I’m very intrigued by the light and colours in the film of The Last Emperor (1987 Cinematographer: Vittorio Storaro), because the light and colours drastically help the film shape the protagonist’s (Pu Yi) personal traits and also convey his own subjective mood/feelings.
Vittorio Storaro used massive natural light in the film, while a portion of them was resourcefully simulated, as a result, the Forbidden City appears classic and eastern-appealing. The most of scenes in the Forbidden City were filmed at the ‘Magic time’ which is the period of sunrise and sunset. Therefore, the light in general turns out more red and orange at the beginning part of the film that the hue of red symbolises the new birth of emperor and the hue of orange represents Pu Yi’s childhood; Meanwhile, the hues of red and orange are both warm colors that imply the Forbidden City is his home. In Vittorio Storaro’s opinion, different colours can shift audience’s emotion such as red can increase their blood pressure. However, he asserts that he didn’t use those colours in The Last Emperor as a type of specific symbolic language, instead to depict the different stages of Pu Yi’s life by different colours. Yellow implies his royal identity of emperor and it’s the colour of sun; Green is his British teacher’s bicycle and hat’s colour that implies the western knowledge brought to him; Red comes back to screen when Pu Yi had his first wedding implying another new start; Blue implies depression when Pu Yi’s second wife wanted a divorce with him. Near the end of the film, Pu Yi's life in the prison came to the end. And he had completed his own inner journey, bringing all the feelings and impressions together. When Vittorio Storaro combined all the colours together, the hue turns to white in the scene of Pu Yi got a special pardon and became free at the snowing courtyard of the prison. At the end of the film, as if a miracle Pu Yi returned to the Forbidden City; And the last part lighting is a vibrant naturalistic style that covers all the colours of the spectrum. The approach of filming The Last Emperor by Vittorio Storaro was to let audience empathize with Pu Yi’s subjective mood/feelings by using the different colours, which highlight the dramatic evolution of Pu Yi’s life from an emperor to a prisoner, and eventually becoming an ordinary person.
Vittorio Storaro asserts that the light is not only a physiological need for young Pu Yi who was always surrounded by shadows but also a significance of freedom for him being an emperor who was actually trapped in the Forbidden City. With the growth of the little emperor and progressively becoming more aware of the world, he started to realise how helpless he was because all the constant changes outside of the Forbidden City had far surpassed his real authority and control. In this transition, the light development is from the little emperor was completely surrounded by shadows, to gradually adding the natural light on him, and finally creating the shadow on his face. And last but not least, Vittorio Storaro introduced hard light to illuminate Pu Yi’s face in order to create a dramatic effect (Grief and indignation). Additionally, the low-key lighting, side lighting, Rembrandt lighting, and backlighting were applied to the film for many times to create the Chiaroscuro effect, since the high lighting ratio fits well with many scenes especially when Pu Yi was in a dilemma.
This scene is telling about that Pu Yi, the last emperor in Chinese history, was at his stage of life (8-year-old) that he still regarded himself as the emperor but actually he had been compelled to abdicate the throne. He was arguing with his cousin Pu Chieh about whether or not he was still the Chinese emperor.
As a whole the majority of the scenes in the film The Last Emperor (1987) are lit by the natural light. The scene I’m analysing seems completely lit by the sunlight from the windows, but in fact it was also illuminated by two strong light sources respectively from the both outsides of the window. Because we can see from the wide shot the shadows of the left-hand side chair and the shadows of the right-hand side chair are not paralleled, while if there was only sunlight, the shadows of everything would have been shaped in parallel. There is a large clock on the left side wall indicating that its time in the scene was at 7.30 a.m., so the two strong light sources worked as the motivated lighting which imitated the existing morning sunlight and diffused by the white curtains. As a result, the light flooded well into the room with the soft morning sunlight.
I would say a low-key lighting was adopted in the scene because we can barely see the fill light on both Pu Yi’s and Pu Chieh’s faces. The high lighting ratio fits well with the scene when Pu Yi was in the dilemma and began to suspect himself still as the emperor or not (yes = bright, no = dark). The Last Emperor is such a film noir about the tragedy of Pu Yi’s whole life throughout all the most turbulent Chinese eras. To create a Chiaroscuro effect for the film noir is essential. The cinematographer of The Last Emperor Vittorio Storaro was influenced by the Renaissance Italian painter Caravaggio.