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The Criterion Collection presents
"You saved my life to make me a puppet in your own play."
DVD ReviewThe Last Emperor is one of the most honored films of the modern era, nominated for and winning numerous Academy Awards such as Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume, Editing, Score and Screenplay, as well as an equally tall pile of Golden Globes and BAFTA Awards. Ordinarily such a largesse of honors would be a signal to brace yourself for a tedious, awful picture, but Bernardo Bertolucci manages to put together a movie that lives up to these honors and then some, providing beauties for the eye and ear, a thoughtful yet direct screenplay, and riveting performances that tie it all together in a memorable package. That package was initially released on DVD in a miserable transfer from Artisan in 1999, but nearly ten years later The Criterion Collection finally does the picture justice.
The story follows dual tracks, the first beginning as three-year-old Pu Yi (Richard Vuu) becomes emperor of China in 1908, only to be ousted in a revolution in 1911, though he was permitted to remain in the Forbidden City for a number of years as a symbol. The second thread, interwoven with the first, begins shortly after Mao consolidated power in 1949 and the adult Pu Yi (John Lone) is interrogated regarding war crimes and collaboration with the Japanese, as the titular emperor of the puppet state of Manchukuo. Along the way, Pu Yi is influenced by an English tutor, Reginald Johnston (Peter O'Toole), Pu Yi's Empress (Joan Chen) and Wen Hsiu, the first concubine (Wu Jun Mei), as well as the tumult of history as China moved haltingly from a medieval life to a modern one, through a crucible of fire and war.
Pu Yi's tale is an interesting and complex one, beginning with the charming scenes of a toddler in charge of an empire, but mostly interested in playing. But before long, it becomes clear that he is more a prisoner than a ruler; part of that is due to the rigid requirements of tradition and court practice, part is due to the corrupt workings of the eunuchs who actually run things in the Forbidden City, and part the fact that after the 1911 revolution he was in reality a prisoner, a possibly useful hostage kept around for a variety of purposes. This gives rise to a truly tragic scenario, as Pu Yi becomes used to the adulation and sight of thousands kneeling before him, and this makes him susceptible to being taken in by the Japanese to serve as their "Emperor" of Manchukuo. But when it becomes clear that they intend he will be only a figurehead, Pu Yi's resistance produces untoward results that send him into a vortex of darkness. The corrupting influence of the Japanese is palpable in these sequences, as they turn the screws first by introducing the Empress to opium, culminating in a devastating punishment for his willfulness.
Bertolucci obtained unprecedented cooperation from the Chinese government for filming, being given the ability to shoot within the Forbidden City itself, making the production values marvelous right there. But the thousands of ornate costumes layer heavily upon that, making an amazing visual experience that is really given its due in high definition. The ornate golds and reds of the early scenes stand in stark contrast to the greys of Communist China, which emphasizes just how low Pu Yi has been brought (though arguably the rest of the country has been brought just as low in the paroxysms of Mao's mad programs, as the overall greys emphasize).
John Lone as the adult Pu Yi is terrific, with a generally controlled performance, but often displaying childish emotions and insecurities, combined with a furious temper, just under the surface. Vacillating between hedonistic pleasures, love of his country and resentment at the way he has been treated, Lone gives a complex and well-rounded portrayal. Joan Chen (best remembered as Josie Packard of Twin Peaks) is devastating in her much smaller role, despite heavy makeup that limits her expressiveness. She nevertheless brings out many subtleties in the part, wanting to support her husband but unable to make him see the darkness of the route he has chosen to follow. O'Toole carries a properly smug British superiority as he attempts to Westernize the emperor, with just enough distance to keep his attitude as one of bemused tolerance rather than outright mockery. Composer and rock star Ryuichi Sakamoto is also memorable in the role of Amakasu, the Japanese liaison to Manchukuo, serving up the most intense performance in the movie.
There are plenty of astonishing visuals, as well as many slightly cryptic ones; several sequences involve Pu Yi feeling a desire to touch others, but only through fabric, keeping himself separate. Whether this is his design, or a limitation based upon his position, is left ambiguous. But the whole is at once memorable, joyful and thoughtful, and is indeed enjoyable on many levels.
Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: First, the positive. Unlike the first few Criterion Blu-ray discs, there's little sign of excessive filtering or noise reduction, nor any significant edge enhancement. The colors are ravishing, textures and details are much of the time popping nicely, with fine shadow detail and nice, deep black levels when called for.
On the down side, Vittorio Storaro continues on with his mad vandalism of his own cinematography, trimming the 2.35:1 image to 2.00:1 with little regard for the original compositions, apparently due to a misguided determination that everything should be shown in 2.00:1format. The result is occasionally disturbing, such as the shot of Pu Yi in a car with his two wives, and two of them are partially offscreen during the conversation. Other scenes seem to be mis-centered. This is the same kind of havoc Storaro wreaked upon Tucker and Apocalypse Now, with equally ugly results. Unfortunately, Criterion has chosen to go along with Storaro in order to get his imprimatur on the transfer. The grade would be a solid A, but it's knocked down to a B for in essence being a pan & scan presentation.
Image Transfer Grade: B
Audio Transfer Review: The soundtrack is presented in DTS HD-Master Audio, which provides a nicely lossless sound experience. The dialogue is pretty center-bound and there's not much in the way of directionality, but the Oscar-winning sound comes across nicely, with no hiss or noise of any kind and plenty of range. The score by Talking Heads frontman David Byrne and Japanese rocker Ryuichi Sakamoto sounds excellent, with marvelous timbre on the various stringed and percussion instruments. Absolutely nothing to complain about here.
Audio Transfer Grade: A
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 29 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Extras Review: One of the promises of the Blu-ray disc was the capacity to hold 50 gigs of information, and this disc goes a long ways towards fulfilling that promises, including the feature in HD as well as all of the supplements of the four-disc SD set, with the exception of the extended television version, all on a single disc (which, incidentally, sports an MSRP significantly lower than that four-disc set). Unfortunately, as The Criterion Collection moves into the HD age, all of the supplements are presented in standard definition, including a wretched-looking pan & scan trailer. The omission of the extended version is likewise regrettable.
The feature itself offers a commentary from director Bernardo Bertolucci, producer Jeremy Thomas, screenwriter Mark Peploe and composer-actor Ryuichi Sakamoto. Deftly edited together in the usual Criterion style, it contains plenty of background on shooting in the Forbidden City and the travails of working in China, as well as the production design. Bertolucci's English is pretty good and readily understandable, which helps.
The supplements start off with The Italian Traveler, a film by Fernand Moszkowicz that covers Bertolucci as he attempts and fails to make a film of Red Harvest in Hollywood, and turns instead to the Far East for inspiration. Unfortunately, there are too many arty pretensions indulged in, and precious little information as to why exactly this was where Bertolucci turned his attention. A featurette incorporates about eight minutes of video footage shot by Bertolucci himself in China, while scouting locations and looking for interesting faces to use in the film. More substantive is The Chinese Adventure of Bernardo Bertolucci, which looks at the making of the film and the various frustrations in dealing with the enormous cast in a country not used to Western-style moviemaking.
Information starts coming in serious doses with Making The Last Emperor (45m:05s), as it includes new interviews with Storaro, editor Gabriella Cristiani, costume designer James Acheson and art director Gianni Silvestri. The latter two in particular offer some insights into just how carefully Bertolucci controlled the look of this film. The Southbank Show (1h:06m:03s) is a period making-of that aired on British television, with excellent historical background about the film, including interviews with Pu Yi's brother, and extensive footage from the set. These two are the best extras and where you'll want to turn first if you don't want to explore the entire set at once.
More interesting material is included in a 25m:05s interview with co-composer David Byrne, who is humorously effacing about his efforts, and notes that his music oddly enough sounds more Asian than that of Sakamoto, who didn't feel compelled to add Chinese elements. Beyond the Forbidden City (45m:15s) is a fascinating journey through the history of China through this period, beginning with the Boxer Rebellion and extending to the Cultural Revolution, with ample coverage of Pu Yi and those within his circle. Face to Face (30m:05s) is another British television episode from 1989 devoted to interviewing Bertolucci about his career and his influences. The package is rounded out by a pamphlet (rather thin by Criterion standards) featuring a short essay by critic David Thomson.
Ordinarily this kind of package would merit an A+ grade, but the omission of the extended version nicks the grade down a shade.
Extras Grade: A-
Final CommentsBertolucci's gorgeous masterpiece hits Blu-ray in a big way, with a beautiful transfer and the vast majority of extras from the four-DVD standard edition. Highly recommended.
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