Mesmerizing, whimsical and fictional to a point, Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (1987) is the heartbreaking saga of China's last Imperial ruler, Pu Yi (John Lone); curiously represented in the film as something of a complicit pawn whose reign is shaped by largely unseen sinister forces, ill-timing and tragic fate. Taken from his mother at the age of three and raised to believe in his own divinity as absolute monarch; the first half of Bertolucci's sprawling epic examines Pu Yi’s rearing under the most rigid set of circumstances and traditions within the walls of the Forbidden City.
Like most latter day epics, this one is told in a succession of flashbacks from the vantage of a mature Pu Yi, imprisoned as a war criminal by the People’s Republic of China in 1950. Pu Yi attempts suicide – his last thoughts triggering the start of this lavish unfolding retrospective of his life. Throughout this weighty epic, Bertolucci unveils a series of vignettes that are – more or less - accurate snapshots from Pu Yi’s upbringing; his bittersweet relationships with his estranged mother and emotional attachment to his nurse maid; his arranged marriage to opium addicted princess, Wan Jung (Joan Chen), the murder of their only child and heir to the throne, and, finally his internment at the prison camp.
Peter O’Toole appears to good effect midway through the first half of the film as Reginald Johnston, English tutor to his majesty in diplomacy and matters of state regarding the outside world. Although his tutelage is beneficial, it does not prepare Pu Yi for his arranged marriage to Wan Jung; a union eventually marred by her chronic and debilitating opium addiction. Forced to flee his gated world, Pu Yi succumbs to all the decadences as a modern playboy; his importance self inflated yet fatally diminished in the outside world where he becomes an elegant stooge, and finally, the sad, fading shadow and victim of China's cultural reforms and re-education programs.
Ironically, Bertolucci dedicates the latter half of the story to an almost wish fulfillment rewrite of actual history. As a gardener, Pu Yi witnesses a Maoist parade and makes imperial remonstrance to Red Guard students who are participating in the pageantry. He next journeys to the Forbidden City as a tourist and meets a precocious child who instructs him to step away from the throne he once sat upon. Instead, Pu Yi takes his place on the gilded chair – discovering a cricket nearby – the Chinese symbol for good luck and hope - and a pet he once kept in earnest at his side. Pu Yi passes the insect on to the child, who regards it with great affection, only to discover that the last emperor has indeed vanished into the annals of history.
At times Bertolucci’s epic is poignant, heart-breaking and visually resplendent – a vivid reminder of the ancient ancestry and traditions swept away by the winds of change. The screenplay by Mark Peploe and Bertolucci uses China’s Forbidden City as allegory for that pampered, yet caged existence that dooms the essential vestiges of Pu Yi's life to ultimate sorrow and quiet self destruction. Occasionally, the screenplay falters with static moments that seem endless and meandering. But the sheer grandeur of the film’s visuals is sufficient to sustain our attentions and admiration when mere dialogue and situations seem less prescient.
The Last Emperor won an Oscar for Best Cinematography, but one would never guess as much by examining previous incarnations of the film on home video. Long overdue for an update, Criterion Home Entertainment has seen fit to restore The Last Emperor to its relative glory with a high definition transfer.
Criterion's Blu-Ray offering is, regrettably, a distilled entry to their lavish four disc offering on standard DVD. As seen theatrically in 1987 the film featured a 2:20.1 aspect ratio that has been cropped on both sides and reformatted as 1:78.1. Criterion insists that this is how Bertolucci always intended the film to be shown. However, the image as currently framed often looks cramped, with characters in medium shot and close up barely contained within in the frame, drawing undue attention to the fact that there is more information that was originally shot than we are actually seeing on this transfer!
Otherwise, there's little to complain about in terms of quality. The image is sharp, with crisp colors and fine detail evident even during the darkest scenes. Occasionally, edge enhancement wreaks havoc on background detail, but these are fleeting moments of distraction at best. The audio is lossless HD. However, the film is largely dialogue driven and with few moments to exercise the full extent of a 7.1 mix.
Extras are all direct imports from the previously issued DVD from Criterion, containing a cornucopia of rare archival and new documentaries, featurettes, interviews, theatrical trailers and stills – all in all, some five hours worthy of Criterion’s asking price. The best of the lot is a 47 minute documentary on Bertolucci. There's also a very informative audio commentary.
Now for the slam: taking their cue from other studios (most notably Fox), Criterion has decided not to include the much longer TV version of the film it gave us on their standard 4 disc DVD offering. This reviewer is rather incensed by the current sporadic practice of releasing movies to Blu-Ray that do not feature all the extras we have come to know and expect. If it was good enough for standard DVD than it is certainly not much of a stretch to demand that studios give us everything and then some on Blu-Ray if their true intent is to have us all up-convert to the new format!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)