The Last Emperor factoids

Ryuichi Sakamoto and David Byrne appeared in person at the Quad Cinema Saturday to discuss their music for Bertolucci's The Last Emperor (1987), which the Quad screened before the talk. Both charmed the audience; Sakamoto, in particular, told many funny stories about his career and the filming.

Below are some facts I learned from the screening and reading around the internet:

1. Sakamoto noted that Byrne wrote the non-Western sounding themes for the score and Sakamoto wrote the Western-sounding themes. This seemed counterintuitive, but sure enough, the Main Title is Byrne (similar to the world music he was doing in the Bush of Ghosts era) and the heart-tugging string and brass tunes in the middle and end are Sakamoto. Both had assistance from professional scoremeister Hans Zimmer.

2. Sakamoto acted in the film, because his screen presence in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence had impressed Bertolucci. He doesn't consider himself an actor and wasn't too happy about playing a "fanatic fascist" in back-to-back films. He was contacted later about doing the score. Both Byrne and Sakamoto were hired as composers on short notice. Sakamoto was given a week to write his "cues" (themes), he asked for two weeks, and presented 64 cues at the end of that time (about half of which were used).

3. Bertolucci thought Sakamoto smiled too much in personal conversation and at the beginning of the filming, began speaking curtly to him to toughen him up for his role as a fanatic fascist. When Sakamoto met John Lone, who played the emperor Puyi, Lone said "you are my enemy" and also treated him callously. Oy, these method people.

4. The film has held up over the decades, and continues to garner critical praise despite some sniping about Eurocentric tourism, orientalism, and so forth. The Chinese government of the '80s imposed very few limitations on the script and production. They asked that one scene be removed where a camel drops a mound of dung on the young Puyi, saying it was not fitting treatment for an emperor. This explains a couple of shots of camels in the film that seem to be given more significance than they merited (e.g., a reaction shot of the emperor's face).

5. Victor Wong, an American actor of Chinese descent, plays a mentor to Puyi, but he doesn't do much mentoring. According to the Wikipedians, Wong got in arguments with the director over historical accuracies, and Bertolucci cut many of his scenes. The Wikipedians imply some cause-and-effect there but I couldn't find any support for it. The movie may have just been too long.

6. Bertolucci wanted Sakamoto's character to commit seppuku (harikiri) after the Japanese defeat in the film. Sakamoto refused to do it, so Bertolucci had to settle for an after-the-fact self-inflicted gunshot scene.