From the vault: 1987
The Last Emperor
Starring: John Lone, Peter O'Toole, Joan Chen
Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
The film: Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci's sprawling epic about the life of Pu Yi, last of the Manchurian Qing dynasty emperors of China, has suffered from a series of particularly poor DVD releases in recent years, so this new four-disc package from Criterion should be reason for celebration for its fans. Controversy, however, has dogged its release, leading the usually tight-lipped company to release a statement through its weblog (criterion.com/blog) regarding the 'huge amount of mail' it has received on the issue.
The growing online furore stems from cinematographer Vittorio Storaro's participation in the DVD production, and his insistence that The Last Emperor should be re-framed from its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 to 2.00:1. This, essentially, means that viewers lose a significant amount of the film's image from the left and right sides of the screen. For the casual viewer, this shouldn't be too much of a problem, if any at all, and some may even prefer this format as it fills out a widescreen TV more than does a 2.35:1 image, but for cinephiles and home entertainment purists, this is one of the big DVD scandals of the year.
Aspect ratio aside, this is a handsome-looking, extras-laden release of two versions of the film - the theatrical (165 minutes) and TV (218 minutes) cuts - tastefully boxed with a 100-page book filled with essays and interviews. The theatrical version is in fact the 'director's cut', while the longer one produced for Italian television was extended under contractual obligation and offers little more than story padding. Squeezed onto one disc, it also has a lower bit rate and therefore slightly diminished picture quality compared to the main feature.
The film still holds up well after two decades, and the performances of John Lone as the adult Pu Yi and Peter O'Toole (below left with Lone) as his tutor Reginald Johnston (after whom the Wan Chai road is named) especially are a pleasure to revisit. Ryuichi Sakamoto and David Byrne's music has aged better than most soundtracks from 1980s cinema, much of which was ruined by the overbearing use of synthesisers (think Chariots of Fire, The Killing Fields, Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence) and the Peking locations and Forbidden City interiors look tremendous, even with the lost edges imposed by Storaro's retro-fitted Univisium film format.
The extras: Criterion has compiled more than five hours of video material for this release, which also includes an audio commentary by Bertolucci, producer Jeremy Thomas, screenwriter Mark Peploe and Sakamoto. Too much of what is offered, however, focuses on Bertolucci and quality is eventually overwhelmed by quantity. Best of the extras are a 45-minute talk by Ian Buruma, which puts Pu Yi's life into context with the history of China from the Boxer Rebellion to the Cultural Revolution, and a 66-minute edition of the BBC's The South Bank Show visiting the film during production in China.