Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

The Ponchos: Ruocheng Ying in The Last Emperor

August 19th, 2011 · 2 Comments

After a hiatus of a few weeks, it’s time to award another Poncho, the greatest honor that Microkhan can bestow upon the minor players of cinema. As a few of you may recall, the prize is given to supporting actors for the utterance of memorable single lines—lines that, in far less capable hands, would have made no impression on the audience whatsoever.

This time, the honoree is Ruocheng Ying, who played a prison official in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor. His Poncho-worthy performance takes place toward the film’s end, when Pu Yi, once the ruler of China, finds himself incarcerated for various crimes committed as a Japanese Quisling in Manchukuo. Once considered heaven’s choice to rule the Middle Kingdom, Pu Yi is now a broken man who only wishes to tend to his flowers. Ying’s character confronts him in the prison yard, trying to understand how the ex-monarch could have lost every scrap of his former hubris. In the midst of their back and forth comes this line, which is my foremost memory from the movie:

All your life you thought you were better than everyone else, now you think you’re the worst of all!

What I love about Ying’s delivery of this line is how he imbues it with genuine consternation. You get the sense that his character simply can’t understand Pu Yi’s transformation, and that the totality of the former emperor’s fall has left him with deep philosophical questions about the impermanence of life itself. If the mightiest man in China can end up a meek prison flower tender, does this mean that every one of man’s achievements is built on a foundation of sand? That all that brings a man happiness in life—his family, his career, his friends—can vanish in an instant?

I’d like to think Ying’s line spurred my lifelong interest in characters who turn their backs on money and fame, having decided there is much more to life than raw success. (Case in point: Big Rich Williams.) I’d say that makes the performance quite deserving of a Poncho, wouldn’t you?

(Pu Yi painting by Christian Develter)


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2 Comments so far ↓

  • Gramsci

    I just remember the wild accusation and interrogation scene– “You ARE a counter-revolutionary!” The oscillation between composure and rage from the interrogator was terrifying and, from what I learned living there and reading about those events, not off-base.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Gramsci: Agreed, the post-Manchukuo section of the movie is pretty dark and disturbing. Most people remember that movie for the early scenes–those cast-of-thousands shots in the Forbidden City. But the heart of the story comes much later on.