Film Reviews

The Last Emperor (1987) – 4K UHD Review

Arrow Video have turned their attention to 1987’s multiple Oscar winner The Last Emperor, with a new 4k UHD release. Bernardo Bertolucci’s film tells of Puyi (Richard Vuu at 3 years old; Tijger Tsou at 8; Wu Tao at 15; John Lone as an adult), the final Emperor of China, reigning from the time he is a toddler, into his late teens, when he is exiled, only to return as head of a puppet state set-up in the Manchurian region by Japan.

At some point in his reign, China becomes a republic, and so Puyi is then really only in power within the walls of the Forbidden City, which he is not allowed to leave. As the ‘Son of Heaven’ he is indulged as a divine being that cannot be contradicted, only getting a feel for the outside world – and for being spoken to like a regular human being – when Reginald Johnson (Peter O’Toole), an English academic is sent to tutor him, and insist that he is in charge during their lessons, becoming close to the man-king in the process.

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Desperate to leave, as he is without agency in his own life, we do eventually see Puyi in the outside world with his two wives (one of whom is chosen for him, and the secondary consort who he chose himself). Much of the film’s framing sequences are set in 1950, post-war, where he is being held as a prisoner and forced, with his brother, to confess his ‘crimes’ as a traitor to the now-communist Chinese regime. Finally, we get to see him return to his old home as an old man, only to find his time now an historical era and his home a visitors’ attraction.

Nominated for nine Academy Awards, at the 60th edition in 1988, The Last Emperor took home all of them, including Best Picture and Best Director. It is a beautiful piece of work, notable for being the first film from the west to shoot inside the Forbidden City. The sheer size of it – disproportionate to even the largest number of people visible within it at any given time in the film – makes it desolate at the same time as being so attractive, affording us a real feel for Puyi’s lonely, anachronistic existence.

At 163 minutes, it does feel a long film, but it a fascinating watch, well played, and made with love. There have been debates about its accuracy, with much of the real Puyi’s rumoured brutality omitted here (though he can be petty and officious), while we are assured that the Chinese authorities took little interest in making changes to the final script or cut of the film, so what we are left with is Bertolucci’s vision, delivered through a colourful (if not the highest HDR standard) transfer, supported by a choice of DTS or stereo soundtrack – both are excellent.

Before we get to the bonus features for the UHD disc, it must be noted that, as sold, The Last Emperor has a second disc, in Blu-ray format, of the extended cut of the film. This was not available for review, nor was the accompanying essay booklet. It must be noted though, that until the early 2000s this has been referred to, erroneously, as a director’s cut. It is not. The extended version of the film was created with television revenues in mind. Much like 1978’s Superman, the longest cut exists to maximise revenues when selling to TV stations, as they can charge by the minute. Bertolucci disavowed the version as ‘just a little bit more boring’. When considering the theatrical cut, it is tough to see how an additional 55 minutes would improve it. The story is as thorough as it needs to be, and the end product is quite long enough.

Bonus features on the main disc kick-off with ‘First to Last: The Road to the Forbidden City’. This is marketed as a new visual essay by film critic David Cairns, exploring Bernardo Bertolucci’s career prior to The Last Emperor. We’ve seen David’s work before, particularly on Eureka‘s Masters of Cinema range, which this release has more in common with than other Arrow releases, in that there is a slight deficit of features, more in-line with an older film’s home release, but most of them have been written for this release, much as with the Eureka imprint. He gives his usual calm, relaxed presentation of thoughts about Bertolucci’s career, covering the basics of timeframes, but also delving into themes. Those familiar with his work will know what to expect.

The same is true of the second feature, ‘Open the Door’, a visual essay he created with Fiona Watson (though the narration is David). Again, they have worked together more than once for Eureka, and they always do a wonderful job. Often they are working to illuminate older works, unfamiliar to many modern audiences, but they bring the same attention to detail and slight air of whimsy to this look at a more modern classic. Small details such as Puyi never being exposed to direct sunlight when within the Forbidden City, is something many will not have noticed. Watch enough of their work and you will start to see what becomes an instantly recognisable style – and that is a compliment.

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There are three interviews on the disc, all between eight and nine minutes in duration, and taken from the original press tour for the film. Bertolucci, John Lone, and Joan Chen (who portrays Wanrong, Puyi’s Empress) are the subjects. They are – unsurprisingly – standard definition, and somewhat lightweight. ‘Postcard from China’ follows this, a little under eight minutes of footage shot from the set by the director, though it is narrated for context. It is… fine. The set is then rounded off by a theatrical trailer from the time, and a stills gallery that is fairly scant at around thirteen images, most of them promotional.

We had to keep reminding ourselves this was an Arrow product, as it really could be the bonus features for a film made in the forties, rather than the 1980s. That said it is a decent release. Arrow have a good record, but for every RoboCop release, there is a Twelve Monkeys, and this is more the latter than the former, but it is far from a poor set.

The Last Emperor is out now on Limited Edition 4K UHD and Blu-ray from Arrow Video.

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