Criterion // 1987 // 165 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge William Lee (Retired) // March 10th, 2008
"You will always be the emperor inside the Forbidden City, but not
-- The Emperor's High Tutor
The winner of nine Academy Awards (triumphant in every category in which it was nominated, including Best Picture and Best Director), The Last Emperor chronicles the life of a man who went from ruler to peasant during the most tumultuous years of 20th century China. Bernardo Bertolucci's historical drama -- the first Western production permitted to film inside the Forbidden City -- receives the special edition treatment from Criterion in this definitive four-disc set.
Crowned emperor in 1908, when he was just 3 years old, Pu Yi grew up as the center of a universe of court attendants, consorts and eunuchs. However, in the Forbidden City, the nation's vast administrative compound, Pu Yi is virtually a prisoner in his own palace. Though he is royally pampered, the young emperor is constantly watched and controlled. He is kept ignorant of events in the outside world and prevented from setting foot beyond the walls of the Forbidden City. Just three years later the Nationalists, led by Sun Yat-sen, overthrow the Imperial rulers and declare China a republic. Emperor Pu Yi retains his title but is left without any political authority.
In his teens, Pu Yi finds friendship with his English tutor Reginald Johnston (Peter O'Toole, Venus) who opens his eyes to the corruption within the remnants of the Ching dynasty. The young emperor begins to assert his limited power, but his empowerment is short-lived. China in the early 20th century is undergoing a rollercoaster of social and political upheaval. The Kuomintang take control of Peking in 1924 and force the royal family from the Forbidden City. "I always thought I hated it here," Pu Yi tells Johnston. "Now I am afraid to leave."
The adult Pu Yi (John Lone, Rush Hour 2) confronts his newfound freedom with mixed emotions. He lives it up like a Western-style playboy but he craves a chance to rule again. The temptation is too strong when the Japanese invaders befriend him. Installed as the puppet emperor of Manchukuo, Pu Yi is once again the powerless instrument to others' schemes. At the close of the Second World War, he is captured by the Russians and eventually handed over to the Communist Chinese. At a reeducation camp, the former emperor -- now war criminal -- is forced to re-examine his life. His captors expect him to confess his crimes or die in prison.
An initial look back at the movie that swept the Oscars more than 20 years ago, The Last Emperor seems on the surface to be a classic example of old-fashioned filmmaking. It trades on the exoticness of a foreign culture and all the actors speak in thickly accented English. The cinematography deliberately shows off the real locations, the vast sets and the cast of thousands. It's a period piece with an epic scope and a running time to match. Yet, closer examination reveals something else. Bernardo Bertolucci (The Dreamers, Last Tango in Paris) was an accomplished director but his films were politically minded and often controversial. The cast included Chinese, English and American actors. Rock musicians composed the score. Far from being old-fashioned, this was ambitious and avant-garde independent filmmaking.
The Criterion Collection's release of The Last Emperor on a majestic four-disc set comes close to exhausting what can be hoped for in the special edition treatment of a single movie. We get two versions of the movie, more than five hours of supplemental material plus a 96-page booklet filled with essays and interviews.
* Disc One: The Theatrical Version
This is the original theatrical cut, running two hours and 45 minutes, that won the Best Picture Oscar. It was believed that Bertolucci shortened his movie for American distribution but on one of the making-of documentaries contained in this set, the director does refer to a "final cut" of this length. The movie has been restored and this transfer preserves the masterful and beautiful cinematography of Vittorio Storaro. While allowing for the deliberate color bias of different eras in the story, the color balance appears quite natural. The opening scenes at the train station and then the later scenes in the reeducation centre favor a clean, grey palette. (On the previous Artisan release, these scenes had a green bias.) The scenes of Pu Yi's early days in the palace are bathed in reds and golds. These scenes are brilliant and warm, and the set and costume details are nicely presented. My quibbles with the image quality are minor. Overall, details are slightly soft (in comparison with DVDs of more recent movies) but never to the point of distraction. In brighter scenes there is a small amount of grain or video noise (most noticeable in the sky) but this may be due to the source that was used for the restoration. Nevertheless, the picture is stable, free of damage and a joy to behold.
This is a huge improvement over the Artisan disc from 1999 and I wouldn't bother to make direct comparisons except for the issue of aspect ratios. The previous disc presented the movie approximately at 2.35:1 (non-anamorphic) while this new transfer from Criterion is presented in a 2.00:1 (anamorphic) ratio. The new presentation does lose a small amount of picture information, mostly on the right side. For example, we can compare an early scene where the Imperial guards arrive to take Pu Yi from his mother. In the high-angle shot of the guards, on the old disc we can see five guards on horseback on the right side of the screen (of the guard on the right edge of frame we can see the rider and the front half of the horse). On the new transfer we can see only four horsemen. To compensate, the new transfer does restore some information at the top of the screen. Compositions feel more complete now that we can see the full outlines of buildings in exterior shots and heads remain within the frame as actors move across the screen. A curious compromise has been made but I'm willing to accept the trade-off considering the superior quality of the new anamorphic transfer.
The audio is delivered in a very good stereo mix. Dialogue and music have a strong presence while sound effects have a nice directional quality without sounding forced. Environmental sounds have been carefully mixed to envelop a scene with a fierce wind or hint at the busy street on the other side of a wall and it works just fine.
An audio commentary has been assembled from separate recordings to accompany the theatrical cut of the movie. Bertolucci and producer Jeremy Thomas do most of the talking. Screenwriter Mark Peploe and composer-actor Ryuichi Sakamoto also contribute. The participants share many interesting details about the creation of the movie and anecdotes from the location shooting ranging from the obscure (the title sequence was designed by the same person who crafted many of the openings of the James Bond movies) to the amusing (the Queen of England couldnÕt visit the Forbidden City because they were filming). Bertolucci and Thomas are especially good about acknowledging their cast. They recall their reasons for choosing an actor and point out his other credentials -- the Captain of the Guard was played by director Chen Kaige (The Emperor and the Assassin). Peploe talks about the amount of research that was put into the story and how it evolved.
* Disc Two: The Television Version
This version adds almost an hour to the theatrical version. It is the same "director's cut" that was released by Artisan. Extended shots lovingly linger on the expert cinematography and dazzling art direction -- they're superfluous but beautiful. The additional scenes deepen the story in both its historical connection and in the evolution of the character of Pu Yi. For instance, we see more of his reeducation at the hands of the Communists. Plus, there is a significant plot development when Pu Yi decides to expel the corrupt eunuchs from the Forbidden City. This extended version doesn't feel as tight as the theatrical cut but it does add some interesting dimensions to the story that help to make Pu Yi a slightly more sympathetic protagonist. It should also be noted that the memorable profanity uttered by the Red Guard is given a television-friendly dub that diminishes that scene considerably.
The television version looks almost as good as the transfer on the first disc. Colors are slightly less saturated in comparison. There is also increased contrast overall, causing the dark areas of the picture to appear murky and hide detail.
* Disc Three: Supplements Part 1
The video quality varies on the supplemental materials as some are newly produced and others are reproduced from aged video sources and archived television broadcasts. "Italian Traveler, Bernardo Bertolucci" is a 53-minute film following the director between projects as he visits old friends and previous filming locations. Looking to the East for inspiration, this is a fanciful telling of how Bertolucci decided on The Last Emperor as his new project. "Postcards from China" is the video footage Bertolucci and his team shot while scouting locations and getting a feel for the country and its people. "The Chinese Adventure of Bernardo Bertolucci" is a 51-minute making-of documentary that follows the filmmaking process through shooting, editing and scoring. This one is particularly interesting as it shows many of the principle crew at work and working with Bertolucci. The last featurette on this disc is a batch of retrospective interviews with cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, editor Gabriella Cristiana, costume designer James Acheson and art director Gianni Silvestri.
* Disc Four: Supplements Part 2
This disc has a BBC television program called "The Southbank Show" featuring an extended episode on China and the making of Bertolucci's new movie there. The 66-minute documentary offers a glimpse of everyday life in 1980s Beijing as well as the requisite behind-the-scenes view of production at the location. The most amusing aspect is seeing the chaos of wrangling over a thousand extras for a single day's shoot. There is also a 30-minute interview with Bertolucci filmed after the movie had cleaned up at the Oscars. In a newly filmed interview, co-composer David Byrne talks about his experience on the production and his creative process. We also hear some demo versions of the music cues he wrote. Finally, in "Beyond the Forbidden City" we get a history lesson that puts the events of the film in a real-world context. Historian Ian Buruma gives an informative talk on the social reality of those years depicted in the movie with detailed examinations of the real people who appear as minor characters in the movie. Interspersed with historical photographs, this featurette contains a wealth of information.
The booklet included in this set contains some essays and interviews. There is an interesting talk with actor Ying Ruocheng, who played the governor of the reeducation center (he also served as China's vice-minister of culture). Fabien S. Girard was Bertolucci's personal assistant during filming and excerpts from his shooting diary are an insightful read.
The only weakness in this comprehensive DVD set is the absence of the principle cast in the supplemental materials. New interviews with Peter O'Toole, Joan Chen, John Lone or any of the actors who portrayed Pu Yi would have been the crowning touch to this set. The performances are also the element that identifies this movie as a product of its time. Foreign language movies did not have, in 1986, the popular acceptance that they have today. International movies are easier to find and we are much more tolerant of subtitles now -- thanks in large part to DVD, I believe. The accented English spoken by the Asian cast is an understandable decision but it does date the movie. That said, Bertolucci's epic never feels like it adopts the Eurocentric perspective toward an exotic culture. The filmmakers' thorough research of China's turbulent history and their sensitivity for the culture resulted in a movie that feels authentic. Instead of a simple Western view of China, The Last Emperor is a Chinese story, made with Western production values, by an international artist.
The story of the emperor who becomes a citizen may seem like a tragic fall. Yet, it is also the tale of a man determined to survive the fate that has been thrust upon him. By extension, it speaks to the resilience of a people who have endured a great deal of turmoil in a short span of history. Bertolucci's film is a testament to the individual caught up in eventful times. Criterion's DVD set of The Last Emperor, with its remastered transfer and abundance of supplements, is a testament to the spirit of ambitious filmmaking and a tribute to the painstaking labor of painting moving images on a hugely epic canvas. If the movie seems dated or old-fashioned, it's because no one makes movies like this anymore.
Bertolucci and company are free to go. Criterion's excellent efforts have finally exonerated The Last Emperor on DVD with a truly regal special edition set. Faux epics shall be brought forward to confess their crimes.
Review content copyright © 2008 William Lee; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.00:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 165 Minutes
Release Year: 1987
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Audio Commentary
* Italian Traveler, Bernardo Bertolucci
* Postcards from China
* The Chinese Adventure of Bertolucci
* Retrospective Interviews
* Southbank Show
* 1989 Bertolucci Interview
* David Byrne Interview
* Beyond the Forbidden City
* Theatrical Trailer