Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor is epic in every sense of the word. Sprawling in both running time and narrative time, it covers several decades of history, following the travails of one man and the grand events that dictate not only the course of his life, but affect the world stage. In 1988, the international production swept the Oscars, and has since stood the test of time, its gorgeous filmmaking still as impressive today as it was twenty years ago. Now, at long last, the movie is also getting the epic DVD treatment with the new 4-disc The Last Emperor - The Criterion Collection.
The Last Emperor is Pu Yi of China. Taken to the Forbidden City in 1908, the boy was crowned at the age of 3 at a time when the monarch was not permitted to leave the massive royal estate (it was called a "City" for a reason) as a matter of tradition. Before the new king even reached puberty, however, his nation changed underneath him, becoming a Republic and electing its own president. Very little changed for Pu Yi as far as his way of living. He was still surrounded by courtiers of whom he could make any demand, he just didn't have any sway over public policy. He was also now confined to his portion of the Forbidden City as a prisoner.
Bertolucci and screenwriter Mark Peploe explore the life of Pu Yi on two divergent timelines. The narrative of his growth from child king to empty figurehead regularly jumps forward to a framing timeline in the 1950s when Pu Yi was imprisoned by the Communists. Played as an adult by John Lone in both story lines, we see that the Emperor is a man who only knows a life of privilege and it takes a long time for him to lose the belief that it is his God-given right to rule. Though the Communist government's intention is to recondition Pu Yi and make him a productive member of their new society, they unwittingly end up serving as the final catalyst for turning a boy into a man.
Though Pu Yi left palace life as a young man, he was still very much a child. Not privy to the regular rites of passage experienced by most youths, his views of life all come second-hand, from his courtiers, from books and magazines, and from his British tutor, Reginald Johnston (Peter O'Toole). Pu Yi is married, but his conception of love is extremely adolescent. He has two wives: his true spouse Wan Jung (Joan Chen) and, essentially, his mistress, Wen Hsiu (Wu Jun Mei). He sleeps with them simultaneously, walks around with one on each arm, but has no conception that the Western world he longs to flee to would not look favorably on his living arrangements. When Wen Hsiu leaves him, he has no idea why.
This same na´vetÚ is what also caused him to become a stooge of the Japanese, betraying China and helping its enemies set up a puppet government in Manchuria. By the end of WWII, Pu Yi realizes he has been duped, and Japan's loss of the war is what eventually leads to his imprisonment under the Reds. The heartbreak of adult life is visited on the child with explosive vigor.
And yet, by the end of his life, Pu Yi has become a real man, one who enjoys simple pleasures and has compassion for others. It's a hard-won transformation, but it's also a true one.
Bertolucci imbues The Last Emperor with an ostentatious splendor befitting his majestic subject. The sheer size of the Forbidden City demands that any production set inside it go large. The storytelling style could be compared favorably to the epics made by David Lean, though with less romanticism and stronger strains of real-world practicality. Pu Yi is never going to be a great hero, and his immaturity ends up being counterintuitive to his having a passionate romance, but his metamorphosis is almost like an epic in reverse, moving from grand illusion to peaceful actuality.
From the starting frame to the last, The Last Emperor is a beautiful movie. The multiple art directors, production designer, and costume designer have recreated the world of early 20th-century China. Vittorio Storaro's camera and his stunningly generous eye capture the rich colors and costumes with an exacting, unwavering attention. The cinematographer works across the open film, letting every frame burst with detail. It's a complete illusion. You are not only viewing the story, but you are there.
DVD 1 contains the 165-minute theatrical version of the film, which the director considers to be his preferred cut. The second disc is the 218-minute television cut, which isn't longer in order to restore pieces the Bertolucci had to remove against his will or better judgment, but simply a longer version made to take up more airtime and run as a TV event. (This also means removing the few instances of swearing.)
Essentially, it's the same film in structure and content. Some scenes are longer, and then some new elements are added, particularly in the prison sequences. For instance, in terms of extended scenes, Reginald Johnston's arrival is filled out with a conversation between the English tutor and the man he is replacing, Chen Paoshen (Victor Wong), in the car on the way to the palace. It serves to emphasize the sympathies of the Chinese teacher, who always had Pu Yi's best interests at heart, and thus brought Johnston as an aid for his young charge. Elsewhere, as an example of an added scene, we have a flashback where Pu Yi's wet nurse (Jade Go) tells the young monarch how she got her job. Other bits are far less substantial, just a reversed nip or tuck here and there.
In both cases, the restored footage adds color to the story, and The Last Emperor is still quite excellent in its longer form; nevertheless, the additions are neither crucial nor necessary. Comparing the two cuts actually shows how a good director and his editor can shape a movie into a stronger narrative by working out what is essential. The theatrical cut is a sharper picture, not as prone to meandering, and is arguably the better for it.
Unless my eyes deceive me, however, it should be noted that I think the TV version is slightly less crisp and vivacious than the theatrical cut. I noticed some grain and even some edge enhancement, but it's only a small step down.
DVD 1 is the original theatrical cut of The Last Emperor, along with the theatrical trailer. A full-length audio commentary with Bertolucci, producer Jeremy Thomas, screenwriter Mark Peploe, and composer/actor Ryuichi Sakamoto is also available as an added option for when watching the film. It was recorded during sessions in 2003 and 2007, with each person recording their pieces separately. Sakamoto speaks the least, and he doesn't emerge until the character he plays first appears on screen. The other men do a good job of covering all aspects of the production, with the producer being more about the devil in the details and the director being more heady and philosophical.
DVD 2 is given exclusively to the longer television version of the movie.
DVD 3 begins the supplementary material, with four separate documentaries about The Last Emperor.
DVD 4 finishes up the collection of supplements with four more features.