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'Last Emperor' Crowned With Longer Cut

31 Jan, 2008 By: Thomas K. Arnold

Director's cuts of films, which generally are made available as premium DVDs, typically are presented as the last word in a film's life cycle. They're the archival editions, the longer, beefier cuts that present the director's true artistic vision, rather than the shorter theatrical cuts.

Not so with The Last Emperor, Bernardo Bertolucci's 1987 epic about China's last emperor that swept the Oscars the following year, picking up nine awards, including best picture and best director.

As part of their original deal, filmmakers were required to deliver a four-hour TV version, which turned out to be four episodes with a total run time of 218 minutes. Only after this version was in the can did Bertolucci and editor Gabriella Cristiani go back and shave nearly an hour of footage to come up with the 165-minute theatrical cut, which is the one to which Bertolucci gave his blessing.

The prestigious Criterion Collection Feb. 26 will release The Last Emperor on DVD as a special four-disc “director approved” edition.

The release will include both versions of the landmark film, with the longer initial cut billed as the “television version,” in contrast to previous home video releases, in which the TV version was improperly presented as the director's cut.

“The fact that the film that has been seen all along is what Bertolucci considers his director's cut proves that now and then it is possible for everything to fall in line and for a film to make it to the screen as perfect as could be hoped for,” said Criterion president Peter Becker. “The longer television version included in the set, which has over the years mistakenly been marketed as the ‘director's cut,' is fascinating in its own right, but we are pleased that any mystery surrounding the film and the ‘director's cut' has been solved with this release.”

The four-disc Criterion Collection release includes all new, restored high-definition transfers of both versions of the film, in addition to the obligatory wealth of bonus materials for which Criterion Collection releases are known.

Among the extras are an audio commentary by director Bertolucci, producer Jeremy Thomas, composer Ryuichi Sakamoto and screenwriter Mark Peploe; new video interviews with composers Sakamoto and David Byrne; and a featurette called “Postcards from China,” consisting of video images taken by Bertolucci while on preproduction.

The Criterion Collection release also includes a new making-of documentary; “The Late Show: Face to Face,” a 30-minute BBC interview with Bertolucci from 1989; and “The Italian Traveler,” a documentary from Fernand Mozskowicz that explores Bertolucci's journey from Parma to China.

Also included is a booklet featuring essays by David Thomson and excerpts from script supervisor Fabien Gerard's production journals.

In a posting on a Criterion blog, the set's producer, Kim Hendrickson, recounts his surprise at learning from cinematographer Vittorio Storaro that director Bertolucci's “final cut” wasn't the longer version of the film, but rather “the one we all knew from seeing it screened in theaters in 1987 — the 165-minute version.”

To make doubly sure, Hendrickson wrote, he contacted Bertolucci himself, “and he confirmed the above with the following response, which I cherish: ‘I would be very pleased to present the theatrical version for “The Last Emperor,” but I'm perplexed on presenting the [so-called] director's cut because I wouldn't know what else to say about a version that in my opinion is not much different from the other one, just a little bit more boring, as very often the director's cut can be. That's my sincere feeling.’

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