THE LAST EMPEROR (Criterion, 1987) D: Bernardo Bertolucci, w/ John Lone, Joan Chen. Rating: NNNNN; DVD package: NNNNN
One of the greatest works in a distinguished career, Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor looks back to his politically engaged films like The Conformist (1970) and forward to the spirituality of later works such as Little Buddha (1993). At the same time, it marries the intimacy of his Last Tango In Paris (1972) to the epic sweep of 1900 (1976).
Pu Yi, China’s last emperor, was crowned in 1908 at age three but remained a powerless prisoner in the Forbidden City from 1911 until his expulsion in 24, and a decade later was installed by the Japanese as a powerless puppet emperor in Manchuria in 34. After the Second World War, he spent 10 years in a Chinese re-education prison.
Bertolucci fills his screen with amazing art direction, lyrical camera work and literally thousands of extras, yet never lets anything overwhelm his exploration of the dilemma of a uniquely helpless man.
It’s a highly rewatchable film, and the extras only enhance the experience. Bertolucci and his collaborators offer thoughtful, detailed insights into their approach to light, costume, history and the emperor himself, while others locate the film in Bertolucci’s career and discuss its importance to Chinese cinema.
The television version, 218 minutes versus the theatrical cut’s 165 minutes, is not a better movie, but it usefully explains more of the story’s context. So does historian Ian Buruma’s concise overview of China’s history from the fall of the empire to the Cultural Revolution.
Extras Disc one: theatrical version; director, producer, writer, composer commentary. Widescreen. Disc two: television version. Widescreen. Disc three: Bertolucci doc, Bertolucci China footage with optional commentary, making-of doc, retrospective making-of doc. Full-frame. English, French audio. English subtitles. Disc four: British TV doc, David Byrne interview, Chinese history lesson, TV interview. Full-frame. 95-page book: essays, Bertolucci interview, production diaries, more.