The Last Emperor appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.00:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Note that this alters the film’s original theatrical dimensions of 2.35:1. Why? Apparently because cinematographer Vittorio Storaro still thinks it’s 1988 and that we’re all watching VHS tapes on 20-inch TVs.
As was the case with the DVDs of Apocalypse Now, Storaro insisted on a cropped ratio allegedly because he felt that the normal 2.35:1 dimensions would eliminate too much detail from the image. 20 years ago, that might’ve been an issue, but given the prevalence of large widescreen TVs and the resolution of DVDs, his concerns strike me as outdated. There’s absolutely no reason to modify an aspect ratio in this day and age.
On February 27, 2008, the folks at Criterion posted a note that stressed it was Storaro’s decision to go with the 2.00:1 ratio. In this message, we learn that Storaro claims he always intended Last Emperor to be 2.00:1 – even though I don’t believe it ever ran anywhere in that ratio.
If you ask me, Storaro has been taking revisionist history lessons from George Lucas. I don’t know why he now so adores 2.00:1 ratios, but he maintains some weird boner for that framing and apparently would rather see his original compositions cropped rather than go with 2.20:1 or 2.35:1 on DVD. I don’t get it, but for whatever it’s worth, that’s what we get.
Does the cropping negatively affect the film? Yes, to a modest degree. The alteration in aspect ratio doesn’t significantly mar the framing, but it occasionally makes things tighter than they should be, and some cramped shots result. Though these don’t become fatal flaws, they’re unnecessary and a disappointment.
The up and down nature of the transfer also created some disappointments. Sharpness caused the majority of my complaints. Much of the movie demonstrated good delineation and definition. However, edge haloes cropped up on occasion, and those led to some softness. Wide shots varied a lot; many were nice and tight, but others were a bit blurry. At least I saw no jaggies or shimmering, and source flaws remained minimal. Grain could be a little heavy at times and I noticed a couple of small specks, but overall the movie seemed clean.
Colors offered a highlight. The film’s palette depended on its era, as the shots from 1950 were quite restrained. The tones became more monochromatic as the flick progressed, so the scenes within the Forbidden City looked best. They provided lots of vivid, dynamic hues. Blacks were dark and dense, while shadows appeared clear and well-developed. Much of the film looked very good, but the sporadic softness and edge enhancement left this as a “B” transfer.
I thought that the Dolby Stereo soundtrack of The Last Emperor was satisfying for its age. The soundfield didn’t impress, but it worked fine. The mix showed nice stereo imaging for the music, and environmental material opened up the settings to a decent degree. Elements panned smoothly and formed a good sense of place and ambience. The surrounds didn’t get much to do, as only a few shots – like the storeroom fire – made them known – but their restrained nature wasn’t a problem. The soundfield may have been low-key, but it seemed more than acceptable for this film.
Audio quality aged well. Speech consistently appeared natural and concise; no edginess or flaws marred the dialogue. Music was lively and lush, and effects accurately represented the elements in question. Bass response didn’t dazzle, but low-end was reasonably full. Though not anything impressive, I did feel pleasantly surprised with the smooth quality of this enjoyable soundtrack.
How did the picture and audio of this 2008 DVD compare to those of the original 1999 DVD? The sound seemed a bit superior, at least in terms of quality. Both soundfields were reasonably similar, but I felt the new disc offered clearer, more distinctive audio.
However, the biggest step up came from the visuals. To put it mildly, the 1999 DVD looked terrible, as it suffered from a ton of problems and never became even vaguely satisfying. Despite some concerns, the 2008 release offered a tremendous improvement. The 1999 came with the correct 2.35:1 aspect ratio, but that’s its only positive, as everything else about it was atrocious. Minor warts and all, the Criterion DVD is easily the more appealing of the two.
For this deluxe release of The Last Emperor, Criterion pack in tons of extras. We find two separate versions of the film. DVD One includes the original 1987 theatrical cut (2:42:56), while DVD Two provides the extended television version of Emperor (3:38:36). For years, folks have referred to the latter as the Director's Cut. Indeed, even this package’s producers initially thought that it represents Bernardo Bertolucci’s preferred version of the flick.
However, as indicated in a press release from Criterion, it turns out that the longer cut was created for TV as a contractual obligation. Bertolucci regards the theatrical cut as his preferred edition of the movie and even states that he thinks the TV version is more “boring”. I’d have to agree, as I think the longer take drags too much and doesn't offer enough to compensate for the radically increased running time. I do like the fact that this package includes both cuts, though, as the TV version becomes a nice bonus.
In addition to the film’s trailer, an audio commentary appears on DVD One. This edited piece accompanies the theatrical cut of the movie and includes remarks from director Bernardo Bertolucci, producer Jeremy Thomas, screenwriter Mark Peploe, and composer/actor Ryuichi Sakamoto. They discuss story and script issues, shooting in China, cast, characters and performances, sets and production design, the score, some facts behind the tale, and other production elements.
I thought this was a good but not great commentary. On the positive side, it did brush on a lot of useful subjects as it neatly balanced movie-making topics, historical background and thematic elements. However, I must admit the track never really engrossed me. I found it to be interesting but not better than that, as I found my attention wandering more than occasionally. It’s worth a listen, though, and it adds to the package.
Many documentaries and interviews show up across DVDs Three and Four. On DVD Three, we start with a 53-minute program called The Italian Traveler, Bernardo Bertolucci. This piece from the late 1980s shows Bertolucci as he meanders about and muses about his life and his art. It becomes interminably pretentious, to be honest, and rarely very interesting. Even when it heads to the set of Emperor, we don’t get much of value. I can’t say I enjoyed this fairly forgettable show.
Next we find seven-minutes and 59-seconds of Pre-Production Video Images from China. Bertolucci shot these location scouts himself, and the program comes with his original Italian narration about what he found. We can also listen to the footage with new commentary from Bertolucci to put the material in context. In either audio format, we see valuable clips and learn a reasonable amount about Bertolucci’s early experiences.
Two more documentaries fill out this disc. Another product of the late 1980s, The Chinese Adventure of Bernardo Bertolucci goes for 50 minutes and 51 seconds as it follows the director on the set and elsewhere during the film’s creation. Unfortunately, ala “Traveler”, this means lots of dreamy shots of Bertolucci as he wanders around and mulls his flick. We find a few interesting images from the set and elsewhere but these usually don’t prove to be especially revealing or interesting. Even the better elements are undercut by moronic subtitles like “this is how to win an Oscar!” as we watch Bertolucci clean up a mess on the set. “Adventure” tends to drag and rarely becomes anything involving.
DVD Three concludes with the 45-minute and two-second Making The Last Emperor. This newly created program features remarks from cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, editor Gabriella Cristiana, costume designer James Acheson and art director Gianni Silvestri. They discuss Bertolucci’s skills and style, how the various participants came onto the project and what they brought to it, and aspects of costumes, cinematography, editing and production design. After the dreamy and disappointing “Traveler” and “Adventure”, the much more informative “Making” comes as a relief. It sticks mostly with nuts and bolts elements of the production, but they’re interesting and turn this into a good show.
Over on DVD Four, we begin with The Southbank Show. This one-hour, five-minute and 57-second British special from the 1980s comes on location in China and features notes from Bertolucci, Pu Yi’s brother Pu Chieh, Pu Yi’s Chinese prison governor, actors John Lone, Ying Ruocheng and Peter O’Toole, and unnamed Chinese extras. The program looks at some of the history behind 20th century China and the movie’s situations/characters, modern impressions of China and shooting there, and a few other production elements.
While not a great documentary, at least “Southbank” easily outdoes the two lackluster vintage pieces on DVD Three. He doesn’t provide any great insights, but it’s cool to see the real Pu Chieh, and some of he footage from the set adds value. I especially like the shots in which we see how they eked a performance out of three-year-old Richard Vuu, and we find a lot of valuable archival material with the real Pu Yi. This becomes an erratic special but it has some good moments.
We hear from one of the film’s composers in the 25-minute and three-second David Byrne Interview. The musician discusses how Bertolucci recruited him for Emperor and his work on the film. We also hear some demo versions of his themes. Byrne provides a good recap of his involvement in the production as well as nice insights into his music for the flick.
Another documentary arrives next. Beyond the Forbidden City fills 45 minutes, 12 seconds and features a look at the history related to Emperor via comments from historian Ian Buruma. “Beyond” will earn no style points, as it essentially just alternates archival photos with talking head shots of Buruma. However, it delivers excellent content. It presents an intelligent and concise exploration of various political issues, so it turns into a very informative piece.
Finally, a 1989 interview with Bertolucci comes to us via The Late Show: Face to Face. The 30-minute and 33-second program examines the director’s reaction to the film’s success and others’ interpretations, thoughts about his parents and childhood, his early movies and further cinematic development, and his style as a director. At times, “Face” becomes a little too abstract for its own good, but it generally offers good insights into Bertolucci’s personality and his films. The director proves thoughtful and chatty as he looks at his work.
In addition to all these video extras, the package includes a 96-Page Booklet. In this text, we find an essay from film critic David Thomson, a short 1987 piece written by Bertolucci, interviews with production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti and actor Ying Ruocheng, and excerpts from the film’s shooting diary. Criterion produces the best booklets in the industry, and this is one of their best.
Unfortunately, I can’t call The Last Emperor one of the best Oscar winners. The movie certainly has its merits, and I think it’s more than competent. However, it simply never does much for me, as I think it fails to ever become a particularly involving piece. The DVD offers generally positive picture and audio, though the altered aspect ratio harms the shot composition. The package excels in terms of extras, however, as it packs in hours of supplemental materials. Not all of these are interesting, but there’s more than enough to satisfy. Despite some misgivings about the compromised aspect ratio, this is easily the best DVD version of Emperor on the market.
To rate this film visit the original review of THE LAST EMPEROR