THE LAST EMPEROR
Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: John Lone, Joan
Chen, Peter O’Toole, Ruocheng Ying, Maggie Han
Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
Audio: DTS HD Stereo
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2:1
Features: See Review
Length: 165 Minutes
Release Date: January 6, 2009
“Do you think a man can become emperor again?”
As a film fan, I owe a lot to Criterion. Before their DMC Award winning release of The Last Emperor on DVD, I had never seen the movie. 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. When I finally sat down to Bernardo Bertolucci’s masterpiece, I 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 was a world I couldn't wait to relive, and now, thanks to Blu-ray, I got a chance to experience it all over again...as though it were the first time.
The film is 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 while 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.
Criterion continues to do amazing work in their new high definition field. The Last Emperor on DVD was a gorgeous experience, and one of the best modern transfers of a film from the 80s I had experienced. Now, on Blu-ray, there is even more to praise.
The only thing better than spending cinematic time in the Forbidden City is seeing how it looks in 1080p, and man, is it impressive. The detail and clarity ring out with a beauty and a sense of history that quite honestly left me in awe. There is much to contrast between the color and pageantry of early imperial China and the danker, grayer world of the post-communist nation, but this transfer handles all aspects with amazing integrity and clarity. There are moments where you can see small amounts of the texture of the film stock, but that's more owing to the way it was filmed and not the transfer. Exhilerating!
Criterion has left the original stereo soundtrack as it was, but now with uncompressed DTS HD sound, it's more dynamic and vibrant than before. There are moments that seem enveloping enough to convince you that all channels are actually in play, including the subwoofer. The amazing music score sounds clearer and fuller than ever, and dialogue is well-balanced against the bigger, noisier scenes.
Criterion managed to get almost everything from their stellar four disc DVD release onto a single Blu-ray disc. The only thing missing is the television cut of the film, which ran a little longer and didn't look quite as stellar; it's your call whether or not you find that an extra you will miss. Apart from that, the video features have been remastered for high definition, which is a definite plus.
There's a terrific theatrical trailer and a commentary with Bernardo Bertolucci, producer Jeremy Thomas, screenwriter Mark Peploe, and composer and actor Ryuichi Sakamoto. There is also 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.
Rounding out is 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.
The Last Emperor already earned highest honors at our annual DMC Awards as a DVD release, but Criterion never rests on their laurels. Now, they've set the bar high in 2009 for Blu-ray releases with an outstanding, beautiful and features-packed high definition release. This one is not to be missed.