Next, Judge Gordon Sullivan will screen a series of films about snow globes.
Our review of The Housemaid, published June 30th, 2011, is also available.
"Expands the horizons of moviegoers everywhere"
Cinema is delicate. Sure, huge blockbusters are relatively safe and easy to access, but a significant amount of the footage that has been shot on celluloid over the century or so of the cinema has disappeared. Much of that is probably footage of limited interest, but we've lost a lot of important films along the way, from early films by famous silent stars, to significant works of international cinema that didn't have access to preservation technologies. Anyone interested in cinema is aware that this is a problem, but most of us don't have the resources to do anything about. Martin Scorsese, however, does. He founded the World Cinema Project to address these issues. Though he's long been an advocate for cinema—first coming to prominence when he warned the world about the fading colors on prints of famous films—much of Scorsese's focus has been on America's heritage. Not so with the World Cinema Project. Its stated goal is to preserve the cinematic heritage of countries that we don't immediately associate with cinema. Part of the goal is to make sure that important films are restored, but more than that, Scorsese and his companions in the project want these films to be seen. To that end, they've teamed up with Criterion to present these cinematic milestones on home video, and World Cinema Project is the result. Included are important films from Senegal, Mexico, India/Bangladesh, Turkey, Morocco, and South Korea. Though it might be a bit out of some fans' price range, this set is magnificent.
Facts of the Case
Criterion presents these six films from across the globe in a nine-disc set. Each film gets its own DVD, while the hi-def versions are two-to-a-disc. Here's what you can look forward to:
• Touki bouki (Senegal, 1973). The story of a pair of lovers of want to leave their rural lives, but their journey is more complicated than they imagine.
• Redes (Mexico, 1936). This neorealist take on Mexican fisherman follows one of laborers as tragedy leads him to political awareness.
• A River Called Titas (Bengal, 1973). This film follows a community of those who fish the river Titas as their way of life vanishes around the partitioning of Bengal.
• Dry Summer (Turkey, 1964). The story of a greedy farmer who builds a dam to keep water from his competition.
• Trances (Morocco, 1981). A musical documentary that follows the popular band Nass El Ghiwane.
• The Housemaid (South Korea, 1960). A music teacher finds his life turned upside down when he and his wife hire a mentally unstable housemaid. Jealousy and madness can't help but follow.
Individual films will always have their cheerleaders and detractors, but there's something important about a collection of films like this. Whatever the merits of the individual films (I may enjoy Trances more than you, for instance), they bring to light the fact that our understanding of world cinema history is always incomplete. What a set like this one does is help fill in the gaps. Of course, the most famous Senegalese filmmaker is Ousmane Sembène (and a Sembene Criterion set would be welcomed with open arms), but Touki Bouki makes clear how rich the tradition of filmmaking is in Senegal, including the influence of the French New Wave. Redes is the perfect companion piece to Land Without Bread, another documentary/fiction hybrid made a few years prior. A River Called Titas expands our understanding of Indian cinema beyond Satyajit Ray. Trances shows the power of music outside of its typical Western context, and Dry Summer shows the universality of greed. Finally, though the Korean New Wave gets a lot of credit, The Housemaid shows the vibrancy of Korean cinema long before its New Wave crested. Though individually these films may not be of interest to everyone, together they immeasurably enrich our understanding of the riches world cinema has to offer.
Overall, the presentation of these films is striking; the World Cinema Project has put its money where its mouth is. Even though these films are largely unknown gems from places and eras that didn't prize film preservation, the level of quality here is striking. With the exception of Redes, which is the oldest film of the bunch and suffers from damage, these films look pretty amazing. All are also presented in their original aspect ratios with AVC encoding. Touki Bouki looks the most stunning initially as the lone 35mm color feature in its native 1.37:1. Colors are beautifully saturated, with clothing looking especially good next to the sometimes-dusty African landscape. Redes looks by far the worst, and given its age, that's not surprising. The 1.33:1 image looks a bit soft, even accounting for the damage, though contrast is pretty strong and black levels are deep enough. Things immediately improve with A River Called Titas, which boasts a beautiful black-and-white image in 1.33:1 featuring impressive detail and pleasing texture. Black levels are appropriate, and contrast is also solid. The same things can be said for film it shares a disc with: Dry Summer is a magnificent black-and-white transfer. The 1.33:1 image is pleasing, with good texture and attention to the restoration. Trances is the other color feature here, and the 16mm cinematography is beautifully presented. There's a rough-and-ready quality to the film that means that sharpness isn't at a premium, but there's plenty of detail and texture in this 1.60:1 transfer. The Housemaid presented some of the biggest challenges to restoration, since the only surviving elements had forced subtitles (over half the image!) that had to be digitally removed during restoration. Eagle-eyed viewers might notice the traces of this digital manipulation, but overall, the film looks good in this 1.60:1 transfer, with pleasing detail and solid contrast.
The audio has not fared quite as well as the video, though all tracks are in their original languages and given lossless PCM mixes with optional English subtitles. Touki Bouki gets a 1.0 track in Wolof that sounds a bit flat, but listenable. Redes offers a 1.0 track in Spanish which sounds a bit worse (and is occasionally out of sync), but fine given the materials the restorers had to work with. A River Called Titas also gets a 1.0 track in Bengali; it's not the most lifelike track, but dialogue is clear. Dry Summer was obviously post-dubbed, though this 1.0 track in Turkish sounds fine for what it is. The track for Trances might be the best of the bunch, with much of the concert sound recorded with great care. Still, much of the audio is location sound, which means it's never going to sound great. The lone reversal is The Housemaid, which contains an audio track better preserved than its visuals. Still, it's a 1.0 mono track that keeps the dialogue audible without creating too much fuss.
Extras aren't as extensive as with other Criterion releases, but that makes sense in the context of the World Cinema Project—the films themselves are extras enough. With that said, each film gets a short introduction by Martin Scorsese, who talks about the personal impact of the film as well as their important to world cinema. Touki Bouki also gets 12 minutes of filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako discussing the film. Redes gets a visual essay by Kent Jones that says some interesting things about the movie. A River Called Titas features Indian filmmaker Kumar Shahani talking for 15 minutes about how the film fits into Indian and world cinema. Dry Summer features a conversation between Turkish filmmaker Metin Erksan and the Turkish-German filmmaker Faith Akin. Trances moves up to a roundtable with musician Omar Sayed, producer Izza G énini, director Ahmed El Ma ânouni, and Scorsese. Finally, The Housemaid gets 15 minutes with Korean director Bong Joon-Ho. It might not seem like much, but these extras really help put the films in context, both nationally and internationally, and make it easier for viewers not versed in the native cultures to get a handle on what they're watching.
The discs themselves are housed in a trio of foldable cases that slip into a cardboard sleeve. Each of these cases houses two DVDs and one Blu-ray disc. The set feels substantial, with the physical presentation matching the heft of the content. Also in the sleeve is the usual Criterion booklet. We get an introduction by Kent Jones, who has worked with Scorsese on the World Cinema Project, along with an essay on each of the films by names like Adrian Martin and Sally Shafto.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The only negative to this set that I can muster is the price tag: it retails for about $20 a film (though it's less than $15 per disc). The price, combined with the fact that many people won't have seen these films before might make the set a tough sell. I'll admit that the films take a bit of getting used to; they definitely fall into the art house realm for the most part, so don't expect riveting plots and lots of action.
Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project is a beautiful collection of under-seen films from around the world. Each an interesting bit of cinema history in its own right, together they make a case for the continued importance of film as a medium. That, combined with the herculean efforts at restoration and the solid extras make this set easy to recommend to fans of world cinema.
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Scales of Justice, Redes
Perp Profile, Redes
Distinguishing Marks, Redes
Scales of Justice, The Housemaid
Perp Profile, The Housemaid
Distinguishing Marks, The Housemaid
Scales of Justice, Dry Summer
Perp Profile, Dry Summer
Distinguishing Marks, Dry Summer
Scales of Justice, A River Called Titas
Perp Profile, A River Called Titas
Distinguishing Marks, A River Called Titas
Scales of Justice, Touki Bouki
Perp Profile, Touki Bouki
Distinguishing Marks, Touki Bouki
Scales of Justice, Trances
Perp Profile, Trances
Distinguishing Marks, Trances
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