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DVD SAVANT

The Last Emperor
Theatrical and Television Versions


The Last Emperor
Criterion 422
1987 / Color / 2.00:1 anamorphic widescreen / 165 + 218 min. / Street Date February 26, 2008 / 59.95
Starring John Lone, Joan Chen, Peter O'Toole, Ruocheng Ying, Victor Wong, Dennis Dun, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Maggie Han, Ric Young, Vivian Wu
Cinematography
Vittorio Storaro
Production Design Ferdinando Scarfiotti
Art Direction Maria-Teresa Barbasso, Gianni Giovagnoni
Film Editor Gabriella Cristiani, Anthony Sloman
Original Music David Byrne, Ryuchi Sakamoto, Cong Su
Written by Mark Peploe, Bernardo Bertolucci from an autobiography by Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi
Produced by Jeremy Thomas
Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Bernardo Bertolucci advances the case of the historical epic with 1987's big Oscar winner The Last Emperor, a nearly perfect balance of sweeping destinies and intimate lives. The film covers sixty years in Chinese history familiar to few westerners; stepping into the world of the boy emperor is almost as strange as entering an alternative universe in Tolkien or Frank Herbert. Filmed in English and Chinese in the real Forbidden City in Peiping, The Last Emperor is a fascinating experience from one end to the other.

Criterion's disc rewards the viewer with a wealth of extras on the film's extraordinary production process and its sprawling subject matter. Although Bertolucci prefers his 165-minute theatrical cut, the 218-minute Italian television version adds depth to the saga without slowing down the story.

Synopsis:

1949. The ex- puppet of Manchukuo during the Japanese occupation, Emperor Pu Yi (John Lone) is delivered to the Chinese Communists for re-education under a stern prison warden (Ruocheng Ying). He remembers 1908: As the Dowager Empress nears death, tiny Pu Yi (played at different ages by four actors) is forcibly taken from his parents to become the pampered head of the Ching (Qing) dynasty. Although waited on by an army of servants, Pu Yi cannot leave the Forbidden City. Only years later does he discover that China has become a republic, and that his royal compound is a sort of gilded prison. In the 1920s, as civil war rages outside the walls, English tutor Reginald Johnson (Peter O'Toole) explains to Pu Yi that the dynasty has been retained for symbolic purposes, and that he is held prisoner by his thousands of servants simply to provide them with jobs and income. Pu Yi marries a pre-chosen bride, Wan Jung (Joan Chen). When a new warlord expels the royals, Pu Yi flees with Wan Jung to Tiensien, where they take the names Henry and Elizabeth and live a frivolous life in nightclubs. But, spurred on by Japanese 'friend' Amakasu (Ryuichi Sakamoto), Henry cannot resist the invitation to reclaim his destiny by becoming the new Emperor of Manchukuo. Henry's Japanese installers limit his role to ceremonial duties. Playgirl/friend Eastern Jewel (Maggie Han) hooks Elizabeth on opium so she can be held hostage; Amakasu has their baby murdered at birth to eliminate a potential heir. When the Russians overrun Manchukuo, Henry is captured attempting to escape.

The Last Emperor tells its story with color. It opens with Pu Yi's suicide attempt in a cold, dull train station in Red China. His red blood cues a flashback to the end of the Ching Dynasty, loosing onto the screen a riot of color and lavish textures. Spoiled little Pu Yi romps among endless ranks of guards and servants in fantastic ritual costumes. Mostly kept from his real family, he's pampered by wet nurses and kept ignorant of his position as a bird (or a cricket) in a gilded cage. Women seem to control Pu Yi's life. A gaggle of aunts chooses his bride. On their wedding night she gives Pu Yi a taste of sexual delights and then backs off: "He's very young, but he'll grow up," she laughs.

As if trapped in a time warp, the huge Forbidden City stays in the 19th century while China outside undergoes violent political upheavals. Pu Yi develops a distanced sympathy for democratic values, yet never questions his right to rule. When the warlord's troops invade the Forbidden City, Pu Yi and his court are enjoying a game of tennis, with teacher Johnson serving as referee. Considering the hardships and suffering outside the walls, it's obvious that Pu Yi's royal lifestyle is a social outrage.

All of this is contrasted with the harsh re-education measures in the Red Chinese prison. The middle-aged Pu Yi is incarcerated with several of his former servants, who at first continue to dress him and indulge his lies about being kidnapped by the Japanese to serve as the Emperor of Manchukuo. Back in Tiensien, 'Henry and Elizabeth' adopt western dress, music and customs while the Japanese set them up as puppet monarchs. Amakasu and Eastern Jewel have no difficulty getting Henry to take the bait, despite Elizabeth's pleas that they go to England instead. Installed as a fool in a meaningless office, Henry can only watch as his captors despoil his country, murder his child and reduce Elizabeth to a psychotic state.

Back in the Red Chinese prison, Henry finally understands that he's a Quisling responsible for untold suffering, and that his jailer is really a wise teacher. Released into Chinese society, he becomes a gardener -- until the purges of the 1966 Cultural Revolution.

Bertolucci and his screenwriter Mark Peploe document six-decades of pageantry with a script that makes the unfamiliar unfold with sparkling clarity. Pu Yi collapses in tears when he sees China's real leader, a warlord, arrive by motorcar in a legation compound adjacent to his regal enclosure. His servants will follow his every whim and demand, but when his real mother is dying, the guards will not let him leave the compound to go to her. It's all prestige without power. Except for a summer or two pretending to be Hollywood stars in Tiensien, Henry and his wife spend their entire lives in closely monitored captivity.

Eye-popping visuals and exotic designs abound in the Forbidden City sections of the story as we see how the baby Pu Yi is fed, entertained and attended. Pu Yi's entire life is an artificial bubble, a Dynastic irrelevance persisting in a changed world. Known for intellectual films (Il conformista) where narrative clarity is a secondary concern, Bertolucci assembles The Last Emperor into a succession of perfectly judged scenes that never obstruct the forward momentum of the story. There's not a predictable chapter in the entire film. Pu Yi's wedding night is an exotic fantasy that seems to be happening in a dream.

The script takes a pragmatic view of history. Emperor Pu Yi was at the center of gigantic political convulsions in which millions of his countrymen were killed -- in civil wars, by invading Japanese and by the harsh policies of the Reds. Although Bertolucci acknowledges all of this, he doesn't condemn Red China out of hand. The Cultural Revolution is reduced to a parade of hooligans, while Henry's forced incarceration is seen as a good thing. Less debatable is the film's portrait of the Japanese invaders. Henry sees only the elite spearhead of the Japanese oppressors, but it's bad enough. How many films depict the medical murder of a baby, and force us to accept it as a logical outcome of political power plays?

The acting is uniformly good, with John Lone outstanding as the unwise Emperor. Peter O'Toole is properly starched as the English tutor and actor-composer Ryuchi Sakamoto is a cool menace as the one-armed Amakasu. Joan Chen is heartbreaking as the Emperor's faithful wife, and Maggie Han suitably malevolent as the China-hating adventuress Eastern Jewel.


Criterion's massive boxed set for The Last Emperor presents Bernardo Bertolucci's epic in a pair of excellent encodings. Both the theatrical and TV versions are in enhanced widescreen with great color. The audio is also remarkable, with soundtrack contributions from composers David Byrne, Ryuchi Sakamoto and Cong Su. Discs 2 and three are packed with long-form docus and galleries. New pieces include input from Bertolucci, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and the designers and art directors that fabricated a lost Chinese world in record time, with most interiors filmed on Italian sound stages. The main making-of docu shows amusing footage of Bertolucci directing an army of extras on the forecourt of the Forbidden City. Assistants chatter in Italian while assistant directors relay instructions in Chinese. In the middle of this bedlam, other assistants attempt to corral the 3 year-old kid playing Pu Yi. 1

Other films from Italy and England document Bertolucci's massive production, while historian Ian Buruma provides an annotated video essay explaining 20th Century Chinese history. David Byrne appears for an interesting interview-doc about his contribution to the soundtrack. A fat program book includes essays by David Thompson and Fabien S. Gerard, and interviews with designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti, Bertolucci and actor Ying Ruocheng. Criterion's DVD producer is Kim Hendrickson.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Last Emperor rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Documentaries The Italian Traveler Bernardo Bertolucci, The Chinese Adventure of Bernardo Bertolucci, The Last Emperor BBC, Director's video images of China, new docu with Vittorio Storaro, and other artists, Interviews with Bertolucci (1989), David Byrne, historian Ian Buruma; booklet with essays by David Thompson and Fabien S. Gerard, Bertolucci reminiscence, interviews with Scarfiotti and Ying Ruocheng.
Packaging: Four discs and book in folding card and plastic disc holder in card box.
Reviewed: February 21, 2008

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

Footnote:

1. I was unaware that The Last Emperor's aspect ratio had been changed for home video ... it's orignally a 2.35 anamorphic film, but D.P. Vittorio Storaro has opted to reformat it at 2.1, cropping some of the left and right of the frame. Normally sticklers on original aspect ratios, Criterion has bowed to Storaro's wishes here. Google 'Storaro' and 'aspect ratio' or 'film format' and you'll see some of the heated arguments flying around about this decision. Storaro has decided that video formats should be 2.1, and as far as he's concerned TV standards should be altered to reflect this (hey, whatever happened to the magical 'Golden Rectangle' of 1.66?). We're aware that Storaro just happens to own a proprietary camera system that shoots in the 2.1 format, but we also think he's sincere, and we appreciate his ideas about color in movies. But that shouldn't extend to revisionism a la George Lucas. Apocalypse Now is now recolored (more solarized blue, anyone?), reformatted less wide and screwed up with additional scenes. The original 1979 movie is becoming lost to history with every passing year. This change to Emperor is less traumatic -- Savant hadn't seen the movie before and didn't notice the cropped compositions -- but still a nuisance.
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