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 intern... more »ational 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 outside of the walls of the Forbidden City. Recreating Qing-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.« less
Magnificent Criterion Set... Mouthwatering Extras... Some Ca
dooby | 03/26/2008
(4 out of 5 stars)
"I won't go into the movie itself. It is already well known. It swept the Oscars winning all 9 for which it was nominated, including Best Picture and Best Director. A first for an independent foreign film. It is an historical epic about a culture which until then was little known in the West. It tells the story of China's Last Emperor, a weak and ineffectual man who came to the throne hailed as The Son of Heaven and The Lord of 10,000 Years. His misfortune was to be born at the twilight of Imperial Rule in China. Enthroned as a God, he is cast out by Chinese Republicans, used as a puppet by the invading Japanese, humiliated by the Communists and then "re-educated" to finally become a "useful" member of society - a common gardener. It is the story of one man's tragedy and of an ancient civilisation's painful march into the modern era. A film not to be missed.
This is a truly magnificent set. Criterion at its best. Spread over 4 discs, it includes both versions of the film, fully restored and remastered, plus an additional 6 hours worth of Extras; about everything you could possibly want to know about the film, the director or the central character, Pu Yi.
The roaring controversy however is over the decision to crop the film from its original 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio down to a narrower 2:1. Vittorio Storaro who was responsible for this has defended his action and Criterion has taken the line that they follow the wishes of the creator. However after having seen the new cropped versions, my preference is still for the older 2.35:1 widescreen.
The newer versions by and large look fine and you won't notice the cropping unless you do a 1 to 1 comparison. However in more than a few scenes, the new visual composition looks askew - awkward and ugly. Scenes that were originally perfectly framed now appear inadvertently cropped - arms, ears, sometimes whole figures are cut in half - Eg. during the enthronement of little Pu Yi, the court official who issues the proclamation is standing toward the left edge of the screen but is otherwise supposed to be fully visible. In the new 2:1 crop for the TV version, he is cut into half. In the new 2:1 crop for the Theatrical version, the panning is more to the left and only his arm is missing. This is just one of many instances which infuriate viewers. Criterion should remember that its customers are avid cinephiles who scrutinise films in minutest detail and expect faithfulness to the original release. I for one do not take kindly to a creator coming back to redo his work with the result that it looks uglier than before. Especially when I know that he has an ulterior motive for the revision.
For those who are still unaware, Vittorio Storaro pioneered a new film format in 1998 called Univisium (aka Univision) which just so happens to have a 2:1 aspect ratio. It is intended as a compromise format between the 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio and the new 1.78:1 widescreen TV aspect ratio. Storaro wants his new 2:1 aspect ratio to be the new universal aspect ratio for all films. So far only he has used it in shooting his newer films. No one else is interested so he has gone about reformatting (cropping) all the older films he has shot into this new 2:1 Univisium format. He has already mutilated Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" to the chagrin of film fans worldwide. Now he has come round to mangling Bernado Bertolucci's "The Last Emperor".
His various statements in support of this cropping are illogical, contradictory and at points ludicrous. The question is, when did he first consciously compose his pictures for the 2:1 format? Criterion cites Storaro's claim that "The Last Emperor was the first film he shot specifically for 2.0 framing". Storaro on an earlier occasion had already made the claim that he first conceived of shooting for 2.0 during the filming of "Apocalypse Now" way back in 1978. He said this in support of his cropping the war classic down from its original 2.35:1 to 2:1 for its Redux Edition and subsequent video transfer. These two statements are patently contradictory and cannot both be correct.
Both "Last Emperor" and "Apocalypse Now" were shot in Technovision which is in 2.35:1. The only format using 2:1 aspect ratio at that time was the old SuperScope. Why choose 2.35:1 Technovision, when (as he now insists) he wanted to shoot in a 2:1 aspect all along? Criterion also trots out the red herring that the producers had initially hoped to release it on 70mm. But that means composing for 2.2:1 not an odd ratio like 2:1. Actually I personally believe the films were indeed composed for 2.2:1 and they would look just right if reframed in that ratio. The only reason for cropping it down to 2:1 is to accommodate Storaro's new Univisium format. For all the Storaro apologists out there (and there are many), the Oscars he won for "Last Emperor" and "Apocalypse Now" were for the films in their original 2.35:1 presentation NOT the new 2:1 crops. I hope Criterion bans him from supervising any more transfers of his old films. In his monomaniacal quest to promote his Univisium dream, he has become more like a vandal than an artist.
But enough carping. Aside from the cropping issue, Criterion's transfer of The Last Emperor is the best so far. Truly gorgeous picture quality. One caveat however. The 218min TV Version is not up to the quality of the Theatrical Cut. The TV version is darker, grainier, softer, cooler and has slightly higher contrast. You'll notice it immediately if you watch the films one after the other. Still, it's good enough to eclipse any previous versions.
A minor detail on the TV version: The single profanity uttered in the original film - where the Red Guard curses Pu Yi during the Cultural Revolution, has now been eliminated. In the TV version, the original "F___ Off," has been replaced with a more polite "Buzz Off".
The Extras are what make this Criterion set really worth getting.
There are 2hr 40mins worth of extras on Disc 3 and another 2hr 45mins worth of extras on Disc 4. I especially liked the Southbank Show's 61min Special Edition (British ITV Production) on the Making of The Last Emperor. It includes interviews with Pu Jie, the Emperor's younger brother, as well as the prison governor who helped "re-educate" him. We also get to see archive footage of the real Pu Yi, as the Japanese puppet in Manchuria, his capture by Russian paratroopers, his testimony at the Tokyo War Crimes Trial, and finally his "re-education" at a Chinese labour camp.
On more than one occasion, Bertolucci speaks of the penultimate "Cricket" scene as a metaphor for freedom or metamorphosis. Personally I see the cricket as a symbol of renewal or rebirth. (Every year the cricket dies in autumn only to be reborn once again in spring.) That penultimate scene where Pu Yi disappears into the mists of history and the cricket slowly emerges from its wooden box is for me one of the most poetic in cinema history - it marks a new beginning, a rebirth for both Pu Yi and for his country. The final scene itself is delicious in its mix of cheery sarcasm and sadness. As the loud jarring notes of "Yankee Doodle" resound in the Hall of Supreme Harmony, we watch in dismay as hordes of chattering tourists come pouring in. And the bitter reality dawns on us - 2,100 years of Imperial Glory have been reduced to nothing more than a tourist attraction.
Of the extras, only 3 are brand new. On Disc 1 is "Making The Last Emperor" a new 45min documentary with interviews of the technical crew that swept the Oscars. One fascinating titbit was that the replica of the Empress Dowager's Golden Robes weighed in at an astonishing 50lbs because it was made out of gold-plated aluminium. The old lady playing the Empress Dowager spent 1 week in hospital recuperating from exhaustion after the filming. The second new documentary is a 25min interview with composer David Byrne on both his and Ryuichi Sakamoto's collaborative efforts in producing the splendid score. Ironically the most eastern sounding pieces were written by Byrne while Sakamoto wrote most of the more western sounding music. The documentary "Beyond the Forbidden City" hosted by Professor Ian Buruma, is a 45min, "Cliffs Notes" version of China's tumultuous years, from the reign of the Empress Dowager CiXi (Tsu-Hsi) who selected Pu Yi as her heir, to the end of Imperial Rule, the Japanese invasion, the Chinese Civil War, Mao Tse Tung's disastrous Great Leap Forward (where 30-million Chinese died at the hands of their own government), culminating in the madness of Mao's lunatic Cultural Revolution, during which Pu Yi himself passed away - or as the Empress Dowager would have put it "The Emperor is on High. He is riding the Dragon now."
Criterion's set comes with a sumptuous 98-page booklet printed on thick glossy paper and filled with handsome photos and articles. Everything is packed into a 4-way gatefold package and slipcase coloured in red and gold."
Bertolucci's life of the Last Emperor: from god to gardener.
G. Merritt | Boulder, CO | 12/12/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Bernardo Bertolucci's name is synonomous with his three greatest films: Last Tango in Paris (1972), 1900 (1976), and The Last Emperor (1987). These three films represent the defining characteristics of all of Bertolucci's work: sex (Last Tango), politics (1900; The Last Emperor), and cinephilia. Filmed in the Forbidden City of Beijing, The Last Emperor is an Academy Award-winning epic that tells the life story of of Aisin-Gioro Puyi, the last Emperor of China, from his 1950 re-entry as a prisoner and war criminal into the People's Republic of China, to the mid-1960s beginning of the Cultural Revolution, at which time Puyi revisits the Forbidden City as an ordinary tourist. (The film's final scene depicting a little boy sneaking past a velvet rope to climb onto the Dragon Throne ranks among the most memorable scenes in film history.) Over the course of the 218-minute film, there are a series of flashbacks to Puyi's early life and flash-forwards to his prison life. Bertolucci uses the life of Puyi as a mirror to reflect China's passage from feudalism through revolution to a state of relative peace. As an epic hero, Puyi never rises to the powerful stature of Lawrence of Arabia or Gandhi. In fact, Puyi is depicted as a powerless anti-hero.
In his astonising film, Bertolucci recreates the Qing dynasty with an artist's eye for detail. The film's international cast includes John Lone (as Puyi), with Joan Chen, Peter O'Toole (as Reginald Johnston), Ruocheng Ying, Victor Wong, Dennis Dun, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Maggie Han, Ric Young, Vivian Wu, and Chen Kaige. 19,000 extras were employed over the course of the film. It was the first feature film to be authorized by the government of China to be filmed in the Forbidden City.
The Criterion four-disc set includes: a newly restored high-definition digital transfer, audio commentary by director Bernardo Bertolucci, producer Jeremy Thomas, composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, and screenwriter Mark Peploe, "The Italian Traveler," a documentary by Fernand Mozskowicz, exploring Bertolucci's journey from Parma to China, "The Making of "The Last Emperor," a new documentary featuring Storaro, editor Gabriella Cristiana, costume designer James Acheson, and art director Gianni Silvestre, "Postcards from China," video images taken by Bertolucci while on preproduction, The Late Show: Face to Face, a 30-minute BBC interview with Bertolucci from 1989, new video interviews with composers David Byrne and Sakamoto, the theatrical trailer, and a booklet featuring essays by David Thomson and excerpts from script supervisor Fabien Gerard's journals from the production.
G. Merritt "
A sweeping epic certainly worthy of the Criterion treatment
calvinnme | 11/28/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This film is one of only three total Best Picture winners that won every one of the awards for which it was nominated, but strangely enough it received no nominations for acting. I found this odd, since I thought that one of the film's finer points were its performances.
In this film, Pu-Yi grows to a man who was deposed as the last emperor of China while still a child, and thus he wanders from country to country as a young man who is wealthy but without purpose. Thus, never really coming to terms with the fact that he is no longer king, he jumps at the chance to sell himself out as a puppet to the Japanese when they offer him the opportunity to rule at least part of China again. As Emperor of Manchukuo, Pu-Yi is blind to the barborous acts and experiments that the Japanese perform upon his subjects, blind to the fact that his wife has an affair with a servant to produce a royal heir, and most of all, blind to his role as puppet in the Japanese scheme for world domination. Not until the end of World War II does he seem to even have an inkling of what has been going on.
Now for the part of the movie to which I really object. Although it is compelling to see Pu-Yi slowly owe up to his responsibility for what happened in China during the Japanese occupation and come to terms with the fact that he is, after all, just a man like any other man, I strongly object to the Maoists as the good-guys in this quest for redemption. The Communist Chinese did the same type of reindoctrination on many other people - among them Christian missionaries, Buddhist monks, and believers in democracy and a free press - anyone who simply got in their way and needed their world view "readjusted". On top of that, how the Communists reindoctrinate people in this film is G-rated compared to what really went on in such camps. For details, consult the novel "1984". These points are completely whitewashed. Without the flaw of the portrayal of the Communist Chinese as the patient and kindly savers of lost souls this would have pretty much been a perfect film. As for the details of this specific Criterion release they are:
- All-new, restored high-definition digital transfer, supervised and approved by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro - All-new, restored high-definition digital transfer of the extended television version - Audio commentary by director Bernardo Bertolucci, producer Jeremy Thomas, composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, and screenwriter Mark Peploe - The Italian Traveler, a documentary by Fernand Mozskowicz, exploring Bertolucci's journey from Parma to China - The Making of "The Last Emperor," a new documentary featuring Storaro, editor Gabriella Cristiana, costume designer James Acheson, and art director Gianni Silvestre - Postcards from China, video images taken by Bertolucci while on preproduction - The Late Show: Face to Face, a 30-minute BBC interview with Bertolucci from 1989 - New video interviews with composers David Byrne and Sakamoto - Theatrical trailer - A booklet featuring essays by David Thomson and excerpts from script supervisor Fabien Gerard's journals from the production"
Criterion - How is this travesty possible?!
Sasha | NEW YORK | 04/14/2009
(1 out of 5 stars)
"i waited a long time before getting this criterion release of the last emperor. i read criterion's response to all the controversy about recropping the film from 2.35:1 to 2.00:1. reviews by "expert" websites also said that the cropping didn't really lose much of the picture. but they were all wrong: bodies, faces, and objects are now awkwardly cut off by the new cropping. i don't believe for one moment that storaro meant this film to be in 2.00:1. why? check out the scene called "secondary consort". this is the scene where wen xiu tells pu yi that she wants a divorce. there's some back and forth dialog and pu yi finally scoffs at her and says, "no one can divorce me." in this last frame, the picture suddenly looks different - the characters' faces and the entire picture is suddenly elongated. they squeezed the original 2.35:1 into a 2.00:1 frame! how could this happen with a company like criterion?! i didn't mind the cropping at first but squeezing the picture to fit a dubious framing is just the worst travesty!"
No, no, no. No more foreplay...
Patrick Selitrenny | Switzerland a.k.a. Helvetia Felix | 06/21/2008
(3 out of 5 stars)
"Why the hell was it cropped in 2:1?
Was Bernardo Bertolucci at all involved, or concerned with the transfer of his own movie?
And if so, did he agree with such stupid idea?
Thank Heavens I did not trash my Optimum PAL DVD of the very same movie...
Besides being cheaper, it has a far higher image resolution and it still comes with a pristine 2:35 image ratio. Besides, the sound is far better on the Optimum copy than on Criterion.
Despite being filled with extras, the Criterion copy sports a sound mix that is filled with effects, while the Optimum copy has them in a much more discreet way.
This over-emphatization of sound effects, results in some dialogues being lost to the dogs.
No. I usually admire and revere the work that the guys at Criterion do, especially when it comes to Japanese movies such as those of Akira Kurosawa (in those they have surpassed themselves).
But here, nah, not worth the effort and the money (despite of all the extras).
Maybe in a future, when those involved in this chopping will be gone, we might stand a better chance at having the full movie as it was actually presented and restored the way Criterion knows.
Until then and if you have the chance to have a Region/Code Free DVD player, stick to the British copy. It is far, far superior.
But in the end it is up to you. Do you care more about the Bonuses and Extras offered, rather than the movie itself? Then stick to the Criterion copy (it is stuffed with tons of material). But if you, like me, are more focused on the movie and don't give a hoot about the wrappings, the candles and the cherries, than try to get hold of an Optimum DVD of this movie (you may still find it at Amazon.co.uk).