The Last Emperor | 1987
Bernardo Bertolucci’s visually luscious epic, charting the life of Pu Yi, the last imperial ruler of China, scored a first in being the first feature to be filmed in Beijing’s Forbidden City. Built between 1406 and 1420, the Chinese imperial palace served as the home of emperors from the Ming Dynasty to the end of the Qing Dynasty. The entrance is via the Tiananmen Gate on Tiananmen Square, and it now houses the Palace Museum.
It’s here that the young emperor gets the first intimation of his awesome position when he runs from The Hall of Supreme Harmony, under the dazzling yellow canopy, to glimpse assembled masses on the Courtyard of Supreme Harmony.
The lakes of the Forbidden City were in a state of disrepair, so the lakeside scene was filmed at the Kunming Lake in the gardens of Yiheyuan, the Summer Palace, in the Haidian District, about eight miles northwest of downtown Beijing.
The opening, ‘Manchuria, 1950’, is the main railway station at Changchun, capital of Jilin Province, an industrial city in the northeast. Here you can also find Manchukuo Palace, now a museum, which is the actual palace in which Pu Yi was installed as a puppet ruler by the Japanese from 1932 to 1945.
The arrival of Johnson (Peter O’Toole), initially cut from the theatrical release, and his departure, were filmed at the port of Dalian, in the south Liaoning Province, northeast China, dubbed ‘the Hong Kong of the North’. More scenes were shot around the colonial buildings of Dalian’s Zhongshan Square, designed by Russians in the 19th Century.
After the 1967 Cultural Revolution, the freed Pu Yi sees his old prison governor being marched off for re-education in a street alongside Tian’anmen Square back in Beijing. He eventually finds some kind of redemption working as a gardener in Beijing’s Botanical Gardens, Wo Fo Si Road, east of Xinshan Park in the Haidian District.
It’s not all China, though. Sets were built at the famous Cinecittà Studios outside Rome, and the prison courtyard is alongside the Centro Sperimentale di Cinomatogtafia, via Tuscolana 1524, built nearby in 1935 at the behest of Benito Mussolini.
The ‘Tientsin’ palace, where Pu Yi enjoys a gilded lifestyle in the 20s, is the Moorish Salon of the Palazzo dei Congressi (Palace of Congress), Viale Romagnosi 7 in Salsomaggiore, near to Parma. Built as the Grand Hotel des Thermes in the city famed for its thermal baths, the palace is now a conference and exhibition centre.