Criterion // 1987 // 165 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // January 15th, 2009
He was the Lord of Ten Thousand Years, the absolute monarch of China. He was born to rule a world of ancient tradition. Nothing prepared him for our world of change.
The Criterion Collection's exhaustive four-disc DVD edition of Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor was one of the finest and most important DVD releases of 2008. Now Criterion serves up a slimmed-down but revved up edition of Bertolucci's masterpiece on Blu-ray.
Born into tumultuous times, Pu Yi is declared Emperor of China in 1908 at the tender age of three. He lives a cloistered and privileged life inside Beijing's Forbidden City until China is torn by civil war and invading armies force him leave his lifelong home.
Later, Pu Yi's restoration to the imperial rule of his home province of Manchuria by the Japanese invaders during World War II makes the now middle-aged former emperor an enemy of Mao Zhedong's communist government. After a decade in a re-education camp, the last emperor of China lives out the rest of his days as a humble gardener.
The biographical epic is a tough genre. Take Sir Richard Attenborough's Gandhi, for example. Clocking in at a bladder-busting 188 minutes, it manages to be prohibitively long and narratively pinched at the same time, testing a viewer's patience (and resolve to stay conscious) while reducing the Mahatma's grand life to a compressed series of political events. Bertolucci's The Last Emperor is special because of how deftly it avoids such pitfalls. It is both sprawling and narratively concise, mesmerizing viewers even as it spools out with a deliberate pace typical of the genre.
The Last Emperor captivates by presenting a back-and-forth between parallel storylines that unfold as a series of tightly constructed, chronologically ordered vignettes. On the one hand, we bear witness to Pu Yi's opulent but lonely childhood and adolescence inside the Forbidden City from 1908 to 1924. This contrasts sharply with his grungy and humiliating postwar decade in a Fushun War Criminals Management Center as an enemy of Mao's communist government accused of collaborating with the Japanese during World War II. The two stories merge as the earlier timeline reaches into Pu Yi's adulthood -- his expulsion from the Forbidden City by General Feng Yuxiang during the Second Zhili-Fengtian War, troubled marriage to the opium-addicted Wan Rong (Joan Chen, Xiu Xiu), and his puppet rule as the Emperor of Manchukuo under the thumb of the Japanese invaders. An intimate story set against a geopolitical backdrop of enormous consequence, The Last Emperor is a clinic in juggling a complex series of inter-related plotlines. Bertolucci's direction is so masterfully adept that one never feels lost or confused.
If the movie has a major weakness, it is some weak acting at the outset. Richard Vuu is adorable as the three-year-old Pu Yi, but much of his dialogue sounds poorly dubbed (possibly by an adult actor). Tao Wu's performance as the adolescent emperor is fairly stilted, though he is elevated in his scenes opposite Peter O'Toole (My Favorite Year), who plays Pu Yi's tutor, the British diplomat and author Reginald Johnston. The poor dialogue replacement and shaky acting give the early parts of the movie something of the feel of a big, empty Hollywood spectacle. Don't be fooled -- The Last Emperor is one of the most elegant and artful large-scale films ever produced. And the acting hits its stride during the sections in which John Lone (Rush Hour 2) plays the adult Pu Yi. Lone does a fine job in a role that requires him to play the famed emperor from his twenties to his sixties. Lone delivers a performance that is sympathetic yet frustrating, perfectly capturing Pu Yi's odd mix of gentle naïveté and pampered arrogance. Lone manages to play Pu Yi as both a flesh-and-blood man and a symbol of 20th century political upheaval in Asia -- and he does so without the slightest hint of effort.
From the golden hues of the Forbidden City to the icy blues of the communist re-education camp, The Last Emperor looked spectacular on Criterion's four-disc DVD release. Presented once again in 2.0:1 widescreen (more on that later), the movie looks even better on Blu-ray. Colors are rock-solid and gorgeous. Detail is flabbergasting. Digital artifacts of any kind are essentially non-existent. Minor density variation in a few shots near the end of the film is the only noticeable problem -- likely a flaw of the source materials, not the transfer.
In making the jump to high definition, the audio has been upgraded from Dolby stereo to a DTS HD master audio stereo mix. Dialogue, music, and effects are only hampered by the limits of the original source materials.
Criterion makes the most of Blu-ray's massive disc space by piling on supplements to the feature. Chief among them is an excellent audio commentary by Bertolucci, producer Jeremy Thomas, screenwriter Mark Peploe, and composer-actor Ryuichi Sakamoto. It's a cobbled together affair with various participants having been recorded in either 2003 or 2007. The movie's 165-minute running time gives the men plenty of time to provide loads of information about the film, the screenplay, and the true history of Pu Yi.
Exclusive to Blu-ray, a "Timeline" option allows you to see the name and number of the chapter you're currently viewing as well as the topic discussed in the commentary during that chapter. You activate the timeline with the red button on your remote, and can use the green and blue buttons to set and delete bookmarks.
There are also a number of documentaries, featurettes, and interviews, all presented in standard definition:
The Italian Traveler, Bernardo Bertolucci (53:03) follows the director to China as he prepares to make The Last Emperor. The presentation is full frame and indexed into seven chapters.
Postcards from China (8:02) is a collection of video diaries by Bertolucci as he scouted actors and locations for the film. The presentation is full frame. There is an optional commentary track in which Bertolucci discusses the footage.
Bernardo Bertolucci's Chinese Adventure (50:53) is a documentary shot on the set of The Last Emperor. It is presented in full frame and indexed into nine chapters.
Making The Last Emperor (45:05) is a brand new documentary that examines the film's cinematography, costume and production design, art direction, and editing. It is presented at 1.78:1 and indexed into seven chapters.
The Southbank Show (66:03) is an episode of a British television show shot in Beijing during the film's production. The presentation is full frame and indexed into nine chapters.
In a 2007 interview that runs 25 minutes, musician David Byrne talks about his work providing some of the music for the film. It is presented at 1.78:1.
"Beyond the Forbidden City" is a 45-minute interview with cultural historian Ian Buruma, who provides background on much of the history that informs The Last Emperor. It's a helpful crash course that will enrich the viewing experience for those previously unaware of the complexities of Asian politics in the 20th century and earlier. The interview is presented at 1.78:1.
The Late Show: Face to Face is a 1989 episode of a British television show in which Bertolucci discusses The Last Emperor with host Jeremy Isaacs. The presentation is full frame.
There is also a theatrical trailer for the film.
What the Blu-ray doesn't contain is the 219-minute television cut of The Last Emperor that occupies Disc Two of Criterion's four-disc DVD set. I'm of the opinion that the longer cut constitutes too much of a good thing. I prefer the pacing (languid, though it is) of the theatrical version. Completists and those who prefer the TV version should steer clear of this release (or, if flush with cash, pick up both the DVD and Blu-ray sets).
The Blu-ray also has a significantly slimmed down insert booklet. Gone is the interview with actor Ying Ruocheng as well as excerpts from Bertolucci's assistant's shooting diary. What remains is "The Last Emperor, or The Manchurian Candidate," a fine essay by film critic David Thomson; film and Blu-ray credits; a chapter index; and notes about the transfer.
As with Apocalypse Now, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro made the controversial decision to frame The Last Emperor at 2.0:1 for home video presentation, though its theatrical aspect ratio was 2.35:1. In the case of Apocalypse Now, director Francis Ford Coppola deferred to Storaro's wishes. So it is also with Bertolucci and The Last Emperor.
Based on the overwhelmingly negative feedback on Criterion's web site, it's clear that many cinephiles believe a filmmaker's vision should rule supreme so long as that vision agrees with their own. They offer up all sorts of tortured logic to explain why Criterion should have ignored Storaro's wishes and produced a 2.35:1 transfer. They claim the change in aspect ratio has destroyed the movie's compositional integrity. Nonsense. The picture looks great from beginning to end.
Personally, I would prefer the wider ratio. I think Storaro's obsession with the 2.0:1 frame makes little sense in a world in which home video enthusiasts watch movies on large, widescreen displays. But Storaro is the film's cinematographer -- a world class cinematographer, no less. If Bertolucci has no qualms about letting him tighten the framing, who am I to bitch about it? It's in that spirit that I haven't deducted points from the video score because of the aspect ratio. If you're deeply offended by Storaro's framing, your best bet is to knock 10 or 15 points off of my score and then vote with your wallet by staying away from this release.
The Last Emperor is one of the most artful and enthralling epics ever committed to film. Masterful work by director Bernardo Bertolucci and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro make it a must-own movie. Plus, it's a real stunner on Blu-ray.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.00:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p Widescreen)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
Running Time: 165 Minutes
Release Year: 1987
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Photo Gallery
* Theatrical Trailer
* Critical Essay