Criterion 'Emperor' strikes back

4-disc set includes theatrical cut, longer TV version

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 final emperor, which swept the Oscars the next year, picking up nine awards, including best picture and director.

As part of their original deal, the filmmakers were required to deliver a four-hour TV version, which turned out to be four episodes with a total running 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 that got Bertolucci's blessing.

The prestigious Criterion Collection on Feb. 26 will release "The Last Emperor" 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 with 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," Criterion president Peter Becker said. "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 release includes all-new, restored, high-definition transfers of both versions of the film in addition to the wealth of bonus materials for which Criterion releases are known.

Among the extras are an audio commentary by Bertolucci, producer Jeremy Thomas, composer Ryuichi Sakamoto and screenwriter Mark Peploe; new interviews with composers Sakamoto and David Byrne; and the featurette "Postcards From China," consisting of video images taken by Bertolucci during preproduction.

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 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.' "