THE LAST EMPEROR (1987) [a Film Essay]

The Empress’ New Makeup

Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor retells the story of Pu Yi, the last emperor of China, during the region’s transition from an empire to a republic at the start of the 20th Century. Thrusted into rule at a young age, Pu Yi’s life is symbolically tied to what remains of the Manchurian ancestry of China. Sharing this intimate relationship to the titular character in The Last Emperor was his first wife, Empress Wanrong, played by Chinese-American actress Joan Chen. Much like the region of Manchuria, Wanrong went through several phases of cultural change, with the most obvious difference in her facial makeup. Juxtaposing the scenes’ mise-en-scène to Wanrong’s appearance, Empress Wanrong’s cosmetic changes in The Last Emperor reflects Manchuria’s cultural state.

In The Last Emperor, Empress Wanrong’s facial makeup changes with the state of Manchuria, the region once under rule by feudal China, where Pu Yi rules as the Emperor. With Pu Yi’s significant relationship to both entities, Wanrong’s body, or rather her face, would be allegorically connected to Manchuria. In fact, the film tracks the changes to both entities, starting off in the early years of Pu Yi’s reign. The audience, along with Pu Yi, first see Wanrong’s face at her betrothal to him. At this point of the film, Wanrong’s facial makeup, illuminated by the scene’s warm lighting, gives off a yellow tone similar to Pu Yi’s skin tone. By first seeing Wanrong only at this scene, viewers see what they saw on Wanrong’s face is the authentic visualisation of Wanrong. 477This sets Wanrong’s facial makeup in this scene at a zero-point, where the original is based upon. Also in this scene, the film’s mise-en-scène shows Manchuria, or China, still in its feudal culture and tradition. The characters, even the Scotsman Reginald Johnston, wore traditional imperial clothes while traditional opera performances entertained the guests during the ceremony. The palace is decorated with festive colours while Chinese music is heard. Growing up in this culture, the sights and sound holds to Pu Yi’s original visualisation of Manchuria. Much like what Pu Yi first exclaimed of his future wife, this feudal culture is just as “old-fashioned” (Bertolucci, “The Last Emperor”). As such, Wanrong’s yellow facial tone is seen as the original, just like the image of feudal China.

As Pu Yi accepts modernity and the Western culture into his life, and into China, Empress Wanrong’s facial makeup changes in colour too. While the royal family is playing tennis, Wanrong adopts a whitened facial makeup, distinctively different from the one on her betrothal. This new facial appearance lasts into the royal family’s exile to Tientsin, where modernity and Western culture surround their lives. Just as China develops under the Communist rule, the original Manchurian China represented by Pu Yi and Wanrong, develops under the Western influence at Tientsin, visually represented by the cultural diaspora in the mise-en-scène. In the bar scene in Tientsin, blackface musicians played as Pu Yi sang “Am I Blue?” and danced the Charleston with Wanrong, who has adopted the English name of “Elizabeth” and is fascinated with Western places like, California, French Riviera, San Francisco and Monte Carlo. vivian-wu-as-wen-hsiuwu-jun-mei-consort-shu-joan-chen-as-empress-wanrong-and-john-lone-as-aisin-gioro-puyi-in-the-last-emperor-1987As the once-rulers of Manchuria bathe in Western influence, Wanrong’s white makeup becomes more than just a cosmetic getup; it becomes an image of whiteface, highlighting the innate desire to be westernised in Wanrong and symbolically in Manchuria, with the royal couple being the only Manchurians left after the exile. McAllister contended that “early African American whiteface spectacles were less about ridiculing whiteness and more about showcasing the black style, forging communal identity, asserting representational freedom, and training American Negroes for emancipation” (20). Similar to the African Americans’ efforts to integrate into the dominant Western culture, Wanrong’s whiteface represents the material acceptance of Western culture and the westernisation of Manchuria in Tientsin.

While Wanrong’s whiteface in Tientsin bar visually represents the modernity and westernisation of Manchuria with Pu Yi and Wanrong, her white makeup in Japanese puppet state Manchukuo dramatically changes the relationship of Manchuria and the dominant culture. As the Japanese occupies majority of the Manchurian region during the Pacific War, Pu Yi is placed as the Emperor of the newly-formed Manchukuo. While the Manchurian royal couple are once again treated with royalty, it is quickly revealed to be a farce as the Japanese still maintains control over the region and the royal title is just a figurehead. At the enthronement joan-chen-as-empress-wanrong-in-the-last-emperor-1987-3scene of Pu Yi, Wanrong is seen again with heavily whitened facial makeup and bright red lips, resembling the makeup of a mime under the colder lighting. As she walks away from the scene, she proclaims sarcastically, “10,000 years to His Majesty, The Emperor”, only to be followed by cheers and confetti from the guests. This act in defiance shows the layer of artificiality on Wanrong’s expression, much like Manchuria’s superficial influence over Manchukuo; paralleling Wanrong’s mime-resembling appearance with Manchuria’s function as an image. According to Lust, the “whitefaced, illusion pantomime portrayed concrete emotions and situations by means of conventional gestures, creating the illusion of something there which in reality is not”. Wanrong’s facial makeup, coupled with the pointless cheer, serves to reveal the “illusion” mentioned by Lust and reminds Pu Yi, of his superficial influence. While Wanrong hides her true emotions behind a mask of artificiality, Manchuria resides behind the illusion of Manchukuo.

joan-chen-as-empress-wanrong-in-the-last-emperor-1987-2The last time the viewers see Wanrong in the film is at the Japanese surrender to Soviet soldiers. Empress Wanrong arrives back at their palace barefaced and diminished of her youth and beauty due to opium addiction. Kolker viewed Bertolucci’s representation of women as problematic and “often places them in inferior or, worse, destructive roles” (qtd. in Loshitzky, et al. 34). The authors continue that Wanrong suffers punishment by this theme “through opium addiction … and the destruction of her heath, beauty, and youth” (Loshitzky, et al. 34-5). At this point of time of the scene, Manchukuo suffers this similar “punishment” as it falls to Soviet hands after the Japanese surrendered. As the only place in Manchukuo shown onscreen, Pu Yi’s palace is shown to be in shambles, with papers and equipment scattered all over the floor as Japanese troops destroy confidential materials. With most rooms emptied and cleared of furniture, the mise-en-scène set in the palace shows Manchukuo, and effectively Manchuria, in a state of ruins. The once-beautifully decorated Manchuria is reduced to a sacked and hollowed Manchukuo. Wanrong’s barefaced appearance shows the removal of all artificiality that once covered her face, revealing the damage brought upon by the opium addiction brought about by Japanese influence. Much like the post-war Manchukuo, removing the Japanese materials in the palace reveals Manchuria’s war-torn landscape brought about by Japanese occupation.

joan-chen-as-empress-wanrong-in-the-last-emperor-1987Much like how Wanrong was betrothed to Pu Yi, he was symbolically betrothed to Manchuria too. As such, it stands to reason that the two pairs would share a similar relationship to Pu Yi. Echoing throughout the film, Pu Yi’s relationships to his wife, Wanrong, and his home, Manchuria, shared similarities in cultural and visual changes. As Manchuria shifts its cultural influence, through the use of mise-en-scène in The Last Emperor, from tradition to westernisation, and to Japanese occupation and liberation, Empress Wanrong’s facial makeup possesses a different appearance to reflect the influence on Manchurian culture.


Works Cited

Cindy. “Joan Chen as Empress Wanrong in The Last Emperor (1987).” Pinterest,

Cindy. “Joan Chen as Empress Wanrong in The Last Emperor (1987) 2.” Pinterest,

Cindy. “Joan Chen as Empress Wanrong in The Last Emperor (1987) 3.” Pinterest,

Cindy. “Vivian Wu as Wen Hsiu/Wu Jun Mei (Consort Shu), Joan Chen as Empress Wanrong, and John Lone as Aisin-Gioro Puyi in The Last Emperor (1987).” Pinterest,

Loshitzky, Yosefa, Meyuhas Raya, and Bertolucci. “”Ecstasy of Difference”: Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor”” Cinema Journal, vol. 31, no. 2, 1992, pp. 26-44. JSTOR, doi: 10.2307/1225142.

Lust. Annette Bercut. “The Origins and Development of the Art of Mime.”, From the Greek Mimes to Marcel Marceau and Beyond: Mimes, Actors, Pierrots and Clowns: A Chronicle of the Many Visages of Mime in the Theatre. The World of Mime Theatre, 1 Jan. 2003,, Accessed 18 Sept. 2016.

McAllister, Marvin. “Liberatory Whiteness: Early Whiteface Minstrels, Enslaved and Free.” Whiting Up: Whiteface Minstrels and Stage Europeans in African American Performance, U of North Carolina, 2011, pp. 19-49. JSTOR,

Winnert, Derek. “477.” “The Last Emperor ***** (1987, John Lone, Joan Chen, Peter O’Toole) – Classic Movie Review 2619”, Derek Winnert, 19 Jun. 2015,


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