Last Emperor, The (Blu-ray) (1987)

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Released 14-Apr-2010

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Drama Featurette-Making Of-(63.00)
Featurette-Behind The Scenes-Postcards from China (7.40) With Optional Commentary
Theatrical Trailer-(2.39)
Rating Rated M
Year Of Production 1987
Running Time 163:00
RSDL / Flipper Dual Layered Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 4 Directed By Bernardo Bertolucci
Studio
Distributor

Umbrella Entertainment
Starring John Lone
Joan Chen
Peter O'Toole
Ruocheng Ying
Victor Wong
Dennis Dun
Ryûichi Sakamoto
Maggie Han
Ric Young
Case ?
RPI ? Music David Byrne
Ryûichi Sakamoto
Cong Su


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English DTS HD Master Audio 2.0 (3254Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 2.00:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 1080p
Original Aspect Ratio 2.35:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles None Smoking No
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

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Plot Synopsis

     The Last Emperor comes to Blu-ray some time after the original DVD release and the more recent Collectors Edition which I was fortunate to review here. The following were my comments on the film itself:

     “In 1987 Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci went from left of centre auteur to Hollywood royalty with The Last Emperor, a film that not only generated a sizeable box office but also snagged an amazing 9 Oscars including Best Picture. In fact, and in spite of all the pomp and ceremony in the film, it still contains echoes of his earlier movies including 1900 and Last Tango in Paris in its study of a man in the epicentre of a societal change or, at least, a personal decline.

     The Last Emperor was based on the non-fiction book Twilight in the Forbidden City by Reginald Johnston, played memorably in the film by Peter O'Toole. It tells the story, from infancy to death, of one of history's most tragic characters - the boy emperor Pu Yi who lived a protected life inside the Forbidden City whilst the world changed, only to be thrust into the modern world to be used and abused by the people around him.

     The most potent image in the film comes near the beginning. With the impending death of the Empress Dowager the toddler Pu Yi is rushed to the Forbidden City to assume the mantle of Emperor of all China. Bored with the ceremony he runs, as children do, out of the palace into a vast courtyard pushing through a giant golden curtain. In the courtyard are thousands upon thousands of loyal subjects waiting to pay homage to the new god. The look of surprise and incomprehension on his face is something that didn't leave him until many grim years in prison camps had opened his eyes.

     The prison camp "emperor" is the one who greets us as the film opens, returning to his beloved home of Manchuria as a prisoner not the lord of 10,000 years. The story of the modern Pu Yi not only bookends the film, it provides a source of ironic contrast to the flashbacks that tell the main story. After a failed suicide attempt Pu Yi is taken to a prison to be re-educated to realise his wrongs. That he ends his days as a poor but happy gardener is as much a comment on the little things in life as it is a reflection on the decline of imperialism.

     The adult Pu Yi is played by American actor John Lone. A number of kids of various ages play Pu Yi as he grows from a tiny boy to a teenager, married to the first two of his wives. Joan Chen gives a credible performance as one of his wives who suffers from a life of emptiness and descends into an opium stupor. O'Toole had yet another chance to be overlooked for an Oscar (he did win a BAFTA) for his supporting performance as the teacher, sad and appalled at the bleak future for his student.

     Pu Yi was revered inside the walls of the Forbidden City but the world, including war and revolution, went on just outside the gates without him. He was only allowed to remain in the City on strict condition that he never leaves, something which appalled his tutor, the compassionate Johnston. When he was finally turfed out his options were limited and he chose to become the ruler of Manchuria under the aegis of the Japanese. As much as the Japanese attacked China it was perhaps the Emperor’s blind support for the Japanese that doomed the dynasty.

     The Last Emperor is an historical drama but, like Pu Yi himself, it is almost oblivious to the dates and events of similar films. The abdication of Pu Yi is barely mentioned and Bertolucci actively presents him as a mere cipher, often as characterless as the bleak Manchurian plains.

     When it was released The Last Emperor captivated audiences with its spectacular cinematography care of Vittorio Storaro and the insight into this forgotten world. As noted, it received Oscars for Best Film and Best Director and also for Cinematography, Art Direction, Script, Editing, Sound, Costume Design and Score. Twenty years on the film has aged somewhat. The wider acceptance of subtitled films has perhaps meant that the use of actors speaking English with Asian accents has become a thing of the past. Above all things this is a technique that distances one from the action. Still, fans of the film, of which there are many, will want to snap up this release to relive the experience.”

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Transfer Quality

Video

     The Last Emperor was shot on 35mm film in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The recent DVD release was in that ratio. This release isn't. The image has been cropped from the original aspect ratio to 2.00:1. Sacrilege?

     It is a little more complex than that. That repository of fidelity, the Criterion Collection, released the film in a "personally supervised by the cinematographer and approved by the director edition". It was cropped by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro due to his belief that this was the correct ratio for the film. Criterion was then put in the position, unusual for it, of having to defend itself from criticism that the print had been butchered. In their measured response Criterion pointed out that Storaro had always envisioned the film in the 2.00:1 aspect ratio and framed it in that way when filming.

     Bertolucci had given his stamp of approval to the new version. For some fans this was not enough. Is it for the director or cinematographer, after the fact, to decide the appropriate ratio for the film? What if they don't like the original soundtrack and want to replace it? What if they thought the scene in the middle never worked? To cut it might create a director’s cut; there is no problem with that but should the movie lover, who has grown accustomed to the film being presented in a certain way, be given a different product? The arguments could rage forever. The proper option should have been for the director and cinematographer to give the fans both versions to choose their favourite.

     The 2003 release of The Last Emperor was one of the disappointments of my DVD collection. The image was old, soft and tired. The colours were dim and there were oodles of artefacts on show. The later release proudly claimed that it was "presented here on stunning new digital prints that spectacularly capture the film's exquisite colours and detail." The Blu-ray is drawn from that same master and therefore contains the same merits and limitations.

     In reviewing the DVD I said: “Unfortunately, fans of the film may still feel it does not meet their expectations and will long for a high definition version.” As specifics I noted that: “The print is still riddled with artefacts although, just by comparing the opening titles, it is apparent that some clean up has gone on”.

     This Blu-ray begins with sharper credits but a telecine wobble is noticeable right from the start. Shouldn't this have been fixed with the remaster? The Blu-ray is however a big step up from the DVD image. The colours are more vibrant particularly the reds and golden hues which permeate the Forbidden City. The image quality is sharper, sometimes to the detriment of the film. For example, the scenes with the aged Pu Yi at the train station show the make-up lines in his baggy eyes.

     For all this improvement, the film remains rooted in the late 1980s and there is an overall softness that belongs to the source and not the transfer. The level of grain is variable and the skylines exhibit a good deal of noise.

     In short, those who have their minds-eye firmly rooted in the past, when the film seemed to spill over with colour and life on the cinema screen, will find that it has not yet reached perfection. Either hope for a re-mastered-remaster or deal with it - this is probably the best the film will look.

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

Audio

     The case for The Last Emperor boasts an English and Japanese 5.1 DTS -HD Master Audio track. The codec is correct but the transfer is 2.0 only. This is perhaps no surprise as the Region A Criterion Blu-ray and the Region B (UK) Blu-ray both have this track. This is an improvement over the Dolby Digital 2.0 track for the DVD version however my views on the merits and limitations of the DVD track remain: “As it is the sound is alright without being spectacular. The dialogue can be heard clearly and there are no technical problems with the sound. It appears to be in good audio sync.

     The Oscar winning soundtrack is by David Byrne, Ryuchi Sakamoto and Cong Su. Byrne had come to more mainstream success in the 1980s with the Talking Heads concert movie Stop Making Sense and Sakamoto had his own measure of success with the theme from Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence. Together the effect was magical with the combination of Asian themes and Western rhythms making for some unforgettable moments.”

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

Extras

     This Blu-ray is quite short on extras compared to the previous DVD release. These extras from the DVD are included on the Blu-ray but are not in High Definition:

Featurette-Making Of The Last Emperor

     Melvyn Bragg has edited and presents this extended feature on the making of the film. If nothing else this feature should be watched above the other extras. It is an excellent insight into Bertolucci and the film and is more of an on-set diary than a studio puff piece. Bragg not only narrates the documentary but has edited together a series of interviews with the director, cast and even the real identities featured in the film including Pu Yi's brother. In that way it also functions as a commentary on the life of Pu Yi.

     Bertolucci looks suitably harassed trying to command huge forces of extras who speak a different language. In watching the feature, which was made prior to the release of the film, the viewer has to accept the poor picture quality and indifferent sound. Persevere, for it is rare that a studio would allow such free and unfettered access to a director engaged in the creative process nowadays.

Featurette-Behind The Scenes Postcard from China

     This short feature is a postcard indeed. It consists of a series of images and video footage taken by Bertolucci in China as pre-production. His initial comments are narrated in English and he also provides a further commentary on the film. The image quality, not surprisingly, is shocking.

Theatrical Trailer

     The trailer is a bit of an 80's shocker featuring a plummy voiceover.

     The following extras from the DVD are not available on this Blu-ray:

Alternative Version- Directors Cut

     The second DVD includes the complete 220 plus minutes of the Director's Cut.

Audio Commentary Bertolucci, Thomas, Sakamoto

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 Last Emperor has been released in Region A through the Criterion Collection and Region B through Optimum Entertainment.

    Criterion Collection Blu-Ray Edition details: 

Optimum Entertainment Region B Blu-ray Edition details:

     The Criterion Edition has received the usual acclaim (aspect ratio arguments aside) but the Optimum Edition combines two cuts of the film on one Blu-ray, compromising the bitrate of both.

     So which is the preferable version? Region A by a seeming long shot but remember that this, like all Criterion titles, is Region locked. Unless you have one of the rare all region players or bought one in the US stick with our Region B.

Summary

    The Last Emperor comes to Blu-ray with a sharper, more vivid transfer than the recent Collectors Edition DVD. However, it is still not a paragon of virtues. The film looks better in my head than it ever has on DVD and the Blu-ray still falls short.

The extras are not much, particularly if you already have the Collectors Edition.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Trevor Darge (read my bio)
Tuesday, June 08, 2010
Review Equipment
DVDPioneer BDP-LX70A Blu-ray Player, using HDMI output
DisplayPioneer PDP-5000EX. This display device has not been calibrated. This display device is 16x9 capable. This display device has a maximum native resolution of 1080p.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum.
AmplificationOnkyo TX-SR605
SpeakersJBL 5.1 Surround and Subwoofer

Other Reviews NONE
Comments (Add)
A disappointing release - penguin (there is no bio)
Will the correct Ratio please stand up! - RichardP