Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 2
Established by Martin Scorsese in 2007, the Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project has maintained a passionate commitment to preserving and presenting masterpieces from around the globe, with a growing roster of more than two dozen restorations that have introduced moviegoers to often-overlooked areas of cinema history. This collector’s set gathers six important works, from the Philippines (Insiang), Thailand (Mysterious Object at Noon), Soviet Kazakhstan (Revenge), Brazil (Limite), Turkey (Law of the Border), and Taiwan (Taipei Story). Each title is an essential contribution to the art form and a window onto a filmmaking tradition that international audiences previously had limited opportunities to experience.
The Criterion Collection (finally) releases their second box set for Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project, collecting another six films from around the world—that don’t have much to do with one another, like the last set—that have been painstakingly restored by Scorsese’s Film Foundation. This dual-format release, featuring over 3 dual-layer Blu-rays or 6 dual-layer DVDs, presents six films: Philippines’ Insiang (by Lino Brocka), Thailand’s Mysterious Object at Noon (by Apichatpong Weerasethakul), Kazakhstan’s Revenge (by Ermek Shinarbaev), Brazil’s Limite (by Mario Peixoto) , Turkey’s Law of the Border (by Lutfi O. Akad), and Taiwan’s Taipei Story (by Edward Yang). Both Insiang and Law of the Border are presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1, Limite and Revenge in 1.33:1, Taipei Story in 1.85:1, and Mysterious Object at Noon in the odd ratio of 1.60:1. All six films are presented in 1080p high-definition but Limite is encoded at 60hz (I assume to adjust for framerate) while the other films are at 24hz.
Before going through the set, knowing little about each film’s history and its restoration process, I was expecting the oldest film in the set, 1931’s silent feature Limite, to be the one in the worst shape, though this both happily and sadly proved to not be the case: happily because Limite, despite a large stain that overtakes a few minutes of the film, actually doesn’t come off too bad, but then sadly because another film, the 1966’s film Law of the Border, gets the title.
Due to the political climate in Turkey during the 80s (and since) films a number of films were singled out for destruction, including those starring or directed by Yilmaz Guney, including Law of the Border, which he co-wrote and starred in. Sadly, the only copy that remains is a very rough print that was supplied by the producer’s daughter. The film is littered with dirt, scratches, large splices, and other issues. The damage is so heavy that it’s doubtful that modern restoration tools could have done anything without harming the image in other ways. So the scratches and debris are still all there and they are plentiful, but it is what it is. Still, this wouldn’t be detrimental to the film in the end. Annoying? Yes. But harmful to overall enjoyment? No. What does hurt it, though, is the fact that there are not only missing frames (a lot of them in fact) but missing sequences as well: there are a few times where we feel like we’re coming into the middle, or even the tail-end, of another scene, and what’s worse is we can feel we missed important plot points. Where possible a Betacam video source has been used to fill in the holes, but it appears everything couldn’t be recovered, even from this video. Though we get most of the film (which runs about 76-minutes here) it’s not hard to tell that there is more material missing.
This is an unfortunate and sad outcome but at the very least we get something, which unfortunately can’t be said about a lot of Guney’s other films. The film, sort of unwittingly, ends up becoming a poster child for why film preservation is important and needs to be done sooner rather than later.
Of course, that signifier could also be applied to Limite, which itself could have been lost if someone didn’t happen to step in at just the right time. This new restoration from the Film Foundation actually piggy-backs off of previous restoration and preservation efforts that go back decades, after it was discovered that the original nitrate print was quickly deteriorating. You can still see the remnants of the damage to the nitrate in a lengthy sequence about 25-minutes in: mold or some chemical stain obliterates portions of the frame for a few minutes, these stains moving in from side to side more and more as the film progresses until it eventually eats up the whole image and a whole scene is missing (a title card explains what happens in the missing scene). Thankfully this is the only time this occurs but makes one thankful that the original preservation efforts took place when they did.
Still, Limite is in remarkable condition when one considers its history. Yes, there is still plenty of damage: scratches, tram lines, pulsing, other stains, dirt, and possibly missing frames (the editing style of the film does make this hard to determine for sure). However in the grand scheme of things it’s nowhere near as bad as I would have figured and it helps that the detail levels within the image can be staggering, to the point where you can almost swear you can make out the tiny granules of sand on a beach in a long shot. Yes, dirt and debris can get heavy, and yes, the image does get eaten up by a large stain for a good number of minutes, but you still get a highly detailed image and the strong encode doesn’t hamper it any. And this is all thanks to preservation efforts being started when they did, before more of the film was destroyed.
Outside of those two the remaining films all hold up rather well. The weakest of the remaining, at least in terms of restoration, is surprisingly the newest one, Mysterious Object at Noon, which was released in 2000. Compared to the other films this film is quite new, so the fact it already needs help is both depressing and scary. The original negative is apparently long gone and the only acceptable element that remains is a duplicate negative with an odd black border around the left, right and bottom of the image. It also features burned-in subtitles. I’m not sure why this border is there (I suspect it is an attempt to make the burned-in subtitles easier to read since the subtitles primarily appear over the bottom border) but alas, it is. There is also noticeable damage, mostly in the form of tram lines. Still, in comparison to the damage we get with Limite, and more so with Law of the Border, this looks flawless.
The three colour films (Insiang, Revenge, and Taipei Story) on the other hand are actually just about flawless themselves. Minor debris and dirt can pop up in a handful of places, but overall the restoration work has made these look virtually new. In all three cases the films have a warmer colour tone, with everything just about having a yellow hue to it (Revenge is probably heaviest) but I didn’t find this all that intrusive.
As a plus all of the digital encodes look solid themselves. There are a moments during Mysterious Object at Noon and Limite where grain, getting pretty heavy, looks a bit noisy and pixilated, but for most of the time through all of the films grain is rendered very well. Other than the moments in Law of the Border where video was used all of the films deliver a primarily sharp and crisp image, and they all retain a very filmic look.
We get a wide range of audio tracks here: Mysterious Object at Noon comes in a DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround presentation, Limite receives a lossless PCM 2.0 stereo track (presenting the film’s score), and the remaining films come in lossless PCM 1.0 mono.
The tracks are all generally pretty good though suffer from a few limitations. Taipei Story and Revenge are both pretty average: sound effects and whatever music there is sounds fine, but dialogue can come off a bit weak or muffled, though fidelity and range are a bit better in Taipei Story.
Insiang can come off very harsh and edgy, particularly dialogue, which is distorted. The one surprise in the set is Law of the Border: despite the rough image the audio isn’t as bad as one would probably expect. Yes, it’s still weak, features a few drops and has a bit of noise present here and there, but considering the state of the materials it’s a minor miracle it isn’t a bigger disaster.
The sole 5.1 surround track on Mysterious Object at Noon isn’t the most active surround presentation, but there is some terrific background effects that move through the speakers, Dialogue can sound weak and muffled in places but I blame that more on the shooting conditions. Limite, the sole silent film in the set, probably sounds the best with its score: it fills out the front very nicely and, despite some noticeable background noise, sounds more natural with excellent fidelity and a wide amount of range.
Like the first set Criterion doesn’t go all out with supplements, I assume in order to keep costs down (though I’m very fond of these sets I don’t doubt they aren’t huge sellers). Whatever the reason for the slim pickings the material is all at least good.
All of the films come with quick introductions by Martin Scorsese, who talks about the films, their directors, and offers details about the restorations. Each film then comes with its own exclusive feature.
Insiang comes with 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.
Mysterious Object at Noon then features an 18-minute interview with the film’s director, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who talks 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).
Revenge also features an interview with its film’s director, Ermak Shinarbaev. In the essay about the film found in the box set’s included booklet, Kent Jones mentions that when Shinarbaev talks about his work it’s usually in relation to his work with writer Anatoli Kim and that proves to be the case here. Shinarbaev starts by talking about how he first started collaborating with the author (convincing the writer to work with him proved to be difficult) and then he goes over the films he made with the Kim. He also talks about the difficulties in making a film that takes place a little bit in Korea, especially from a historical perspective, as he had no information available to him in Kazakhstan about Korea, so everything in the film revolving around Korea he completely made up. The 19-minute interview proves to be a really valuable inclusion, especially when he gets into historical details about the Korean population in Russia and the Soviet Union.
Limite only offers a short 14-minute interview with filmmaker Walter Salles, who goes over how hard it was to see the film and his reaction to it after finally being able to see it. He also talks a bit about Peixoto, how he discovered film while living in England, and how he came to make Limite, which originally started as a script to be directed by someone else.
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.
I enjoyed that last feature, but Taipei Story comes with the set’s best feature, 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.
The set also comes with a lengthy booklet with a number of essays on the films, offering a more academic edge to the release. The booklet features essays by: Phillip Lopate on Insiang, Dennis Lim on Mysterious Object at Noon, Kent Jones on Revenge, Fábio Andrade on Limite, Bilge Ebiri on Law of the Border, and Andrew Chan on Taipei Story. The essays go over the films, offer some historical context where appropriate, and then even in some cases talk about the restoration and explain why the film in question may have been in danger of disappearing.
Altogether Criterion puts together a number of good supplements to accompany their respective films, though I guess I still figured some of the films would get more, in particular Limite. As it is, though, all of the material is strong and worth the effort of going through.
I’m very fond of these sets and I’m happy Criterion has continued with them after a long gap of time following the original one. Yes, the collection of films isn’t in anyway cohesive but they’re a solid batch, and probably a better collection in comparison to the previous set. Supplements are good, though again I would have expected more for a few of the titles. But the real selling point are the new restorations and presentations. There are a couple of hiccups, and some look a bit rougher than the others (Law of the Border) but considering the limitations of the material in some cases I think all of those involved have pulled off impressive miracles in some cases. This set comes with a very high recommendation.