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Case Number 00063

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The Last Emperor

Artisan // 1987 // 218 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Chief Justice Sean McGinnis (Retired) // July 13th, 1999

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All Rise...

Editor's Note

Our reviews of The Last Emperor: Criterion Collection (published March 10th, 2008) and The Last Emperor (Blu-Ray) (published January 15th, 2009) are also available.

The Charge

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.

Opening Statement

This is one of the finest films I have ever seen. Too bad this DVD doesn't even come close to doing the film justice.

The Evidence

This is surely one of the greatest films of all time. Winner of nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Editing, Best Sound, Best Music (Original Score), Best Writing, and Best Art Direction—Set Decoration. I mean, this thing won just about everything in sight in 1988. And it was justly deserved.

The Last Emperor tells the true story of Pu Yi, the final Emperor of China. He reigned during the Cultural Revolution and became a prisoner in his own home as a young boy. He lived that way until the Republic was overthrown by the communists and then was incarcerated to a prison camp where the communists brainwashed him into confessing his crimes against the "peoples republic." A fascinating tale, this is the Director's Cut of the film, including over 100 additional minutes of footage never before seen.

The acting here is terrific as well, with a superb performance turned in by John Lone (M. Butterfly, The Shadow) as Pu Yi. Also excellent was seven time Academy Award nominee Peter O'Toole (Lawrence Of Arabia, The Lion In Winter) as Reginald Johnston, and Joan Chen (Heaven and Earth, Judge Dredd) as Wan Jung, Pu Yi's wife. However, perhaps the best performance in this film was reserved for Ruocheng Ying (Little Buddha) as the Governor of the prison where Pu Yi is interred. He was phenomenal as a Communist who is later accused of crimes against the state.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

The main problem here is the video transfer. For a film that received a Best Cinematography award, this DVD looks terrible. For a brutal example of what I mean, check out the beginning of Chapter 5, at 15:50. There is more noise in this picture than color at times, or so it seems. In general, the video is overly soft and terribly grainy. Please, save this one for a rental at best (if you haven't seen the movie). The major problem here may very well be one of disc space. This film is incredibly long, with a running time of over three hours. I checked the bitrate at certain parts of the film and saw rates well below 5. I cannot tell if this was a deciding factor in the weak transfer, but I suspect it may be a contributing factor.

The transfer was also in need of some restoration in parts. These parts certainly could have been the restored footage from the director's cut, but was definitely in need of some work. I have no way of knowing whether these problem areas were the recent additions or not because it has been so long since I last saw the film. But I can tell you that work needs done to preserve this film. It certainly was not in a deplorable condition, but with a film like this it deserves to be saved.

I cannot think of another movie that screams out for a new release when DVD 18 becomes available than this one. From a company as good as Artisan, I know this film can look better. That is why I suspect disc space may have been a problem. Also, with DVD-18, there would be more room for extras, and maybe even a choice to toggle between the director's cut and the original theatrical release through the use of seamless branching encoding.

Closing Statement

While Artisan has not announced a new release of this film, I have to believe it will get a new transfer when DVD-18 comes around. Or at least I'm hoping. In the meantime, save yourself the money and rent this one if you can find it. It deserves to be seen. But, for now, save your money.

The Verdict

The film is, of course acquitted. The DVD is guilty. But I cannot lay this at the feet of Artisan. I think they were just a bit over-ambitious by releasing the Director's Cut to DVD. My gut tells me they committed to the process and then made the best of it. Unfortunately, it wasn't good enough.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 68
Audio: 78
Extras: 40
Acting: 89
Story: 98
Judgment: 75

Perp Profile

Studio: Artisan
Video Formats:
• 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
• None
Running Time: 218 Minutes
Release Year: 1987
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Drama

Distinguishing Marks

• Trailer
• Production Notes
• Cast and Crew Information


• IMDb

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