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DVD Reviews

HTF DVD REVIEW: The Last Emperor

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#1 of 50 OFFLINE   Matt Hough

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Posted February 20 2008 - 08:10 AM

The Last Emperor
Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci

Studio: Criterion
Year: 1987
Aspect Ratio: 2.00:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 165/218 minutes
Rating: NR
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo surround English
Subtitles: SDH
MSRP: $ 59.95

Release Date: February 26, 2008
Review Date: February 20, 2008

The Film


Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor won nine 1987 Oscars including Best Picture. It’s an epic in every sense of the word, but it’s a somewhat flawed epic. All of its awards and plaudits notwithstanding, it’s an easy picture to admire but a difficult picture to love.

Pu Yi is brought to Peking’s Forbidden City at age three where he will eventually become the last emperor of China. He is unexceptional in every respect, and yet his story is told by screenwriter Mark Peploe (with an assist by director Bernardo Bertolucci) in a most interesting fashion. We begin in 1950 with Pu Yi in a prison camp (where he attempts suicide and is thwarted). From there we go backwards and forwards in time alternating events from his growing up years (at ages 3, 8, 15, and adult) with his interrogation, rehabilitation, and eventual release from prison in 1959. From there we continue briefly into his life as an unassuming gardener finally free from the prisons he has lived in or made for himself his entire life.

Because the main character is not a particularly intriguing individual, it falls to Bertolucci to surround him with colorful, fascinating, and attention-grabbing people and events, and in this, he magnificently succeeds. Peter O’Toole’s entry into the film as Pu Yi’s tutor gives a third of the movie an unusual grace and a Western point of view which often serves as an ironic dynamic to Pu Yi’s life and behavior. Later events during the deposed emperor’s life as a playboy or as a puppet emperor of Manchuria bring with them their own drama and character, though those scenes are among the least interesting in the picture emphasizing all too obviously the alternative prisons he’s residing in without being bright enough to realize it.

Four actors play Pu Yi during his life, and all do well with the character as written. John Lone, who was one of the movie chameleons at the time of the filming moving easily between playing villains and heroes in other films, does magnificently well toning down his natural spark to play this near-nonentity. (For all of the film’s Oscar notoriety, it’s hard to fathom why neither Lone nor O’Toole garnered award nominations for their work here.) Joan Chen makes a haunting Wan Jung, the wife whose loveless marriage leads her to drug addiction and disgrace.

Bertolucci has always said that he loves all of the characters in his movies, but he seems to keep his distance from Pu Yi, and his coldness seems to affect to movie, too, as the viewer feels somewhat removed from the events and from Pu Yi’s plight. The scope of the epic storytelling is there, and all the views of the Forbidden City are awesome to behold, but with a central character who’s rather inert and a director who’s not engaged with him either, we end up with a sterile epic that’s easy to admire but hard to embrace.

Video Quality


The film has been reformatted for this Criterion release by director of photography Vittorio Storaro offering us a 2.00:1 aspect ratio anamorphically enhanced. The grandeur of the original cinematography is definitely compromised somewhat with this decision, and some shots now simply don’t work with characters occasionally chopped off at the sides and centering of images often off kilter. Issues of the reformatting aside, the sharpness is above average but not exemplary (ironically, Criterion’s recently released Walker, released in cinemas in the same year as The Last Emperor, has exemplary sharpness and texture). Color saturation is good except when it’s meant to be desaturated as in the prison sequences, and blacks are suitably dark with fine shadow detail. The film is divided into 29 chapters in the theatrical cut and 33 chapters in the television version.

Audio Quality


The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo surround track is a fine effort representing the sound design for its era. There is some good, surprisingly effective bass in the mix, but elsewhere the film’s effectiveness might have been increased with a surround track with more discreet use of available channels. As it is on this release, the mix is front heavy with music serving as the main occupant of the rear channels when they're used at all.

Special Features


Disc one contains the original theatrical trailer in 4:3 (no widescreen trailer was available?) and runs for 2½ minutes.

An audio commentary has been pieced together with contributions from director Bernardo Bertolucci, producer Jeremy Thomas, screenwriter Mark Peploe, and composer Ryaichi Sakamoto. Even with four men commenting on their roles in the production of the film, there are gaps in the commentary, and some of it is slow going, but each man does offer some unique perspective to what he brought to the table in bringing this movie to the screen.

Disc two contains the expanded television version of The Last Emperor. The majority of the extra footage in this expanded edition consists of additional prison sequences, all interesting but not essential. There is a bit more of O’Toole on display, and the wedding sequence is longer. Several other scenes in the theatrical cut simply run on longer in the expanded edition.

Discs three and four contain the lion’s share of the extensive supplemental material.

“The Italian Traveler, Bernardo Bertolucci” finds the famous director at loose ends when his planned 1984 film version of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest fell through. As he wanders the world looking for inspiration, he muses over some of his past triumphs including ‘1900,’ Last Tango in Paris, and Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man (with clips from each worked into the featurette). The second half of the documentary has him in China working on scenes for The Last Emperor. The 4:3 documentary was directed by Fernand Moskowicz and runs 53 minutes.

“Postcards from China” is a home movie documentary shot by Bertolucci as he scours the Chinese countryside looking at potential shooting locations for The Last Emperor. The 4:3 short can be played with or without Bertolucci commentary and runs 8 minutes.

“Bernardo Bertolucci’s Chinese Adventure” is a 1986 documentary directed by Paolo Brunetto which is a true “making of” feature showing Bertolucci directing the actors (and then showing us the scenes from the finished film), blocking movement for the actors and for the camera, editing the film alongside the film editor, attending the music scoring sessions, and going to the first private screening of the finished film. This 4:3 feature runs 51 minutes.

“Making The Last Emperorgathers in 2007 four of the production team’s Oscar winners: costume designer James Acheson, art director Gianni Silvestri, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, and film editor Gabriella Scarfiotti to talk individually about working with director Bertolucci and their own contributions to the finished film looking back twenty years since the work was completed. This anamorphic widescreen featurette runs 45 minutes.

Disc 4 begins with “The South Bank Show,” the ITV cultural arts show which aired a special length 66-minute episode on The Last Emperor. The show basically steps through the film section by section offering clips and comments from the main actors and the director.

Composer David Byrne, one of three who earned Oscars for music composition used in the film, contributes an anamorphic interview filmed in 2007 and offers demos of several pieces of music presented for use in the movie and then the scenes in the movie showing how the themes were adopted for use. This interview runs 25 minutes.

“Beyond the Forbidden City” is an anamorphic 45-minute lecture by historian Ian Buruma explaining in detail the tumultuous events going on in China during the life of Pu Yi which we see only snippets of during the film as they affected him. Though the talk can be a bit dry, the information offered is quite revelatory in understanding the political unrest during the years of his life.

“Late Show: Face to Face” is a 1989 interview by Jeremy Isaacs in which Bertolucci talks about winning his Oscars, his father and mother, his political beliefs, and his memories of Brando, Godard, and other film greats. This 4:3 program runs 30 minutes.

The set features a 94-page booklet loaded with color stills from the movie. Also included are an appreciation of the film by critic David Thomson, a brief reminiscence by Bernardo Bertolucci, an interview with production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti, an interview with actor Ying Ruocheng who played the prison governor, and some shooting diary excerpts from Bertolucci’s personal assistant.

In Conclusion

4/5 (not an average)

The Last Emperor is a cold epic but a worthwhile one, and the bonus package will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about the making of this film by the people who did it. Despite the compromised framing of the film in both the theatrical and extended television versions, the contents of the package are most assuredly worth watching.

Matt Hough
Charlotte, NC


#2 of 50 OFFLINE   Shawn.F


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Posted February 20 2008 - 12:31 PM

I hate, hate, HATE Vittorio Storaro! I don't care what his rationale for a cropped aspect ratio is, he's ruining the composition. I'm buying this disc because this is one of my all-time favorite films, but I am less than happy with the presentation.

#3 of 50 OFFLINE   TonyD


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Posted February 20 2008 - 01:43 PM

i just don't get his theories on ratio, doesnt make sense to me. i won't buy it, if it is on netflix i'll do that.

#4 of 50 OFFLINE   mdnitoil


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Posted February 20 2008 - 02:55 PM

No sale for me. Eventually, someday, I will get this in it's original aspect ratio. All good things come....

#5 of 50 OFFLINE   Danny Burk

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Posted February 20 2008 - 03:25 PM

I was looking forward to this, but I'm not buying a cropped version. Guess I'll keep my R2 and wait for a European Blu-Ray someday.

#6 of 50 OFFLINE   Malcolm Cleugh

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Posted February 20 2008 - 10:26 PM

Pity about the change in aspect ratio and that Criterion did not spread both the TV and Film versions over 2 disks each to increase quality. But I guess 6 disk set would have made it even more expensive and less saleable. Matt one correction I don't think the BBC show on disk 4 is from the "South Bank Show". That was the highbrow arts show on ITV (their commerical rival) produced by LWT one of the channels that made up ITV. Looking up the list of South Bank Shows was not one of them so guess it must have been in one of the BBC arts shows like Arena (although can't find it listed for that)

#7 of 50 OFFLINE   Jay E

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Posted February 21 2008 - 01:02 AM

I have decided to hold off on buying this due to the cropping. I have the region 2 DVD, so I will stick with that for the time being.

#8 of 50 OFFLINE   Matt Hough

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Posted February 21 2008 - 01:58 AM

No, it is "The South Bank Show." It has the introductory logo and theme music. I'll change it from BBC to ITV. I just assumed TSBS was produced by the BBC. Thanks for the correction.

#9 of 50 OFFLINE   JonZ


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Posted February 21 2008 - 02:04 AM

Very disappointing about the cropping.

Its frustrating. Whats more important - do you want to honor the filmmakers decision or recreate the theatrical experience?

"and some shots now simply don’t work with characters occasionally chopped off at the sides and centering of images often off kilter"

Posted Image

Its going to be hard to pass this disc up as I love the film and have been itching to see it for awhile now and have been able to hold off seeing it in anticipation of this new set.

#10 of 50 OFFLINE   Matt Hough

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Posted February 21 2008 - 03:36 AM

I really was willing to be open to the reinterpretation, but the compromised shots happen just enough to really be bothersome, especially if you are a fan of the movie and know it well.

#11 of 50 OFFLINE   cafink



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Posted February 21 2008 - 04:11 AM

Are the two different cuts of the film so different from one another than seamless branching wouldn't have worked? It seems to me that the ideal presentation would have been to spread the movie across two discs, using seamless branching to incorporate both versions. The disc count would be the same, and both versions of the film would have more "breathing room" for a higher bit-rate and likely superior image quality. The film is long enough that I don't think a disc break would hurt it. Why didn't Criterion go this route?


#12 of 50 OFFLINE   JonZ


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Posted February 21 2008 - 05:29 AM

Thanks for the review Matt.

#13 of 50 OFFLINE   Fabian Kusch

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Posted February 21 2008 - 06:17 AM

I'm going back and forth on buying or not buying the Criterion. What makes matters worse is that there's no real alternative if you want a decent transfer of the longer cut. Except for the British 2-DVD-Set, all other DVD's are only letterboxed but not 16x9 enhanced. And the British DVD is cropped at the sides as well (although only slightly), has a very dark transfer and many compression artifacts. As for the shorter version ("director's cut") both the British and French DVD's are ok but not stellar.

#14 of 50 OFFLINE   Mike Frezon

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Posted February 21 2008 - 10:42 AM

Matt: Thank you for your excellent review.

In the other thread on this release, I posted the text of an e-mail I sent Criterion asking if there's any chance they will consider a 2.35:1 release if-and-when they release The Last Emperor on Blu-ray disc.

It's a real longshot because apparently Storaro supervised the HD transfer for this release which would probably also be used for an eventual BD release.

It's really too bad. I've been waiting for an improved release of TLE for a long time and am not sure that this is what I've been waiting for.

Anyone who wants to know more about why this has happened should read the other thread to gain some insight into the warped perspective of the film's Director of Photography.

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#15 of 50 OFFLINE   Shawn.F


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Posted February 21 2008 - 02:13 PM

I got my copy tonight (thanks to Best Buy for putting the title out a week early Posted Image). Yes, the picture is cropped but overall it still looks good (miles better than that Aristan monstrosity). The television cut of the film looks so-so. The 2-channel sound is okay, although I would have liked to have a 5.1 mix thrown in as an option. For me, the extras are what make the purchase worth it. Not only the two full discs of supplements, but a really nice book that comes with the set.

I will no doubt buy the film again when it hits Blu-ray somewhere down the road. But for now, I'm happy enough with this edition. (EDIT: when I say 'happy enough', I mean that I am just happy to have an edition of the film that has decent extras. The whole aspect ratio still pisses me off royally).

#16 of 50 ONLINE   ManW_TheUncool



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Posted February 21 2008 - 02:49 PM

No sale for me. I was really looking forward to this one and would've paid the rare premium for it (especially considering that it's DVD, not HDM), but IMHO, Criterion (and Storaro) blew it w/ the cropped transfer. I may instead opt for the R2 PAL version since there's good likelihood that we might need to wait a long time before a proper OAR HDM version becomes available, if ever. And I don't know that I'll relent if/when the cropped HDM version comes out some time down the line. I will also follow Mike Frezon's lead and write to Criterion about this. They need to hear it from their potential paying customers. _Man_

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#17 of 50 OFFLINE   EnricoE


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Posted February 23 2008 - 03:11 PM

bloody hell... another great film screwed up in the aspect ratio department. first it was apocalypse now and this film. not going to buy this, even i've looked forward so much. if dp want a diff aspect ratio then do it while shooting and not decide 20 years later that this may look better for folks who hate widescreen.

#18 of 50 OFFLINE   Simon Howson

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Posted February 23 2008 - 10:13 PM


#19 of 50 OFFLINE   Mike.B


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Posted February 26 2008 - 02:42 AM

Despite some misgivings about the aspect ratio, I'm buying. The overall quality of the extras and generally improved video make this worthwhile in my opinion. Thanks for the review.

#20 of 50 OFFLINE   TonyD


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Posted February 26 2008 - 02:47 AM

i'll rent it from netflix, but i won't buy it.

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