Collecting Criterion – The Last Emperor (1987)

The Criterion Collection has long held the the works of post-war Italian filmmakers in special regard, and the library as a whole includes a big block of titles just of the collective works of the great masters of Italian cinema alone.  One of the first great Italian filmmakers of the Italian neo-realist revolution in the post war era was Vittorio De Sica, whose masterpiece Bicycle Thieves (1948, Spine #374) is a prized addition to Criterion’s library.  There are also the movies of Roberto Rossellini, including a three movie collection he made with his wife Ingrid Bergman, as well as many films made by the most Italian of directors Federico Fellini, including La Dolce Vita (1960, #733), 8 1/2 (1963, #140), and Amarcord (1973, #4).  Later influential Italian filmmakers are also spotlighted in the Criterion Collection, including Luchino Visconti with films like his epic scale family drama The Leopard (1963, #235), as well as Pier Paolo Pasolini with his (to put it mildly) controversial film Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom (1976, #17).  Pasolini’s particular brand of controversial subject matter depicted in his films would go on to influence another Italian filmmaker named Bernardo Bertolucci.  Bertolucci would make a big splash on the Italian film scene with his 1970 film The Conformist, a hyper-stylized and politically charged movie that won him international acclaim.  He was often a controversial filmmaker too, pushing the boundaries of sexuality to their limit, and as discussed with the making of his film Last Tango in Paris (1972), perhaps crossing the line in terms of consent with his performers.  Despite his beginnings in Italian cinema, Bertolucci eventually branched out into the more global market, with most of his movies in the latter part of his career being in the English language.  He’s not particularly well represented in the Criterion Collection, with only two of his films in the library of titles.  One is his feature debut, La Commare Secca (The Grim Reaper) (1962, #272), while the other is the film that probably marks the biggest success of his career, as well being the movie he is probably most well known for; the Best Picture Oscar-winning epic, The Last Emperor (1987, #422).

It’s interesting that for a filmmaker as identifiably Italian as Bernardo Bertolucci was, his most successful film had nothing to do with anything Italian at all.  The Last Emperor is a movie about the nation of China, and more specifically, it’s about the titular doomed monarch.  The movie tells the story of a controversial and yet at the the little known historical figure named Pu Yi.  Pu Yi became Emperor of China at the age of only three.  As he grew up in the Forbidden City during the early part of the 20th century, the nation of China itself went through a turbulent upheaval.  China became a republic after the decline of colonial influence in the region, but that alliance was soon broken by civil war, between the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek and the Communists under Mao Zedong.  In the middle of the brutal infighting, Pu Yi was forced to flee the Forbidden City and live in exile.  Eventually, the Imperialist Japanese invaded mainland China and set up the Manchurian region as a puppet state called Manchukuo, tapping Pu Yi as it’s figure head leader.  Upon the Japanese defeat in World War II, Pu Yi was arrested and sent to prison in the now firmly Communist China.  He went through re-education, was released after finishing his reformation, and lived the rest of his life in obscurity.  This was an interesting unknown chapter of history that proved to be rather different for Bertolucci as a filmmaker.  He was now stranger to epics, having previously made the 5 hour family drama 1900 (1976), but The Last Emperor would be an even more monumental undertaking.  Bertolucci became the first Western filmmaker to ever be granted permission to make a narrative film in China, and even more historically, he was the first Western filmmaker ever granted to film in the Forbidden City.  Interior China, especially the Imperial City of Peking (later Beijing) had been closed off to much of the Western world, with European colonizers remaining mainly in the coastal cities of Hong Kong and Shanghai.  Post WWII China became further isolationist under the Maoist regime, with the Cultural Revolution turning China into a hermit nation.  Eventually, China did open up to the West and there began to be a cultural exchange taking place, with cinema becoming an important bridge between cultures.  Hence why The Last Emperor was such an eye-opening cinematic experience for people in the 1980’s, because it was our first really expansive look into this once forbidden nation.

The movie itself covers much of Pu Yi’s life through the prism of his reformation while in prison.  In 1950, 44 year old Pu Yi (John Lone) is transported to Fushun Prison in southern Manchuria.  There he is interrogated by the Camp Warden (Ying Ruocheng) and his fierce deputy interrogator (Ric Young).  Pu Yi is asked to write his life’s story in a journal for them to examine in comparison with his fellow conspirators.  Pu Yi first looks back at his childhood, being coronated at the age of three and now making his home in the opulent Forbidden City.  3 year old Pu Yi (Richard Vuu) is worshipped as a God by the thousands of eunuchs and maids who work within the City walls.  But, when he is 8 years old, the Emperor (Tijger Tsou) learns the hard truth, that his powers as Emperor is limited only to the city walls, because outside the walls, the nation of China has become a republic governed by a President.  He continues to grow up realizing he’s just a symbolic Emperor with no real power, shattering his sense of purpose in the world.  Worse yet, he is not allowed to leave the Forbidden City, increasingly feeling like a prisoner.  When he turns 15, Pu Yi (Wu Tao) meets an English tutor named Reginald Johnston (Peter O’Toole), who helps to give the isolated Emperor a more worldly education, as well as a bit of a nudge towards a modern perspective.  Upon adulthood, Pu Yi begins to seek reforms in the Forbidden City, which then spells the end of the thousands of years of Imperial rule within the Fordidden City.  Pu Yi, and his two consorts Wanrong (Joan Chen) and Wenxiu (Vivian Wu) leave the city never to return and escape the warring factions in China thanks to Johnston’s contacts at the British Embassy.  While in exile, he is influenced by his cousin Eastern Jewel (Maggie Han) to seek help from the Japanese, who have invaded Manchuria and are turning it into a puppet state.  The exiled Emperor takes up the offer from Japan, and becomes a monarch once again, but soon learns that he has no power at all, with his Japanese handler Masahiko Amakasu (Ryuichi Sakamoto) being the one truly calling the shots with orders from Tokyo.  Meanwhile, Wenxiu has walked out of her life as a consort, and Wanrong descends deeper into her opium addiction.  The allied forces eventually defeat Japan, and Pu Yi is captured by the Red Army.  He spends fifteen years in prison, only reconciling with his crimes after learning of the atrocities that were committed in his name without his knowing about them.  He is released reformed, and lives out the rest of his days as a lonely gardener, a now anonymous face in a nation that once revered him as a God King.

The story of The Last Emperor is a remarkable tragic tale of a fall from grace.  It’s fascinating watching the movie to see how quickly in one lifetime the nation of China changed it’s course in history.  Pu Yi was crowned emperor in the final days of a once mighty empire that remained a force in the Eastern world for thousands of years, and his life would see him witness to the rapid modernization of China to where it is now.  As we see in his early childhood, his way of life is a relic of a more medieval time in Chinese history, existing more as a performance piece in order for the players to continue profiting off of the wealth of generations before.  But as the outside world encroaches, Pu Yi defiantly refuses to believe that he is pawn in the politics of the modern world.  Ultimately that is the tragedy of his character, the delusion that he had any real power at all.  He was born within an illusion, and no matter what defiant motions he made, he would never actually be an emperor the way his ancestors were.  Instead, he becomes a witness to history, as he sees China change in the tumultuous wartime years.  It could be so easy for a character like Pu Yi to be portrayed in a passive, uninteresting way, but actor John Lone brings an impressive amount of weight to his performance as the doomed emperor, especially in the scenes at the prison when the character is broken down by his captors.  The same is also true of the three young actors that play Pu Yi in his formative years, as we see the naiveite of youthful passion become challenged over time.  I think that this is where the strength lies in the film.  Bertolucci and company managed to find near Shakespearean levels of complexity in this often forgotten and passive player in world politics of the 20th century.  He remained a powerless figure all his life, and yet his story is powerful one of a changing world with an a tragic fall from grace found in it’s center.  The way that Pu Yi desperately clings to his past glory is tragic and yet identifiable.  We ultimately sympathize with his plight, despite the fact that he was a cog in a very destructive war machine.  Still, we feel bad as the grandeur of his early life disappears and is replaced with hardship.  Even as Pu Yi’s influence disappears by the end of the film, and he becomes just another average citizen, the movie does leave us on a semi-triumphant note.  An elderly Pu Yi pays a ticket to visit the Forbidden City, becoming a tourist in the place he was once raised in.  And yet, he is the only person there who knows all the secrets, because he was truly the last one to sit on the throne of the Emperor.  And he proves this by showing a young child a special keepsake he hid under the throne’s seat, which turns out to be a jar with a cricket inside, a secret only the Last Emperor of China would have known.

Bernardo Bertolucci was granted the permission to make a the film by the Chinese communist party under special conditions, which obviously limited how much commentary he could make about the Chinese government.  Given that Bertolucci was a lifelong socialist, it was not hard for him to keep the politics of the movie within the line of the Chinese government’s demands, but the movie in essence is not one concerned with taking a side in politics.  It’s about the life of it’s subject, and how he was a witness to world history.  Before Bertolucci, documentary filmmakers from the West had been granted access to film within China’s borders, albeit under tight scrutiny.  But, The Last Emperor was a full blown, Hollywood backed film production that was granted unprecedented access to areas once declared off limits to outsiders before, and this was a definite coup for Bertolucci and his team.  They were the first Western film crew to ever shoot a movie in the Forbidden City itself, and with that they were able to give Western audience an authentic look within this mysterious fortress, from it’s grand courtyards to it’s opulent throne rooms to it’s intimate private gardens.  And, with the help of Bertolucci’s longtime cinematographer, Oscar winner Vittorio Storaro, they captured the grandeur of the Forbidden City with amazing visual splendor, including mind-boggling epic scale and a vibrant color palette.  The famous moment when young Pu Yi wonders into the courtyard and is greeted by over a thousand worshipping  servants is a prime example of how well Bertolucci’s visual style was a perfect match for this epic tale.  The same grandeur remains true throughout the movie as Pu Yi’s journey takes him deeper into the upheaval of history.  Bertolucci manages to fill the frame with amazing compositions and splashes of color, reminiscent of the way he filmed his earlier movies like The Conformist.  With the historic nature of the film’s production, as well as the pedigree of talent in front and behind the camera, it was wildly celebrated by critics upon release.  Because it was independently produced, it did not receive a wide release by a major studio; only being picked up later by Columbia for distribution.  Still, it managed to be seen by the right people, becoming the surprise big winner at the Academy Awards in 1988, sweeping all 9 categories it was nominated in, including Best Director for Bertolucci and Best Picture.  Since then, it has grown in esteem among cinephiles and casual viewers as a prime example of the thought provoking and artistic historical epic that Hollywood doesn’t really make anymore.

The Criterion Collection delighted many fans of The Last Emperor when they announced that it would be added to their library of titles, though it would also spark a bit of controversy once it was finally released.  The film went through an extensive digital restoration based on a high definition scan of the original camera negative.  Given the good quality of the source negative, it stands that Criterion fans would be excited for a release of the film with an almost immaculate picture in high definition.  However, there was a bit of disappointment that came when we actually saw the final product.  The restoration of the film was done under the supervision and approval of Vittorio Storaro, the cinematographer, and at his behest, he had the film cropped to an aspect ratio of 2.00:1.  This was a shock to many of the film’s fans because the original film had a widescreen aspect ratio of 2.35:1.  The fact that Criterion was giving us a cropped version of the movie ratter than one reflective of it’s original framing seemed to be a betrayal of their original mission to preserve movies in the way they were originally meant to be seen.  Still, this was an order given by Storaro himself, who made the choice because he disliked how movies lost their picture quality in home video release on standard definition TVs, so he had the film’s framing changed to maintain the integrity of the picture.  Unfortunately, he seems to be in a mindset for a different time when widescreen, high definition television were not standardized across the market like they are now.  He made the same controversial choice as well for another film he shot, Apocalypse Now (1979) when it received it’s “Redux” re-release.  Apocalypse Now has since been re-released again, restoring the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, but The Last Emperor still is only available in the cropped 2.00:1.  My hope is that with Criterion’s recent launch of 4K releases in their collection that they may hopefully revisit The Last Emperor and restore it back to it’s original aspect ratio, so that we can full appreciate the full breadth of Bertolucci’s epic canvas.  For what we do have on the DVD and Blu-Ray releases, the image is still fairly good, maintaining the vibrancy of Storaro’s remarkable color palette, which especially pops in high definition.  The movie’s stereo soundtrack also sounds great as well, especially in the remarkable exterior scenes within the Forbidden City.  It’s a strong presentation, but one that still feels compromised when one knows of the way the movie should truly look.

The Last Emperor was one of the first titles to receive a Blu-ray release under the Criterion banner.  While there was improvement in the image quality, the release at the same time streamlined the truly bountiful 4 disc DVD edition that the film had received earlier.  The 4 disc DVD set included not just the movie itself, but also the 3 1/2 hour long television version.  The longer version is the one that I was introduced to first when I bought the movie on VHS.  It was only when I purchased this Criterion version that I got to see the original cut that played in theaters, and while the longer version adds a lot of extra character moments (particularly for the supporting characters) it is almost identical to the theatrical version in terms of plot momentum, and most people wouldn’t know a difference.  The theatrical version (at 2 hours and 45 minutes) is perfectly streamlined and well paced, but the television version remarkably doesn’t sag at all either, both offering compelling experiences.  Unfortunately, the Blu-ray set only features the shorter theatrical cut, so if you can seek out the DVD set, it’s worth it to watch both versions of the movie.  All of the bonus features are thankfully carried over from DVD to Blu-ray.  One includes a compilation audio commentary, which features snippets from different people involved in the film’s making, including director Bertolucci, producer Jeremy Thomas, screenwriter Mark Peploe, and composer-actor Ryuichi Sakamoto.  There is also a collection of documentaries, including The Italian Traveler, Bernardo Bertolucci, which details the career path that led the director from his early days in Italian cinema all the way to filming in China; The Chinese Adventure of Bernardo Bertolucci, which gives an in depth look at the making of the film; as well as contemporary documentaries made by Criterion with interviews from various cast and crew.  There is also a video diary included from Bertolucci himself, showing is own hands on experience making the movie.  There is also included a BBC interview from 1989 with Bertolucci, a brand new interview with cultural historian Ian Buruma who gives historical context for the movie’s setting, and an interview with Talking Heads frontman David Byrne who co-wrote the film’s score with Chinese musician Cong Su and Ryuichi Sakamoto, who also played the role of Masahiko in the movie.  I don’t normally talk about the booklet included in the sets, but the DVD one in particular has an essay that is especially worth a read.  It was written by actor Ying Ruocheng, who passed away in 2003, and he recounts his upbringing in China during the time period that’s depicted in the movie, and how he brought all that experience into his pivotal role as the Warden in The Last Emperor.  It’s an especially insightful read.  Overall, a very strong bounty of extra feature to compliment this monumental film.

The Last Emperor is one of those thoughtful epics that you just don’t see made that much anymore.  It is grandiose and yet intimate in it’s depiction of a world changing before our eyes.  The story of Pu Yi, the last emperor of China is a fascinating one, as we see a man who was born into Godhood only to end up spending his last days as an oridinary anonymous gardener.  That trajectory of his life is fascinating to unfold, and almost mythical in it’s own way like the tragedies of the Ancient Greeks.  Pu Yi in the grand scheme of things was nothing more than a pawn in the larger game of world politics, and yet his story reveals something monumental in the grand narrative of history.  His brief, powerless reign marked the end of a dynasty of rulers that shaped the course of human history, and contributed to the world things as long lasting as the Great Wall of China.  The Emperor was at one time to the Chinese people the closest thing to a God on Earth, and they would literally move mountains to serve them.  Pu Yi believed that he was owed that same kind of devotion, but as we see him tragically realize, he was a relic for a world that no longer existed.   As the world crashes down around him, he realizes that the need for power and validation is what has broken him down, and it’s through the guidance of the Warden that he eventually learns that being ordinary is where he ultimately finds peace.  It’s a captivating tale captured magnificently through Bertolucci’s visual splendor, and rightfully is celebrated as one of the greatest epics ever made.  It’s really interesting that the film that opened up the West to the remarkable wonders of China came from a very Italian voice.  But, it really is to Bernardo Bertolucci’s credit that he did not waste his opportunity to film within the mysterious Forbidden City itself, finally giving the Western world a window into it’s unimaginable scale and opulence.  Criterion has given the movie itself a deservingly grand presentation for home viewing, although my hope is that we’ll eventually get a proper restored widescreen restoration if Criterion ever puts out a 4K release in the future.  For now, the Criterion edition of The Last Emperor is the best we have available, and it’s well worth watching for an authentic, extravagant and epic scale look at the wonders of Imperial China.