Law of the Border / Taipei Story
Law of the Border
Set along the Turkish-Syrian frontier, this terse, elemental tale of smugglers contending with a changing social landscape brought together two giants of Turkish cinema. Director Lütfi Ö. Akad had already made some of his country’s most notable films when he was approached by Yilmaz Güney—a rising action star who would become Turkey’s most important and controversial filmmaker—to collaborate on this neo-western about a quiet man who finds himself pitted against his fellow outlaws. Combining documentary authenticity with a tough, lean poetry, Law of the Border transformed the nation’s cinema forever—even though it was virtually impossible to see for many years.
Edward Yang’s second feature is a mournful anatomy of a city caught between the past and the present. Made in collaboration with Yang’s fellow New Taiwan Cinema master Hou Hsiao-hsien, who cowrote the screenplay and helped finance the project, Taipei Story chronicles the growing estrangement between a washed-up baseball player (Hou, in a rare on-screen performance) working in his family’s textile business and his girlfriend (pop star Tsai Chin), who clings to the upward mobility of her career in property development. As the couple’s dreams of marriage and emigration begin to unravel, Yang’s gaze illuminates the precariousness of domestic life and the desperation of Taiwan’s globalized modernity.
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. The fifth and sixth films in the set are Lutfi O. Akad’s Law of the Border and Edward Yang's Taipei Story. Law of the Border is presented here in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1, while Taipei Story is in 1.85:1. Opting to release the set only in a dual-format edition (there are no separate DVD or Blu-ray only editions), the two films share the same dual-layer Blu-ray but each film also receives their own individual dual-layer DVDs. The Blu-ray presents the films with 1080p/24hz encodes while the DVD presents a standard-definition version utilizing the same master. The DVD's presentation for Taipei Story has been enhanced for widescreen televisions.
Of the films in the set I actually expected Limite to be in the worst shape (and it actually looks pretty good, all things considered) but unfortunately that classification will sadly have to go to Law of the Border, though through no fault of anybody involved in this restoration.
The digital presentation and encode itself is fine, I can’t fault it for anything. Short of a few sequences—some short and some longer, and which I’ll get to later—the image is pretty sharp, with a nice rendering of the finer details, both in long shots and close-ups. There are no digital anomalies hurting the image or holding it back. The final image looks quite filmic and natural and handles the source as well as it can.
All of the issues come down to source materials. Scratches and tram lines are very heavy, and there is plenty of dirt and marks as well, constantly raining through. On top of that splices are visible at times, there are chemical stains, along with plenty of other large marks. It’s really rough, but that’s still not all of it.
The worst part, and the part that actually does harm the film, is not only the fact there are missing frames but there appears to be large chunks of the film missing. Some of this has been remedied, though not entirely and not in the most ideal way. Most of the film, scanned and restored at 2K resolution, comes from a positive print provided by the daughter of the film’s producer, but some of the parts missing have been replaced by a Betacam video source where possible. In the accompanying introduction Scorsese mentions a reel was missing and that a video source had to be used to help replace this. I was a bit confused by this comment as it sounded, to me, that Scorsese was saying that a whole reel was replaced with video footage, though I don’t think that’s the case. I’m wondering if he meant a reel’s worth of material was missing because the video inserts appear in random intervals throughout, not in one lengthy sequence, either for a few seconds or even a few minutes (the entire opening looks to come from a video source).
The video source is obvious because the quality of the image degrades much further, looking softer and fuzzier, lacking that filmic texture. Black levels become murkier and contrast levels look really off. These moments don’t look good.
The video material is usually inserted after a cut, though one scene early on degrades suddenly and severely in quality mid-shot. Impressively this edit flows pretty seamlessly. Unfortunately the video material couldn’t be used to fill in some of the jarring and distracting missing frames (there are a lot of sudden jumps, even ones where characters magically transport from one side of a character or object to the other) and there are still entire sequences missing. It’s this latter issue that actually hurts the film. There are some off edits and midway through there is a really weird series of cuts that suggests we’re missing a couple of scenes, and we settle on a scene where it feels like we’re coming into the middle of it, or at least late into it. There’s also another really odd cut from one unrelated scene to the sudden image of a character (avoiding spoilers) collapsing after being shot in what looks to be some sort of stand-off, but the context of the whole event is gone. It’s here where the film enters its climax and it feels like we’re missing the context as to what finally pushed all of this to get going (after a slow build). I’m not actually sure how much is missing, and maybe it’s not a lot, but it really feels like we’re missing a good chunk.
I won’t blame you if you think I’m complaining and trashing this restoration, but that’s not really the case. I’m trying to forewarn those coming to this for the first time that the film is in rough shape. The shame of it all is that there isn’t much that can be done, and in all honesty we’re lucky to be even getting what we do get. The film’s star, Yilmaz Guney, became a sort of enemy to the new Turkish government after a coup d’état in 1980 and his films, whether he directed them or starred in them, were actively sought out and destroyed. Most of his work prior to the 80s was destroyed and is now more than likely gone forever. Amazingly a print of Law of the Border managed to survive, the one used for this restoration, but it was in horrendous shape and was missing large sections. The damage is so severe that chances are any attempts to remedy all of these scratches and marks would harm the image even more, leaving us with a digitized mess, which for me would be far worse.
Nope, it doesn’t look particularly great but sadly this is it. There’s nothing outside of this. It does look rough, and its missing sections can be frustrating, but the only other option outside of this is no film at all and I’d rather get what I can (though I don’t comment on the films usually this one, despite the choppy narrative that remains, is probably the most fun out of all the films in the set). The damage is heavy, and the video source doesn’t look very good, but at the very least the digital presentation is rock solid and doesn’t add on to the shortcomings already there.
Taipei Story comes to us from a new 4K restoration scanned from the original 35mm camera negative. The opening titles were lost but recreated with the aid of a positive print.
The end result is probably the best looking presentation in the set. Some sequences do look to be intentionally softer but outside of these moments the image is sharp and detail can be staggering at times, even in long shots. The film has a warmer colour tone, and things do lean towards yellow, but I still found colours to look good, blues looking especially great in some scenes (the blue skies in the latter part of the film for example). Black levels are also solid, looking to be pretty inky and not murky. Shadow delineation is weak, and some darker scenes can be hard to see, however this appears to be more a byproduct of the photography.
The film is grainy and grain can get heavier in the darker scenes but it remains looking natural and clean, rarely like noise. The restoration has also cleaned this up nicely, and I only recall a handful of minor specs throughout the entire film. The source looks just about flawless otherwise. All told it’s a rather gorgeous looking presentation.
Law of the Border (1966): 5/10 Taipei Story (1985): 9/10
Much to my surprise Law of the Border’s Turkish audio track sounds pretty good. It’s a bit tinny I guess, and fidelity and range are borderline non-existent. But when one considers how rough the image is the audio could have been far worse. Other than a couple of drops, some noticeable scratches, and that tinny element, the track is fine. Not high praise obviously, but considering the condition of the materials I think we got off lucky.
The audio for Taipei Story is delivered in lossless PCM 1.0 mono. Sound effects and the very few bits of music we get all sound lively, with decent fidelity and range. Dialogue on the other hand can come off a bit muffled and flat. But outside of that the track is clean, free of distortion and background noise.
Law of the Border (1966): 5/10 Taipei Story (1985): 6/10
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 Law of the Border and Taipei Story.
Each film, yet again, receives introductions from Martin Scorsese. He covers the restoration for each film but with Law of the Border, Scorsese offers his lengthiest introduction here (over 2-and-half minutes) covering how he came to discover the film before explaining the dire condition of the source materials. Law of the Border also comes with one of the better interview segments found in the set, this one with producer Mevlut Akkaya. Akkaya talks about the film, offers some political background, which clarified a couple of things for me, and then talks at great length about the film’s star, Yilmaz Guney, and what happened to most of him and most of his work of the 1980 coup. He also offers his appreciation for the restoration and rescue of the film, which was almost lost forever. It’s only 17-minutes long but it’s a really good feature.
Taipei Story also offers one of the set's best features: a new discussion between filmmakers Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Wong. Hou plays one of the lead roles in the film and he talks a bit about the role and working with Yang. But the discussion is more about Yang’s work and how much it differed from the rest of the New Taiwanese cinema, Hou especially enamored with how Yang was able to look at things in a different way in comparison to his own work (Hou comments he was more concerned about box office). The two talk about the film’s examination of the changing social and economic conditions between generations, the changes going on in Taipei at the time, and the sequences that stand out in the film. It’s a terrific addition to this set and I wish it was a bit longer.
Law of the Border sadly looks very rough: heavily damaged and missing not only frames but sequences, it does impact the film to a certain degree. Still, everyone involved in the restoration did what they could and at least saved the film from complete destruction. Taipei Story looks great, probably the best looking presentaiton in the set, and it comes with an excellent interview featuring Hou Hsiao-hsien.