The Koker Trilogy
Abbas Kiarostami first came to international attention for this wondrous, slyly self-referential series of films set in the rural northern-Iranian town of Koker. Poised delicately between fiction and documentary, comedy and tragedy, the lyrical fables in The Koker Trilogy exemplify both the gentle humanism and the playful sleight of hand that define the director’s sensibility. With each successive film, Kiarostami takes us deeper into the behind-the-scenes “reality” of the film that preceded it, heightening our understanding of the complex network of human relationships that sustain both a movie set and a village. The result is a gradual outward zoom that reveals the cosmic majesty and mystery of ordinary life.
The Criterion Collection presents Abbas Kiarostami’s Koker Trilogy on Blu-ray in a brand new 3-disc set. The set includes Where Is the Friend’s House?, And Life Goes On, and Through the Olive Trees, all presented on their own dual-layer disc with new 1080p/24hz high-definition encodes in the aspect ratio of 1.66:1. Through the Olive Trees comes from a new 4K restoration, while the other two films are sourced from 2K restorations. All three films have been scanned from the 35mm original camera negatives.
I wasn’t holding out a lot of hope for the films, figuring the elements may have degraded severely over time, but all three end up coming out looking exceptional, with Through the Olive Trees being the stand-out. Other than one dupey looking sequence (that doesn’t run too long) the elements are in superb condition, with the digital presentation clearly rendering the finer details, right down to the grain.
The other two films also offer exceptional digital presentations, cleanly rendering the grain of each film (both looking a little heavier in comparison to Olive Trees) and the finer details of the landscapes. The first two films still show some damage, And Life Goes On showing some stains on the side of the frame in a few places. Where Is the Friend’s House? suffers from the same issue but also features what looks like mold stains in a few places. They’re not heavy, but they’re noticeable as they rain through the image in a few places.
All three films have colours that lean closer to the warmer side of things, though to varying degrees. The look suits each film, but the first and third sometimes look to lean a little heavier, to a point where blues come off more like a cyan (blues end looking better in the second film, which uses some of the same locations found in the other films). The look does feel suiting, though, and it doesn’t appear this has had any ill effects in other areas of the presentation: blacks, for example, still look pretty good.
A few minor issues but I was expecting more source problems than what we ended up getting. All three films have gone through a large amount of work and the digital presentations deliver a wonderful photographic look. They all look exceptional.
All three films present lossless PCM 1.0 monaural soundtracks. Through the Olive Trees probably has the better track of the three but it’s by a small margin, with better fidelity. The other two sound a bit flatter and one-note. Music can sound a bit edgy in Where Is the Friend’s House? but the other two, while still low-key, deliver cleaner, sharper music. All three have been nicely restored and don’t show any evidence of severe damage.
Criterion spreads special features over the three discs. Disc one, featuring Where Is the Friend’s House? starts things off nicely by including Kiarostami’s 1989 documentary film Homework, running 77-minutes. During the opening moments a group of children see the filmmaker filming and come on over to ask what kind of movie he’s making. Offscreen Kiarostami explains his ideas though he isn’t entirely sure what it will be. He explains at the very least how he was having trouble doing homework with his son and was curious if it has anything to do with the school or education system in Iran (or at least in Tehran). After this opening (and a quick glimpse of what the opening of a school day in Iran looked like, at least circa 1989) Kiarostami sets up a camera and begins interviewing students and then adults, getting an idea about how they deal with homework and maybe also gathering frustrations some may have with education in the country. The children interviews take up most of the film, and I loved how matter-of-fact they all were, explaining how they get help with homework or the punishments they might receive if they fail to get it done. Stylistically it’s still very Kiarostami, even to the point where this “documentary” about education is also about making the movie (Kiarostami likes to cut to a cameraman often) but it’s quite funny at times and is a wonderful observation and time capsule. I was quite taken by it.
Rather surprisingly the film has also received a 2K restoration and it looks wonderful here. It’s grainy as hell but it’s rendered well, and the elements look to have been cleaned up extensively. It looks great!
Following this is a 2015 Q&A with Abbas Kiarostami and hosted by Peter Scarlet, filmed after a screening of the film in Toronto. The first half offers a general discussion about Where is the Friend’s House? (which Kiarostami states is his most popular film based on how often he is asked about it) and a minimal amount about his work since, followed by a discussion on how he feels one should view film in order to have the proper connection with it. There is then a short question and answer session with members of the audience, covering topics like why doors are so prominent in his films (Kiarostami says he didn’t even notice) and his use of subplots that don’t have much, if anything, to do with the main story. A translator is needed between Kiarostami and the audience, so the translations back and forth end up eating a lot of time, but it’s a great conversation with the director.
Disc two presents And Life Goes On, and it probably gets the more stacked disc in the set. Thins on this disc start off with an audio commentary by scholars Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa and Jonathan Rosenbaum, co-authors of the book Abbas Kiarostami. Though they do talk about the trilogy as a whole (even bringing up moments where this film crosses with the other two) the track is pretty specific to this film as it (and the journey he made that influenced it) marked a changing point in Kiarostami’s life and his films, particularly his mix of narrative and documentary (with Close-Up getting mentioned often throughout the track). The two also talk a little bit about Iranian cinema to give more context to Kiarostami’s career, and also talk about how Iranian and western audiences view his films (his later films proved less popular in Iran) and Rosenbaum event quotes some of the unfavorable reviews And Life Goes On received from Iranian critics (one was annoyed by how European the protagonist looked). I’m a little disappointed Criterion didn’t see fit to include a track for each film in the set but considering the importance of this film in relation to Kiarostami’s career and how it shaped his trajectory from there they at least picked the right one to include a track with. It’s an insightful and engaging discussion.
After this is a 1994 episode from the French television program Cinémas de notre temps called Abbas Kiarostami: Truths and Dreams. The set-up for the 52-minute program, looking at his career up to that point (this would have been around the time Through the Olive Trees was released) is perfectly appropriate. In the episode Kiarostami returns yet again to the Koker area by car, trapping his interviewers with him, first going through the same toll booth that opened And Life Goes On (and apparently coming across the same toll booth operator in the film) and then traveling along the same route followed in that film, talking about his work along the way. He also visits the actors that appeared in his “Koker” films, which includes Hossein from that last two films (and Kiarostami even questions his wife about his real-life love interest in both films, maybe being a bit of a shit-disturber). As another bonus, he even visits the now-grown-up actor from his film The Traveler, even bringing a VHS copy of the film along with him. Most amusing is when Kiarostami talks to these former child performers, mentioning how reviews loved their performances but then reminds them he didn’t think they were all that great. It ends up all being surprisingly fun and along the way we get a great overview of his work up to this point and the direction it was going afterwards. For those unfamiliar with Kiarostami this works as an excellent primer and I highly recommend it.
Following this is a new interview with Hamid Naficy, author of A Social History of Iranian Cinema, who (after starting things off with a quote from Akira Kurosawa about Kiarostami) talks about the history of Iranian cinema, the Iranian New Wave, and how Kiarostami’s films fit into this timeline, starting with his early films centered around children all the way through to his later, less-straightforward films.
Through the Olive Tress, found on the third disc, feels to get the shaft a bit with a couple of short features. I did enjoy the 14-minute interview Criterion includes with Kiarostami’s son, Ahmad Kiarostami. He talks primarily about his father’s art, his influences, and how important these films, particularly And Life Goes On, played into his life and career. He also talks about specific elements in his film, like how he enjoyed trapping characters in vehicles, and explains why that appealed to his father.
That interview ends up being a more personal one, which makes it one of the better ones in the set, but we also receive a strong discussion between Jamsheed Akrami and Godfrey Cheshire, who are here to talk about the trilogy, which also involves the backstory behind each film’s production. They also cover other films from around the time, like Close-Up and Homework (the latter of which is included on the disc for Where Is the Friend’s House?), and what Iranians, especially the hard-liners, thought of his work. There’s also some funny bits of information, like how Farhad Kheradmand, the actor playing Kiarostami in the second film, couldn’t actually drive a car (which is more than likely why he looks so apprehensive most of the time).
The set then closes off with a 30-page booklet, featuring an essay by Godfrey Cheshire. The essay provides a bit of history behind the films and how they have been grouped into a trilogy, which Kiarostami wasn’t fully behind but he would come to accept the designation. He also provides sub-sections for each film.
For a three-disc set it still feels a little light but the content overall is good, all worth going through, especially the commentary found on the second disc.
I would have expected a more stacked special edition but Criterion still pulls off a satisfying special edition with some strong supplements and shockingly gorgeous looking presentations for each film. The set comes very highly recommended.