For even intermediate film lovers, Director Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas) has a decades long passion for cinema that has been chronicled in film, book and any other possible medium. He helped found a nonprofit called The Film Foundation in 1990, a group that was responsible for the preservation and restoration of film in coordination with various archivists, including the Library of Congress. Films like the 1925 silent version of Ben Hur, King Kong, La Dolce Vita and others have been part of the group's efforts. The World Cinema Project was an extension of The Film Foundation and established in 2007 that expanded the restoration and preservation efforts to a global outreach. Doing more than 30 films thus far, the group has been working with Criterion to release these films onto disc. The first installment was released in 2013, and the second installment has just hit shelves. I'm going to try and follow that format and break down each of the six films in this set.
The 1976 film from the Philippines tells the story of the eponymous Insiang, played by the striking Hilda Koronel. Insiang lives in the slums of Manila and lives with her mother Tonya (Mona Lisa) who doesn't like her that much. One day, Tonya's lover rapes Insiang, and in the aftermath of this event, Insiang's boyfriend decides he doesn't want to be with her anymore. Insiang then decides she wants to plot revenge, against the man who raped her, against her mother, against just about anyone who wronged her in any way.
Numerous summations of the film have talked about it being a portrayal of vengeance, despair and betrayal in one combination or another, and Insiang delivers on that promise. The Manila sums include an environment of desperation and oppression, and director Lino Brocka, with the help of Koronel's fascinating performance, deliver this. The film was apparently so spot on in its portrayal of the Philippine area that it raised objection by First Lady Imelda Marcos. With her husband's (and the government's) help, it was censored for many years after its initial release, until it was restored in 2015. The 1.37:1 formatted film includes some moments of artifacts, but film grain is present during viewing and the colors in the film appear natural with no smearing or oversaturation. The mono track with Tagalog subtitling sounds clear as possible with no distortion or persistent chirping that I picked up on.
In Insiang, we see a young woman when given as much dehumanization as possible, return this fire and then some. Not because of any reason to break free from the slums, but the slums chose her as the latest person to try and demean, and she wouldn't have any of this. With the film and the performances of Kolonel and Lisa, we see a couple of figures show strength and vulnerability that could be plugged into any cinematic environment you could think of. Insiang rates **** of ***** for me.
Mysterious Object at Noon
A 2000 black and white release from Thailand, this film is a little experimental in nature and even could be considered on the documentary side of things, as Apichatpong Weeresethakul shot the film over two years over every corner of his homeland, playing the ‘exquisite corpse' game, where people add their own words to a story that starts with a boy and his teacher, and it builds incrementally with each interview subject.
Mysterious Object at Noon does have an interesting premise, one that could be considered for a von Trier film or someone else with a penchant for the unique. And Weeresethakul weaves the fantasy and the surreal in with his interviewees' words nicely. That said, while I appreciated the intent and the execution, it didn't land with me entirely. I think there may have been an issue or two with the pacing early on, but it was something that didn't resonate with me.
Presented in 1.67:1 black and white, there was work to do to restore Mysterious Object at Noon, as the restored version was going from an internegative that differed from the original film negative, which has since been lost. But the contrast between light and dark is consistent through the film and the image detail is as natural as can be for a project of this nature. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround soundtrack does not get a lot to do, but its immersion is subtle and effective and does justice to the production. The film is worth reviewing for those curious about world cinema, but for me I think this one rates at about ***1/2 of *****.
From Kazakhstan, this 1989 release focuses on a boy who grows up in Korea. He's not just any boy, his brother was murdered by a teacher, and the surviving child's near sole purpose in life is to avenge this carnage. The film was one of three written by Anatoli Kim and directed by Ermek Shinarbaev, it examines a rare and small group of Soviet Koreans (a group not given much attention before in movies or anywhere else for that matter), but also shows us their emotions and rationale behind some of this boy's anger.
Hailed as a jewel in the Kazakh New Wave of cinema, Revenge effectively shows the negligence shown towards Soviet Koreans through the years and putting it within its young protagonist. The performances, particularly by Aleksandr Pan, are capable and at times compelling. Thematically, it follows some of the same motivations as Insiang does, though with nuances which make it unique to the area. In a way a North American lateral to it could be The Professional and the desire to exact revenge by a child, but where those motivations are emotional and visceral, Revenge makes them almost historical and just as fascinating to watch.
Visually, the 1.33:1 presentation of Revenge is fine, though it does make one regret not having it in widescreen as it shows off lots of exteriors and a color spectrum that is centered in browns and reds, and replicated nicely. The mono soundtrack is clean as can be and overall, this proved to be a pleasant surprise to watch, we'll say ***1/2 of *****.
Based on the introduction alone, this may be perhaps the most coveted release of this boxed set. Made as a silent film in 1931 by Brazilian director Mario Peixoto, it was inspired by a photograph on a cover of a French magazine. It looks at the lives of a man and two women who are stranded at sea, their lives told by flashback. By seeing their past, Peixoto tries to show us what their future may look like.
Hailed by many as the best Brazilian film of the 20th century, Limite features interesting performances by Raul Schnoor, Olga Breno and Tatiana Ray in the main roles, approaching larger themes of life and death with that have an emotional connection to the viewer, and Peixoto's handling of them set to a varied score that includes Stravinsky is amazing to watch. It's not the best film I've ever seen but it is certainly something that film fans should check out once in their lives.
The 1.33:1 presented film looks about as good as you'd expect it to. There is a small portion missing and another part is significantly damaged, but the film has been cleaned up as much as possible, with the transfer literally being a copy of a copy of a copy (a duplicate negative from a copied negative from the original negative, which has long since gone). The mono soundtrack is hassle-free when you consider the source and hissing is kept to a distraction-free minimum.It's a fascinating film that like many of these other restored works is worthy of your attention. ****1/2 of *****.
Law of the Border
This black and white film from Turkey highlights the struggle of life in southeastern Turkey near the border with Syria. A father named Hidir (Yilmaz Guney) eventually resorts to smuggling as a way of life, but does not want this life for his son, and sets about forging a different path for him. Guney was a marquee star in Turkish cinema, so this decision to star in a film that looked at the problems in his country was a notable change of direction for him. In the film, the past and the present of Turkey bump into each other angrily several times, and Hidir's decisions and passions for his son are very much palpable.
As much as the film is worth experiencing, some of the stories behind it are just as good. Guney abandoned his previous life as an action star to take on directing more serious work. The director of this film (Lufti Akad) directed more than 100 movies before moving into university work. This film was one that the government suppressed for many years; and only one copy survived the 1980 Turkish coup, and eventually made its hands to the Cinema Project and they restored it and created a duplicate negative in the process. This 1.37:1 formatted work is as good as you will see it, and it's a film that changed the cinematic and geopolitical landscapes in Turkey for some time afterwards. There's a bit of Ride the High Country for me when I watched this film, in a man confronting his past with the unstoppable future, and how he reconciles it makes for excellent viewing, with Guney turning in a stellar turn. **** of *****.
Wrapping things up is this 1985 film from Taiwan, which on the surface looks at an ex-baseball player (Hou Hsiao-hsien) and his girlfriend (Tsai Chin), but on a larger scale, looks at how Taiwan's modernization put optimism and hope in many, such as the couple we experience here. The baseball player Hung has a sense of loyalty and sentimentality which presumably leans towards the older sensibility, while his girlfriend has dreams larger than could be realized.
Directed by Edward Yang, the relationship is not only one that commands the viewer's attention, but resonates enough that the parallels to Taiwan can't be missed. The performances of Hou and Chin are up to the task, along with Wu Nien-Jen, who plays a cab driver and former ballplayer. The strength and frailty sometimes gets flipped a little bit and it's a treat to see, especially for a group of people that had a sense of what was coming down the road for their country in the real world.
The 1.85:1 widescreen presentation looks sharp as the source material allows, with visible film grain and accurate color replication and flesh tone reproduction. Of the six films this may be the most well-preserved from the original and looks the nicest. The mono soundtrack like the others is clean as can be, with a little more dynamic range to it. It's a charming and heartbreaking film to watch and rates ***1/2 of *****.Extras:
Each of the films includes an introduction by Scorsese (whose pronunciation on some of these titles is impressive), and an interview by the director or some member of the production if available, if not a film historian shares some additional context on the film. Explanations for any inherent or gaps in the film are explained in the opening title cards as well, as there are a couple that range from picture quality issues to larger moments of film missing or mostly damaged.Final Thoughts:
I think unless you're a passionate follower of Scorsese's preservation and restoration efforts, you may not know how deep the love goes, until you watch one of these sets where he talks about why he likes a film or even if he doesn't, and you wonder why it's here. Then you watch it and come away impressed. Technically the work in getting these films back into circulation are amazing. If you're even a little curious about why Scorsese loves all kinds of film, boxed sets such as these should be on your wish list.