Criterion has gone the extra mile with this release, giving us a 4-disc set filled with extra material. Unfortunately I don’t know if this is a real advantage. While I love when Criterion goes all out with their special features (Brazil and The Battle of Algiers are both impressive, comprehensive packages) I have to admit that in this case less was probably more, or they could have at least expanded out a bit. There a few hours’ worth of material here, but unfortunately most of it feels repetitive or, even worse, offers nothing.
The big feature is of course that this release contains two versions of the film, the theatrical cut and the television version. The theatrical cut is Bertolucci’s preferred version. Artisan’s previous DVD contained the longer version and even touted it as the “director’s cut” but this was incorrect. According to Bertolucci part of a financing deal was to come up with a longer version, closer to 4 hours, that could be shown on television. He cut that version first but then cut the 160-minute version for theatrical release, and he has stated this is the version he prefers.
The first dual-layer disc presents the theatrical version along with an audio commentary featuring Bernardo Bertolucci, producer Jeremy Thomas, screenwriter Mark Peploe, and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto (David Byrne is missing but appears in an interview elsewhere on the set.) Considering the scope (and length) of the film it shouldn’t be a surprise that it’s a very dense track filled with a lot of information. Everyone has been recorded separately and then edited together. Sakamoto gets the least amount of time, in fact I only recall him popping up midway through the film, and spends it talking about the score, but everyone else gets about the same amount of time, maybe Thomas inching out ahead of the others. Peploe sticks to writing the script and the research involved. He actually found Pu Yi an uninteresting subject and while he and everyone else tried to stick close to the facts there were liberties taken. Thomas really gets into the details about the actual filming in China and the technical details of the film, while Bertolucci reflects on the shoot (his fear of shooting so many extras, which involved Thomas having to drag him out of his trailer,) learning about the culture, and his style of filmmaking. Overall they cover many subjects, including shooting in the Forbidden City, working with the actors, especially Peter O’Toole and John Lone (who are unfortunately missing on this release), members of the crew, and even give some history lessons about Pu Yi and China during the film’s time period. I think what I found most fascinating about the commentary is that no one seems to have a decent opinion of Pu Yi, which I guess isn’t all that surprising, but that didn’t seem to harm their passion for the film. It’s loaded with information and well worth the listen, possibly being the best feature on here.
The first disc also presents the film’s theatrical trailer.
The second dual-layer disc presents the television version, which runs 218-minutes. I’ve never been overly fond of this version, finding it far too long (even if the Artisan DVD wasn’t a wretched turd of a release I probably wouldn’t have picked it up because it lacked the shorter version) and I was pleased to hear Bertolucci doesn’t even like it, considering it simply a longer, more “boring” version of the movie. I didn’t actually rewatch it, only sampling it to get an idea of the picture quality (as mentioned in the picture review it’s not up to the same quality of the transfer found for the theatrical version, containing more prominent compression artifacts.) There were more scenes in the prison and a couple of extra flash backs that I didn’t feel added much. In all honesty I would have been happy if Criterion left it off of the set, bringing the price of the release down. But here it is for those that prefer that version, and with a better transfer than the ghastly Artisan DVD.
The third dual-layer disc presents the bulk of remaining supplements. First up is The Italian Traveler, Bernardo Bertolucci, a 53-minute documentary made in 1984 after one of his films fell through and just before he would make The Last Emperor. It has been divided into 7 chapters. I really didn’t care for this rather labourious piece, which felt to go on forever as Bertolucci reflects back on his past films, visiting their locations (like the location for Last Tango in Paris,) eventually making his way to China where he would film The Last Emperor. I’m not sure what it was about it that I didn’t care for as I do like Bertolucci’s work and I would like to see a documentary on his work, but this thing just meanders on, with Bertolucci’s dry narration/reflections leading us on this tour that never really delves into anything deeply about his work and ultimately goes nowhere. Ultimately they go to a location used in one of his films, shows how it is now and then show a clip from the film. The last bit concentrates more on The Last Emperor and (then) modern China, but other features on this set do the same. I didn’t care for it, in fact I’d almost say I hated it.
After having my soul crushed with that last pointless exercise I dreaded going through the rest of the disc’s features, but thankfully they progressively get better. Next up is Postcards From China, an 8-minute bit edited together from home video footage shot by Bertolucci and a crew in 1985, scouting out locations in China that could be used for The Last Emperor. Of course Bertolucci couldn’t just leave it as a collection of video, he has to offer some reflective, poetic narration to it. It’s a little much at times but overall the video clips are interesting and Bertolucci was obviously taken by China and its people, though it doesn’t look like many appreciated his filming them, as presented by a woman hiding a child from the camera. There is also an optional commentary by Bertolucci which I preferred to his original narration. In it he just talks about his experience involving his first visit to China, the culture shock, and he expands on a comment he made about Antonionni filming there. If you watch it I’d actually recommend just listening to the commentary track over the original track.
Bernardo Bertolucci’s Chinese Adventure is a 51-minute documentary by Paolo Brunatto made in 1986. I had to roll my eyes at the basic set up of the documentary, edited to appear as though Bertolucci is reflecting on making the film while riding in a taxi, with cuts from Bertolucci artfully gazing out the taxi window and then “flashing back” to the actual filming. Forgetting this set up (and the rather awful 80’s jazzy/ballad hybrid score that plays over it) this feature isn’t so bad. It was filmed on location and has a real “fly on the wall” set up to it, with the documentary cameras just lingering and no voice over narration, subtitles being the only external source of information along with some interviews and voice overs of Bertolucci directing. It shows the filming of a few sequences and then compares them to the finished sequence in the film, and gets into some of the technical details of the film, such as costumes and production design. There’s also footage of the final editing, scoring, and even producer Jeremy Thomas showing Bertolucci the final poster art. While I wasn’t fond of the set up the feature at least contains some good footage and information on the making of the film, though it is repeated elsewhere.
Closing off the third disc is The Making of The Last Emperor, a new documentary/talking-head piece made by Criterion exclusively for this release, gathering together director of photography Vittorio Storaro, editor Gabriella Cristiana, costume designer James Acheson, and art director Gianni Silvestri. It runs 45-minutes and has been divided into 7 chapters and is typical to other features of this nature. Each member covers aspects of making the film, concentrating on their duties. Acheson surprisingly gets the most screen time and probably has the most interesting bits to share about his costumes, including how he faked some of the embroidery on the outfits (there wasn’t enough time or money to do it properly) and how Bertolucci actually came to the decision to hire him for the film after seeing half of Gilliam’s Brazil. Storaro talks about some of the issues involved with shooting, especially some of the challenges in getting permission to shoot in certain locations and the sacrifices they had to make. Decent feature overall but not something one must watch. Other making-of aspects found on this set are better.
That closes off the third disc, which overall was a bit disappointing. Thankfully the fourth dual-layer disc proved a little more fascinating to me and I’d say most could probably skip the third disc and jump right to this one.
One aspect of this release that really disappointed me is that Criterion gathered up all this making-of material, which does get repetitive, yet did very little to cover the actual history of the film’s subject matter or bothered to gather up archival footage. The next feature sort of makes up for this (as does another found on this disc.) An episode of The South Bank Show covers the making of the film, traveling to China and filming on location. Not only do they interview Bertolucci, and actors John Lone and Peter O’Toole (the only place where the two show up on this release,) they also interview locals, asking about the film and Pu Yi. A good half of its 66-minute running time is devoted to the actual film, but the other half is devoted to Pu Yi, his life, and China during that period and at present (1986 at least.) They actually interview a man who met Pu Yi when he was young and even interview the prison governor who “reeducated” Pu Yi. There’s also some archival and news reel footage shown, including some footage from Pu Yi’s trial. This is actually one of the better features found on this release since it covers so much material and expands out from the film. It’s been divided into 9 chapters.
Next is a 25-minute interview with composer David Byrne. Here Byrne talks about working with Sakamoto on the score for the film (though it sounds like the two actually worked separately and their stuff was then brought together.) He talks a lot about the film’s opening score but also touches on other aspects of the music for the film, showing notes, as well as the actual score sheets. There’s also samples of demos and then the final product. He also talks about his intent, which was, as best as I can describe, “fake” Chinese music that almost sounded authentic… But not quite. Probably the best of the new interviews found on here.
And filling my thirst for historical knowledge is Beyond the Forbidden City a 45-minute history crash course on China during the film’s time period, which I most welcomed. I’m a history buff but must admit ignorance to China during the early 1900’s to the Cultural Revolution. Since the film is told from Pu Yi’s point of view we never really see what is going on outside of the Forbidden City walls, only getting hints as Pu Yi would have. Honestly this has always somewhat frustrated me but thankfully Criterion provides this feature, hosted by Ian Buruma, for those of us that are just too lazy to open a book or Google the subject matter, giving us some context to the film. Here he covers the entire time frame presented in the film, talking about key figures and key events, from China’s previous rulers to the war lords, the Japanese take over, all the way to the Cultural Revolution. It’s a great feature, one I highly recommend viewing.
And finally, closing off the disc features, is Late Show: Face to Face, an interview with Bernardo Bertolucci by Jeremy Issacs. Running about 30-minutes, Bertolucci talks about the Academy Awards and the many wins for The Last Emperor, along with his introduction to the “Hollywood Scene.” He also talks about his career, the French New Wave, his sort of falling out with Jean-Luc Godard (which is sort of ridiculous I feel) and then his favourite films, which he shamelessly admits are the more successful ones. I actually liked this one and prefer it to the Italian Traveler documentary as a piece that looks more at the director and his career. Nice supplement and worth viewing.
Criterion also includes a rather thick 96-page booklet. In it there is a nice essay on the film by David Thomson entitled “The Last Emperor, or the Manchurian Candidate” looking at Bertolucci’s presentation of the last emperor, Pu Yi. “Billions of Emperors” is a short reflective piece by Bertolucci on the filming, continuing to profess his love for China and its people. There is also a couple of interviews, one with production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti and actor Ying Ruocheng, who plays the prison governor. “Days of the Dragon”, excerpts from the production diary, taking up most of the booklet. It is actually one of Criterion’s more thorough booklets, and is thankfully not entirely made up of pictures.
This is one of the more exhausting and thorough releases, but I don’t know if it’s worth it. Since the release is four discs it’s more expensive, running $60 (though it can be found cheaper online.) I would have preferred a two-disc set, missing the longer version and just about all of the third disc (maybe keeping the Chinese Adventure documentary. I have to admit I feel bad because obviously a lot of love went into this release, but really, less would have probably been better. 7/10