The Last Emperor

The Criterion Collection
Movie •••• Picture ••••• Sound •••• Extras ••••
In 1987, director and co-writer Bernardo Bertolucci delivered his spectacle-filled adaptation of From Emperor to Citizen: The Autobiography of Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi, charting the life and times of the last Emperor of China. It went on to win nine Oscars and many other awards around the world - so you'd expect that its presentation on DVD would've been something special. Instead, with Artisan's 1999 disc, we were subjected to one of the most disappointing transfers I've ever seen. It was scratched, underexposed, and soft, with smeary colors and every digital artifact and fault you could imagine. And it was accompanied by almost no extras.

Finally, 9 long years later, through the considerable efforts of the Criterion Collection, that offense to film lovers was more than made up for with 2008's extremely handsome four-disc, director-approved DVD set. The transfer for that set was in high definition, downconverted to DVD. Now we have that same transfer in all its high-def glory on a single Blu-ray Disc. The AVC-encoded picture and its digital restoration were supervised by the film's cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro, and the results are gorgeous.

Storaro and Bertolucci's compositions (here reframed, with their approval, from 2.20:1 to 2.00:1) roll out like a series of tapestries, each more stunning than the previous one - all of them vast in scope and filled with thousands of extras clad in the most dazzling costumes. Some moments, as when a stream of hundreds of soldiers flows up a stone staircase, are just astounding. Each scene moves to the next at a brisk pace, with lots of fore- and background action, and every image is teeming with things to look at. The wealth of detail in the antique furnishings and other abundant riches throughout the opulent Forbidden City is quite overwhelming - and consequently, the intercutting between such sequences and the harsh, drab austerity of the re-education center is startling.

Contrast is excellent. Some colors (such as those of the intricately patterned uniforms on the Emperor's guards) look extremely rich, while others (the wide range of khakis and grays in the prison) display a subtle gradation of tones. Peter O'Toole's suits are an inky black, his stretched high-collar shirts a bleached-bright white, and his skin tones perfect. There's no oversaturation, blooming, or bleeding; at the same time, there's enough grain to support the very film-like quality of the picture overall.