Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  John Lone, Joan Chen, Peter O’Toole, Ruocheng Ying, Maggie Han
Director:  Bernardo Bertolucci
Audio:  Dolby Stereo
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  165 Minutes (theatrical), 218 Minutes (television)
Release Date:  February 26, 2008

“Do you think a man can become emperor again?”

Film ****

I’m positively embarrassed to come before you today, dear readers, and admit I had never seen The Last Emperor.  How did this multiple Oscar-winner and recipient of almost universal acclaim slip under my radar for more than twenty years? 

Well, that’s one of the great aspects of Criterion…they give fans a second chance.  I finally sat down to Bernardo Bertolucci’s masterpiece and found it better than advertised.  It was a totally enveloping, sumptuous movie going experience, pulling me into a world both strange and fascinating, and relaying a piece of history I had lived unaware of for far too long.

It’s also an intriguing character study in that the primary character, Pu Yi (Lone), never seems to be a man in control of his own destiny.  He is indeed the last emperor of China, but he ascends to the throne at three and has voluntarily abdicated before becoming a teenager.  It is the early 20th century, and the Nationalists in China had all but put an end to the dynastic emperor system, though young Pu Yi is left with a ceremonial title.  He is really only emperor in the Forbidden City, commanding servants, cooks and tutors, but not even having the power to leave the palace.

The story of his days in power, for lack of a better term, are intercut with a later story, in which the older Pu Yi is in a Communist concentration camp.  The Reds had taken control of China, and the man who was once like a god but still only a child is now answering for his very life to charges of treason.  How did a ruler who had no real power end up in such a state?

The unfolding of Pu Yi’s tale anchors Bertolucci’s beautifully photographed film, which was the first Western feature to actually shoot in and around the Forbidden City in China.  It’s rich in real history, as many chapters unfold in China’s progression in only a few decades time.  There were two world wars, and each played a part in shaping the destiny of the nation.  One war led to Pu Yi’s expulsion from the only world he never knew.  The other had Japan taking over his native land of Manchuria and establishing him as a puppet ruler.

But what were Pu Yi’s dreams, ambitions, aspirations?  He confides in his Scottish tutor Reginald (O’Toole) that he wants to leave and study at Oxford.  He seems more impressed by the modernism of the West than in the ancient traditions of yore.  In fact, when told he needs glasses, his matter-of-fact response is, “Like Harold Lloyd”. 

Japan’s eventual surrender in World War II changed everything.  One advisor tells Pu Yi to surrender to the Americans and not the Russians, but the Russians make that decision for him, and who knows how history would have unfolded had that not happened?  Now, once on the throne of all of China, Pu Yi is one of thousands imprisoned as a potential enemy to the state.  The irony is striking:  this is a man who had a title but no real power, so what could he have done even had he had the desire?

The movie won nine Academy Awards, pretty much sweeping the technical categories as well as scoring Best Picture and Director for Bertolucci.  It may also be, in a sense, the closing of a unique chapter in film history.  With the advent of computerized images looming just ahead, we no longer marvel at incredible landscapes, breathtaking settings, or the difficulty in shooting a film where no Westerner had been permitted to shoot before.  Nowadays the Forbidden City could have been generated on a massive server.  But how cool is it to spend an hour or so actually in its presence?  When filmmakers said “make it so real it hurts” rather than “so real it crashes the hard drive”?

I have nothing negative to say about CGI or the worlds it opened up to movie makers, but one look at The Last Emperor will convince you just how much cinema has changed as an art form.  There may have been advances and new possibilities, but this is the kind of picture we’re not likely to see again in the future.  I can't help but feel a little saddened by that prospect.

Video ****

Criterion has scored again…The Last Emperor is positively gorgeous.  The Oscar-winning cinematography from Vittorio Storaro, who also supervised the transfer, gets stellar treatment.  Colors are rich, vibrant and natural throughout, detail level even in extremely wide shots is remarkable, and contrast is beautiful.  This is one of the best DVDs of an 80s movie I’ve seen.

Audio ***

The stereo mix is dynamic and clean, with a wonderful Oscar-winning score aiding the dramatic proceedings.  Dialogue is well-rendered throughout, and despite not being 5.1, the audio offers an open, ambient feel throughout.

Features ****

Four discs, friends…count ‘em.  The first disc, which is the theatrical cut of the film, also contains a trailer and a commentary with Bernardo Bertolucci, producer Jeremy Thomas, screenwriter Mark Peploe, and composer and actor Ryuichi Sakamoto.  The second disc contains the extended director’s/television cut of the film.

Disc Three has a documentary on Bertolucci’s geographical influences and two making-of featurettes, plus a collection of video images taken by Bertolucci as he prepared locations in China.  And the fourth disc has an hour-plus BBC documentary on Bertolucci, a 30 minute 1989 interview with the director, plus a new interview with music writer David Byrne and a historical look at the events that shaped the story in China.

Rounding out is a thick booklet with new interviews, essays, and production diary extracts.


The Last Emperor marks another landmark release from Criterion.  This four disc set encompasses a wealth of extras and a beautiful new transfer that makes Bertolucci’s vision seem brand new again.  Highest recommendation.

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