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Category:    Home > Reviews > Drama > Historical > China > The Last Emperor (1987/Criterion Blu-ray)

The Last Emperor (Criterion Blu-ray)


Picture: B+     Sound: B+     Extras: B+     Film: A-



Despite winning 9-Academy Awards in 1987, very few people are familiar with Bernardo Bertolucci’s biographical film The Last Emperor, or at least have never seen the film properly.  Poor home video releases over the years, a lack of revival screenings and trimmed versions or poor broadcasts have hindered the film from enduring the way that it should or could.  There have also been a variety of lengths associated with the film as well, but the film remains a superb piece of filmmaking that chronicles an interesting period of history that is told through a series of flashbacks and constructed in such a sweeping and epic fashion that has captures the hearts of those fortunate enough to see the film through the years. 


The story involves the last emperor of China named Emperor Pu Yi/Henry and chronicles his life as tradition meets modern day changes and it’s often sad as we see customs and traditions get thrown to the wind by certain ‘progress’.  The film begins with the emperor’s coronation ceremony and ends with his imprisonment and details the life in a spectacular fashion as Bertolucci remains consistent with the historical aspects yet brings in some dramatic elements to help humanize the story in a poetic fashion.


Here we get the shorter theatrical version of the film that runs 165-minutes and while I have seen the longer version of the film, this one seems to have a pace that works more efficiently.  While the longer version is certainly more detailed, it’s also a bit more drawn out and harder to engage in for that period of time.  I prefer the shorter version and since this version is approved by Bertolucci, it would seem that was sufficient for him as well. 


Blu-ray fans and movie enthusiasts who have followed the Criterion label since back in the day of the 12” Laserdisc are finally rejoicing with the first few titles released onto the High Definition format.  The marriage between these two seemed like a match made in heaven from the initial phases of HD since Criterion has always been a company that stands behind getting the best quality available for releases.  Blu-ray won out the HD war, Criterion soon joined up and now we are getting releases on both DVD and Blu-ray from the company.  The Last Emperor gets the treatment as one of the first in a batch of releases and the results are as expected…phenomenal. 


The first initial question that many people might be wondering is in reference to the overall quality since Criterion has always tried to make their DVD releases optimal, how much greater can the Blu-ray be and will there be a price jump to pay for the superior format?  Criterion may have shocked many when the decided to keep the price points even stating that their resources to release on either format are already part of their premium price to begin with, most people are aware that Criterion titles typically cost $10-$15 more than the average title, but again you are getting first-rate material.


There are many things that must first be discussed with this particular film, the first thing is that it has been released in many butchered versions to home video, and has always looked dark, murky, muddy, and downright ugly for home viewing.  I recall seeing this film several times on broadcast and the colors were inconsistent throughout and majority of the times it looked like you were watching the film through a veil of yellow smoke.  Then there are the many debates over the actual correct aspect ratio of the film, which has been released through Criterion in the 2.00 X 1 aspect ratio and presented in a 1080p transfer for Blu-ray.  The film was shot masterfully by Vittorio Storaro, which should explain to many why the film has the particular look that it does.  He has used multiple aspect ratios before for films like Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979 in 35mm anamorphic Technovision) and like that film (at 2.35 X 1), 70mm blow-ups (2.20 X 1) were also made, so the issue of only a single aspect ratio is mute for the most part.  Most of the film does have a very sepia-like quality with vibrant colors at times, while other times a more muted palette and natural-ness.  Here we know that the transfer and overall release of this film was approved by director Bernardo Bertolucci so regardless of what aspect ratio may seem correct or not, we can assume that this is the preferred version of the film, despite arguments that the film should be closer to true scope at 2.35 X 1.


The overall picture quality here is a bit of an enigma until you really start to understand some of the intentions of the film.  Immediately fans will notice how superior the picture is to any previous home video release, this is a fact for sure.  However, those who are used to some of the truly remarkable HD presentations that have now hit the Blu-ray format may notice that the film has a grain structure to it as well as a slightly softer image than some of the really sharp, crisp, and high resolution demo-quality discs are out there.  That being said, this is a film that was always meant to appear a bit grainy with a softer lens, especially the earlier portions of the film.  However, scrolling through the rest of the film and into the later sections you will quickly see that the portions of the film that have a more natural lighting scheme are far sharper and demonstrate the best that Blu-ray has to offer.  Colors in particular look magnificent with loads of oranges, yellows, and reds that jump off the screen.  Previous home video releases had bleed problems, but those are resolved here, even in the softer scenes.  Video Black is particularly strong as well and the overall print seems free of artifacts and looks highly three-dimensional. 


Audio treatment has also been bumped up here with a stunning DTS-HD master audio presented in a 2.0 channel configuration, which keeps in tact the films original audio track of English with some Mandarin and Japanese sections throughout.  Because there is a lossless audio track the film quickly feels more natural with its sound design and highs and lows are effectively heard in the mix.  The mix is free from any artifacts as well and showcases the films exquisite music score and dialogue with ease.


Not only do Criterion/Blu-ray fans want high quality picture and sound, which is definitely the case here, but they also want high quality extras, and again Criterion does not disappoint.  For this release they have featured a commentary track with Bertolucci and producer Jeremy Thomas, screenwriter Mark Peploe, and composer Ryuichi Sakamato.  There is also a 53-minute long feature on Bertolucci in a film by Fernand Moszkowicz, plus video footage taken by Bertolucci while on the set in China.  There is another 50-minute short film by Paolo Brunatto that deals with the creation of the film in general and a 45-minute documentary detailing the cinematography of the film, the editing, the costumes, and art-direction, which are all key to this films success and especially with winning Oscars for these categories.  Even still there is yet another 60-plus minute documentary on the creative process behind the making of the film and a BBC interview with Bertolucci taken from 1989 that lasts about 30-minutes.  There are also two interview segments with David Byrne on the composing of the film and cultural historian Ian Buruma, who helps put the context of the film into a historical perspective. The films original theatrical trailer is also provided making this a superb wealth of extras that are all worthwhile and in depth.


Overall, Criterion has delivered the goods yet again and have made a significant mark early on in the Blu-ray format, we are excited to see that else is in store and are glad to see the combination of a terrific studio with a superb format.  The Last Emperor is a film that has always remained one of the most brilliant and detailed of it’s kind, even with other films like Martin Scorsese’s Kundun or the incredibly problematic Seven Years in Tibet, Bertolucci’s films has endured incredibly well and now with it’s release into the world of Blu-ray the film yet again gets refreshed in a much-needed way to restore the film back to it’s original beauty and splendor that captivated audiences around the world back in 1987 and now future generations can enjoy the film and see why it was able to garner as many awards as it did.  A disc certainly worth adding to any collection!



-   Nate Goss


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