If an emperor were deposed now, the press would have a field day. The fellow would make a million bucks appearing on talk shows and writing his memoirs. In 1908 China's last emperor, Pu Yi, was isolated by the Republic for many years in Peking's Forbidden City. When he was released, he lived aimlessly for a while before collaborating with the Japanese. Then in the late forties he was imprisoned by the Chinese Communists. After his "rehabilitation," he was allowed to go free and spent his final days as a gardener.
Bernardo Bertolucci's grand epic, "The Last Emperor," tells the story of Pu Yi from age three until his death. The movie won nine Oscars in 1987, including Best Picture and Best Director. It's a big, beautiful film (made even bigger in its three-and-a-half hour director's cut) that suffers only from an indifferent transfer to DVD. Still, it is well worth considering for any library of important films.
The movie traces two major subjects. The first, of course, is the life of Pu Yi himself from divine ruler to lowly mortal. The second is Bertolucci's view of the stupidity of Man, as the Chinese go from one tyrannical ruler to another. But it's the first matter that is of foremost concern. While the story's canvas is immense, it is yet a very personal portrait of a very empty man. The DVD offers Bertolucci the opportunity to add almost an hour of additional material to the film and tell the story the way he says he always intended. I wish I could tell you exactly what was added, but it's been too long since I saw the movie in a theater, and Artisan offer few clues beyond a vague reference to expanding the emperor's relationship with his wet nurse. I am not convinced the extra shots were needed, but they certainly don't distract in any way.
The story is told in flashback. When the film opens, Pu Yi is in prison after the Second World War, a captive of the Communists, who are determined to convert him into an ordinary citizen. It takes them ten years. In the meantime, we see Pu Yi's childhood from age three onward. He grows up in the Forbidden City a virtual prisoner of the Republic that had taken over the country but was reluctant to obliterate a centuries-old tradition by executing him. The emperor is allowed to keep his title and his several thousand servants, and it is this early part of the story that is most fascinating. As he matures he acquires an English tutor, Reginald Johnston, and a wife, Wan Jung. Much later, after his release, he cooperates with the Japanese and becomes a puppet ruler in Manchuria, too blind to see that the Japanese are merely using him to gain control of China. After World War II he is captured by the Communists and reeducated into a model member of the community, living out a relatively routine life until his death in 1967.
John Lone plays the emperor from youth to old age. His transition through three major stages of development is both moving and convincing. As a young man he is merely arrogant, yet he becomes progressively more sympathetic toward his people. Eventually, he wants reform but has no power to enact any constructive measures. Upon his discharge from the Forbidden City he becomes a playboy with no idea how to live an average life, too used to being waited on hand and foot. Here we see how useless he is, a person whose life has been filled with everything and signifies nothing. And it gets no better. With the coming of the Japanese, we see the full extent of his vanity. He believes he can truly be emperor again. As his wife says, he is a fool. Finally, under the Communists we witness his resignation to his fate and his transformation into a common, humble subject.
The present-day Communists who approved Bertolucci's script must have thought Pu Yi's conversion was proof of their people's equality under their system. It's more like proof of the effectiveness of brainwashing. In any case, Lone's performance is impressive. Equally good, however, is Joan Chen as his wife. Her character is smarter and more visionary than her husband's, and it is sad to watch her slowly disintegrate into opium addiction. The emperor's mentor, Mr. Johnston, is played in proper, stiff-upper-lip British style by Peter O'Toole. Johnston later wrote a book about his experiences with the emperor, "Twilight in the Forbidden City." The film is an epic in the grand style, employing over nineteen thousand extras at one time or another, and was the first film ever shot inside the Forbidden City.
I wish I had better news to report on the quality of Artisan's DVD presentation. Unfortunately, it is not up to their usual standards. Like the little girl in the poem, when it's good, it's very, very good, and when it's bad, it's awful. There are more shimmering lines in evidence here than I can remember seeing in any film on disc. Granted, a movie set in the highly angular Forbidden City offers more opportunity for horizontal and vertical line flutter than probably any other venue would, but the film deserves better. One scene in particular on a tennis court is positively grim; it all but dances to life with flickering lines. What's more, the color separation is not as clearly delineated as it should be, and many scenes are grainy. Perhaps I am overreacting because I wanted so much for this film to look good. The problems may be associated with the transfer's not being anamorphic or its being overly compressed or its having too much new material added. I don't know. Let me just say that a majority of the picture is, indeed, handsome to behold, and the parts that are not good looking will just have to be tolerated. The screen dimensions are given at 2.35:1 but actually measure closer to 2.15:1. The buyer should usually think of such numbers as approximate.
Pressing on, the sound is two-channel Dolby Surround and behaves reasonably well, having an acceptable but not remarkable stereo spread in the front channels. It also occasionally comes to life in the rear channels, but not often. The frequency range is moderately restricted, conveying a clear midrange but not a lot of ultrahigh or ultralow substance.
Beyond offering the original director's cut of the film, Artisan provide production notes, cast and crew information, scene access, and a theatrical trailer. Everything is accommodated on a single side of a dual-layered disc.
Even with its flawed picture quality, "The Last Emperor" remains an engaging movie experience. Considering that it is an epic with little action or adventure and that it features a main character who is virtually powerless to do anything in his life short of accepting change, its human drama and sheer spectacle manage to catch and hold our attention. My recommendation, though, must be contingent on the acceptance of its less-than-perfect DVD transfer.