Insiang / Mysterious Object at Noon
Jealousy and violence take center stage in the sweltering, claustrophobic melodrama Insiang, a beautifully acted and tautly constructed character study set in the slums of Manila. Director Lino Brocka crafts an eviscerating portrait of women scorned, led by Filipina stars Hilda Koronel and Mona Lisa, who portray an innocent daughter and her bitter mother. Insiang (Koronel) leads a quiet life dominated by household duties, but after she is raped by her mother’s brutish lover and abandoned by the young man who claims to care for her, she exacts vicious revenge. A savage commentary on the degradation of urban social conditions under modern capitalism, Insiang introduced Filipino cinema to international audiences by being the first film from the country ever to play at Cannes.
Mysterious Object of Noon
As a recent film-school graduate, Apichatpong Weerasethakul brought an appetite for experimentation to Thai cinema with this debut feature, an uncategorizable work that refracts documentary impressions of the director’s native country through the concept of the exquisite corpse game. Enlisting locals to contribute their own improvised narration to a simple tale, Apichatpong charts the collective construction of the fiction as each new encounter imbues it with unpredictable shades of fantasy and pathos. Shot over the course of two years in 16 mm black and white, this playful investigation of the art of storytelling established the fascination with the porous boundaries between the real and the imagined that the director has continued to explore.
Years after releasing their initial World Cinema Project box set (featuring a number of overlooked films from around the world recently restored by Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation) the Criterion Collection finally brings us their second volume featuring another six films. First in the set is Lino Brocka's Insiang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Mysterious Object at Noon. A dual-format release, the films are both presented on a dual-layer Blu-ray, each with a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode, and on their own individual dual-layer DVDs. Insiang is presented on both formats in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1, while <I>Noon</I> is presented in the odd aspect ratio of 1.60:1. Mysterious Object at Noon has been enhanced for widescreen televisions on its DVD.
The 4K restoration for Insiang comes from a new scan of the original camera negative but the notes that appear before the film (and in the set’s included booklet) mention that two scenes come from a later generation theatrical print (provided by the BFI) because deterioration was too severe. Due to a slight drop in sharpness and a slight difference in black levels I suspect these two scenes being referenced pop up in the last reel of the film but the good news is that the restoration work is so on point it’s actually pretty hard to isolate the two scenes in question.
Overall the image is a very pleasant surprise. It looks great, in fact it’s almost pristine, which is not what I was expecting after watching Scorsese’s introduction where he mentions how hard it is to not only to see one of Brocka’s films but to also see them in a decent print. I don’t know how this one looked before it was restored (I do wish there were restoration demonstrations on some of these titles) but whatever the case it is virtually spotless now. I don’t recall any significant blemishes ever appearing during the film and it could almost pass as new. It looks shockingly good in this regard.
The digital presentation is also really good. It renders film grain rather well, looking natural and free of any noise. Details are incredibly sharp (the curls in Bebot’s hair are especially prominent here) and depth looks decent in some of the interior shots. Colours lean warmer and the black levels can be weak, crushing out shadow detail in some night scenes, but I still found colours saturation pleasing.
Despite some minor issues this is a really strong presentation. I’m not sure how much work the film needed but the end product is impressive, aided by a strong digital encode.
Mysterious Object at Noon is, as mentioned prior, technically presented here in the aspect ratio of 1.60:1, an odd ratio I don’t believe I’ve ever come across before, though I suspect it is to accommodate the rather odd framing of the film, or at least the framing of the print used: not only do you get thick black borders on the sides of the image, you also get a thick black border underneath the image as well, with the film image itself, aligned to the top, looking to be in a ratio of about 1.75:1, give or take a bit. The accompanying notes specific to this title state that this new 3K restoration comes from a scan of a 35mm duplicate negative struck from the original 16mm camera reversal. This duplicate negative comes with burned-in subtitles and that black bar at the bottom. Despite the film being only 17-years old this print is the best available element still in existence, the 16mm print now gone..
I suspect that the source’s odd framing and borders were placed in there to accommodate the English speaking market; the look to the film would probably impede the legibility of the subtitles unless they were presented in a different colour (and there’s no way in hell cinephiles would put up with yellow subtitles!) so laying them over a black bar was probably the best option at the time. As to why the restoration team didn’t just lop off the bottom I believe it’s either related to the fact that the subtitles (which again are burned-in) still appear over the main image from time to time, which further complicated things, or Weerasethakul actually prefers the film to look this way. Unfortunately the notes don’t clarify this
So yes, that framing is odd but it’s just another interesting layer to the film, which has an incredibly unorthodox and experimental look to it past that. Shot on a very grainy, high-contrast film stock the film has a rough look that mostly translates well to Blu-ray (and even DVD to an extent). Whites can be very bright, just on the verge of blooming I’d say, and blacks can be very deep, but there’s still a decent balance in between with distinct tonal shifts in the grays. The image is still nicely detailed when the source materials allow it and it does, for the most part, retain a filmic look. Unfortunately, even for the high-def image, the heavy grain for the film may be a bit too much and it can come off noisy and pixilated a bit early on, then on and off throughout the film. Most of the time, though, I found the grain pleasingly rendered.
Impressively, despite the film’s heavy grain, the restoration work hasn’t left much in the way of damage. There are some visible tram lines and what may be some minor debris, but it’s surprisingly minimal, and the clean-up doesn’t appear to have harmed the final image in any way. All things considered this still looks quite good.
Insiang (1976): 9/10 Mysterious Object at Noon (2000): 7/10
Since no restoration demonstration has been included Insiang (or any of the films) I can’t say how badly deteriorated the source materials would have been, but judging from some of Scorsese’s comments in his introduction they more than likely weren’t pretty, so I feel the picture we get is nothing short of a miracle.
Unfortunately it appears time has been less forgiving to the film’s audio track, presented here in lossless LPCM 1.0 mono. The notes on the restoration make mention that the audio was put through a number of processes to clean up damage, crackling, and background noise but the audio is still problematic. Music is a bit of a nightmare, sounding especially distorted but all of the dialogue has a really harsh edge to it. Surprisingly I didn’t notice any drops, pops, or cracks but the distortion we get is pretty heavy.
I was surprised to find that Mysterious Object at Noon comes with a 5.1 surround track presented in DTS-HD. It’s not a terribly robust surround track but it still manages to have deliver a few surprises. Dialogue sticks to the fronts but the background sounds in some of the busier locations, like the city streets, noticeably fill out the environment, though rather subtly. Dialogue can sound a bit rough around the edges, though it could be related to shooting conditions. The track otherwise sounds clean and stable.
Insiang (1976): 5/10 Mysterious Object at Noon (2000): 7/10
The set presents six films, each film coming with an introduction and then another video supplement. This review will focus specifically on the features included with Insiang and Mysterious Object at Noon.
We first get a short, less than 2-minute introductions featuring Martin Scorsese for each film. For Insiang he talks about Lino Brocka’s work and the restoration of the film, while in the introduction he explains why a much newer film like Mysterious Object at Noon needs a new restoration.
Insiang's introduction is then followed by an interview with “film enthusiast” and historian Pierre Rissient. Rissient was an early advocate for the film, getting it to show at Cannes (though not as a contender). Here he recalls first seeing it and explaining what struck him about it. He also talks a bit about Brocka’s other work, which ranged from film to television to stage plays, Rissient comparing him to Rainer Werner Fassbinder. It’s only 15-minutes but as the film’s lone supplement (not counting the intro) it works as an okay primer on the director’s work and also contextualizes the time period around when the film was made.
Noon comes with a new 18-minute interview featuring film’s director, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, talking about the lengthy production and its inspirations, and that thin line between fiction film and documentary (no shock that he mentions Abbas Kiarostami was an inspiration to him).
It’s a shame more material isn't available, particularly more scholarly-like material, but Weerasethakul’s contribution should, at the very least, aid those a bit lost with Mysterious Object at Noon.
The restoration for Insiang is an impressive piece of work and Criterion delivers it perfectly here.
Mysterious Object at Noon is an unorthodox film in terms of structure and look but this edition translates it rather well to home video, despite a few minor hiccups in rendering the film’s heavy grain levels.
In all, both films offer a great way to open Criterion’s new World Cinema Project box set.