The Last Emperor Blu-ray Review
'The Last Emperor' is presented in widescreen 2.00:1 with MPEG-4 1080p coding. As you may have noticed, this aspect ratio is rather a strange one. This is due to the fact that this transfer was overseen by the movie's cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro. He preferred this aspect ratio over the original 2.35:1 release. This would indicate that this Optimum release uses the same transfer as the Criterion transfer. But as I do not have the latter release to compare to, I cannot confirm this suspicion.
Initially, I have to say that I was not overly impressed with this release. However, on comparison to the included Director's Cut, it is far superior. Every scene contains a lot more detail and the mid-range and long shots demonstrate good depth on occasion. Facial close ups exude some fine detail (such as moles and wrinkles) and the contrast ratio has definitely availed of a noticeable boost (such as the dark black of Reginald's suit). Make up effects and hair pieces are often betrayed by this detail, further bolstering the quality of the transfer. Shadow detail has also been drastically improved, with lots of visible detail in the dark surrounds of night time in the Forbidden City.
The most striking aspect of this release is without doubt the sumptuous colour palette. Every one of the primaries is very bold and very naturalistic, such as the deep royal red of those in the wedding party. The various silken garments, which adorn the emperor and his enormous staff, contain a cacophony of colour which is really quite stunning. The detailed costume design is furhter enhanced by the colour palette, with intricate botanical inclusions as well as dragons and other typical Chinese designs shining through.
Although overall the benefit of the HD upgrade is evident, there are some scenes of horrendously poor quality included (such as one shot of Reginald and another of the Forbidden City being mopped, to name a couple). Thankfully, these are very scarce but when they do appear they are shockingly poor in contrast to others. Some of the darker segments also suffer a little from black crush and there were a few instances of edge enhancement noted in others. Some of the background activity could also appear distinctly soft and poorly defined in comparison with others. The granularity has been tamed somewhat (although it's still heavily present in some scenes) but excessive use of DNR did not appear to be a major problem here.
I debated with the scoring on this release for some time and although this release is most definitely a vast improvement over the DVD release, it just falls short of a seven and therefore will have to settle for a high six.
'The Last Emperor' comes with a LCPM 2.0 48KHz/24bit track.
Right from the opening score, it was clear that this was going to be an impressive stereo track. This is a trend which continues throughout, producing a track that really served to engulf the listener on occasion. Front separation and stereo reproduction are top notch and can really fill the soundstage. There are plenty of ambient effects, such as the twittering of birds or the sound of musicians playing in the courtyards of the Forbidden City. These are perfectly weighted and appear to come from the outer limits of the front listening plane, giving a pseudo-surround effect. The all important vocals, which are a key element in this presentation, are crystal clear and never difficult to follow. Shouts and screams can also be heard clearly as the Forbidden City is overthrown.
The score from the four composers who worked on this movie is magnificent and really suits the piece for the duration. The orchestral based themes soar and swell at various points in the production. Stereo reproduction is pitch perfect and really exposes the score as a superlative symphony.
As the movie progressed, the lack of surround involvement and bass interjection was noted but the overall presentation did not suffer too greatly from their absence. The treble is high and striking and the bass can reach some nice lows at times (although obviously not as rumblalicious sans woofer). As this is how the director intended the movie to be heard, I would most certainly recommend this well engineered audio release as I believe that it is the best that this movie has ever sounded.
While this Optimum release doesn't contain the same amount of extras which are included on the Criterion release, the more meatier ones are present.
The meatiest of them all is the Directors Cut of the movie, which is presented in SD with a Dolby Digital stereo track. This beast weighs in at a whopping three and a half hours. This extended version of the movie was created for television and the director has confirmed that this is not in fact an actual Director's Cut (even though it is listed as such on the BD packaging). I have to admit that I didn't delve into much of this but I was sorely disappointed by the poor picture and audio quality, especially when compared to the high definition feature presentation. It is dark, muddy, ill defined and wracked with noise and other defects. It's a shame that a high definition transfer was not also granted to this version of the movie but its inclusion is without doubt a bonus.
There's also a commentary track featuring Bernardo Bertolucci, producer Jeremy Thomas, screenwriter Mark Peploe, and composer-actor Ryuichi Sakamoto (who composed the music for this movie in conjunction with three other composers). This track is tremendous stuff and adds a wealth of background knowledge to the main feature. Bertolucci expands on the meaning behind his cinematic choices and provides plenty of factoids regarding production values. Every aspect of the movie, from the actors to the score, is comprehensively covered with few moments of inactivity. A highly worthwhile commentary track and well worth a listen.
The Making of the Last Emperor (SD 1hr2mins) - This lengthy documentary takes an in depth look at the making of this epic movie. Featuring tonnes of archive footage and fascinating interviews (with people such as Pu Yi's brother), the biography of Pu Yi, and how his fate was intricately tied to that of the country which he ruled, carefully unfolds. There's plenty of backstage and b-roll footage included, as well as interviews featuring Bertolucci and the cast (including some indigenous Chinese extras). The entire piece is punctuated with scenes from the movie itself and shots of modern China. Well worth a watch.
Postcard from China (SD 7mins) - This featurette takes a look at the country of China and was filmed by Bertolucci (from a tourist's point of view). It provides a very revealing look into the Chinese culture and the beauty of the countryside and cities. There's also an optional commentary track featuring Bertolucci, which really adds to this additional supplement.
Trailer - Included here, for your viewing pleasure, is one SD trailer for the main feature.
'The Last Emperor' was released in 1987 and was directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. The movie is a period biopic, charting the amazing life of the last emperor of China, Pu Yi. His fate was intricately tied to that of the country which he ruled but he was merely a puppet emperor; a figurehead of the dead dynasties and a symbol of Imperial China. No matter how hard he tried, he could not attain the full (and God-like) control which he was led to believe he had (by his many aides) over China; forever a prisoner in his fabulous Forbidden Palace, his life was about to rapidly change with the onset of Chinese revolution and World War II. Picking up a string of accolades (nine in total) at the 1998 Oscars, this movie broke the record for winning all the awards for which it was nominated for and is absolutely epic in every sense of the word. While this is not the most exciting or thrilling movies ever made, it is highly engrossing, fascinating from a historical point of view, and a masterpiece in movie making. Recommended.
The transfer is for the most part solid but there were elements of softness, edge enhancement and other artefacts noted in some of the scenes. There are also a couple of scenes of very poor quality included, which are in complete contrast to some of the sharply defined portions. The uncompressed stereo track does a fine job but will never make it into the demo material category. The extras portion is well fleshed out with some very worthwhile extras, including the Director's Cut of the main feature. This is an adequate package and in my opinion is well worth the upgrade from DVD.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £19.99
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