Wed, 05 Aug 2020

The Last Emperor

Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
Screenplay: Mark Peploe with Bernardo Bertolucci
Stars: John Lone (Pu Yi), Joan Chen (Wan Jung), Peter O'Toole (Reginald F. Johnston), Ruocheng Ying (Governor of Detention Center), Victor Wong (Chen Pao Shen), Dennis Dun (Big Li), Ryuichi Sakamoto (Amakasu), Maggie Han (Eastern Jewel), Ric Young (Interrogator), Vivian Wu (Wen Hsiu), Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Chang), Richard Vuu (Pu Yi, Age 3), Tsou Tijger (Pu Yi, Age 8), Tao Wu (Pu Yi, Age 15)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 1987
Country: China / U.K. / France / Italy
The Last Emperor: Criterion Collection DVD
The Last Emperor

Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor is a grand sweep of a film--a massive, overflowing, almost ridiculously ambitious epic that covers more than six decades of turbulent political and social history. Bertolucci has a love of the intimate, which informs his best films, but he also lusts after the epic, the grandiose, and the larger-than-life. Few filmmakers can marry those two impulses with any real finesse or grace, and Bertolucci certainly comes closer than most, both here and in his 1976 four-hour opus 1900, both of which carry with them a tremendous charge that is never quite overbearing (we can also see it at work in his notorious 1972 masterpiece Last Tango in Paris, which is a character study of such emotional turbulence that it reaches epic proportions).

The Last Emperor tells the unlikely, but amazingly true story of Pu Yi, who, in 1908, at the tender age of 3 was taken from his mother and made emperor of China. Installed on the Dragon Throne in Peking's Forbidden City, a massive imperial palace that covers 180 acres and has nearly 10,000 rooms, the child was given command over a third of the world's population. However, he was deposed in 1912 after China's republican revolution, but he was still allowed to maintain his status as emperor in the Forbidden City, even though all the pomp and circumstance and power were ultimately empty gestures clinging to a quickly fading past. In 1924 he was evicted from the Forbidden City by Nationalist forces, and he escaped into a life as a playboy swinger until being reinstated as emperor of Manchuria by Japanese forces during World War II, where he played the role of puppet leader. At the end of the war he was captured by Soviet forces, and in 1950 was returned to China where he was labeled a war criminal and spent nine years being re-educated under Mao's communist regime before being released. He died less than 10 years later as a simple gardener.

As I said before, unlikely, but undoubtedly true. You can't make this stuff up. Bertolucci and his coscreenwriter Mark Peploe (The Passanger) clearly relish the virtually absurd sweep of this man's life, and they fashion their narrative in terms of flashback, beginning the film with Pu Yi's return to China in 1950, which allows them to open their story in the drab grays and browns of the communist state before flashing back to the intensive reds and yellows of the imperial past. This is not, however, a simple color dichotomy representing the dreary present and the bountiful past. Bertolucci is certainly seduced by the grand pageantry he was able to restage by shooting within the walls of the actual Forbidden City (he gets to use real history as his set) and having use of thousands of Chinese soldiers as extras to create the kind of impressive widescreen vistas of human spectacle that is now almost the sole province of digital special effects. At the same time, though, there is a nagging sense of emptiness to it all, as a child is handed absolute power simply because a dying empress decreed it.

As a character, Pu Yi is an odd protagonist because, from the moment we meet him, he is constantly acted upon. Part of the film's underlying irony is that this supposedly powerful ruler--the "Lord of 10,000 Years," as he is declared--spends his entire life being manipulated by those around him, whether it be the scheming wives of the former emperor, or the eunuchs who are ostensibly there to serve him, or the Japanese invaders who see him as a willing collaborator simply because he is so deluded into thinking he is an emperor again. He is played by four different actors throughout the film: Richard Vuu at age 3, Tsou Tijger at age 8, Tao Wu at age 15, and finally by John Lone as an adult, and unlike many biopics in which a character passes through the stages of life, there is a real connection among the performers. Each in his own way captures Pu Yi's fundamental lack of presence in his own life. Moving from stage to stage, he is not so much a victim of his circumstances as he is simply a vaguely engaged participant. The moments when he does try to take control of his life are genuinely moving precisely because they are so rare. The mirroring scenes in which he chases after his wet nurse who is being forcibly removed from the palace and then when he chases after his wife (Joan Chen) when she is removed by the Japanese summarize his ultimate impotence in the face of larger forces.

It would seem that having such a passive central character would gut the film, especially at its hefty length of more than three hours, but The Last Emperor grips from its very first frames and maintains its hold. Using a fragmented flashback structure helps because it situates even the most glorious moments of power and pageantry within a framework of historical change; however beautiful it may be, it won't last. One decided weakness in this thoroughly international production was Bertolucci's decision to have all the characters speak English, rather than their native languages, which gives an impression of theatricality to a film that is otherwise thoroughly rooted in the kind of historical reconstruction that can make you forget you're watching a film and not living history. However, Bertolucci should be commended for telling the story from the perspective of the Chinese and not introducing a Western interloper to frame it (Peter O'Toole plays Pu Yi's Scottish tutor during his teenage years, but he is primarily a marginal character, important only insofar as he represents just how little contact with the outside world Pu Yi had until his 20s).

Moreso than most historical epics, we feel the real pull of history and the whiplash of violent social change, but most of all the steady march of life. It is never entirely clear exactly how Bertolucci wants us to view Pu Yi, especially in his later years when he is re-educated and embraces a simple life. Is he truly happy now? Has he been re-educated in the communist sense, or has he just survived the insane arc of his life? It is entirely possible that Bertolucci doesn't want us to have a clear picture of Pu Yi, which avoids the trap of using his life to make a "statement." By the end of The Last Emperor, we're not sure exactly what Pu Yi's life has amounted to, but we do know that it has been truly extraordinary.

The Last Emperor Criterion Collection Director-Approved Special Edition Four-Disc DVD Boxset
This four-disc set includes both the 165-minute theatrical cut of The Last Emperor and the 218-minute television version.
Aspect Ratio2.00:1



English Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo



  • Audio commentary featuring director Bernardo Bertolucci, producer Jeremy Thomas, screenwriter Mark Peploe, and composer-actor Ryuichi Sakamoto

  • The Italian Traveler: Bernardo Bertolucci, a 53-minute documentary

  • "Postrcards From China," video taken by Bertolucci while on preproduction

  • Bernardo Bertolucci's Chinese Adventure , a 52-minute making-of documentary

  • Making The Last Emperor, 47-minute retrospective documentary

  • Episode of The Southbank Show about The Last Emperor

  • 1989 episode of The Late Show: Face to Facewith Bertolucci

  • New video interview with composer David Byrne

  • "Beyond the Forbidden City," new video interview with cultural historian Ian Buruma

  • Theatrical trailer

  • Insert book featuring an essay by David Thomson, interviews with production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti and actor Ying Ruocheng, a reminiscence by Bertolucci, and an essay and production-diary extracts from Fabien S. Gerard

  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateFebruary 26, 2008

    align=left>VIDEO & AUDIO

    Vittorio Storaro strikes again! The man is an utter genius behind the camera and has given us some of the most artfully shot films in modern cinema, but his assessment of how those films should be presented on home video continues to labor under misguided assumptions about screen resolution. Storaro shot The Last Emperor with a 35mm anamorphic process that has a 2.35:1 aspect ratio (when blown up to 70mm, the aspect ratio is slightly narrowed to 2.20:1 to make room for the six-channel soundtrack). However, as he did with several of the films he shot for Francis Ford Coppola (including Apocalypse Now and Tucker), Storaro has insisted that the film be transferred at a compromised aspect ratio of 2.00:1 in order to get more resolution from the TV screen. Of course, with the ever-increasing dominance of widescreen TVs and projectors (especially among cinephiles who are most likely to plunk down $60 for a four-disc edition of The Last Emperor), this is a more misguided argument than ever, but there it is. The insert booklet notes that 2.00:1 is the "director-approved aspect ratio," but then it notes that Storaro supervised and approved the new high-definition transfer. It's disappointing, then, that we are having to watch a slightly cropped version of the film for no good reason, but thankfully the new transfer, which was created from the original 35mm negative and digitally restored, is otherwise stunning. Detail is excellent, and the film's bold color schemes, especially the red and yellow pageantry of the Forbidden City, truly pop off the screen. The digitally restored stereo soundtrack was mastered at 24-bit from a 35mm LT/RT magnetic track and sounds excellent. The unique musical score, which combines the talents of pioneering Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, American pop maestro David Byrne, and Chinese composer Cong Su, sounds marvelous.


    When Criterion goes all out, they go all out, and this four-disc edition of The Last Emperor is close to overwhelming in its supplementary material, which takes a full two discs to house. This is, of course, in addition to two different cuts of the film contained on the first two discs (amazingly, this edition marks the U.S. debut of the theatrical cut on DVD since the 1999 Artisan disc contained only the longer TV edition, which was mislabeled "The Director's Cut"). The original theatrical cut comes with a fascinating audio commentary that features director Bernardo Bertolucci, producer Jeremy Thomas, screenwriter Mark Peploe, and composer-actor Ryuichi Sakamoto. The first of the two supplementary discs opens with The Italian Traveler: Bernardo Bertolucci, a 53-minute film by Fernand Moszkowicz (who worked as an assistant director on Last Tango in Paris) that explores how Bertolucci came to make The Last Emperor. "Postcards From China" consists of 8 minutes of video taken by Bertolucci while on preproduction scouting locations in China (it has optional commentary by Bertolucci). Bernardo Bertolucci's Chinese Adventure is a 51-minute documentary made in 1986 about the film's production. As a candid exploration of the production of such a major film, it contains some fascinating behind-the-scenes footage, but it is marred by an awful soft-core jazz score and an extremely cheesy framing narrative in which Bertolucci rides in a cab to the airport and "remembers" various aspects of making the film. Making The Last Emperor is a much better endeavor. This brand-new 47-minute documentary features interviews with Vittorio Storaro (who explains at length how he coordinated different colors with different parts of the story), editor Gabriella Cristiana, costume designer James Acheson, and art director Gianni Silvestri. The second supplementary disc contains several televisions shows from the late 1980s about the making of the film. First, there is a 66-minute episode of the BBC series The Southbank Show that explores Bertolucci's creative process and the making of The Last Emperor. There is also a half-hour interview with Bertolucci from a 1989 episode of the British television arts magazine The Last Show: Face to Face, in which Bertolucci further discusses his creative influences. There are also two new video interviews. In the first, composer and former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne talks for 25 minutes about his work on the film, and in the second cultural historian Ian Buruma discusses the film's historical period. Buruma's 45-minute interview, which is illustrated with still images and clips from the film, is particularly worthwhile for those who are not well versed in Chinese history. The beautifully designed 95-page insert book features an essay by David Thomson, interviews with production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti and actor Ying Ruocheng, an essay Fabien S. Gerard, and excerpts from Bertolucci's production diary. All in all, a magnificent set that truly deepens the experience of watching the film, which is what Criterion does best.

    Copyright 2008 James Kendrick

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)


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