The Last Emperor is a strangely calm and dispassionate account of one of the most remarkable lives of the 20th century - the life of the Last Emperor of China, Pu Yi.
Bertolucci recounts most lovingly the true story of how Pu Yi was appointed Emperor while a three-year-old child - and how being made Emperor in reality meant being made a powerless, though luxurious, prisoner within the Forbidden City.
Power had passed by the emperors of China. Their life was an empty facade; the courtiers within the Forbidden City bowed and scraped only to serve their own greedy purposes. For Pu Yi, life was an endless cycle of pointless ceremony, enlivened only by the society of his European tutor, and by his two wives - or rather, wife and courtesan.
Then came the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. And the Emperor, mistakenly seeing this as a route to regaining a true Emperor's power, became instead the Japanese invaders' puppet Emperor - a trap of a far worse and crueller kind.
This life of imprisonment then becomes spent behind bars erected by the new Communist State, as he goes through the 'corrective thinking' process which ultimately leads Pu Yi to repudiate his past and confess his crimes against the 'People's Republic'. He is finally released, to spend the last few years of his life as a humble gardener - and, in this poverty, he gains the only taste of freedom he has known.
This is a magnificent movie, well deserving of its nine Academy Awards, including 'Best Picture' and 'Best Director'. It is shot in China in settings which defy belief - this film could only ever have been made on location! It is not Bertolucci's best film - in my opinion, his The Conformist, The Spider's Strategy and the severely underrated The Sheltering Sky are his masterpieces. But The Last Emperor is certainly a filmic experience like no other - it is a great cinematic extravaganza - Bertolucci's bid to outrank David Lean and Cecil B. DeMille in the epic stakes.
The only flaw in this otherwise excellent release is that Magna Pacific have been content to issue the cinema-release version of 156 minutes. In Europe in the Benelux countries (Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands), The Last Emperor was released as a two-disc set. The first disc contained this 156-minute version. The second disc contained Bertolucci's own cut of the movie, running 218 minutes, with a much richer account of the Emperor's boyhood in the Forbidden City. The transfer quality of this extended version is reported to be excellent, unlike the universally-condemned longer version released in Region 1 by Artisan Films.
It's a shame Magna didn't seek rights to the European PAL Director's Cut. Ah well; let's hope this release is followed in short-order by an extended 'special edition'.
I saw the Region 1 Artisan version some time back and it is truly one of the most disappointing transfers ever - badly framed, murky and dull.
This Magna transfer does the film justice. The anamorphic transfer is bright and clear, the level of detail is well-nigh perfect and the impact is much as it was in the cinema.
The soundtrack for The Last Emperor, composed in the main by Ryuchi Sakamoto, is rich and impressive, and is handled well in this two-channel stereo transfer, which also carries Dolby Surround encoding.
Even though the soundtrack has not been reprocessed for Dolby 5.1, there is a reasonably emphatic bass presence felt during the movie, projected in a very natural and unforced manner.
At the very least, The Last Emperor is definitely worth renting, and admirers of Bertolucci will most certainly want to own this one.
The lack of special features is made up for by the quality of this anamorphic transfer. However, it would have been better by far had Magna Pacific sought out the hour-longer Director's Cut version which has been issued on DVD in some European markets.