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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 of Chinese history familiar to few westerners: stepping into the world of the boy emperor is as strange as entering an alternative universe in Tolkien or Frank Herbert. Filmed in English and Chinese in Peiping's actual Forbidden City, 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 extraordinary production and its sprawling subject matter. This stunning new Blu-ray release contains Bertolucci's preferred 165-minute theatrical cut.
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 a riot of color and textures onto the screen. Spoiled little Pu Yi romps among endless ranks of guards and servants dressed 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. Pu Yi's wedding night is an exotic fantasy that seems to be happening in a dream. Wan Jung gives her new husband a taste of sexual delights and then backs off: "He's very young, but he'll grow up," she laughs.
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. As if trapped in a time warp, the Forbidden City stays in the 19th century while the China outside its walls 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 continue to 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. 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.
Mark Peploe documents six decades of pageantry with a script that makes the unfamiliar unfold with sparkling clarity, and 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. 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 Blu-ray of The Last Emperor follows last year's DVD release, which presented Bernardo Bertolucci's preferred 165-minute theatrical cut and an absorbing 218-minute Italian television version. The Blu-ray contains only the shorter theatrical version.
With the added resolution and improved color of Blu-ray, The Last Emperor is a beauty to behold. The audio is also remarkable, with soundtrack contributions from composers David Byrne, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Cong Su. All of the previous disc extras have been retained.
A commentary with Bertolucci, producer Jeremy Thomas, screenwriter Peploe and actor-composer Sakamoto is annotated in Criterion's helpful Timeline format. Long-form docus and galleries include input from the director, cinematographer and designers 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.
Other featurettes 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 in an interesting interview-doc about his contribution to the soundtrack. The program book slimmed-down from the DVD package contains an essay by David Thompson. Criterion's Blu-ray producer is Kim Hendrickson.
Purchasers also need to know that Criterion's transfers of The Last Emperor are presented in a 2.00:1 aspect ratio, even though the theatrical release was formatted in a standard Panavision a full 2.35:1 anamorphic ratio. This director-approved revision became a controversial issue on the web, but Director of Photography Storaro claims the right to revise his work, as he's already done with DVD versions of Apocalypse Now. Storaro has decided that video formats should be 2.1, and as far as he's concerned TV standards should be altered to reflect his opinion. 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.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Last Emperor Blu-ray rates:
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