The Last Emperor
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Bernardo Bertolucci s The Last Emperor won nine Academy Awards, unexpectedly sweeping every category in which it was nominated quite a feat for a challenging, multilayered epic directed by an Italian and starring an international cast. Yet the power and scope of the film was, and remains, undeniable the life of Emperor Pu Yi, who took the throne at age three, in 1908, before witnessing decades of cultural and political upheaval, within and without the walls of the Forbidden City. Recreating Ching-dynasty China with astonishing detail and unparalleled craftsmanship by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti, The Last Emperor is also an intimate character study of one man reconciling personal responsibility and political legacy.
DIRECTOR-APPROVED SINGLE-DISC DVD EDITION FEATURES:
Restored, high-definition digital transfer, supervised and approved by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro
Audio commentary by director Bernardo Bertolucci, producer Jeremy Thomas, screenwriter Mark Peploe, and composer-actor Ryuichi Sakamoto
PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by critic David Thomson
A staggering and singular movie experience --Los Angeles Times
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This film is not a classic because of its accuracy of depiction of the Communist revolution. What is astonishing is that the government of Communist China allowed this film to be made AT ALL, including at least some criticism of the "cultural revolution", as well as so much filming taking place inside the "Forbidden City", which for centuries was completely off-limits to virtually everyone, and which was treated by the Communist Party as an interesting museum-type site and a way of earning tourist dollars, but not really as a film location.
TBernardo Bertolucci being the director, the film swept the Academy Awards that year, with 9 wins--winning every category in which it was nominated. Historically it does seem to be a pretty accurate (if compressed, even at almost 3 hours) biography of Pu Yi, the last Emperor,
showing along the way the invasion of China by Japan, other foreign interests at work (British and American are referenced), the struggle between the Communists and the Kuomintang, the prison "re-education" camps, the opium addiction problems--so much history, so little time.
But this being Bertolucci, of course the visuals are fantastic. These visuals are for all time. I was also reminded how much I DON'T know about Chinese history--even while the film taught me one slice of it that I hadn't known.
I am sure glad it's in Blu-Ray format now, and with all the usual extras of a Criterion release. If you didn't see it before, it should be a must-see for those who like to watch movies.
and the extras on this new disc.
There is some interesting controversy about aspect ratios and cuts with various
releases of the film. The Criterion releases have been reformatted from
the original 2:35 to 2:1, but it was done at the request of, and under the
supervision of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro.
Also, the Criterion BR doesn't have the longer Italian TV cut, but the older
multi disc Criterion DVD does.
Then there is the 2 disc Optimum UK DVD set which has the film in
it's original 2:35 theatrical ratio (and a quite nice transfer, if not quite
up to Criterion's quality.) It also contains the longer TV cut, but in a
transfer much weaker than the Criterion DVD.
Now, as for the film itself...
I can understand someone loving "The Last Emperor" (as I do), or being
bored stiff. Visually ravishing, it is an epic film about an empty man,
the last emperor of China Pu Yi.
Raised from birth with no real experience of the outside world, trained
only to fulfill his role as a symbolic figurehead, we watch Pu Yi swept
along by the great tides of history in the 20th century east. Only
after going through ten years 're-education' at the hands of the
Chinese communists does he start to seem connected to the world and to
The film forces a lot of challenging 're-thinking'. While clearly not
forgiving the murderous excesses of the Chinese cultural revolution in
the 60s, it does show that ' at least in this specific case ' the
harshness of the Chinese communists was better for Pu Yi as a human
being than the false kindness of all those that surrounded him for much
of his life.
There are weak spots. Peter O'Toole - who I usually love - is at his
most self-consciously theatrical as Pu Yi's western tutor, a tone that
makes it feel like he's in a different film. Some scenes feel like pure
exposition, with characters having conversations only so we the
audience understands historical context. And it's sometimes hard to
stay fully connected to a 165 minute epic about an empty man (although
'Citizen Kane' could be looked at that way).
But in the end, when Pu Yi finds some measure of happiness and
wholeness as a simple gardener, there is a fascinating feeling of deep
emotional reward for much of what felt flat earlier.
The Italian TV cut is almost a full hour longer than the feature
version (which Bertolucci is now said to prefer), I find each have
different strengths. I agree that the longer version is a bit "more
boring" to quote the director himself, but it also fills out the story
in important ways. By giving us more information about Pu Yi's
childhood, and time in prison (even if some of those scenes do feel a
bit clunky with exposition) his character feels much more fleshed out,
less of a cipher. More a man, less a symbol. And some of the important
changes both in the story and in his personality feel less sudden or
confusing. Probably my personal 'perfect' version would split the
difference, but I was very glad to see this alternate cut.