the time Bertolucci directed THE LAST EMPEROR, the Marxist(and Maoist) fire had run its course in Western Europe. Western leftists soured on Vietnam when the Boat People tragedy hit the news cycle. Revelations about Cambodia were even more distressing. Also, Soviet Union ended up with its own Vietnam in Afghanistan. And even though Ronald Reagan was supposed to be an arch-villain, there he was shaking hands and making nice with Gorby. 
And revelations in the aftermath of Deng’s open door policy could no longer sustain Western leftist myths about Mao and his legacy. Even China scholars who’d been sympathetic had to concede the Chairman was a monster, destroyer of millions, and wrecker of culture. 

Bertolucci was never a thinker but a fashionista with a bird’s eye for gorgeous things. He was a follower, not a leader, of the Zeitgeist, so it’s hardly surprising that his leftism mellowed in line with the larger culture and morphed into a New Age brand of Buddhism(with Keanu Reeves playing Siddhartha in a shampoo commercial). In the 1970s, Pier Paolo Pasolini had been onto Bertolucci’s shifty character. As a fellow leftist, Pasolini once played older brother to Bertolucci but called him out as a sell-out and phony when THE LAST TANGO IN PARIS was released(and hailed by the bourgeoisie), expressing sexuality as chic decadence than hotbed of revolution. Pasolini was right about Bertolucci being a phony but for the wrong reasons as LAST TANGO is Bertolucci’s finest work(especially the first and last 30 minutes) with something approaching real characters and emotions; at last, Bertolucci put aside the radical poseuring and dug into bourgeois angst that he understood all too well. (With paper-thin characters, THE CONFORMIST is for the eyes only.)

As for the Chinese, what was the appeal of spartan-communism? Many of Mao’s generation came to regard Old China’s culture and values as weak and ineffectual, lacking in vigor and vitality. China had refined itself into apathy and effeminacy, passivity and solipsism. China not only found itself defenseless against the West but again small Japan that, perhaps due to its martial-samurai culture, had kept excessive refinement in check and had been quicker to modernize. If the military caste had the most prestige in Japanese society — even with abolishment of the samurai system, the elites were steeped in samurai mentality — , the literati had the most respect in China. Indeed, the bureaucracy was filled with men who'd demonstrated the finest skills in calligraphy and Confucian sophistry than by any proof of real world experience or ability. Even though the Confucian literati bureaucrats were far from all-powerful, their moral and cultural authority hampered central authority with a political philosophy that idealized the wise ruler as being above the fray and lending an ear to the better educated advisers(who, in reality, mastered the art of flattery to gain favors for themselves). Manners mattered more than manhood among the literati-bureaucracy. This was different from the dynamics of checks-and-balances in the West that regulated heated competition among active participants. In the Chinese case, the political authority was dissipated under moral & cultural authority  of the Confucian scholar class that favored refined 'harmony' above all else, disdaining any sign of individuality as rude and disruptive, even if the positive spirit embodied in the initiative pointed to advancement in key areas. If Western checks-and-balances resulted from excessive energization of society, the Chinese counterpart was the process and product of enervation. Worse, if Confucianists guided the rulers with enervating ‘sage advice'(or pompous-talk), the eunuchs employed tactics of intrigue with gossip and innuendo to fuel paranoia in the court.

In the Christian West(though not so much in the Byzantine East), there was a clear distinction between the church and the state; they overlapped but had clearly distinct spheres. Church specialized in holy matters while the state dealt with worldly matters. Thus, the holy-schmoly sermonizing of the church had limited reach. In China, Confucianism was both political philosophy and a kind of cultural spirituality, rendering the secular realm into a spiritual(or superstitious) realm as well. Therefore, much more was at stake in being emperor. He had to be near-perfect and god-like as the supreme patriarch. There was less room for error for the all-wise and all-knowing emperor. To maintain this perfectionist aura, the emperor feared to do much lest his near-divine image of infallibility be tarnished, much like a Wing Chun master with his mystical notions of hand-to-hand combat fears to face a real fighter in the ring. Thus, the emperor became a psychological prisoner of power. (Currently, Biden’s handlers increasingly prevent him from taking questions from journalists and making speeches because the cult of the man who received the most votes in US history must be maintained at all costs.)
Manchus conquered China as semi-barbarians with fewer inhibitions regarding the use of power but were eventually lulled into the system as Chinese culture was the only game in town in East Asia back then. After all, for any power to be justified in the long run, it must be sustained by a set of ideas and values. If the emperor was hemmed in by Confucian ideals, did the real power rest with the scholar-bureaucrats? No, because Confucianism instilled its theorists and practitioners with dainty refinement that made for status anxiety and inaction. Obsessed with manners and saving face, they were averse to rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty(figuratively and literally). China's energies were further stifled by Confucianism’s proscriptions against the merchant class. While merchants were everywhere, they were despised as a class, indeed regarded as parasites; this led successful merchants to invest their wealth into turning their sons into scholar-bureaucrats than bigger merchants. Then, it is no wonder so many Chinese of Mao’s generation took to communism. The Red Way had red tape and had an intensely activist view of politics. It was about passion and action, the rightness of force and violence; it was about revolution than repetition. Things would finally get done according to plan and decree. It was manly and militarist. And in their struggle for power and unity of purpose, the leaders and the led wore the same clothes, ate the same food, and worked hand-in-glove to gain victory. 

Furthermore, the Manchus feared using the nationalist card because the Chinese might rise up to overthrow not only foreign devils but Manchus themselves in the bargain, and indeed, during the Taiping Rebellion the Manchus called on Western support against the mass uprising.
THE LAST EMPEROR suggests Chinese weakness predated Western Imperialism. The aura of Chinese might rested on complacency in the absence of viable competitors(until the West finally arrived at the doorstep) and on confidence that China, being a superior civilization, would absorb the nearby barbarians, even as the conquerors. The relative complacency provided space for mystical fantasies about power and politics, as if Chinese might would be assured indefinitely with the proper displays of grandeur and performance of rituals. Every material power wraps itself with symbols and myths; the trick is not to conflate myth with matter. The validity of any theory can be tested in practice, but China could afford the luxury of espousing their myths because it was relatively isolated as a civilization and had overcome all the barbarian invasions. A Kung Fu artist, convinced of his invincibility without facing challengers in the ring, is liable to believe in his own BS. 

Indeed, by the time Puyi ascended to the throne, all that was left was the myth without any material basis of power. It was further complicated because Manchus had an ambiguous role in Chinese history, rather like the Macedonians who steamrolled over the Greeks. War-like semi-barbarian Manchus(with the help of Mongol archers) took advantage of China’s decay and divisions. (Puyi in prison explains why he went over to the Japanese; the Chinese denounced the Manchu dynasty as un-Chinese and desecrated ancestral tombs, whereas the Japanese, with an emperor of their own, expressed sympathy.) Long before the challenge from the West, something had to have been deeply flawed in China if a bunch of northern semi-barbarians could have so easily conquered and taken over. Barbarians may be brutal and backward, but more than make up for their vulgarity with vitality, something missing among the Chinese(and the later Romans who found themselves utterly defenseless against the Germanic barbarians). To be sure, the Chinese prided themselves as having the superior civilization despite being conquered on occasion because the conquerors invariably became absorbed into Chinese ways. But, this didn’t happen with the Western Imperialists who were not only better armed but possessed of civilizational pride of their own, with practice to match theory.

 Now, how one feels about communism isn’t only a matter of ideology but taste. Some would say communism is dull and drab, but the same could be said for Protestantism. But for true believers, the lack of color and 'flavor' is not only compensated by but is intrinsic to the very fabric of piety and purism. This can be no fun, but there is something to be said of the Northern Protestantism in BABETTE’S FEAST where the masterly French chef-ess not only feels pity for the drab Northerners but admiration for their simple and selfless devotion; indeed, they are deserving of her feast precisely because of their virtues. (Such nuanced view is missing in FANNY AND ALEXANDER where Lutheran purity is gothic hell of mental torment and physical torture, contra the worldly revelers, quasi-pagan fantasists, and cunning Jews who, for all their faults and vices, are celebrated as the true face of humanity.)

Still, spartanism can be admired for its hardy and no-nonsense elemental qualities. The Ancient Spartans didn’t create great art and maintained a barracks society, but the stark brutalism had an integrity all its own. Even as I acknowledge the Athenians took Greek Culture to its highest peak, my personal preference has always been for Spartans at gut level. The communist troops standing attention at the railway station in the opening scene of THE LAST EMPEROR have that spartanist quality. They are not like the palace toy soldiers that surrounded Puyi, himself a toy emperor, all his life.  Likewise, one can't entirely resist the National Socialist alternative of regeneration and health in Bob Fosse’s CABARET that is cluttered with degenerate freaks and perverts. To be sure, National Socialists demonstrated how the look can be simple and stylish.

Manchus had the vitality to conquer China but came to be absorbed by China in the long run. As such, they became both masters over the Chinese and mastered by Chinese culture. This tendency of China to absorb and digest even hostile conquering tribes was a kind of strength, just like Christian Rome's eventual spiritual hegemony over the Germanic Barbarians who conquered it. But with historical acceleration in the modern era, the slow digestive process of foreign elements could no longer guarantee the survival of China. China needed to become strong fast in mind and body; and, it had to break out of the dynastic cycle. Manchus had conquered as men with big balls but fell under the machinations of ball-less eunuchs. Facing the future once the victory was theirs, Mao and his cohorts feared falling into the same cyclical trap. Thus, a decisive break had to be made with the past. Even today, it’s what the CCP worries about the most, not least because the Soviet Union ultimately repeated the Tsarist cycle of rise and fall.

Given the state of China in the 20th century, it isn’t difficult to figure out why refinement was anathema to the communists. Mao: “A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.”  It was associated with the old way of weak privileged men with long finger nails feeling smugly entitled for having passed eight-legged-essay exams and hankering for sex with sickly women with deformed feet. And later, refinement(or at least an air of privilege) came to be associated with Western decadence among the collaborator class. We are shown this side of Puyi as a spendthrift playboy. Refinement and indulgence seem to be at odds, but elite privilege covets both sophistication and extravagance — what's the point of privilege if one cannot enjoy oneself? —, often resulting in 'tasteful' excess.  
While the communists weren't opposed to learning from the West — after all, their Marxist ideology was foreign — , they made a distinction between useful things(that improved China in technology and justice) and useless things(that encouraged servile imitation of Western excess), though in our time, the Jewish-controlled Western theory of justice revolves around the right(and-even-duty)-to-party-and-celebrate-deviancy. No wonder then the communists especially targeted Shanghai after they came to power. The communists rejected the sickly refinement of the old way and the slick luxuriance of the capitalist way and regarded both as glossed-over grossness, self-indulgence made palatable with manners and/or attitude. As a result, the communists missed out on lots of good things, the products of freedom that can exist only in tolerance of vice and excess, but also gained in unity of spirit and purpose. Current Vietnam, though plenty corrupt like most developing nations, appears less soul-corrupted than Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea because its prolonged communist tenure instilled several generations with some sense of national independence, pride of struggle, and martial spirit. And China’s sense of pride and sovereignty owes partly to the fact that communist rule built an independent power base from ground up. In contrast, the political foundations of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are largely foreign.

The Last Emperor works simply as a dazzling, exotic costume drama. It is astonishing to learn that at the dawn of the twentieth century, China was ruled by an absolute monarchy that had not changed much in more than 2,000 years.

According to Jung Chang, China at the beginning of the 20th century had undergone great transformation, thanks in large part to none other than Empress Dowager whose bad rap is undeserved.

Now, Jung Chang is given to hyperbole — her book on Mao is pure invective — and perhaps she’s giving the Empress Dowager too much credit just to be contrarian or a late-blooming ‘sisterist’. But, the movie’s impression of the Empress Dowager as a crusty old dragon-lady breathing her last is almost certainly the stuff of legend(though it makes for great cinema).

Even though the emperors had absolute power, they were little more than prisoners. They were never alone and were not allowed to do anything for themselves.

The Chinese court was an extreme case, but there are similarities with the current situation in the West. Is Joe Biden really president, the most powerful man on planet, the leader of the free world, the commander-in-chief of the lone superpower? Or is he a hapless senile puppet who does whatever Jews whisper into his ear? I can’t help thinking he’s more a puppet than even Puyi ever was. And even though Donald Trump was loud and brash, what did his four years amount to? The would-be swamp-drainer filled his administration with the likes of John Bolton, Bill Barr, Mike Pompeo, and other beltway regulars. And Obama, the great Obama, Mr. Hope and Dreams, what did he do other than shine Jewish shoes for eight years? And look at the white goy personnel in the Deep State. They might as well be a bunch of eunuchs because they act like they got no balls. Chris Wray is a cuck-roach of the Jews.
Old China was dynastic whereas the US is ‘democratic’, but the head-of-state is a virtual prisoner in both systems. Genuine reform, rendered almost impossible. Even when Trump tried to change a few things, he found himself blocked on all sides, led into detour after detour that took only him back to where he started, like with the character in TRUMAN SHOW who is always led around in circles. Anyway, the current white cuckeroos are a sure sign that you don’t need to literally lose your balls to act a castrated maggot. Today’s Anglo Cucks(or Anglucks) in US, UK, Canada, and Australia might as well be castrated dogs at the feet of Jews. 

However, this system became most bizarre when children became emperors. Child rulers are inevitable in monarchies, but they also reduce it to absurdity.

But if the emperor is an idiot, better he be a child than an adult(as others will manage affairs for the duration of his childhood). Problem is the idiot child will eventually grow to manhood and take up the mantle of power. It probably would have been better for Russia if Tsar Nicholas remained perpetually a five year old.

Hereditary monarchy has many benefits. Every social order needs a supreme executive. In normal circumstances, laws can be enforced and policies can be executed by bureaucrats, police, and judges. But in exceptional circumstances, where decisions cannot be based on settled laws and practices, executives need some discretionary power.

But any autocrat or dictator can do that. Authority need not be hereditary. Also, as a hereditary ruler didn’t struggle for power and earn it, he may lack the strength and will intrinsic to real power. By hereditary rights in THE GODFATHER, Fredo should have been next in line after Sonny, but he got ‘passed over’ because Michael is clearly the brighter and stronger personality(and proved his worth by making his moves and taking his chances). Imagine an order ruled by a Fredo. (We had it with George W. Bush, and what did that do for conservatism?)

Sometimes terrible things have to be done to preserve society. Rioters need to be shot, for instance. But in such circumstances, ordinary policemen and officials fear to do what is necessary because their offices are conditional, and they can be blamed and punished for their missteps. Thus it is important for there to be someone who can take full responsibility during a crisis. Such a decision-maker cannot answer to any other mortal. He must be guided only by his sense of what is required by the common good. And since the common good can sometimes require killing, the decider must be immune from punishment for his actions. In short, the whole political order depends on a decision-maker who is above the law and immune to it.
An executive who can be removed from office, however, cannot employ unpopular measures even to save the nation. Thus the best executive rules for life.

But that’s all theory. Bloody Sunday haunted Tsar Nicholas to his final days. For sure, he wasn’t let off the hook because he happened to be Tsar. If anything, even those who’d revered him came to doubt his legitimacy. Where is it written that a hereditary ruler is immune from punishment for taking extraordinary measures? Sure, the state over which he presides may not take actions against him, but the people might. The Shah of Iran was a monarch and employed brutal means to suppress dissent and uprisings, but he was chased out of the country just the same. Also, hereditary rulers are usually unqualified to make crucial decisions because of their insularity and detachment. Life in the court is what they knew for most of their lives. Should monarchs have been closer to the masses and kissed babies? But then, the very quality that distinguishes them, their regality and aura of magnificence, would vanish. 

Furthermore, it’s far worse for a hereditary monarch to use violence because of the sentimentality factor. In the best case scenario, he’s regarded as the loving and caring father of the nation. Well, how would such a leader look if he ordered his goons to shoot a bunch of civilians? Executing a bunch of criminals or bandits is one thing. But what happens when people marching for bread or basic justice are gunned down at the king’s behest? The people will stop looking up to him as a father figure and hate him as a butcher tyrant.
If decisive/draconian action is necessary, the best bet is to go with a self-made dictator with sizable popular backing. Lenin, Mussolini, and Hitler could take extraordinary measures because a large segment of the population backed them as the Man of the Hour, the savior-slayer. Unlike monarchs whose power was handed to them on a silver platter, strongmen gained power by making a compelling case before the people. Thus, the power is regarded as representing the will of the people. Indeed, unless it’s a puppet dictator installed by a foreign power, no dictator can come to power without sufficient popular and/or institutional support. The critical mass of support from the anxious elites and/or angry masses must be reached. When Hitler made his case before the nation, plenty of German industrialists and masses were won over. When Fidel Castro purged society of traitors and class enemies, he had the blessing of countless Cubans.

We need to approach any political theory with a grain of salt because practice never lives up to theory. Diehard communists will say communism hasn’t really been discredited because REAL COMMUNISM has never been tried, and monarchists will say they only support an Ideal Monarchy, but no such thing has ever existed. It’s like the tooth fairy.

But how does he attain his office? If an executive is elected—especially if the election falls during a crisis—he cannot risk doing anything unpopular either, even if it is necessary to preserve society.

But what if popular demand calls for bloodlust? What if the majority is fully supportive of rounding up ‘enemies’ and slaughtering them? How many Americans protested the harsh treatment of German-Americans during World War I? How many Americans protested the ‘internment’ of Japanese-Americans? Blood thirst can be plenty popular. Many ‘woke’ types would be fully supportive of a state that would take away the guns, free speech rights, and the properties of all ‘white supremacists’ and ‘haters’. Sometimes the executive rejects political violence not because it is unpopular but too popular(and barbaric), the signs of mob mentality. Many Russians were upset with Putin because he didn’t take more aggressive actions on Ukraine. A truly skillful leader fans populist passions but keeps them in check to send a clear message to enemies and rivals that mob violence could engulf them but for his magnanimous restraint as leader. Speak softly and carry a big stick. 

Hereditary monarchy is thus one of the best ways to confer the fullest package of executive powers. Unfortunately, it often confers such powers upon unworthy parties.

In other words, theory doesn’t live up to practice. If hereditary rule often favors fools and idiots, what’s the use? It’s all the worse because the ruler can’t be voted out, in which case he must be removed by force, even assassinated. Just as the executive must sometimes take decisive action and kill people, there are times when someone or a group of men must take extraordinary measures to murder the executive, hereditary or otherwise. At the very least, democracy allows for a legal means to vote out the moron(though, to be sure, a 'democratic' leader may be just a puppet of the oligarchs and the deep state, in which case he'll just be replaced by another puppet), but a hereditary moron must be taken out if he refuses to abdicate — not that abdication is the ideal solution as even great tragedy awaited Russia upon the fall of the Tsar. But then, the new boss, worthy or unworthy, has set a dangerous precedent and has blood on his hands, fostering paranoia and more repressive measures to prevent a similar fate for himself.

Why did this farce continue? Part of it, surely, was superstition. The Chinese seemed unable to shake the belief that the Qing still enjoyed the Mandate of Heaven. Another part of it was the hope that the emperor would be restored, which did happen briefly in 1917. But the main part of it was probably corruption. The court provided a living for thousands. What else was a eunuch going to do in the twentieth century? The Forbidden City was a vast treasure house, which the courtiers were systematically plundering. When the teenaged Puyi ordered an inventory of the treasury, it was burned to the ground to cover the theft.

Interesting, and yet it is not unlike what we now have in the West. It is a kind of ‘superstition’ or an article of faith that the West is a ‘liberal democracy’ founded on individual freedom and ‘human rights’. The US is said to lead a rules-based-order. The best-and-the-brightest are supposedly at the helm. The deep state is manned by ‘adults in the room’. so it likes to tell itself. The power of myth and mantra that keeps the system chugging along.
Now, it’s true that the US deep state has plenty of smart and capable people, but the ultimate power is with Jews, and the current system is really an ethnocracy where hapless goyim suck up to Jewish Power. Any other characterization is a myth, a superstition. US is really a Jewish-controlled globo-imperialist power that violates rules all over the world, acts like a gangster state, financially plunders the world, and spreads cultural degeneracy & lunacy(mostly in the form of globo-homo and BLM), but Western elites remain doped in the self-flattering illusion that they represent the End of History or at least the 'right side of history'.
The system continues despite all the corruption and mendacity because Jews control just about everything that matters — it's like it's nearly impossible to get the truth out in THE INVASIONS OF THE BODY SNATCHERS because the pod people have taken control of all the agencies and networks. FBI cooks up lies about ‘white supremacism’ to get more funding. Pentagon looks for new enemies to feed the military-industrial complex. Blacks in government are leeches, from Barack Obama to some clerk in the Department of Diversity Whatever. So, when Trump came along and said he was going to drain the swamp, the deep state reacted much like the eunuchs who burned down the warehouse in THE LAST EMPEROR. Of course, Trump didn’t really mean it and just wanted some respect and acceptance from the elites, but the deep state was too spooked to give him a fair deal. Jews and the deep state pulled every trick in the book to oust Trump and install senile puppet Biden, a figure more pathetic than Puyi.

The only office where there is no divide between private and public interests is a hereditary monarch. His whole life, from birth to death, is dedicated to the public good. Thus he serves as an example to everyone else. But when the monarch is a puppet of scheming courtiers serving who knows what ends while merely going through the motions of serving the public good, it only makes sense for more humble functionaries to start looking out for themselves as well.

Again, you’re confusing theory with practice. A hereditary monarch, no less than any sleazy politician, is always surrounded by opportunists, hyenas, and masters of intrigue. Also, if the monarch is less intelligent than those around him, he will never have their respect; and they will play him like a piano, much like Bush II got played by the men around him. Germany was better off with a weak monarch and a strong chancellor in the form of Bismarck. Things got worse when Wilhelm the spoiled brat insisted on playing strong ruler despite his deficiency in statecraft and diplomacy.

It is astonishing that the Communists did not kill Puyi. Mao’s regime was the bloodiest in human history. What would have been one more life? Yes, the Communists believed that man is born good, does wrong only because of society, and can be reformed. But murdering their opposition was quicker and easier. There’s never been any shortage of Chinese.

Puyi was small potatoes. Communists knew he'd been a puppet all his life and never wielded any real power. Also, precisely because he served the Japanese, he had no credit with the Chinese. When the Bolsheviks killed the Tsar, he still had many people who longed for his return. Puyi had no such following. Even anti-communists despised him and didn’t want to touch him with a ten-foot pole. 

Given his notoriety, the communists found him useful for propaganda purposes. In a way, Albert Speer was also spared for propaganda purposes. He'd played a key role in the National Socialist regime and could have been hanged like the others. But he had some finer qualities and could be used as a moral lesson on how even honorable men could be seduced by evil; he could also serve as the human face of rehabilitation and partial redemption. It’s funny how these things work out. The US executed plenty of lower-level Japanese ‘war criminals’ but spared Hirohito and spread the falsehood that he was just some absent-minded marine biologist who was misled by the military. US had no qualms about incinerating countless innocent babies with firebombs and nukes, BUT the man who actually played a role in Japan’s tragic destiny was not only spared but even celebrated and praised as an icon of democracy: What the US did with Hirohito, the Chinese Communists did with Puyi. Still, Puyi served ten years in prison and paid his dues and then some, which cannot be said of Hirohito who just got a slap on the wrist for his collaboration that could be seen as craven or self-sacrificing(because he was stripped of his most precious possession, the cult of divinity).
The Russian director Aleksandry Sokurov made a film about Hirohito(and MacArthur) called THE SUN, hardly a sumptuous epic like THE LAST EMPEROR but a more thoughtful treatment of history as tragicomedy. THE LAST EMPEROR, in contrast, is mostly humorless in scaling everything toward the epic when, if anything, Puyi’s life was as much Looney Tunes and Marx Brothers(or Puyi-Herman) as the stuff of epic history.

Another problem is the Japanese aren’t given their due. Sure, they were imperialists and aggressors. Sure, they bossed Puyi around and pulled all manner of dirty tricks. But they were engaged in a global game of power(like all the great powers) and surely didn’t think of themselves as evil or villainous. But, the Japanese, like Donald Sutherland’s character in 1900, go out of their way to come across as vile and vicious as possible. Ryuichi Sakamoto, who gave a memorable performance in MERRY CHRISTMAS MR. LAWRENCE, is a cartoon baddy whose whole shtick amounts to, “I’m psychotic crazy Jap, and I roast Chinese babies for breakfast.” It makes Puyi seem less a dupe than a victim. It isn’t very convincing.

It was to break with such traditions that the Cultural Revolution was launched, but on Bertolucci’s depiction, it simply ended up recapitulating the old regime as farce.

There are certain parallels between the Old Order and the New Order(with Mao as emperor), but the contrasts are more about force than farce. The old system was obviously on its last legs, robbed even of the will to continue. The cancerous deep state eunuchs had amassed too much influence, and the ruler remained in the dark.
In contrast, Mao, even in old age, was very much in the game. He couldn’t be contained like the latter-day Manchu emperors. If anything, the horrific Cultural Revolution was proof of Mao’s will, his power to move heaven and earth.

Following the Great Leap, Mao almost had his Puyi-moment and understandably so. The Great Leap(and the fall out with the Soviet Union) was so ruinous that the pragmatists in the Party sought to relegate Mao to god-emperor status shorn of direct control of the state. Mao would keep his perch as the supreme leader of China but leave others to do the heavy-lifting of statecraft(and fixing the economy and lessening tensions with the Soviet Union). Mao came to resent this. He complained of being ignored and not consulted on key issues. He felt like he was being reduced to a figurehead, a symbol.
There’s a scene in THE LAST EMPEROR when the young Puyi hears the clamor of student protest beyond the walls. He wants to see them, hear them, touch them. He wants to be one with history, a participant. But his servants are also his wardens. He cannot leave and make contact with history happening outside. In contrast, Mao had the will and means to reach out to youths and turn them into a hammer of history. Unlike Puyi and so many paper-emperors before him, Mao was a true emperor who not only amassed great power but wrested it back when taken from him — and when the Red Guards refused to heed Mao's plea and continued with the violence, the military was swiftly mobilized to restore order. If the Qing dynasty in its decline was too ineffectual, Mao proved to be too effectual. Both excessive weakness and excessive power can be curses.

The end of The Last Emperor is enigmatic. The elderly Puyi buys a ticket to visit the Forbidden City as a tourist… he rummages under the throne’s cushions and finds a cricket cage that he had hidden there… This is, of course, pure fantasy. Crickets only live a couple months. So this is a magic cricket. How do we interpret this ending? First, we can ask what the cricket means. The cricket represents the reemergence of something that has gone into hibernation for a very long time. The kowtow, of course, is a symbol of imperial authority, brought back by the Red Guards.

It’s more a dream cricket than a magic cricket. Perhaps, the real Puyi did return to the Forbidden Palace as a tourist, perhaps not. What matters is it works as a dream, maybe his last one. The cricket represents Puyi himself. Just like the cricket is held inside a jar, Puyi was always contained by larger forces. He was never free. Even as emperor, he was like a queen bee trapped inside a hive or a critter in a flea circus.
In the end, both Puyi and the cricket are free. Puyi is no longer an emperor confined within the walls of the Forbidden City, no longer a puppet of the Japanese, and no longer a prisoner of Mao. He is just himself. And the cricket emerges from the jar, old and withered but finally free. When the old Puyi stares at the throne on which he once sat as the Son of Heaven, he likely feels pangs of nostalgia. He was born emperor and, even in the twilight of the Manchus, revered by many. He once regarded himself as the center of the universe. But in his old age, he is just a man and finally free. There’s something abnormal in being a slave or a king. A slave, though human, lives like an animal, a beast of burden. And a king, though human, plays god. As both emperor and puppet, Puyi learned what it’s like to be god and a slave. Now, he’s finally a man, no more and no less. There is grief of fallenness but also relief of normality. And in this, there is also a sense of gratitude. After all, man is just a man. Man as god-emperor is a myth and can only be sustained by an illusion, and to sustain that illusion, the ‘great man’ must follow the script. It’s like Hollywood movie stars can maintain the illusion of stardom only as puppets of producers, writers, and directors. For all their fame and fortune, they must do as told for every moment on the set. Sean Connery in real life was never the 007 of pop myth. Puyi as emperor was part of a pageant; there were glories to be sure, but the illusion required so much smoke-and-mirrors, so many lies, and of course, so much self-delusion.

In a way, THE LAST EMPEROR is also about cinema itself. Akira Kurosawa was called the ’emperor’ or tenno. Bertolucci was much celebrated following the success of THE CONFORMIST and THE LAST TANGO IN PARIS. It seemed as if he could do no wrong. Francis Ford Coppola was going to change Hollywood, and George Lucas had dreams of empire. But in the end, it was all an illusion. Kurosawa soon found himself in the gutter, unable to make movies. The much celebrated Bertolucci fell out of favor following the excesses of 1900 and lunacy of LUNA. Francis Ford Coppola never did change Hollywood. George Lucas did create an empire and made lots of money but also became a butt of jokes. KAGEMUSHA is especially interesting on the subject of reality and the illusion of power. In the 20th century, cinema became the most popular art, and for a time directors-as-auteurs were revered like gods and kings. But for all the talk of art and vision, so many forces conspired to tear them down. And in the end, it was an empire of illusion. There was the aptly titled HEAVEN’S GATE. Cimino thought he had the mandate of heaven to make the mother of all epics and soon found himself locked outside the gates of heaven.

An interesting facet of THE LAST EMPEROR is how East Asians, ancient and modern, tend toward power on the collective level as they are generally lackluster in qualities of individual expression. China today has been much transformed since a century ago, but it's still a hive society where most individuals don't amount to much on their own but may join together under proper leadership and guidance into a formidable power. Chinese lack the color and charisma to shine as idols and icons but can unite into an institutional force. It largely depends on who is at the helm.   

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