Bernardo Bertolucci's sumptuous, smart epic The Last Emperor had no equal in 1987, and the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences acknowledged its visual splendor and historical sweep with nine Academy Award nominations, followed in quick succession by nine Academy Awards (Sound, Original Score, Art Direction, Cinematography, Editing, Costume Design, Screenplay, Director, and Picture). The Last Emperor works the brain in two-part harmony: the melody skids effortlessly across the historical timeline of the Ching dynasty, China's last, and the harmony part is all aesthetic appeal: certainly Bertolucci's film is among the most gorgeous of the Best Picture winners.
At its heart, The Last Emperor is a sly accounting of the absurdity of history, its pitiless tides washing away even the "greatest" of men. This lesson comes in the form of a biopic that traces the life of Emperor Pu Yi from his three-year-old deliverance to the Forbidden City in 1908 to his obscurity as a gardener in the year of his death, 1967. Through most of the picture, the screenplay (written by Mark Peploe with Bertolucci) cuts back and forth between Pu Yi's coming of age and eventual expulsion from the Forbidden City, and his ignominious incarceration and interrogation in 1950 Manchuria. Pu Yi is played by four actors: the toddler told he's the "Lord of 10,000 Years" and "the Son of Heaven" (Richard Vuu), the precocious eight-year-old (Tsou Tijger) in denial about his waning power, the fifteen-year-old Pu Yi (Tao Wu) concerned with marriage if not a greater escape, and the adult Pu Yi (John Lone, in a quietly brilliant performance).
In essence, Pu Yi is a prisoner of the Forbidden City, a nearly hermetic oasis amid the roiling cultural and political upheaval of 20th century China. Baby steps of progress (a bicycle, spectacles) mark the unstoppable passage of time, and the unrest of the common wafts above the compound's walls to Pu Yi's ears, but the Emperor cannot make up his mind if he simply must know the truth or if he would rather live in comfortable ignorance. When the march of time finally makes the decision for him—with his expulsion by the Kuomintang—Pu Yi intones, "I hated this place, but now I'm afraid to go." The recipient of Pu Yi's ambivalence is his ever-present English tutor R. J. Johnston (an ideally cast Peter O'Toole), whose close-to-the-vest advice may be offered out of selfless affection, in self-serving anticipation of the book he will one day write (Twilight in the Forbidden City) or, more likely both.
The Forbidden City years—shot by unprecedented special arrangement on the actual location—are defined by decadent exoticism, insidious corruption and awakening reform. In a mild departure from known historical fact, there is sexual awakening, too, as Pu Yi finds passing pleasures with both a wife, the Empress Wan Rong (Joan Chen), and a "second wife" (or "first concubine") Wen Hsiu (Vivian Wu)—their sexual activity heightened from reality and Pu Yi's later wives ignored for expediency. Bertolucci shoots Pu Yi's exile in a descent of the tonal scale, until he finds himself in a gray Maoist hell, answering for his crimes of sustenance (in what's viewed as traitorous collaboration with Japan).
The Last Emperor is lyrical throughout, with a strikingly poetic denouement. Bertolucci gets exceptional support from the detailed production design of Ferdinando Scarfiotti, the costumes of James Acheson, the lush cinematography of Vittorio Storaro, and the inventive music of Ryuichi Sakamoto (who also appears as Amakasu), David Byrne and Cong Su. None of it would be possible without the adventurous—nay, herculean—efforts of producer Jeremy Thomas, a frequent funder of needy artists like Bertolucci, David Cronenberg, and Terry Gilliam and, as such, the best kept secret in cinema.
Criterion sends nearly all of its recent 3-disc DVD edition onto Blu-ray for The Last Emperor's next-gen debut. Setting aside the abbreviation of the booklet included with the Blu-ray, the only DVD bonus feature not present is the 218-minute television cut. Bertolucci prefers the shorter version, though it would have been good for Criterion to issue the added footage as deleted scenes, if not in a seamless branching option. Since including this cut footage would most likely have necessitated making the Blu-ray a pricier 2-disc edition, Criterion has opted not to include it. The image quality on the Blu-ray is quite good—though the film looks its age, it also looks very much like a film, as it did in 1988. Grain is significant but natural, and colors, black level, and detail are all good; the 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is a definitive representation of the original soundtrack.
Unfortunately, there's a rub. It's criminal that filmmakers like Bernardo Bertolucci and Francis Ford Coppola have allowed the great but crackpot cinematographer Vittorio Storaro to convince them to change the aspect ratio of seminal films. That seems to be the case with The Last Emperor, which was originally exhibited at 2.35:1 and intended, as far as I can tell, to be seen at that aspect ratio or perhaps 2.2:1. I say this because no director or cinematographer would frame certain scenes as they appear on Criterion's releases, which are cropped to Storaro's now-preferred 2.0:1 ratio (a revisionist decision based on Storaro's idea that all of his films should now appear in this aspect ratio).
Criterion is not to blame: they're only following the wishes of Bertolucci, who defers to Storaro, and Storaro himself, who approved the transfer at 2.0:1. But viewers will notice conspicuously terrible horizontal framing in a couple of three-shots involving Pu Yi, his wife, and his "mistress": one in bed and another in the back seat of a car. Based on these examples, it's clear we're missing some visual information that we should have. I suppose Criterion could have created a transfer that did not follow Storaro's, and therefore Bertolucci's wishes. While putting the viewer first might sound like a great idea, it opens a whole other can of worms.
Anyway, the Blu-ray bonus features for this title are magnificent, beginning with a fascinating, in-depth audio commentary featuring director Bernardo Bertolucci, producer Jeremy Thomas, screenwriter Mark Peploe, and composer-actor Ryuichi Sakamoto.
The vintage doc "Bernardo Bertolucci: The Italian Traveler" (53:03, SD) finds Fernand Moszkowicz (Bertolucci's assistant director on Last Tango in Paris) tracing Bertolucci’s "geographic influences, from Parma to China."
"Postcards from China" (8:02, SD) comes with optional commentary by Bertolucci, who shot the footage during his 1985 scouting trip through China.
The 1986 documentary "Bernardo Bertolucci's Chinese Adventure" (50:53, SD) explores the film's making with behind-the-scenes footage on the set, in the editing room, and on the scoring stage. Bertolucci, Sakamoto, and David Byrne sit for interviews.
"Making The Last Emperor" (45:05, SD) is a 2007 Criterion-exclusive documentary featuring new interviews with Storaro, editor Gabriella Cristiani, costume designer James Acheson, and art director Gianni Silvestri, who worked closely with the late production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti.
"The South Bank Show" (1:06:03, SD) is the 10th-anniversary episode of the ITV British arts series. Specially shot on location in Beijing, the episode includes historical footage, behind-the-scenes footage, and interviews with the cast and crew.
"David Byrne on The Last Emperor" (25:05, SD) is a fantastic 2007 Criterion-exclusive interview in which Byrne details his involvement in the project and specific contributions; we also get to hear ultra-rare unused cuts and get a look at sheet music and the contents of Byrne's notebooks.
In "Beyond the Forbidden City: Ian Buruma on China's Tumultuous Past" (45:15, SD), cultural historian Buruma delivers an illustrated history lecture that covers a lot of ground in a nevertheless unhurried 45 minutes; Buruma gives viewers clear contexts for the events depicted in the film.
"The Late Show: Face to Face" (30:35, SD) is a 1989 episode from a BBC arts magazine show. The episode features an extensive interview with Bertolucci about The Last Emperor and his career at large.
Lastly, the film's "Trailer" (2:36, SD) is presented in a washed-out 4:3 image.
The beautiful 16-page booklet features an incisive essay by film critic David Thomson, as well as the usual tech specs and credits (shame, though, that it's truncated from the one included in the 3-disc DVD set).
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer