Sunday 28 May 2023

AT THE SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL - Adrienne McKibbins recommends the mini-retrospective of the biggest star of all time - AMITABH BACHCHAN

Amitahb Bachchan

“I am as common as the common man and as special as him too” -- Amitabh Bachchan 

How is it possible to sum up Amitabh Bachchan? arguably the most recognised and important figure in Hindi cinema Amitabh Bachchan. Bachchan is an actor, film producer, television host, and briefly a politician. His career has lasted over five decades. During that time, Bachchan has appeared in over 200 films. An icon of the Hindi film industry, he has worked with virtually every major director, and important female star, and has more books and articles written about him than any other figure in Indian cinema.

At 80 years of age, he has three films in progress for 2023-2024.

It is actually impossible to underestimate his significance to world cinema. In 1999 a BBC online poll voted Bachchan the all-time greatest star of stage or screen, winning by a substantial margin over Sir Laurence Olivier in second place, followed by Sir Alec Guinness in third. 

Deewaar (The Wall,1975

Despite his world-wide fame, his versatility as an actor, and superb spoken English, he has not ventured beyond Indian cinema to the global mainstream, (despite numerous offers) except for a small role in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby.

Of course, in a career of such longevity there have been upheavals, controversies, digressions and flops.  

Bachchan, has reinvented his persona a number of times to suit the changing trends and styles of filmmaking. He has taken a tilt at politics as well as a successful stab at being a TV host via Kaun Banega Crorepati (the Hindi version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire), which saw him acquire the following of a new and younger audience.

Kaala Patthar (Black Stone, 1979)

Bachchan’s screen career started 
in 1969 as a voice narrator in Mrinal Sen's film Bhuvan Shome. Utilising his impressively deep and wide baritone vocal range, he has narrated many films, including Satyajit Ray's 1977 film Shatranj Ke Khiladiand Gowariker’s 2001 Oscar nominated film Lagaan . 

As an on-screen presence Bachchan popularity soared in the early seventies with a series of films that earned him the designation of ‘Indian cinema’s “angry young man”. His fast rise to fame from 1972 to 1974 catapulted him to the heights of superstardom having made 44 feature films between 1969 and 1976, his impact being measured by the fact that at any time during his period at least four films of his films were playing simultaneously in Indian cinemas,

In 1992 Bachchan took an extended break from the Hindi film industry and did not appear on screen for five years. The nineties were a difficult time for him with failed business ventures and paucity of successful films.

Amar Akbar Anthony (1977)

In 2000 he returned to the screen starring with Shah Rukh Khan in Mohabbetien produced by Yash Chopra and directed by the producer’s son Aditya Chopra. Mohabbetien was a huge triumph, both critically and importantly, commercially.  This ushered in a new period of success for the actor, as he adopted a new, more paternalistic persona that returned him to prominence.

Although you could not call four films a comprehnsive retrospective — it’s a drop in the ocean — the films selected for screening at this year’s Sydney Film Festival all represent Bachchan at the height of his popularity. Deewaar (The Wall,1975) and Kaala Patthar (Black Stone, 1979) are by his favourite director Yash Chopra and were scripted by Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar, the writers who invented and shaped Bachchan’s “angry young man persona” from the nineteen seventies.

Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), a Hindi classic that paired Bachchan with two other big stars of the seventies, Rishi Kapoor, and Vinod Khanna, demonstrated Bachchan’s impeccable comic timing, a talent that was probably not exploited enough during his long career. Then there is the iconic Don (1978), nowadays considered a cult classic in which Bachchan plays a double role, a familiar narrative device in Hindi cinema.

Also written by Khan and Akhtar, Don is such an iconic film that it has been remade in various languages, including Tamil, Telegu, and Punjabi. The most famous version is the 2006 Don made by Javed Akhter’s son Farhan Akhtar (actor/producer/director).  The script was adapted and updated by Farhan and Javed Akhtar, and the lead (double) role was played by Shah Rukh Khan and inspired a successful sequel. 

Don (1978)

This snapshot mini-season of Bachchan gems offers a look at the superstar in sone of his finest early roles. These films should encourage those not so familiar with his work to further explore (and appreciate) a phenomenal Indian icon’s filmic oeuvre

For more information about venues session times and bookings CLICK HERE FOR THE SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL BACHCHAN PAGE

Monday 22 May 2023

On Blu-ray - David Hare welcomes "no more important or more beautiful film" - SANS LENDEMAIN (Max Ophuls, France, 1939)

Screens from Kino Lorber's new Blu Ray of Ophuls' 1939 Sans Lendemain, now with subs, and a terrific, exhaustive commentary by Adrian Martin.

The screens below are so constantly in part or full shadow from the great DP Eugen Schufftan of Edwige Feuillere and Georges Rigaud, the last shot (still below) a frame from the 1926 silent Casanova. starring Ivan Mosjoukine, directed by Alexandre Volkoff .

The leads watch that movie in the last of two substantial flashbacks which "narrate" their earlier life, although the life Babs/Eveline/Edwige (below) is depicting in the present (1939) indeed a second life is again a fabrication that leads to tragedy.

One of the greatest Ophuls pictures, now finally in a retail Anglophone edition. Adrian's commentary is a rare pleasure in these days of video essays and non commentary-tracked editions.
Georges Rigaud

Adrian covers a number of views of Ophuls and this movie in particular from Tag Gallagher and Robin Wood. The movie can certainly be read, as can Lola Montes and La Signora di Tutti as a picture in which show business itself is a means of representing life, in which impersonation, power, and submission are seemingly dovetailed within a fatalistic, late Romantic era, and emotionalism. The difference with Ophuls' treatment of this material is through his mise-en-scene in which form and style are constantly undercutting and amplifying both narrative and emotion, in a direction which is inextricably linked to time, and the fatality, as Tag often puts it, of romantic passion and its power to destroy (Letter from an Unknown Woman).

This Kino Lorber disc feels almost like a throwaway in this current year of Blu-ray deluges from Warner Archive and even Kino Lorber itself. But no more important or more beautiful film will get a disc release this year.

Editor's Note: Sans Lendemain screened on the opening evening of the very first Cinema Reborn way back in 2018. David Hare wrote the program notes and introduced the film at that first screening. You can read his program notes IF YOU CLICK HERE 

A collection of David's earlier pieces published on the Film Alert 101 blog is available to read or download IF YOU CLICK HERE

Sunday 21 May 2023

Sixty Years of International Art Cinema: 1960-2020 - Continuing Bruce Hodsdon's series - 6 (13) France Part 5 Godard with Gorin, Miéville : Searching for an activist voice

Anne Wiazemsky, Jean-Pierre Leaud, La Chinoise


The sociological interest to be found in earlier Godard films such as Vivre sa vie and Une Femme Mariée (1964), in Masculin-Féminin “becomes the voice of revolutionary politics through the voice of  the political activist” ( Wood 221 ed. Lyon). The activist becomes dominant following the suicide of the other young male protagonist (played by Leaud) who had been seeking fulfilment through personal relationships. Eventually, in each of the Dziga Vertov Group films, the voice of revolutionary politics becomes the film's own voice. 

La Chinoise (1967) was commonly perceived, on its release, as a caricature, not a representation of  an ultra - left Maoist group, at times ironically infantile in the dangerous excess of their plans to use the terrorism of the Chinese cultural revolution to create similar upheaval in the West. Such perception ignores Godard's dominant refrain for La Chinoise that “art is not the reflection of reality but the reality of the reflection.” 

James MacBean warns that, given “Godard's taste for contradiction” and “ability to achieve a dynamic balance amid seeming oppositions,” it is a mistake to reduce La Chinoise to a single category such as “hilarious spoof, or dead-serious militance, insouciance or hard-line propaganda, aesthetic dilettantism or didactic non-art” (21). By Weekend (1968) the take on capitalism is angry, as MacBean puts it, “pushing the cinema of spectacle to the limit” as “civilisation devours itself,” the final image announcing “the end of cinema.” 

With La Chinoise and Weekend Godard was still engaged in making films for commercial screening. After May 68 this all changed as he “turned his back on the bourgeois audience,” instead making films on 16mm for television and militant audiences. 

Juliet Berto, Jean-Pierre Leaud, Le Gai Savoir

Le Gai Savoir (1969)

Geoffrey Nowell-Smith sees the legacy in Godard's work in this turbulent period, 1968-71, as basically to be found in two films. One is Le Gai Savoir/The Joy of Learning (1969), commissioned by French TV – but never televised, seen only by political groups and film societies.

Godard's first break with the established means of film distribution and exhibition via the deconstruction of narrative, seeks a return to cinema’s ‘degree zero’. This he does in Le Gai Savoir  making demands on the viewer by stripping away the conventions in the relations between image and sound described by Nowell-Smith as “intellectually ferocious” which “thirty years later continues to amaze” (ibid 195). Tony Rayns in ‘Time Out’ saw it as “a confused, idiosyncratic attempt at an analysis of the way things are, not yet a committed attempt to construct the way they should be.”

This first film marking Godard’s radical break from fictional concerns is ostensibly an adaptation of Rousseau's Emile, a classic of education theory, in its original form a fictional account of how a child is educated by being allowed to develop her own interests and thoughts rather than having to follow a rigid pre-ordained pattern. 

Two students, Emile Rousseau (Jean-Pierre Léaud) and Patricia Lumumba (Juliette Berto) undertake a three-stage ('three year') course of study filmed with a single light source in the otherwise black void of an abandoned television studio. First by collecting collages of pre-existing words and images then criticising them before finally constructing models to discuss the relations between image and sound, ideology and politics, for it is frequently this combination that is most powerful in communicating ideology. Godard is obliged to question the role of cinema in this dialogue, issuing a manifesto in which he demands that directors worldwide create films that challenge and provoke. 

Gian-Maria  Volonte (r), Wind from the East

Counter cinema and after : Wind from the East (1970) , Tout va bien (1972)

The other film in which Nowell-Smith finds the legacy of Godard's work in the Dziga-Vertov period is Vent d'est/ Wind from the East (1970), one of seven completed films ranging from 50 mins to feature length, beginning with Un film comme les autres/A Film Like All the Others (1968) and ending with Vladimir et Rosa (1971). Five of these, including Vent d’est , were directed in name by the Dziga-Vertov Group (DVG) but in practice, for the most part, by Godard in collaboration with Jean-Pierre Gorin, an informed and engaged cinephile and Maoist, although more fellow traveller than activist. Godard insisted that auteurism be subsumed by the socialist collective. The expectation for the DVG films was as forerunners of a counter-cinema, “an open-ended polyphonic form,” as proposed in a seminal essay in 'After Image' by film theorist   Peter Wollen, taking up the post-May 68 political opportunity among a large section of the French population and elsewhere in Europe thought to be open to revolutionary ideas. 

Although funded for, and mostly by, television the group's political initiatives were ultimately all rejected for screening on TV. Instead of seeking open-ended communication with a TV audience, a 'deconstructive western', Wind from the East starring Gian Maria Volonte, was held up by Wollen as an example of counter-cinema, of 'making films politically'. It was originally to be made with student radical Daniel Cohn-Bendit who dropped out early to be replaced, problematically as it turned out, by Brazilian filmmaker Glauber Rocha. Not unlike the role of citation in the first phase of Godard's work, ambition for integration with genre here in the service of revolutionary ideas remains unrealised - the overall 'closed off' effect is “oppressive” (Morrey 95). Such critiques amplified by the negative reactions of audiences at Cannes and the New York Film Festival highlighted the contradiction at the heart of making “political films politically” or specifically, in this case Godard's stated intent of showing the way to “destroying (bourgeois) cinema” which brought him into conflict with Glauber Rocha.

Godard acknowledged Gorin's work in a crisis in bringing a new philosophical rigour to the film's structuring. If the negative reception by 'bourgeois' audiences might be taken as an indication of Wind  hitting its political target, at the same time it severely limited scope for its wider circulation. For further discussion of these issues see James MacBean's essay - "Godard and Rocha at the Crossroads" - in 'Film and Revolution' op cit., also Richard Brody 347-8)

Robin Wood commented that “the assumption behind the DVG films was clearly that the revolutionary impetus of May 68 would not be sustained and it had not been easy for Godard to adjust to its collapse”    (Lyon ed. 221). After he had sufficiently recovered from near fatal injuries sustained in a mid-1971 motorcycle accident, he and Gorin took stock. It was decided to attempt a return to commercial cinema without abandoning the aesthetic and political principles of the preceding years. Godard's problem remained foregrounded: how does a political radical make a film within the capitalist system? For Phillip Drummond (see his opening quote in 6(11)  summarising Godard's work), the DVG films are too often “raw, inchoate and struggling to convince.” 

Yves Montand (centre), Jane Fonda (right) Tout Va Bien

In Tout va bien/All's Well (1972),  Yves Montand is a former New Wave film director radicalised by May 68 and Jane Fonda an American radio broadcaster doing political commentary, a media couple who become involved in a workers' factory occupation. The couple begin to see how they too are systematically alienated and exploited in their work situations. The DVG was replaced by Godard and Gorin in the credits. The heavy use of rhetorical Marxist-Leninist commentary by Godard and Gorin in much of their other work together is abandoned, “the tyranny of words” giving way to what MacBean refers to as “a materialist mise-en-scène solidly rooted in things” (178).  Complex use is made of Montand  and Fonda in a dialectic of star personalities/fictional characters to explore the relationship of intellectuals to the class struggle, in what Wood called the “most authentically Brechtian of Godard's films to date” (ibid 222). 

Godard, and Anne-Marie Miéville


Anne-Marie Miéville nursed Godard through more than two years of intermittent hospital treatment following his accident. For the first time he found himself involved with a woman who as a stills photographer, director and screenwriter “was on the same side of the camera as himself.” 

“For her he was simply Jean-Luc. She relentlessly criticised the assumptions of the Maoist revolutionary discourse and argued that it had continuously ignored the reality of daily life in France. The answer to the inadequacies of commercial cinema was to be found in the analysis of how the image functioned in daily life, not in didactic revolutionary films.”  (MacCabe) There is a certain irony here given an original platform in Godard's cinema is the politics of everyday life.

Godard and Miéville set up a small studio 'Sonimage' in Paris but soon moved to Grenoble in 1974 and subsequently to Rolle. They used footage from an unfinished DVG film on the Palestinian issue edited into the little-seen Ici et ailleurs/Here and Elsewhere (1974) as “a classic feminist work” to dramatise the debates that informed Godard and Miéville's Numero Deux (1975) in which film and video are combined to examine sex and politics in the home. “The argument, however, is not based on a simple moralism but an analysis which links global political relationships to our familial conflicts” the images as the mediating term: “we cannot understand the ‘elsewhere’ of Palestine because we do not understand the ‘here’ in France” (McCabe (245). Further collaborative work followed on two series for French television constituting a whole new use of the small screen.

Isabelle Huppert, Jacques Dutronc, Sauve qui peut (la vie)

In 1979 Miéville urged Godard to return to cinema and to use what they had learned from their experiments. The result, Sauve qui peut (la vie)/Every Man for Himself (1980) co-scripted by Miéville with Jean-Claude Carriére, was shot with a tiny crew and was more frankly autobiographical than Godard's earlier features  (Colin MacCabe in “Jean-Luc Godard a life in Seven Episodes (to date)” in Son + Image 1992.                                                                                                                  

At the time of completing “Godard and Narrative” in 'Narration in the Fiction Film' following Godard's return to cinema, Bordwell had seen only Sauve qui peut (la vie) (1979) and Passion (1981), in both of which there appears to be “a retreat from radicalism.” Bordwell found them “almost completely assimilable to art cinema's narrational mode” with a fairly straightforward use of art-film schemata, protagonists revealing reasonably consistent character traits and a quiet use of disjunction never posing the “glaring problems” of his early films by opening up to scrutiny stylistic work no less experimental than in the years 1968-72 (334). 

Myriem Roussel, Hail Mary

The above two films are closely linked with Prénom Carmen (1983) and Je vous salue Marie/ Hail  Mary (84). Their fictional worlds are interchangeable and characters overlapping, suggesting ambiguously that “a new beginning” might still be on track with the innovative use  of images and music from the preceding two films forming the so-called 'cosmic' period (Morrey 132). Adrian Martin finds “a more expansive, lyrical, poetic Godard - if still iconoclastic and cheeky, but now interested in classical art, classical music, religion and the great myths (review of Helas pour moi, Film Critic 1995).”  


Morrey sees these films almost splitting Godard's career in half with “the development of an approach to narrative, character, dialogue and shot composition that will characterise all of his major features through the 80s and 90s up to and including Éloge de l'amour (2001).” Despite the stylistic rupture Godard's interest continues in the recurring theme of the pairing of love and work, a preoccupation noted in Masculin féminim that is irrevocably separated in our societies by the capitalist division of work and leisure (ibid 133).


After the first four films of his return to cinema, Godard’s succeeding work, perhaps with the exception of Nouvelle Vague (1990)seemed to be suggesting a 'forever unreeling Godard,' his films increasingly perceived as 'inscrutable and hermetic'. In his video work, Histoire(s) du cinema ,10 years in the making of cinema's epitaph, the deeper concern with history and its relationship with collective and individual memory is apparent. A more than complete recovery of critical consensus or, one might say, vindication if any was needed, came with what are Godard's testimonials on cinema and politics: Goodbye to Language (2014) and The Image Book (2018).


Goodbye to Language is a visually revelatory experience in revivified 3D with an opaque plot. The opacity is a defensible challenge in which David Bordwell, for one, locates a theme : “the idea that language alienates us from some primordial connections to things” (see Wikipedia entry).  This seemingly carries an echo in Alexander Kluge's not well-known (at least in the anglo-sphere) theorising and work with film collage in the New German cinema  - see forthcoming part 6 (17) of this series. 


Godard made more than 100 films including 30 fiction features (15 between 1959-67) and 4 feature length essays for cinema exhibition. From 1976-8 Godard and Miéville made 15 hours of television in two series: Six fois/Suret sous la communication (1976) 6 programs of 100 mins, each in 2 segments - “an end point of the earlier essayist tendency in his films.” France tour détour deux enfants (1978) 12 programs each 26 mins “more of an announcement of what is to come in the early 80s - more philosophical and poetic”.            


In the 2012 'Sight & Sound' Ten year World Poll Godard was rated second top director by the critics with 238 votes after Hitchcock (318) and just above Welles (231), then Ozu (189) and Renoir (179). Godard (with Hitchcock and Bergman) is one of only three directors with 4 in the top 100.

Godard (r) shooting Breathless (1959)


The results of 2012 and 2022 polls are respectively juxtaposed in this summary. Breathless (13/38), Le Mépris (21/54), Pierrot le fou (42/84), and Histoire(s) du Cinéma (48/84). 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (106), Vivre sa vie /My Lfe to Live  (152) are also in the top 250. 


Godard and Cinema 


New Wave 15 features 1959-67:  Breathless to Weekend   Dziga-Vertov Group (Gorin): Vent d’ Est/Wind from the East (69) Tout va bien (72)  Letter to Jane (72)   Sonimage (Miéville) : Numero deux (75)   'Second New Wave' : Sauve qui peut (la vie)/Every Man for Himself/SlowMotion (80)  Passion (81) JLG Films Prénom Carmen (82)  Je vous salue Marie/Hail Mary (83)  Détective (84)   Soigne ta droite/Keep Your Right Up (87)  King Lear (87)  Nouvelle Vague (90)  Allemagne 90 neuf zero/ Germany Year 90 Nine Zero (91)   Hélas pour moi (93)   For Ever Mozart (96)   Éloge de l'amour/ In Praise of Love (01)  Feature length essays:  Notre Musique  (04)  Film Socialisme (10)  Adieu au langage/ Goodbye to Language (14)  Le livre de image/The Image Book (18)   Select other: Le Gai Savoir/The Joy of Learning (68)  Ici et ailleurs/ Here and Elsewhere (76) Scenario du film Passion (82) Histoire(s) du Cinéma (88-98) The Old Place (98) 


Douglas Morrey Jean-Luc Godard  French Film Directors Series  Manchester University Press 2005                        

James Roy MacBean  Film and Revolution   Indiana University Press  1975                                                                          

Richard Brody  Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard  2008                                                              

Colin MacCabe  Godard:A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy 2004 

Pam Cook “The French New Wave” pp. 253-5; “Authorship:Counter-Cinema” pp. 305-8  Cook & Bernink eds.                     

Peter Wollen  “JLG” essay in Paris Hollywood : Writings on Film  2002;  “Godard and Counter Cinema: Vent d'Est” essay Readings and Writings Verso 1982  first published in Afterimage 4 Autumn 1972                                                                                                                                                                                                                            

Raymond Bellour & Mary Lea Bandy  Jean-Luc Godard Son + Image 1974-1991  MOMA 1992                                           

Robin Wood “Jean-Luc Godard” International Dictionary Directors Ed. Christopher Lyon 1984                                      

Michael Witt  “The Death(s) of Cinema According to Godard” Screen 40/3 Autumn 1999      

David Bordwell  “Godard and Narration”  Narration in the Fiction Film  1985                                                         

V.F.Perkins  “Vivre sa vie” review in The Films of Jean-Luc Godard” Movie Paperback 1969                      

Adrian Martin  “Beyond the Fragments of Cinephilia” in Cinephilia in the Age of Digital Reproduction 2009

Susan Sontag  “Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie” essay in Moviegoer republished in Against Interpretation 1967    

Jean Collet  Jean-Luc Godard  An investigation into his films and philosophy  English edition 1970                     

Martin Rubin  entry on Vivre sa vie in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die  2003 edition                              

Craig Keller  Jean-Luc Godard  Great Directors  Senses of Cinema  2003

Previous entries in this series can be found if you click the following links

Sixty Years of International Art Cinema: 1960-2020 - Tables and Directors Lists to Accompany Bruce Hodsdon's Series

Notes on canons, methods, national cinemas and more

Part One - Introduction

Part Two - Defining Art Cinema

Part Three - From Classicism to Modernism

Part Four - Authorship and Narrative

Part Five - International Film Guide Directors of the Year, The Sight and Sound World Poll, Art-Horror

Part Six (1) - The Sixties, the United States and Orson Welles

Part Six (2) - Hitchcock, Romero and Art Horror

Part Six (3) - New York Film-makers - Elia Kazan & Shirley Clarke  

Part Six (4) - New York Film-makers - Stanley Kubrick Creator of Forms

Part Six (5) ‘New Hollywood’ (1) - Arthur Penn, Warren Beatty, Pauline Kael and BONNIE AND CLYDE

Part Six (6) Francis Ford Coppola: Standing at the crossroads of art and industry

Part 6(7) Altman

6(8) Great Britain - Joseph Losey, Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, Richard Lester, Peter Watkins, Barney Platts-Mills

6(9) France - Part One The New Wave and The Cahiers du Cinema Group

6(10) France - Part Two - The Left Bank/Rive Gauche Group and an Independent

6(11) France - Part Three - Young Godard

6(12) France - Part Four - Godard:Visionary and Rebel

Saturday 20 May 2023

Nga Taonga Sound & Vision [NZ Film & Sound archive] - Graham Shirley draws attention to the launch of its new website and its digital preservation programme

Just launched and included in the latest e-news from Nga Taonga Sound & Vision [NZ film & sound archive] their new website: Just Click Here 

There’s a welcome emphasis on New Zealand’s history with a front-and-centre blend of new and old footage, along with history-related news. Also of note is the repeated set of messages, ‘Our History Informs Us’, ‘Our History Helps Us Understand’, and ‘Our History matters’, followed by the all-encompassing ‘The Moving Images & Sounds of Aotearoa Bring Our History to Life’.

Hon Kiritapu Allan speaking at the Utaina launch celebration.

Among the announcements on the website is Utaina 
 a multi-year project to digitally preserve Crown-owned audiovisual heritage material 

 In Budget 2020, Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision was allocated funding to support the digital preservation of Crown-owned audiovisual heritage material. This includes video and sound tapes and some magnetic sound on film, all of which physically deteriorate over time. Without digital preservation, over 95 percent of at-risk content could be lost in less than a decade. In addition, the playback technology for these formats is on the verge of obsolescence. There is a limited window to ensure that these taonga are preserved for future generations.

Crown-owned at-risk audiovisual material is cared for by Ngā Taonga, the National Library of New Zealand – Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, and Archives New Zealand – Te Rua Mahara o te Kāwanatanga. The majority is in the TVNZ Collection, which Ngā Taonga manages.

International vendor Memnon was selected to carry out the preservation work and have set up a digitisation facility at Avalon Studios, Lower Hutt. Memnon has almost 20 years’ experience in the large-scale digitisation of audio and video assets for libraries, universities, broadcasters, museums and government organisations around the world.

An official launch celebration was held for the Utaina project in Wellington on 17 November 2022. Attendees included then Minister of Internal Affairs Hon Jan Tinetti, then Associate Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage, Hon Kiritapu Allan, Memnon CEO Heidi Shakespeare, and our peers at the National Library of New Zealand and Archives New Zealand.

Thursday 18 May 2023

AT CINEMA REBORN 2023 - Jing Han introduces THE LAST EMPEROR (Bernardo Bertolucci, UK/Italy/China, 1987)

Editors's Note: This is the third of the introductions to films screened in Cinema Reborn 2023. Professor Jing Han, Director of Institute for Australian and Chinese Arts and Culture Western Sydney University shared the introduction with Linda Jaivin  the author of twelve books including seven novels and nonfiction including the acclaimed "The Shortest History of China". 



Following Linda’s introduction of the film, I’d like to provide some contextual understanding around the shooting of the film in China. 

In the late 1970s, Deng Xiaoping announced China’s open door policy and reform, initially as an economic reform. But when the door was opened, Chinese people just embraced the world. In the mid to late 1980s, there was a liberal and intellectual movement in culture, arts and literature, which is historically often referred to as “The Culture Fever”. Chinese intellectuals and creative minds enthusiastically explored their bold ideas and new forms of creativity.

Bernardo Bertolucci with John Lone in Beijing during 
the filming of "The Last Emperor" in 1987.

When the filming crew applied for permission to shoot the film, to everyone’s surprise, including the director Bernardo Bertolucci, the Chinese authorities not only gave the film crew the full access to the Forbidden City, including inside the Hall of the Supreme Harmony Tai He Dian, but also, apart from some names and references, required no changes to the script. Since the establishment of PRC in 1949 and ever after the shooting of this film in 1986, no other film crew has ever been given the permission to shoot inside the Hall of Supreme Harmony – a few film crews were allowed in the Forbidden City, but mainly limited to the areas that were also open to the public. So the film The Last Emperor was and has been the one and only which was filmed inside the Hall of Supreme Harmony where the Coronation of the child emperor was held. 

What many may not know is: the late Queen Elizabeth visited China in 1986, becoming the first British monarch to visit the country following the adoption of its Open Door Policy. During her state visit, the Queen was given access to the Terracotta Warriors in Xi'An and toured sites such as the Great Wall, but she was denied the visit to the Forbidden City because The Last Emperor was shooting on that day - an extraordinary thing that went down in history.

The period of 1982 to 1989 saw the freedom of expression like never before. That certainly contributed to the unprecedented approval being granted to The Last Emperor filming in China. It was also believed that Bernardo Bertolucci being a longstanding member of Italian Communist Party was also a positive factor. He was trusted and supported, so much so that the then Deputy Minister for Culture Yin Ruocheng was given leave of absence to play the Governor of the Detention Camp. By the way, the famous Chinese director Chen Kaige who directed Yellow Earth, Farewell My Concubine and more, was also cast in The Last Emperor as the Captain of Imperial Guards.

The guard of the city gate in the movie is the 
great director Chen Kaige.

To protect the Hall of Supreme Harmony, no camera crane or track or lighting stands were allowed inside. There was only one cameraman using Steadicam shooting the scene wherein the child emperor sat on the Dragon Throne. The entry into the Hall was so strictly monitored that once Peter O’Toole forgot to bring his pass, he wasn’t allowed in. 

For the Coronation scene, 2000 soldiers from PLA were recruited as extras and had the front of their heads shaved. And about 100 kilos of human hair were imported to make the elaborate wigs and plaits. 50 Chinese were trained for ten days to pin wigs and plaits onto 2,000 extras in under two hours. Also, for the shooting of this film, an Italian chef was brought in to cook for the international cast and he brought 2000 kilos of pasta with him, plus olive oil and ground coffee. Of course, these things are available in all supermarkets in China. Time has changed, but not the charm of this film.