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Last Emperor, The/A,C-

Artisan/1987/218m/WS 2.35/$29.95

     For the first time The Last Emperor is presented in its extended version for domestic release. With fifty-nine minutes of additional footage, this longer version actually plays shorter. The elegance of the pace is maintained and there is no confusion in the cutting from present to past and back again. Director Bertolucci’s methodical biography of the last emperor of China, Pu Yi, is also a history of China during the period of transition from Imperial rule to the chaos of founding the Republic to the eventual Communist victory. Bertolucci's spectacular depiction of the life and times of Pun Yi in The Last Emperor must rank with the best efforts of shooting a movie on location. In this film Bertolucci gained access behind the walls of Peking's ancient "Forbidden City" to relate the story of change in China.
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Amazing prodution design dominates The Last Emperor ŠArtisan

     From the amazing spectacle of the coronation of Pu Yi to his youthful reign on the Peacock Throne, the scenes within the walls of the Forbidden City are breathtaking. Bit by bit Bertolucci builds a picture of what drove Pu Yi to accept puppet Manchurian rule under the Japanese. The overpowering sadness of Pu Yi’s existence belies the incredible luxury that surrounds him. The Forbidden City, infested by the centuries old corruption of the eunuchs, breeds a streak of depravity into the young emperor that taints everything he touches as he comes to manhood. As the Old World crumbles around the young man, the awareness of the mission in life that he will never fulfill is a torture that he must endure. Virtually a prisoner in The Forbidden City, he is even prevented from going to the funeral of his mother.
     There are really three or four stories that weave together to make up The Last Emperor. The free-flowing Bertolucci moves between the years of Communist captivity and indoctrination to the early years of a boy finding himself. The imprisoned Pu Yi remembers the years leading up to his betrayal of the Chinese people and the Japanese occupation. The modern and Western aspects of these years of mature decadence are elegantly contrasted with the cold hard existence of Communist prison. The years under the tutelage of Englishman Reginald Johnston are recalled with a fondness for the sophistication that was awakened in the young man.
     John Lone is well cast as Emperor Pu Yi. Lone plays decadent and imperious very well, yet captures a sense of tragedy about his character. Joan Chen plays Pu Yi’s wife Wan Chan with amazing style. The fragile Chen decays like a beautiful flower left too long in the vase. Peter O’Toole plays Reginald Johnston with a wide-eyed stiffness that works well, yet the performance fails to make Johnston come to life.
     The Last Emperor is produced with startling power. Production design is nothing short of spectacular. The settings provide a magnificent opportunity for Ferdinando Scarfiotti and Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography is regal. The original music by David Byrne, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Cong Su marries perfectly with the magnificence of the imagery.
     The DVD appears to have been struck from a composite transfer. The Forbidden City is "Artifact City." The many straight edges and details are jumping all over the place. Some scenes are slightly soft, but the overpowering element of this DVD is shimmering, moiré and incessant edge jitter. My review system includes a six-foot by eleven-foot screen. Large screens emphasize some visual problems more than others. Viewing on a smaller monitor may reduce the artifact impact to a degree. The varied lighting schemes of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro are maintained faithfully. The muddy blue/green tones of the Communist confinement period are cold and flat, while the early moments of Pu Yi’s introduction to the Forbidden City are bathed in a magic light of reds and oranges. The Last Emperor is magnificent entertainment tarnished by a less than acceptable transfer.