Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor won nine Oscars out of nine nominations, sweeping every category except acting (stars John Lone, Peter O'Toole and Joan Chen weren't nominated). It was chosen as one of the year's ten best films by Cahiers du Cinema, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Roger Ebert, Richard Corliss, and even the National Board of Review. Gene Siskel voted it the year's best film, as did Judy Stone of the San Francisco Chronicle. Filmmaker Samuel Fuller chose it as one of his ten favorite films of all time. In 1998, it received a major theatrical re-release, supervised by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, with nearly an hour's worth of footage edited back into the film, bringing the total from 160 to 219 minutes. Yet, it has somehow fallen into the list of hard-to-find films. For years, it has only been available on VHS or import DVDs. Now the Criterion Collection has come along and corrected this oversight by delivering perhaps 2008's most spectacular DVD release so far. (Blu-Ray be damned!)
Criterion's four-disc release includes both cuts, as well as two more discs full of extras. (Many are from 1987 and some were created more recently; the bonus is a series of "video postcards" shot by Bertolucci in China while preparing for the film.) Personally, I like getting to decide which version to watch, rather than having someone else choose the definitive version for me. The 160-minute version is the one that garnered all that praise, but the longer version -- here called the "television version" -- is great, too. The extra scenes don't particularly work to "drive" the movie forward, but they give a richer understanding of Pu Yi and the emptiness of his life.
Pu Yi (magnificently played by John Lone) ascended the throne at the age of 3, and abdicated at the age of 7. He was given a tutor, Reginald Johnston (Peter O'Toole), and was married to the new empress (the wonderful Joan Chen) at 15. He remained in the Forbidden City of China until he was 19, a token symbol of the former China, now under rule by the Republic. He then was seduced by the Japanese to become ruler of Japan-occupied Manchuria, again to be nothing more than a puppet emperor. As that position crumbled, he was imprisoned for 10 years, and "reeducated" to become a Chinese Communist. He lived out his last years as a gardener.
Bertolucci was the first Westerner allowed to film in the Forbidden City, and he took marvelous advantage of it. He fills each frame with a full representation of what the space is like. The colors are brilliantly used: grays for the present day, as Pu Yi is telling his story in prison, and golds for the glorious past, when Pu Yi actually ruled as a child. John Lone, who was not exactly a household name, carries the entire film, even though the passivity of his character prevents him from giving a blow-out performance. He has a striking face, and he ages from 18 to 62 during the course of the movie. (The age make-up does not draw attention to itself as in many other movie epics.)
Still, for all this remarkable beauty, Bertolucci doesn't quite capture the mad poetry of the situation. This film seemed to have been a personal turning point for him. Before The Last Emperor came the dazzlingly inventive, daring films The Conformist (1970), The Spider's Stratagem (1970) and Last Tango in Paris (1972). But after it came the much tamer, prettier films Little Buddha (1994), Stealing Beauty (1996) and The Dreamers (2003). A decade before The Last Emperor, Bertolucci attempted another king-sized epic, a five-hour drama called 1900 (1976). I haven't seen it, but I suspect that its massive, insane production (Pauline Kael called it a "folly") made Bertolucci want to slow down and proceed more carefully in his career.
As a result, The Last Emperor is a great film, but not particularly a beloved film. It's not the type of film that inspires multiple viewings, or makes you want to rush out and tell your friends about it. It's more like a requirement than a pleasure, and I suspect that this is the reason the DVD took so long to make its way into the marketplace. Regardless, I greatly admire The Last Emperor, and I wouldn't take away any of its accolades or glory. It's a great deal smarter, more serene and more graceful than many of the so-called epics of recent years (Braveheart, The English Patient, Titanic, Gladiator, The Last Samurai, Troy, Alexander, 300, etc.). Because of this it has aged very well; it looked great when I saw it at a screening in 1998, and it still looks great today.