The Last Emperor

Comparison of space of the outside and inside world of Pu Yi

The life stages of Emperor Puyi as expressed through colours


Vittorio Storaro, a long time collaborator with Bernado Bertolucci has together build up a strong portfolio. Storaro is known to be a huge admirer of Carravaggio paintworks, where he often adapts the dramatic usage of Rembrandt lighting in the films he works on in defining his narrative space.

The Last Emperor is an ambitious multi-layered biopic of Pu Yi, the last monarch of China, transiting from being an Emperor to a citizen. Within this story of one ordinary man’s extraordinary life, the filmmaker has inscribed his vision of the intricate relations between art, ideology, and psychic experience. Cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro develops and refines his ideas about the ages of the colours and the use of descending order of the spectrum of light as signifiers in the vocabulary of the cinematic text, thus forming as another layer of narrative story to the film. Storaro creates a sense of fictive, imaginative but realistic space, by stylizing light and colour that somehow seem real and realistic to elucidate the action.

The film’s dialectics of light and colour becomes a dialectic of enlightment that can be understood as metaphors of Pu Yi’s world, The Forbidden City and the outside world, in The Forbidden City is a dark internal venue, closed within its traditions and unconscious of the world beyond its walls, while the outside world takes on the bright, unlimited external as its thesis to all that is open, modern and alive.

For Pu Yi, the world beyond the city is an absent presence. Both Pu Yi and the space define the physical limits of the young emperor’s world. The child’s point of view is bound by the roofs and towers of the City that surround him. Station on the rooftops and simultaneously performing a spectacular 360-degree tracking shot around the boundaries of the Forbidden City, the camera manipulates the framing and similarly defines these boundaries. The framing is repeated in several scenes, intensifying the spectator’s identification of Pu Yi’s limited angle of vision. Besides the manipulation of composition, lights and colours are used in place in constricting the narrative world of Pu Yi.

In the above scene, Pu Yi was urgently summoned by the Empress Dowager on her deathbed, arriving at the Forbidden City at dawn before the heir apparent becomes the new Emperor of China. This was done on purpose to illustrate Pu yi’s entrance into the darkness that is the palace that eventually becomes his prison. The utilization of low light, and the application of strong colour saturation narrows our vision in limiting our ability to clearly explore the entire space within the depicted frame.

Here I contrast the depiction of the exterior of the Forbidden City with the interior setting of the palace. Although it would be obvious to appropriate the use of tighter frames to depict closer and more constricted space, Storaro instead opted to portray both spaces as wide shots. I found this particularly interesting, because even though the palace was a symbol for Pu Yi’s confinement to his royal duties, there was still a sense of vastness within the palace, maybe not of space or freedom, but definitely a sense of unlimited power. Storaro also worked with the application and quantity of lights, where external scenes were well lit using mainly natural light sources, whereas the interior palace scenes were dimmer in some aspects that suggest the reliance of artificial lighting sources. There was also an apparent contrast in the colour scheme as a result of the lighting scheme, colours seemed lighter and more washed out in the external setting, while the interior setting depicted a darker overall tone of colours, perhaps to suggest the physical vastness of the forbidden city from the outside and the secured surroundings of the palace.

Besides using lights to distinguish between the external and internal worlds of Pu Yi’s existence, Storaro also used his practice of colour theory to narrate the film. He breaks up his colour scheme according to the different stages in Pu Yi’s life.