The grave civilian judge raps his gavel twice and sternly calls for "Silence! Silence!" to open the day in the Tokyo international war crimes trials on Aug. 16, 1946. It is a significant day in the life of Pu Yi, the last emperor of China and puppet emperor of "Manchukuo," who will appear as a star witness against the 22 impassive Japanese militarists.
You didn't see this scene in Bernardo Bertolucci's grand movie version of "The Last Emperor," which won nine Academy Awards in 1988, including the Oscar for Best Picture. It is instead a key scene in Episode 24 of China Central Television's miniseries, also called "The Last Emperor," which began airing nationwide from Beijing in August.I was one of about 150 foreigners, among the thousands now living in Beijing, who were recruited through their work units for the production. Most were extras, essentially window dressing as judges, reporters, defendants, attorneys and spectators in the jammed courtroom. But I wound up with a bit part, as the American prosecutor Joseph Keenan - or Jinan, as the Chinese called him.
When they need a foreign face, Chinese filmmakers often go to work units like mine, the Winhua news agency, which sponsored the journalism program in which I taught. The casting director scanned our pictures. He thought I looked like Keenan, so I got the job, without reading a line.
We outsiders performed mostly for fun. I was paid more than any other foreign actor on the set, the equivalent of $40 for three hard days of waiting and shooting and shooting and waiting. We also got a good view of the inside of productions on Chinese TV.
A more polyglot group would be hard to imagine. A Brazilian was the chief judge and the cast included other Americans, Canadians, French, Britons, Yugoslavs, Germans, Peruvians and other nationalities. Most had been in China for about a year as "foreign experts" or as students. Most seemed to look their parts, especially the Japanese defendants. The man who played Hideki Tojo looked like a reincarnation of the Japanese wartime prime minister in moustache and horn-rimmed glasses. One uniformed as a Japanese army officer consented to have his hair clipped to the scalp just before shooting began!
The actor who plays Pu Yi of later life also was a dead ringer for the emperor. He is Zhu Xue, who, like most of the professionals in the cast, was from the People's Art Theater in Beijing. He has appeared in every medium and was best known for his role as Charley to Ying Ruocheng's Willy Loman in the Beijing stage production of "Death of a Salesman." Ying is China's vice minister of culture and played Pu Yi's jailer in the "Last Emperor" movie.
The producers were at considerable pains to get realism in other ways. Our scene was filmed in a building credibly like the heavily paneled, klieg-lit auditorium of the Japanese Military Academy in Tokyo where the 1946 tribunal met. It is the cavernous hall of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Congress, which has 15-foot ceilings, great chandeliers, marble halls and paneled walls.
We had to remove our too-modern digital watches. When I was waving a ball point pen to punctuate a point, the action stopped while the assistant director substituted a more contemporary fountain pen.
Despite such attention to detail, our scene had some real anomalies. The American flag in the backdrop of the judges' stand had 50 stars rather than 48, and the Canadian flag bore the Maple Leaf rather than 1946's Union Jack. The "journalists" in the press gallery were mostly American students from Beijing Normal School of Languages, average age about 22, I judged; and certainly the youngest group of journalists ever to cover anything like an international tribunal. One of the clerks of the court, an American woman student, was permitted for some reason to appear in Bermuda shorts. None of us wore the double-breasted suits favored in the late 1940s. The "American MPs" wore baggy uniforms like those issued the Chinese People's Liberation Army.
But judging from a CCTV promotional film we saw just before the taping started, the Chinese version is not inferior to Bertolucci's in its grand sweep and stunning visuality. As in the Anglo-Italian film version, the Chinese production starts with Pu Yi's accession to the throne in 1908 and follows him from emperor to gardener until the last year of his life, 1967, in Beijing.
"The Last Emperor" is the country's most ambitious biographical art program ever. The series cost 10 million yuan, or just under $3 million, about a seventh of what Bertolucci spent. The sum is, however, more than a million dollars more than the most lavish of the costume miniseries CCTV has mounted.
The producers managed to cut the frills to the bone, judging from our scene, and not only in the ad hoc way we lesser actors were selected and screen tests and rehearsals simply skipped. Most of the foreigners wore their own suits, though I was provided with a heavy black one because my grey suede sports coat was deemed too mod. There was not even an interpreter from the TV studio on the set. My interpreter from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Jiang Guiying, translated my lines from the Chinese script and stayed through all three days along with Tang Bo, a young teacher accompanying "actors" from the Beijing Foreign Studies University.
They interpreted orders from the directors like "put on your earphones!" and "crane your necks, please!"
CCTV has done some other big-budget miniseries, including co-productions with Japan's public broadcasting corporation, NHK. Last year it produced the classic Chinese story, "A Dream of Red Mansions" and this year came out with "Journey to the West," a marvelous "Wizard of Oz"-type fairy tale based on the most famous Chinese folk figure of all, the Monkey King.
TV watching is becoming a major Chinese obsession. More than 85 percent of Beijingers watch more than three times a week, according to the surveys the Chinese are suddenly making trendy. About 100 million Chinese homes have TV and this number is growing rapidly. TV aerials sprout even from mud huts in remote villages these days. Chinese viewers are demanding substantial fare now, not just the Peking Opera and revolutionary drama that had been staples. They complain about both poorly made Chinese drama and low-grade foreign fare.
The directors generously coached our fumbling efforts. Though it was tough working with so many callow amateurs, they never lost patience. Because of that I wasn't apprehensive as I sweated under the lights for my cues while one of my fellow novices, a professor from Beijing University who was playing a British general, tried to get a handle on his lines. After awhile I seemed to get the hang of the part. My 31 sentences were mostly leading questions I directed to Pu Yi on the witness stand that aimed to portray him as an innocent victim of Japanese aggression, such as "Why did you leave Tianjin for the northeast? Did you go willingly - or were you forced to go?"
Despite considerable criticism in the Beijing press of what are called historical inaccuracies in the Bertolucci blockbuster and complaints that some of his scenes pander to sensation, CCTV has reacted with amazing equanimity to Bertolucci's success, apparently unconcerned that its small-screen production may suffer by comparison with the big-screen Bertolucci epic.
I found CCTV's attitude even more impressive considering the CCTV production was actually first - it was conceived in 1981 and filming was under way in 1985. A number of the TV scenes, like that in which the toddler Pu Yi splashes water on his eunuchs, are so similar to the movie's that the TV production will be accused of being derivative, though the Chinese deny vehemently that they are the ones who copied.
They also insist that the portrayals of many characters, like the Pu Yi's Scottish tutor Reginald Johnston, are substantially different and more genuine. At least the lengthy series has the opportunity of avoiding some weaknesses of the Bertolucci version, especially his simplistic presentation of significant events like the Chinese revolution and the almost comical scene of the ridiculous but wretched Cultural Revolution.
Bertolucci was permitted to film interiors in the Forbidden City, while the Chinese crew was limited to exterior scenes there because, the government told them, of the risk of fire. Ironically, a fire on a set, a replica of the Imperial Palace, was one of the major problems that halted the production for a year in 1985.
At lunch provided by CCTV, one of those lavish 13-course Chinese banquets, a reporter pressed Zhou Huan, the director, on whether the Bertolucci film could harm the TV effort. The motion picture was being dubbed into Chinese in Beijing and expected to be widely released this fall. A few special showings were screened in China early in 1988, including one for foreign experts at our Friendship Hotel theater.
"It doesn't matter," Zhou said. "The audience will have a choice of which to see or may enjoy both." He also talks of his series in the didactic terms of present-day China. The program, he said, "will give the Chinese people a better sense of their own history and will help them realize that they are much different from the people of the past because they are progressing from feudalism."
But Zhou also had a couple of barbs for Bertolucci. He said the Italian "took too many liberties with the historical facts and leaned too much toward vulgarity in order to please moviegoers." Furthermore, "Pu Yi in Bertolucci's film looks more like an American than a Chinese emperor." He said the scene in which Pu Yi gambols under satin sheets with two wives was pure fabrication. It is a scene the Chinese have excised from the movie version.
CCTV has hopes of marketing the series worldwide. That would be unusual for any Chinese TV production, although many of the 120 movies the Chinese make each year are suddenly finding an appreciative audience at festivals abroad.
But even if the world market doesn't materialize, "The Last Emperor" will have a vast audience immediately and a potential audience of more than a billion Chinese viewers. That was heady stuff for us amateur actors to ponder.