Compositions in The Last Emperor

I've been sitting around a lot doing things mostly on a computer now that I have an ergonomic keyboard for my hands. It gets pretty boring not being able to draw and work on stuff so here's something I put together just for kicks.

I watched The Last Emperor the other night and i was quite blown away, especially by Vittorio Storaro's cinematography. I'm a bit of a cinematographer nerd and often go looking for work by some of the ones i like best. While i do appreciate the crisp and sleek look achieved by cinematographers like Wally Pfister, I find there are very few who are quite as playful and ingenious as Storaro when it comes to lighting a scene. Here are some samples of images with some notes:

Of course, any good film composition is much more than the still image because it adds movement into the equation. Many compositions in The Last Emperor are re-arranged through movement to create new and intriguing patterns of light and shadow within the same shot. Storaro is a fan of experimenting with many coloured gels and his images always exhibit a definitive colour choice. This particular film uses colour loaded with symbolism much of which is routed in their associations in Chinese culture. The most predominant colour choice seems to be red and green that play off each other in the same shot or between shots. In Pu Ye's later life, green is used to signify healing, harmony and growing, which is paralleled in his occupation as a gardener and the cricket in the final scene. While red appears throughout the film as a symbol for China, it is also the colour of marriage in Chinese culture and appears strongest in the bedroom scene in which Pu Yi unveils and looks upon his wife for the first time. The deep blue scenes are associated with female betrayal while yellow is reserved for Pu Yi, the emperor.

There is something to be said about this film in terms of its intended audience. It is a film about China made by Europeans in English. I would argue that one of the goals of this film is to bring Eastern Culture to the Americas and interestingly it was put together by Europeans who happen to be geologically between both extremes. What Storaro does with his distinctly European sensibility is perfectly bridge the traditional eastern and western compositional approaches. Let me explain. I have a theory (which many others have probably already pointed out) about the key difference that makes the composition of an image distinctly Eastern or Western. It all boils down to the idea of the "Centre of Interest". Traditional Western composition focuses on one primary part of the image, having the rest of the image contribute and guide the eye to this one area. Compositional unity is achieved through tension. Traditional Eastern composition is mostly concerned with a general flow. The eye moves through the entire composition but does not resolve in one area. Compositional unity is achieved through balance. These compositional tendencies are reflections of the basic philosophical differences in Eastern and Western culture: The Western goal-oriented opposition in contrast to the Eastern internal integration. The Last Emperor is for me a perfect balance between these two traditional compositional tendencies. Of course these distinctions are less apparent these days, since most people have been exposed and influenced to both the East and West.

Miyazaki's films also sit at about the midpoint between Eastern and Western composition. Even though he is Japanese, he draws a lot of influence from Europe.

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