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Last Emperor, The
Release Date(s)1987 (January 6, 2009)
Studio(s)Recorded Picture Company/Columbia Pictures (Criterion - Spine #422)
Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1987 epic about the last Chinese emperor – Pu Yi, who took the throne in 1908 at age 3 – was a favourite of Oscar, winning nine Academy Awards (every one for which it was nominated, including picture, director, screenplay, cinematography). The film is one that improves with repeated viewings, seeming at first a rather cold and un-involving spectacle (though one beautifully designed and photographed), but eventually revealing itself as an intimate story of the progress of an individual person as we begin to see beyond the distraction of the impressive Forbidden City settings. John Lone’s performance in the lead role is a perceptive one, gradually metamorphosing from cold, self-interested detachment to bewilderment and finally to an almost appealing humbleness that parallels the emperor’s fall from grace, eventual incarceration, and finally acceptance as an ordinary citizen in mid-20th century China.
This Blu-ray version, according to Criterion, presents the film in the director-approved aspect ratio of 2.0:1 with the high definition transfer being supervised by the film’s cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. It’s also Bertolucci’s preferred 165-minute cut. A longer 218-minute version shown on Italian TV and included on Criterion’s standard DVD release is not included here. The 2.0:1 ratio has been the subject of some controversy as the film was originally released at 2.35:1 (with some 70mm prints at 2.20:1) – resulting in some rather tight compositions on the Criterion version. Regardless, the film does sparkle on Blu-ray, with exquisite colour and excellent image detail. The DTS-HD Master stereo sound is in fine shape though obviously there’s little sense of envelopment.
Criterion provides its typically exhaustive supplement package highlighted by four lengthy documentaries on the making-of the film and Bertolucci’s creative process. Highly recommended.
- Barrie Maxwell