Friday, November 15, 2013

The Last Emperor (The Criterion Collection) (1987)

The Last EmperorWhen I was informed that the Blu-ray of the deluxe 4 disc Criterion edition would be missing the extended cut of 218 minutes, I sent an e-mail to Criterion to confirm this information. I have included my e-mail and the response I received from Jon Mulvany at Criterion. I hope this helps in your decision if you are planning to upgrade to the Blu-ray.

Dear Jon,

I have long been a fan of your company and the fine treatment it gives to movies. I originally purchased one of my all time favorite movies, The Last Emperor earlier this year when it was given the deluxe 4 disc treatment, I was thrilled with all of the extras that were included. I was most impressed that both versions of the movie were included for me to chose from. When it was announced that it was coming to Blu-ray, I sold my copy and was waiting to upgrade. I was! I have learned that the 165 min. version is the only one that will be included on the Blu-ray and not the 218 min (my preferred version) cut. WHY, WHY WHY? I am sad to say, that if this is indeed really true, I will not be upgrading to the Blu-ray version since this would in fact be considered a step down from the standard DVD edition. Why give us a great product initially, but then short change us on the Blu-ray upgrade, How sad!!!

Michael Ruiz

Jon's reply is as follows:

Hi Michael,

When we made the special edition dvd of The Last Emperor, we pulled out the stops. The film won nine Academy Awards from best picture and director to production design and editing. On top of that, it was the first international film of this scale produced in China, and that story in and of itself was extraordinary. In short, all aspects of the film merited attention and discussion. In addition to the director's cut of the film -the original theatrical version -we gave an entire disc to the longer Italian television version of the film for comparison. We also included an elaborate bound book and slipcase to hold the four disc set. Although the set was expensive, at $59.95, it was as close to definitive as we could make it, and we felt it offered good value.

When it came time to make the Blu-ray edition, we felt strongly that a single-disc edition containing all the added content of the four-disc version would offer our customers the best version of the film, the best value, and the best user experience. Having addressed the myth that the television version is the director's cut with our DVD box set, we didn't feel that including it as an extra Blu-ray disc was worth the added cost to the customer. Similarly, because the Blu-ray market place is still much smaller than the market for DVDs, the cost per copy of printing Blu-ray sized perfect-bound books would have driven the price of our edition up to a level we considered prohibitively expensive for consumers.

We also know that many or our customers already own the current dvd set. For them we are offering an upgrade program that will allow them to have the director's preferred version of the film on Blu-ray, while keeping the rest of the original package. Just send in your disc 1 and we'll send you the blu-ray disc for a $20 (+ $5 shipping and handling) replacement fee. If you are determined to have all the content of the DVD edition as well as the Blu-ray disc content, you could always go that route -buy the DVD set and trade in disc 1 for a Blu-ray. In the end I think the cost would still be less than we would have had to charge to make an all Blu-ray version of our original edition.

I hope this helps you understand our thinking. Thanks, as always, for your support of Criterion.


Jon Mulvaney

I won't go into the movie itself. It is already well known. It swept the Oscars winning all 9 for which it was nominated, including Best Picture and Best Director. A first for an independent foreign film. It is an historical epic about a culture which until then was little known in the West. It tells the story of China's Last Emperor, a weak and ineffectual man who came to the throne hailed as The Son of Heaven and The Lord of 10,000 Years. His misfortune was to be born at the twilight of Imperial Rule in China. Enthroned as a God, he is cast out by Chinese Republicans, used as a puppet by the invading Japanese, humiliated by the Communists and then "re-educated" to finally become a "useful" member of society a common gardener. It is the story of one man's tragedy and of an ancient civilisation's painful march into the modern era. A film not to be missed.

This is a truly magnificent set. Criterion at its best. Spread over 4 discs, it includes both versions of the film, fully restored and remastered, plus an additional 6 hours worth of Extras; about everything you could possibly want to know about the film, the director or the central character, Pu Yi.

The roaring controversy however is over the decision to crop the film from its original 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio down to a narrower 2:1. Vittorio Storaro who was responsible for this has defended his action and Criterion has taken the line that they follow the wishes of the creator. However after having seen the new cropped versions, my preference is still for the older 2.35:1 widescreen.

The newer versions by and large look fine and you won't notice the cropping unless you do a 1 to 1 comparison. However in more than a few scenes, the new visual composition looks askew awkward and ugly. Scenes that were originally perfectly framed now appear inadvertently cropped arms, ears, sometimes whole figures are cut in half Eg. during the enthronement of little Pu Yi, the court official who issues the proclamation is standing toward the left edge of the screen but is otherwise supposed to be fully visible. In the new 2:1 crop for the TV version, he is cut into half. In the new 2:1 crop for the Theatrical version, the panning is more to the left and only his arm is missing. This is just one of many instances which infuriate viewers. Criterion should remember that its customers are avid cinephiles who scrutinise films in minutest detail and expect faithfulness to the original release. I for one do not take kindly to a creator coming back to redo his work with the result that it looks uglier than before. Especially when I know that he has an ulterior motive for the revision.

For those who are still unaware, Vittorio Storaro pioneered a new film format in 1998 called Univisium (aka Univision) which just so happens to have a 2:1 aspect ratio. It is intended as a compromise format between the 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio and the new 1.78:1 widescreen TV aspect ratio. Storaro wants his new 2:1 aspect ratio to be the new universal aspect ratio for all films. So far only he has used it in shooting his newer films. No one else is interested so he has gone about reformatting (cropping) all the older films he has shot into this new 2:1 Univisium format. He has already mutilated Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" to the chagrin of film fans worldwide. Now he has come round to mangling Bernado Bertolucci's "The Last Emperor".

His various statements in support of this cropping are illogical, contradictory and at points ludicrous. The question is, when did he first consciously compose his pictures for the 2:1 format? Criterion cites Storaro's claim that "The Last Emperor was the first film he shot specifically for 2.0 framing". Storaro on an earlier occasion had already made the claim that he first conceived of shooting for 2.0 during the filming of "Apocalypse Now" way back in 1978. He said this in support of his cropping the war classic down from its original 2.35:1 to 2:1 for its Redux Edition and subsequent video transfer. These two statements are patently contradictory and cannot both be correct.

Both "Last Emperor" and "Apocalypse Now" were shot in Technovision which is in 2.35:1. The only format using 2:1 aspect ratio at that time was the old SuperScope. Why choose 2.35:1 Technovision, when (as he now insists) he wanted to shoot in a 2:1 aspect all along? Criterion also trots out the red herring that the producers had initially hoped to release it on 70mm. But that means composing for 2.2:1 not an odd ratio like 2:1. Actually I personally believe the films were indeed composed for 2.2:1 and they would look just right if reframed in that ratio. The only reason for cropping it down to 2:1 is to accommodate Storaro's new Univisium format. For all the Storaro apologists out there (and there are many), the Oscars he won for "Last Emperor" and "Apocalypse Now" were for the films in their original 2.35:1 presentation NOT the new 2:1 crops. I hope Criterion bans him from supervising any more transfers of his old films. In his monomaniacal quest to promote his Univisium dream, he has become more like a vandal than an artist.

But enough carping. Aside from the cropping issue, Criterion's transfer of The Last Emperor is the best so far. Truly gorgeous picture quality. One caveat however. The 218min TV Version is not up to the quality of the Theatrical Cut. The TV version is darker, grainier, softer, cooler and has slightly higher contrast. You'll notice it immediately if you watch the films one after the other. Still, it's good enough to eclipse any previous versions.

A minor detail on the TV version: The single profanity uttered in the original film where the Red Guard curses Pu Yi during the Cultural Revolution, has now been eliminated. In the TV version, the original "F___ Off," has been replaced with a more polite "Buzz Off".

The Extras are what make this Criterion set really worth getting.

There are 2hr 40mins worth of extras on Disc 3 and another 2hr 45mins worth of extras on Disc 4. I especially liked the Southbank Show's 61min Special Edition (British ITV Production) on the Making of The Last Emperor. It includes interviews with Pu Jie, the Emperor's younger brother, as well as the prison governor who helped "re-educate" him. We also get to see archive footage of the real Pu Yi, as the Japanese puppet in Manchuria, his capture by Russian paratroopers, his testimony at the Tokyo War Crimes Trial, and finally his "re-education" at a Chinese labour camp.

On more than one occasion, Bertolucci speaks of the penultimate "Cricket" scene as a metaphor for freedom or metamorphosis. Personally I see the cricket as a symbol of renewal or rebirth. (Every year the cricket dies in autumn only to be reborn once again in spring.) That penultimate scene where Pu Yi disappears into the mists of history and the cricket slowly emerges from its wooden box is for me one of the most poetic in cinema history it marks a new beginning, a rebirth for both Pu Yi and for his country. The final scene itself is delicious in its mix of cheery sarcasm and sadness. As the loud jarring notes of "Yankee Doodle" resound in the Hall of Supreme Harmony, we watch in dismay as hordes of chattering tourists come pouring in. And the bitter reality dawns on us 2,100 years of Imperial Glory have been reduced to nothing more than a tourist attraction.

Of the extras, only 3 are brand new. On Disc 1 is "Making The Last Emperor" a new 45min documentary with interviews of the technical crew that swept the Oscars. One fascinating titbit was that the replica of the Empress Dowager's Golden Robes weighed in at an astonishing 50lbs because it was made out of gold-plated aluminium. The old lady playing the Empress Dowager spent 1 week in hospital recuperating from exhaustion after the filming. The second new documentary is a 25min interview with composer David Byrne on both his and Ryuichi Sakamoto's collaborative efforts in producing the splendid score. Ironically the most eastern sounding pieces were written by Byrne while Sakamoto wrote most of the more western sounding music. The documentary "Beyond the Forbidden City" hosted by Professor Ian Buruma, is a 45min, "Cliffs Notes" version of China's tumultuous years, from the reign of the Empress Dowager CiXi (Tsu-Hsi) who selected Pu Yi as her heir, to the end of Imperial Rule, the Japanese invasion, the Chinese Civil War, Mao Tse Tung's disastrous Great Leap Forward (where 30-million Chinese died at the hands of their own government), culminating in the madness of Mao's lunatic Cultural Revolution, during which Pu Yi himself passed away or as the Empress Dowager would have put it "The Emperor is on High. He is riding the Dragon now."

Criterion's set comes with a sumptuous 98-page booklet printed on thick glossy paper and filled with handsome photos and articles. Everything is packed into a 4-way gatefold package and slipcase coloured in red and gold.

Buy The Last Emperor (The Criterion Collection) (1987) Now

This review is not so much a review of the movie or this release in particular. It would seem that there will be no shortage of glorious reviews of this movie and I would just be adding my voice to the gale winds of appraise. I write this to clear up the common mis-perception that the longer cut of this movie is a director's cut.

The previously released longer cut of The Last Emperor which was released on DVD and subsequently labeled as a "Director's Cut" is in fact a longer, made for television mini-series version that was made to satisfy a particular distribution/production deal. Bertolucci himself has gone on record to say that the actual version of the film that he envisioned is the one that went out to theaters, thereby making the shorter "Theatrical Cut" the actual director's cut.

Being the huge fan of this movie that I am, I can't help but want more of this movie, but I'd be lying if I said that the shorter version isn't great just as it is. The movie does not lose any of its magic without the added content. I've given this review a 4 star rating because of the completist in me. If there are two versions of a movie out there. I would enjoy the option of playing the version that I want. Criterion did so with their DVD release, but failed to do it with their Blu-ray release. Welcome to double-dip country. As of this writing, I still have not determined if I shall fall prey to their marketing ploy since I have been waiting so long for a good transfer of this film.

Read Best Reviews of The Last Emperor (The Criterion Collection) (1987) Here

I'll make this review short and sweet. First off, the movie itself is derserving of all its Oscar wins. The acting is superb, the cinematography is breathtaking, and the story is significant if not moving. If you are a movie lover you will certainly appreciate the beauty and power of this film. So why only 3 stars? I simply can't give the DVD more than 3 stars, becuase quite frankly, this movie deserves a better film transfer and better audio on DVD. The picture is sub-par when you compare it to almost all the new DVD releases today, and the sound is a little better, but not by much. Perhaps the studio should revisit this title and clean it up with a loaded new special edition release with a squeaky clean anamorphic picture transfer with DD 5.1 and DTS sound to boast. This DVD's director's cut is also much longer than the original, which in my opinion, doesn't hurt the film at all, but it doesn't improve the film drastically either. So base your buying decision on the following fact: this is a masterpiece movie on a sub-par DVD transfer. To me, the movie was a must have DVD, which was worth the purchase price alone. Afterall, it is still better than VHS.

Want The Last Emperor (The Criterion Collection) (1987) Discount?

This is not a rating of the film, which is excellent, but of this particular edition.

Unfortunately Criterion fell into the same trap that the producers of the previous "Apocalypse Now" DVDs did. They allowed Vittorio Storaro, the original cinematographer, to tamper with the widescreen image. Storaro has been on a crusade for the last few years to advocate 2.00:1 as the most desirable widescreen aspect ratio. This is fine if applied to new productions but, disastrously, he wants to demonstrate his passion for this by going back and chopping up movies he worked on in years past. Despite whatever care he may have taken in this project, it is painfully obvious in many scenes that some of the screen image has been cropped from the sides. I compared this to the scenes in their original ratio of 2.35 and there is significant information missing. In tight scenes inside cars you often lose portions of people seated on either side of the picture. The worst for me, though, was what happened to a couple of the breathtaking scenes where the child emperor is viewing the large assembled crowd of his subjects. In the original framing you can see the complete perfectly symmetrical formations filling the screen and perfectly tapering off right at the edges of the picture. In this version chunks of that image are chopped off on either side and a lot of the power and beauty of the scene is diminished.

I had been eagerly anticipating this release but the butchering of the image took all of the joy out of it for me. Even though other aspects of the package such as the extras are very nice and well done, I ended up selling off my copy

I'm surprised and disappointed that Criterion let something like this happen.

Fortunately the new Apocalypse Now blu-ray has corrected the previous poor decision and is restoring that movie to its original 2.35 widescreen aspect ratio. I just hope that Criterion, or someone, will do the same thing somewhere down the line and give us a proper release of The Last Emperor.

It's been frustrating since the previous Artisan DVD was in the proper aspect ratio but the transfer itself was horrible. The visual quality of this transfer is a huge improvement but the picture is chopped. You just can't win

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