In 1986, director Bernardo Bertolucci and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC, had already collaborated on several significant films about the collision between the personal and the political, including The Conformist and Last Tango in Paris. So when the opportunity arose to shoot a film in China about one of its most unusual historical figures, the filmmakers rose to the challenge and created what’s arguably their greatest masterpiece. Upon its release in 1987, The Last Emperor was a phenomenon, one of those rare films that finds artistic, commercial and critical success all at once. Deservedly, it won nine Academy Awards, including Oscars for Bertolucci and Storaro. Twenty years later, the story of Emperor Pu Yi is as compelling as ever: The tale of a man who took the throne of a nation at the age of three and then spent decades enduring remarkable highs and lows, The Last Emperor is a unique story shot in an appropriately distinctive manner by master filmmakers.
Pu Yi is an extremely passive character upon whom to base such an epic film, a problem that Bertolucci and Storaro overcame by conveying emotion and history through their palette. At each stage of Pu Yi’s development, a different color dominates. From the early shot of Pu Yi’s blood seeping into water, red defines his origins. A few years later, orange becomes prominent; during the “orange period,” Storaro begins expressing Pu Yi’s internal state through light: For instance, there is no direct light on the emperor in the orange sequences because he had not yet emerged from the shadows to assume his identity. As Pu Yi becomes more conscious of his surroundings, however, the palette shifts to yellow, which then gives way to green as he acquires knowledge (green props, such as Pu Yi’s bicycle, emphasize this idea).
The visual patterns develop and deepen throughout the film, and the filmmakers’ mastery of color and light is beautifully served by the new transfer on Criterion’s DVD. Presented in Storaro’s preferred aspect ratio of 2.0:1, this remastered edition is both vibrant and subtle, capturing the full tonal range of the film’s imagery. On a second DVD, the Criterion edition includes an extended television version of the film, which runs 218 minutes and is somewhat less sharp than the theatrical cut, presumably due to the increased compression required to fit the movie on one disc. Both versions also have clear, powerful Dolby 2.0 audio mixes.
Furthermore, the four-disc set includes extensive supplements on par with anything Criterion has released to date. The theatrical cut is accompanied by a commentary by Bertolucci, producer Jeremy Thomas, screenwriter Mark Peploe and composer/actor Ryuichi Sakamoto, all of whom recall fascinating incidents and challenges from the shoot. This is only the starting point, however, as the DVD contains two full discs of documentaries that cover the production and release of the film. The 53-minute “The Italian Traveler” is a look at Bertolucci’s journey from Tango and 1900 in Europe, to his aborted Red Harvest adaptation in Los Angeles and finally to his arrival in the East for Emperor. The documentary includes candid interviews with Bertolucci as well as conversations with past collaborators and footage shot throughout this period of the director’s life.
The 51-minute “The Chinese Adventure of Bernardo Bertolucci” (produced concurrently with The Last Emperor itself) provides behind-the-scenes footage of Bertolucci and Storaro working together on set as well as fascinating glimpses of the editing, scoring and marketing processes. An even more penetrating look at Bertolucci’s process can be found in the 66-minute episode of “The South Bank Show,” which includes additional on-set material as well as interviews with actors, extras and crew. A 1989 episode of “The Late Show: Face to Face” features a half-hour interview with Bertolucci in which he discusses his career and influences, with Bertolucci himself contributing an eight-minute video diary of his location scout.
In addition to the previously released documentaries, the Criterion DVD showcases brand new interviews with some of The Last Emperor’s most important contributors. “Making The Last Emperor” is a 45-minute collection of discussions with Storaro, editor Gabriella Cristiani, costume designer James Acheson and art director Gianni Silvestri. It’s as illuminating and informative as one would expect given the stature of the interviewees. The disc also includes a 25-minute interview with composer David Byrne and a 45-minute interview with historian Ian Buruma, who comments on the historical period in which The Last Emperor takes place. The hours of interviews and behind-the-scenes documentation provide a comprehensive examination of the film’s historical, technical and aesthetic issues, and thankfully, The Last Emperor is dense enough to withstand this scrutiny. Cumulatively, the supplements comprise one of the most detailed making-of supplements in the history of DVD releases, and make this a vital addition to any cinephile’s library.