With 59 minutes added to the original release version’s 160-minute running time, the director’s cut of Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor” surprises mainly in showing how little difference an hour can make. There are only a small number of minor scenes shown for the first time here, the kind that some viewers might well imagine they had seen before. Most of what’s inserted simply extends shots and scenes present in the 1987 original. Given that this simply adds length, rather than revealing unexpected material or meanings, the result will mainly interest fans up for a more leisurely tour of a justly renowned masterpiece. Long version has been available for some time on Japanese laserdisc.
The film’s initial impact owed a lot to the fact that China and its Forbidden City had been unseen by the world for decades when Bertolucci, not unlike Marco Polo six centuries before, made his trailblazing cinematic incursion. In the wake of his startling inaugural views, the West got to see China’s own take on similar subjects in Zhang Yimou’s “Raise the Red Lantern” and other films that in some ways superseded Bertolucci’s breakthrough while also implicitly paying tribute to its importance.
Therefore, “The Last Emperor” inevitably doesn’t retain the startling, revelatory force of its first appearance, yet its ornate grandeur is preserved, and even given some minor enhancement, by this expanded presentation.
In chronicling the life of China’s last monarch, Pu Yi, from an imperial birth through a history-tossed midlife till an old age spent as an average citizen under communism, pic still fascinates with its articulate visual splendor and vast narrative architecture. New in the early sections are brief scenes involving the choosing and installation of the infant emperor’s wet nurse, and, in the later stretches, certain passages depicting his time in prison and relationship there with his footman, Big Li. The prison scenes contribute a bit to an understanding of Pu Yi’s transformation from autocrat to ordinary man.
As before, the film is most captivating in its first hour, when the experiences of childhood and the beauty of life in the Forbidden City make for an intoxicating, dreamlike display. The latter sections, in contrast, can seem a bit too staccato and expository, qualities that, if anything, are exacerbated by the new version’s added length.
Still, the film’s longer scenes provide a welcome occasion to marvel again at the distinctive lyrical beauty conjured by Bertolucci and his collaborators, especially the luxuriant, expressive color schemes and virtuoso camerawork of wizardly cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. Easily one of the most intelligent and genuinely artistic historical epics in cinema history, pic remains extremely impressive on every technical level, leaving little doubt why it captured nine Oscars, including best picture.