The Last Emperor (1987)

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Released 9-Jul-2003

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Drama Main Menu Audio
Theatrical Trailer
Rating Rated M
Year Of Production 1987
Running Time 156:10 (Case: 162)
RSDL / Flipper RSDL (79:19) Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 4 Directed By Bernardo Bertolucci
Studio
Distributor
Yanco Films
Magna Home Entertainment
Starring John Lone
Joan Chen
Peter O'Toole
Ying Ruocheng
Victor Wong
Dennis Dun
Ryuichi Sakamoto
Case Amaray-Transparent-Secure Clip
RPI $29.95 Music Ryuichi Sakamoto
David Byrne
Cong Su


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 2.0 (384Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 2.35:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 2.35:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles None Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits Yes, end credits over last scene

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Plot Synopsis

    Supposedly, there is an old Chinese curse along the lines of "May you live in interesting times." I'm not sure whether this really is a Chinese curse, since I have yet to hear a Chinese person utter it, or even acknowledge it.

    In any case, the saying seems particularly apt for describing the circumstances around the life and times of Aisin-Gioro "Henry" Pu Yi (portrayed at various ages by Richard Vuu, Tsou Tijger, Tao Wu, and John Lone), the Last Emperor Of China.

    Pu Yi has lived in interesting times indeed, spanning a period from a feudal, Imperial China, through a brief period of Republic China, World War II, to Communist China, and culminating in the Cultural Revolution of Mao Tse-Tung and his army of Red Guards. Taken away from his mother and family when he was 3 years old, he became "Lord of Ten Thousand Years" and "The Son of Heaven." Several years later, China became a Republic, ruled by a succession of warlords who called themselves "Presidents." Overnight, Pu Yi became a prisoner trapped in his home, the many-walled Forbidden City along with a retinue of eunuchs and wives of former Emperors dedicated to hiding the unpleasant truth from the boy emperor and totally unpreparing him for the events that followed.

    Pu Yi was a "eunuch" in every sense of the word except the literal. He was denied every right: to know the truth, to be a master in his own home, to make his own decisions, to leave the confines of the Forbidden City, to choose his own wife, and even to choose what he ate or where he slept, much less to do the job that he thought he was destined for. No wonder he grew up with a warped sense of himself and the world at large.

    He was powerless to influence the momentous events that occurred around him, despite his best efforts to regain control over his life and what he thought was his destiny. Influenced by his Scottish tutor, Reginald Fleming 'R.J.' Johnston (Peter O'Toole), he dreamt of escaping from the Forbidden City and studying at Oxford University. He tried to take control of his household by dismissing the Lord Chamberlain (Henry O) and eventually his entire household staff of eunuchs, only to find himself expelled from the Forbidden City by a nationalistic warlord with anti-Manchurian sentiments.

    With nowhere to go, he took refuge in Tientsin where he was influenced by the Japanese to become the "Emperor" of Manchukuo after the Japanese invaded China and annexed his home province of Manchuria. His wife, the Empress Wan Jung (Joan Chen) tried to counsel him to beware of the Japanese's intentions, but soon they were estranged and she became an opium addict after being "seduced" by a Japanese spy called Eastern Jewel (Maggie Han).

    Captured after the end of the war, he became a war criminal and was sent to a Chinese prison where he spent ten years being "re-educated" by the Governor (Ruocheng Ying). At the start of the film, we see him being taken to the prison along with all the other war criminals for his "trial" and much of the story is told as a series of "flashbacks." What will happen to him in prison is a question that the film tantalises us with, and we find out towards the end. The ending has a really interesting scene that closes the loop back to the beginning, but I won't spoil it by revealing it.

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Transfer Quality

Video

    This is a rather well presented and good looking widescreen 16x9 Enhanced transfer in the intended aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The original film source is a 35mm film print shot using Technovision cameras.

    Detail levels are surprisingly good, and whoever was responsible for the transfer did a very good job. The colours are deliberately drab and dull for the prison scenes, but lush and vibrant for the flashback scenes. Colours such as red and yellow feature prominently and are rendered particularly well. The contrast of the film may have been artificially enhanced, for the whites and blacks seem ever so slightly over-saturated.

    The film source is relatively clean, with only the occasional white or black mark marring an otherwise perfect print. Grain is thankfully absent, and the film looks like it was shot yesterday.

    The only real video artefact I noticed was occasional shimmering.

    Unfortunately, there are no subtitle tracks, so the occasional dialogue in Mandarin is not translated.

    This is a single sided dual layered disc (RSDL). The layer change occurs at Chapter 12 around 79:19 during a scene change. It's not a bad layer change, but slightly clumsily handled, resulting in a minor pause and break in the background music.

Video Ratings Summary
Sharpness
Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

    There is only one audio track: English Dolby Digital 2.0 (384Kb/s). Although not flagged as such, the audio track is surround-encoded as the film was originally released in Dolby Stereo.

    This is quite a good sounding audio track, certainly much better than I expected. Dialogue comes across clearly, with no audio synchronization issues.

    With Dolby Pro Logic II engaged, the surround speakers are occasionally but effectively used for background music, ambience and an occasional Foley effect. I doubt that the soundtrack would have been significantly improved if it were remastered into Dolby Digital 5.1.

    The original music score mostly features the work of Japanese eclectic composer Ryuchi Sakamoto, who also stars in the film as Amakasu, with the assistance of Cong Su (for the more overtly Oriental pieces) and David Byrne of Talking Heads. I've always been an admirer of Sakamoto's music, and his score for The Last Emperor is one of his best works - wonderfully lush and symphonic, sounding neither Occidental nor Oriental, and with more than a passing homage to minimalism.

    It is worthwhile watching the film just to listen to the music, which brings me to my only real complaint about the audio track. The music seems a bit recessed and underwhelming compared to my recollection of how it sounded in a cinema. Mind you, that was around 15 years ago and my memory can be quite faulty.

    The subwoofer is clearly not engaged for a 2.0 audio track, but there are instances of reasonably low frequencies in the film, such as the drum beats around 106:52 and 106:58-106:59.

    I noticed a slight audio dropout around 137:29.

Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

    The only extra is a theatrical trailer, but then this is a film nearly 3 hours in length.

Menu

    The menu is 16x9 enhanced and static, but includes background audio.

Theatrical Trailer (2:30)

    This is presented in 1.85:1 letterboxed (no 16x9 enhancement) and Dolby Digital 2.0 (224Kb/s).

Censorship

    There is censorship information available for this title. Click here to read it (a new window will open). WARNING: Often these entries contain MAJOR plot spoilers.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    The Region 4 version of this disc misses out on (in comparison to R1):

    The Region 1 version of this disc misses out on:

    In addition, there is also a 2-disc French R2 edition which was released on 1 April 2003 with the following extras:

    Clearly, the French R2 version wins. In addition, the R1 is the only version featuring the Director's Cut. However, the video transfer for the R1 version is reportedly problematic, so my preference is for the R4 over the R1.

Summary

    The Last Emperor is a depiction of the life and times of Pu Yi, who became the Emperor of China at the tender age of 3, spent his teenage years virtually as a prisoner in the Forbidden City, survived World War II, was tried and convicted as a war criminal, and died an old man working as a gardener in 1967.

    The video transfer quality is surprisingly good.

    The audio transfer quality is acceptable.

    The only extra is a theatrical trailer.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Christine Tham (read my biography)
Thursday, September 18, 2003
Review Equipment
DVDPanasonic DVD-RP82, using Component output
DisplaySony VPL-VW11HT LCD Projector, ScreenTechnics 16x9 matte white screen (254cm). Calibrated with Video Essentials/Ultimate DVD Platinum. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Video Essentials/Ultimate DVD Platinum.
AmplificationDenon AVC-A1SE (upgraded)
SpeakersFront and surrounds: B&W CDM7NT, front centre: B&W CDMCNT, surround backs: B&W DM601S2, subwoofer: B&W ASW2500

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Comments (Add)
R2 UK version - Tom (read my bio)
The last emperor - John Chandler
Question - Anonymous