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4K UHD Review: Arrow Video’s The Last Emperor (Collector’s Edition)

Lush, stunningly beautiful, and sad, Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, rereleased by Arrow Video in limited edition on 4K UHD Blu-ray, is everything you remember it to be.

Sumptuous may be an overused word when describing Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1987 multi-Academy Award-winning The Last Emperor, but it is a very accurate description of this unique story of the monarch whose abdication effectively ended 2,000 years of continuous imperial rule in China.

Jumping backwards and forwards through the decades, The Last Emperor tells the story of Pu Yi (played at various ages by Richard Vuu, Tijger Tsou, Tao Wu and as an adult by John Lone), who became Emperor of China at the age of 3. Cocooned within the Forbidden City, and lacking behavioural boundaries (because no one may tell the emperor what to do), Pu Yi grows up into an arrogant and often abusive young man, while outside the walls which imprison him, China has become a republic. Once expelled from the palace, he eventually finds himself in a different kind of prison, as Chairman Mao Zedong begins to formulate his Great Leap Forward.

The film, and particularly the sections relating Pu Yi’s early years, is as absolutely beautiful as one remembers or expects. Bertolucci and his team, including Director of Photography Vittorio Storaro, were the first group of western filmmakers to be granted permission to film inside Beijing’s Forbidden City, and so the basic stage is expansive and authentic. It is enhanced with gorgeous costumes from James Acheson and lavishly opulent set design in rich reds and golds which reinforce the uniqueness of the new emperor’s position and the entirely different world which he inhabits. In later sections, stripped of his power, the colours become more muted and grey as Pu Yi fades into the proletariat and becomes an ordinary citizen. The scale of the scenes in the Forbidden City is breath-taking and the awards richly merited.

John Lone does a wonderful job of playing the deposed emperor throughout his adult years, from exiled ruler through playboy puppet to reformed citizen, and Joan Chen as his wife and former empress Wan Jung is equally talented, and Peter O’Toole plays the British teacher to perfection.

Looking back at The Last Emperor 35 years on from its original release and success however, dare I ask the question? How different or more impactful would the film have been if it were filmed in Chinese rather than English? The obvious answer lies with finances. A film in Chinese based on these, the emperor’s own memoirs, would have more authenticity for sure, but would not have brought in the financial backing required to make the film possible in the first place. And it’s also possible that The Last Emperor falls into the trap of style over substance too; cramming six decades of a complex life and national history into 2 hours and 45 minutes barely scratches the surface of the characters themselves, and even the extended version (recut as a TV mini-series but not a director’s cut) does not have enough time to do justice to the scope of the story.

And so before this turns into a commentary on a film that could have been instead of the one which actually exists, I’ll end by saying that The Last Emperor is absolutely worth revisiting in its own right, and the extras on the Arrow discs are informative companions to Bertolucci’s award magnet.

The Arrow Video 4K Ultra HD Bly-ray limited edition contains:

• New 4K restoration of the original theatrical version

• Original and extended versions of the film presented in their original aspect ratio of 2.39:1

• Original uncompressed stereo 2.0 audio, plus 5.1 audio option for theatrical version

• Reversible sleeve featuring two artwork options

• Eight double-sided postcard sized lobby card reproduction artcards

• Fold-out double-sided poster featuring two artwork options

• Illustrated collectors book featuring new writing by film critics Kat Ellinger and Philip Kemp, plus select archival material

Disc 1 – Theatrical version (4K Ultra HD Blu-ray)

• 4K (2160p) Ultra HD Blu-rayTM presentation in Dolby Vision (HDR10 compatible) 

• Original uncompressed stereo 2.0 and 5.1 audio options

• Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing

• First to Last: The Road to the Forbidden City, a new visual essay by film critic David Cairns exploring Bernardo Bertolucci’s career prior to The Last Emperor

• Open the Door, a new visual essay by film critics David Cairns & Fiona Watson in which they follow Bertolucci into the Forbidden City to explore in-depth The Last Emperor and the truth on which it is based

• Archive interview with director Bernardo Bertolucci 

• Archive interview with star John Lone

• Archive interview with star Joan Chen

• Postcard from China, video footage shot by Bernardo Bertolucci while location scouting in China

• Theatrical trailer

• Image gallery

Disc 2 – Extended version (Blu-ray)

• High Definition (1080p) Blu-ray presentation 

• Original uncompressed stereo 2.0 audio

• Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing


The Last Emperor is available from Arrow Video on Limited Edition Blu-ray and 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray from 13th February 2023.

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