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Bernardo Bertolucci
John Lone, Joan Chen, Peter O'Toole
Writing Credits:
Mark Peploe

Not Rated. Synopsis:
Guided by his English mentor, Chinese Emperor Pu Yi is forced to leave the lavish, protective walls of his kingdom and he has to build a new life in a strange world he has always longed to explore.

Aspect Ratio: 2.00:1
English DTS-HD MA Stereo
Supplements Subtitles:

163 min.
Price: $39.95
Release Date: 1/6/2009

• Audio Commentary with Director Bernardo Bertolucci, Producer Jeremy Thomas, Screenwriter Mark Peploe, and Composer/Actor Ryuichi Sakamoto
• Trailer
• “The Italian Traveler, Bernardo Bertolucci” Documentary
• Pre-Production Video Images from China
• “The Chinese Adventure of Bernardo Bertolucci” Documentary
• “Making The Last Emperor” Documentary
• “The Southbank Show” Documentary
• David Byrne Interview
• “Beyond the Forbidden City” Documentary
• “The Late Show: Face to Face” 1989 Interview

• 96-Page Booklet


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The Last Emperor: Criterion Collection [Blu-Ray] (1987)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 17, 2019)

Lots of people - myself included - see movies we might otherwise skip simply because the Academy conferred upon them that mark of Best Picture distinction. I avoided 1987’s The Last Emperor for years because it looked to me to be just another bloated, boring piece of "Oscar bait."

Every year in the fall, cinemas become inundated with movies that scream, "I'm important! I'm quality filmmaking! Lavish me with praise!" Most of these pictures turn out to be pretentious crap whose only purpose is to try to win awards. Long, somber, and pompous: such is the mark of the "Oscar bait" picture.

While I didn't find it to be too pretentious or pompous, The Last Emperor definitely was long and somber. Ultimately, my reaction to The Last Emperor was that I didn't have much of a reaction.

In 1950, the Chinese Red Army imprisons Emperor Pu Yi (John Lone). A young Pu Yi spent his life in the Forbidden City, where he was revered as a virtual god.

The story connects these eras, as we follow Pu Yi’s privileged childhood through various ups and downs before his imprisonment. We also see how Pu Yi attempts to assimilate with civilian life after his release.

Emperor borders on being dull, but the plot offers enough intrigue to keep me going. Part of the problem with the film is that it documents an apparently boring man and focuses on him so strongly that all the exciting events that happen around him feel excluded.

That last aspect makes perfect sense from a thematic point of view. Through much of his life, Pu Yi maintained a nominal position of authority but actually he was completely distanced from the reality of the world.

According to this film, Pu Yi wasn't even a witness to history. Instead, all these events occurred well out of his view.

As such, that means that the audience also has their view of the world restricted, so the movie focuses on the life and times of Pu Yi to the exclusion of all else. Like I said, thematically this makes sense. It forces the audience to better appreciate and understand the contained nature of his life.

Unfortunately, from a cinematic point of view, it slows things down to an extreme. Not a whole lot happens in this movie that we actually witness.

Pu Yi's a very passive character who simply reacts to the changes that occur around him. It's not until the conclusion of the movie that we see any actual growth in his character. Most of the time, he remains the same semi-inert figurehead.

I place part of the blame for that last problem on John Lone. He offers a decent portrayal of Pu Yi but I feel that he makes the character far too likable.

This is a guy who has been told since a very young age that he's virtually the king of the world and has been granted almost literally his every whim. However, he maintains little in the way of nastiness or arrogance as an adult.

As Lone plays him, Pu Yi seems like just your average Joe. I suppose it's probably helpful to have a sympathetic character in the lead, since we have to spend so much time with the guy, but I can't help but question the realism of the portrayal.

Also, to place such a dull character as the focus for a film that approaches four hours strongly tests the patience of the viewer. Yes, I made it through the movie, but it was touch and go for a while there.

Many who have seen the film gush about Vittorio Storaro's lush and lavish cinematography, and yes, he helps create a visually stunning picture. For me, however, that's just not enough.

While I expect such a long movie to drag at times, I would prefer that it offer a higher level of interest and intrigue than was evident in this flick. Still, even with all its faults, I ultimately liked The Last Emperor, albeit in a lukewarm kind of way.

The Blu-ray Grades: Picture C+/ Audio C/ Bonus A

The Last Emperor appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.00:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. 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.

30 years ago, that might’ve been an issue, but given the prevalence of large widescreen TVs and the resolution of Blu-ray, his concerns strike me as outdated. There’s absolutely no reason to modify an aspect ratio in this day and age.

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, and 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, so many were nice and tight, but others were a bit blurry.

I saw no jaggies but I detected a little shimmering, and source flaws cropped up on occasion. 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 and 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, print flaws and edge haloes left this as a “C+” transfer.

I thought that the DTS-HD MA Stereo soundtrack of The Last Emperor was less than satisfying, as it provided a nearly monaural experience. At times the audio opened up a bit – usually in crowd scenes – but much of the material tended to remain pretty centered.

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.

Audio quality also left something to be desired. Speech was a little reedy but the lines remained intelligible and fairly concise.

Music and effects fared less well, as they tended to feel feeble and wan. The track mustered little dynamic range and came across as thin and bland. Even when I accounted for the film’s age, this became a mediocre mix.

How did this Blu-ray compare to the Criterion DVD? Clearly generated from the same transfer, the Blu-ray offered superior visuals due to the format’s capabilities. This meant improved sharpness and colors, primarily.

I liked the DVD’s audio so I found myself perplexed by the less pleasing material on the Blu-ray. I thought the DVD offered pretty good range and use of the side/rear speakers, whereas the Blu-ray came across as more limited.

Honestly, I can’t account for these changes. I examined the Blu-ray on two separate sound systems, so I can’t blame what I heard on some glitch related to my equipment. As it stands, I find the DVD to offer the superior audio, a surprise to me.

In addition to the film’s trailer, an audio commentary appears on the disc. This edited piece 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.

After this we head to a 53-minute, three-second 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 eight minutes, two seconds of Postcards 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.

Another product of the late 1980s, Bernardo Bertolucci’s Chinese Adventure goes for 50 minutes, 53 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.

Next we get the 45-minute, five-second Making The Last Emperor. This 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.

The Southbank Show goes for one hour, six minutes, three seconds. It provides a British special from the 1980s that goes 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 disc’s more lackluster pieces. 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, five-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.

Beyond the Forbidden City fills 45 minutes, 15 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, 35-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, but it simply never does much for me, as I think it fails to ever become a particularly involving piece. The Blu-ray provides mediocre picture and audio along with a strong set of supplements. As much as I appreciate the bonus features, the movie leaves me cold and I think the Blu-ray could use improvements.

To rate this film visit the original review of THE LAST EMPEROR

Review Archive:  # | A-C | D-F | G-I | J-L | M-O | P-R | S-U | V-Z | Viewer Ratings | Main