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SPECIFICATIONS
  • 2.00:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
  • English DTS-HD 2.0 Surround
  • English subtitles
  • 1 Disc
FEATURES
  • DTS-HD Master Audio stereo surround soundtrack
  • Audio commentary by director Bernardo Bertolucci, producer Jeremy Thomas, screenwriter Mark Peploe, and composer-actor Ryuichi Sakamoto
  • The Italian Traveler: Bernardo Bertolucci, a 53-minute film by Fernand Mozskowicz, tracing the director's geographic influences, from Parma to China
  • Video images taken by Bertolucci in China
  • The Chinese Adventure of Bernardo Bertolucci, a 52-minute documentary that revisits the film's creation
  • A 47-minute documentary featuring Storaro, editor Gabriella Cristiana, costume designer James Acheson, and art director Gianni Silvestri
  • A 66-minute documentary exploring Bertolucci's creative process and the making of The Last Emperor
  • A 30-minute interview with Bertolucci from 1989
  • A new interview with composer David Byrne
  • A new interview with Ian Buruma examining the historical period of the film
  • Theatrical trailer

The Last Emperor

Blu-ray
Reviewed by: Chris Galloway

Directed By: Bernardo Bertolucci
Starring: John Lone, Joan Chen, Peter O'Toole
1987 | 165 Minutes | Licensor: HanWay Films

Release Information
Blu-ray | MSRP: $39.95 | Series: The Criterion Collection | Edition: #422
RLJ Entertainment

Release Date: January 6, 2009
Review Date: June 19, 2009

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SYNOPSIS

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.

Forum members rate this film 7.4/10

 

Discuss the film and Blu-ray here   


PICTURE

As one of their early Blu-ray titles Criterion has released the theatrical version of The Last Emperor presenting it in the aspect ratio of 2.00:1 on this dual-layer disc. The image is presented in 1080p. The original 4-disc DVD presented both the theatrical and extended versions while this edition only presents the theatrical.

As I mentioned in the DVD review this is not the filmís original aspect ratio, which was 2.35:1. The new framing was done by Criterion at the behest of Vittorio Storaro. He has a thing for that aspect ratio having done the same thing for the previous DVD (and laserdisc) releases of Apocalypse Now. While I do question this choice on Storaroís part (especially with such a visual movie that truly benefits from the wider aspect ratio) I will say itís not too noticeable, except for one sequence in a car where most of John Loneís face is cut off.

The same high-def transfer used for Criterionís DVD has been used here and while it does show an improvement I canít say I was as overly impressed with the transfer found on here as I have been with some of Criterionís other Blu-ray transfers. Detail is most certainly an improvement and grain is more noticeable here but I canít help but feel definition isnít as good as it should be in the end, some items coming off a little soft around the edges.

Colours do look good, maybe a slight improvement over the DVDís presentation, and the print is in excellent shape. But I just didnít come away from it as amazed as I have been with other Criterion Blu-rays. Itís still a nice, sharp image, I just feel more could have been done with it.

(Currently we are unable to provide screen captures for Blu-ray releases, though plan to in the near future. Once we have the ability to add captures for Blu-ray releases this review will be updated.)

6/10

We currently do not have Blu-ray captures for this title but are in the process of gathering captures for all of our Blu-ray reviews. Please check back again soon.

AUDIO

Criterion includes a DTS-HD MA 2.0 track, and upgrade over the DVDís Dolby surround track. It does sound cleaner and sharper than the DVDís audio presentation, the music sounding rather incredible. Dialogue is clear and articulate, and the source materials still sound clean, presenting nothing in the way of damage.

7/10

SUPPLEMENTS

This Blu-ray edition carries over most though not all of the supplements found on the original 4-disc DVD release. Missing from this release is the extended version of the film, which I assume was excluded to avoid having to include another disc. I can understand the annoyance to it missing but in all honesty I donít think itís a big deal. Iíve never been too fond of the extended version and will probably never watch it again. Plus with it missing it keeps the price of the Blu-ray down to a reasonable MSRP of $39.95, and not the ridiculous $59.95 the 4-disc DVD went for (there was also a cheaper single-disc release but it was of course missing all of the supplements except for the commentary.) I still feel the supplements are hit and miss as well as repetitive in nature but theyíre a better bargain at the lower price.

The first supplement is 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 shouldnít be a surprise that itís 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 OíToole 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 filmís 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 isnít all that surprising, but that didnít seem to harm their passion for the film. Itís loaded with information and well worth the listen, possibly being the best feature on here.

The remaining supplements are found under the ďSupplementsĒ section of the pop-out menu. 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 didnít 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. Iím not sure what it was about it that I didnít care for as I do like Bertolucciís work and I would like to see a documentary on his work, but this thing just meanders on, with Bertolucciís 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 didnít care for it, in fact Iíd almost say I hated it.

After having my soul crushed with that last pointless exercise I dreaded going through the rest of the discís 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 couldnít just leave it as a collection of video, he has to offer some reflective, poetic narration to it. Itís a little much at times but overall the video clips are interesting and Bertolucci was obviously taken by China and its people, though it doesnít 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 Iíd actually recommend just listening to the commentary track over the original track.

Bernardo Bertolucciís 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 ďflashing backĒ to the actual filming. Forgetting this set up (and the rather awful 80ís jazzy/ballad hybrid score that plays over it) this feature isnít so bad. It was filmed on location and has a real ďfly on the wallĒ 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. Thereís also footage of the final editing, scoring, and even producer Jeremy Thomas showing Bertolucci the final poster art. While I wasnít 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.

Next 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 wasnít 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 Gilliamís 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.

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 filmís 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 OíToole (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 ďreeducatedĒ Pu Yi. Thereís also some archival and news reel footage shown, including some footage from Pu Yiís 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. Itís 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 filmís opening score but also touches on other aspects of the music for the film, showing notes, as well as the actual score sheets. Thereís also samples of demos and then the final product. He also talks about his intent, which was, as best as I can describe, ďfakeĒ Chinese music that almost sounded authenticÖ 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 filmís time period, which I most welcomed. Iím a history buff but must admit ignorance to China during the early 1900ís to the Cultural Revolution. Since the film is told from Pu Yiís 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 Chinaís previous rulers to the war lords, the Japanese take over, all the way to the Cultural Revolution. Itís a great feature, one I highly recommend viewing.

And finally we getLate 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 ďHollywood Scene.Ē 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.

The supplements conclude with the filmís theatrical trailer.

Unique to the Blu-ray is the Timeline, which is available on all Criterion Blu-rays. You can open it from the pop-up menu, or by pressing the RED button on your remote. This is a timeline that shows your current position in the film and you can jump through it using the arrows on your remote. It lists the index chapters for the film and the commentary track, and you can also switch to the commentary track from here. You also have the ability to ?bookmark? scenes by pressing the GREEN button and return to them by selecting them on the timeline. You can also delete bookmarks by pressing the BLUE button. This is pretty common on Blu-ray (also common on HD DVD) so it?s nothing new, but a nice presentation still.

Criterion had included a 96-page booklet of essays with their 4-disc DVD. I actually rented this Blu-ray so I did not have access to the booklet that is included. My understanding is that itís actually a much shorter booklet with only one of the essays included. Once I see it I will update my review here.

In all this is one of the more exhausting and thorough release Criterion has put out. Unfortunately I still feel not everything was required here and that less would have been more. But I find it less bothersome since the Blu-ray is actually a lot cheaper than that DVD making it a better deal.

7/10

CLOSING

I feel the image isnít as good as it could be but still recommend the Blu-ray over the 4-disc DVD, though itís not just for the fact that the image is still an improvement over the DVD. Itís more that itís a better value when compared with the DVD. The DVD is overpriced because of the bloated supplements and the inclusion of the longer version. While the longer version is missing here the $39.95 price point for this Blu-ray still makes it worthwhile.


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