The meeting of the World Cinema Project and the Criterion Collection is a fortuitous one.
Criterion’s stated mission to distribute “important classic and contemporary films” seems modest and straightforward enough, but has occasionally drawn criticism from cinephiles who carp that Criterion’s idea of “important” is too strongly correlated with a few familiar geographical outposts: Western Europe, the United States, and Japan. No doubt these national cinemas are disproportionately represented in the collection, but Criterion doesn’t promise to release “all important classic films” just as many as they can; they are also more or less recapitulating the history of art-house cinema distribution in America (and, to take a more pragmatic look, leaning heavily on the rights held by parent company Janus Films, one of the major shapers of that scene).
What we now think of as art-house cinema in America sprouted in the 1950s and bloomed more fully through the ’60s by clustering around the Bergman-Fellini-Kurosawa-Lots of French Guys axis. Other aspiring entrants found it difficult to break into the canon, particularly if they were from nations less familiar to art-house audiences (mostly festival-goers, college students, and cineastes in the denser urban centers). Satyajit Ray came to represent India, and a series of national “New Waves” washed up on festival shores from time to time, but B-F-K-LoFG remained the core for quite some time, and, to a smaller extent, still does today.
The emergence of VHS, and then DVD, provided more shelf space, and the border-erasure of the Internet and streaming video now offers the opportunity to expand the canon greatly, but while uploads might be cheap, film restoration and distribution is not. That’s where the World Cinema Project (originally called the World Cinema Foundation) strives to lend a helping hand.
Director and film scholar Martin Scorsese has been a tireless supporter of film preservation for decades, and in 2007, he helped to launch a more focused effort to spotlight still-overlooked national cinemas. The World Cinema Project, working in tandem with the Scorsese-founded Film Foundation, has restored (either fully or in a supporting role) nineteen feature films to date, all of which are from countries not located on that old familiar axis.
This volume, the first in a series (no future releases are confirmed, but the “No. 1” on the package would be a cruel tease if there’s nothing more to come) slated to be released as part of the Criterion Collection, includes restored high-definition transfers of films from Senegal, Mexico, India, Turkey, Morocco, and South Korea. In many cases, the restoration has been extensive as the films were stored under perilous conditions, and this is discussed more in the Video section below. Some titles have been often written about (“Touki Bouki” and “The Housemaid”), others are more obscure even to reasonably well-informed North American viewers (“Dry Summer” and “A River Called Titas.”) All have previously been difficult, if not outright impossible, for most viewers to catch.
Because all six titles are included in the same set, it’s tempting to look for similarities (hope you like water) but despite their grouping here, the films are best examined individually, though necessarily briefly here.
“Touki Bouki” (1973) begins with an pastoral scene of a young boy riding cattle through the brush and transitions abruptly to a slaughterhouse where animals are quickly and bloodily butchered. It’s Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambéty’s way of warning viewers that his debut feature is going to be a wild ride, and that it won’t be holding anybody’s hand along the way. Ostensibly a story about a young outlaw couple who wants to escape Dakar for the dream-life in Paris, Mambéty’s film is really an examination of freedom in various guises: the freedom of physical exodus, the freedom of staying home to blaze your own trail, and the freedom of an artist willing to embrace creative anarchy. “Touki Bouki” is heavily influenced by early French New Wave aesthetics, but Mambéty, who had no formal film training (though he must have been a major movie buff), crafts his own disruptive cinematic language, keeping viewers guessing as he blends reality and fantasy, and links his surprising cuts by emotion as well as geography and chronology. On a single viewing, it’s difficult to piece the whole together, but appreciated a series of striking, often inspired, sketches and vignettes it is truly startling and occasionally very funny.
“Redes” (1936) is the kind of title Milestone Films usually likes to release. This “docu-fiction” about Mexican village fishermen wears its heart and its political message on its sleeve. Financed by a progressive Mexican government rebuilding after revolution, the movie portrays its downtrodden, impoverished fishers uniting against an exploiting boss and a corrupt politician. The film was made by an unlikely collection of disparate talents: American photographer and cinematographer Paul Strand, Austrian-born co-director Fred Zinnemann (then only 29, with “High Noon” still nearly two decades in his future), and Mexican co-director Emilio Gómez Muriel. The mostly amateur cast of real fishermen lends an aura of authenticity, though not necessarily subtlety, to this proudly didactic and socially earnest project designed to win hearts and minds. Shot under difficult conditions with a tiny budget, its stark black-and-white imagery is mesmerizing and its gallery of faces unforgettable even if its story is a bit creaky.
While I’ve read plenty about Indian director Ritwik Ghatak, I’ve never previously seen any of his work, and “The Cloud-Capped Star” (1960), praised by innumerable of my favorite critics, is high atop my wish list. I’m going to make even more of an effort to seek it out now that I’ve seen his 1973 film “A River Called Titas.” Based on a novel by Advaita Malla Barman, it relates a story of the gradual dissipation of the traditions of a fishing village in Bengal, along the banks of the title river. If that calls to mind slow-moving rural imagery and low-key social realism, you’re nowhere close. Ghatak takes his time (156 min.), but his story leaps chasms of time with little notice, shifting from one major character to another, often ending scenes or narrative threads abruptly because there’s just too much else to get to or because the main emotion has already been conveyed. I don’t have the time or space for a plot summary (OK: two marriages both end quickly and badly), so I’ll just spotlight the (eventual) protagonist Basanti (Rosy Samad), one of the fiercest women you’ve ever seen in film. She refuses to be controlled by her parents, her fellow villagers, or even an adopted son. With severely limited choices, this natural-born rebel is often consumed by impotent rage but is also capable of great kindness; she won’t let Ghatak or the audience pin her down either. This is an amazing movie and I hope it won’t be long until we have the rest of Ghatak’s too-brief filmography available.
Water also plays a crucial role in “Dry Summer”(1964). This feisty Turkish melodrama features a clear-cut good guy and bad guy who also happen to be brothers. Older sibling Osman (Erol Taş) dams up the natural spring on his property, denying water to the villagers in the valley below. His younger brother Hasan (Ulvi Doğan, also the film’s producer) believes the water belongs to everyone, but must respect his familial duty. His loyalty will be sorely tested as Osman’s burgeoning expands; not content with wallowing in the water he has hoarded, he also turns his eye to Hasan’s beautiful new bride Bahar (Hülya Koçyiğit). I mean that literally. Director Metin Erksan shows his villain surreptitiously ogling Bahar’s shapely legs and then outright staring at her lovely posterior whenever he thinks nobody’s looking. Osman’s pathetic lust manifests in even stranger ways, particularly when he proposes to a scarecrow he dresses up as Bahar, and later when he tries to seduce her by suckling directly on the udder of a cow he’s milking. “Dry Summer” isn’t dry at all, but remarkably sensual. It’s not just Osman busting out his world-class moves, but the way everyone relates to the landscape, especially the water described as “earth’s blood.” Erksan’s film works as both straight-up melodrama and an allegory about the perils of privatization.
In 1981, Martin Scorsese saw “Trances” (1981) on television and was, indeed, entranced. The music documentary mixes concert footage of the Moroccan band Nass El Ghiwane with day-in-the-life access to each of its members. Scorsese loved the movie so much he made sure it was the first film restored by the World Cinema Project in 2007. I must confess that I bailed out on “Trances” at the 30-minute mark. No matter its other virtues, a music documentary with music you aren’t digging is a tough sell. Perhaps I wasn’t in the right mood. I’ll limit myself to describing their music as heavy on both percussion and repetition; you will either be enveloped by it or not. Nass El Ghiwane became massively popular in the Arab world in the ’70s and ’80s and the concert footage I saw attests to the enthusiasm they generated in the fan base.
“The Housemaid” (1960) sure is something. In this South Korean horror/melodrama, a hunky piano instructor (Kim Jin-kyu) teaches a group of young female factory workers who think he’s absolutely dreamy. One of the girls will wind up dead, one stabbed, and another will really fall hard for him. He doesn’t have much to do with any of it either, except in the case of the last girl who becomes his housemaid (Lee Eun-shim). The teacher is happily married with two kids and a third on the way and has just moved into a lovely new house, but on a feverish night he succumbs to the maid’s advances and all hell breaks loose; you can tell because their tryst is heralded by a direct lightning strike on the tree right outside the house. An early line, “Be careful of this bottle – it’s rat poison” delivers a transparent warning. The later line, “Die with me. Make me the happiest woman of all!” provides just a hint of how delirious this movie gets. The wild storyline is accompanied by some equally daring stylistic choices, and director Kim Ki-young imbues the movie a remarkable sense of place, establishing each room of this fairly non-descript two-story abode as its own character, or circle of hell. This is Lee Eun-shim’s only film credit, but she’s pretty spectacular. Im Sang-soo remade the film in 2010 and it was OK, but pales in comparison to this barely-controlled lunacy.
You can look up the aspect ratios for yourself; there’s a lot to get to here. This is a dual-format release so each film is available both on DVD and Blu-ray. This video section refers to the high-definition Blu-ray transfers.
The World Cinema Project has frequently prioritized films most in need to preservation and restoration. That’s certainly the case with “The Housemaid.” For various reasons, many South Korean films of the era were lost or badly damaged. Two reels of the original negative are missing entirely, and had to be replaced with a release print that was not only heavily worn but also had large English subtitles inscribed on it. Those subtitles had to be digitally scrubbed in this restoration, and the result is that in two sections of the film you’ll see some significant digital blurring; you might even think your player is about to come to a stop. These sections look really rough (several skipped frames too) but it can’t be helped. The rest of the transfer looks fairly strong though some source print damage is evident.
“Redes” is probably the next shakiest of the lot though it’s not bad, considering it’s a miracle the film was made at all, let alone preserved. Some shots look a bit washed out and there’s a decent amount of damage visible in many scenes, but overall it’s strong enough to showcase the sun-drenched cinematography.
“A River Called Titas” displays noticeable vertical scratches in several sequences and a few scenes where some splotching/deterioration is evident, but is clean in most others. According to the Criterion booklet, the negative also wasn’t complete here and the opening credits had to be digitally re-created which probably explains my scrawled viewing note (“Weird slow-mo effects in beginning”) but the damage is nowhere near as extensive as with “The Housemaid.”
“Trances” was shot in 16mm and generally looks a little bleached-out, but the image detail is strong enough and I didn’t notice any other problems in the half hour I watched.
“Touki Bouki” and “Dry Summer” are the strongest presentations in the set. Once again, according to the Criterion booklet, the negative for “Dry Summer” was missing a reel that had to be supplemented by an interpositive, but there’s no major dropoff in quality. Also: “Opening and closing credits, missing from all available sources, were digitally reconstructed.”
Linear PCM Mono tracks for all six films. In many cases, dialogue was recorded in post-production. This is somewhat off-putting in “Dry Summer” when every voice, no matter where the character is in the frame, sounds as it is spoken loudly and clearly by someone sitting very close to a microphone, but you get used to it quickly enough. There are a few moments throughout the set where audio sounds slightly distorted, or drops off a bit, no doubt due to problems with the source material, but overall I didn’t notice any issues. Many of the films have robust scores, and the lossless audio preserves them well enough, if not too dynamically. Optional English subtitles are provided for all six films.
This is another dual-release format from Criterion. The boxed set includes three separate square keep-cases. Each has two DVDs (one for each film) and a single Blu-ray (with two films.) The three keep cases fit into the larger cardboard case which also has room for the thick insert booklet.
Each of the six films receives a brief (approx. 2 min.) introduction by Martin Scorsese and then each comes with a separate interview feature. For “Touki Bouki,” director Abderrahmane Sissako (12 min.) speaks very warmly about Mambéty’s career, arguing his case as one the greats of world cinema. On “Redes,” we get a visual essay (8 min.) written and directed by Kent Jones and narrated by Bruni Burres which provides an overview of the film’s unique production story.
For “A River Called Titas,” filmmaker Kumar Shahani speaks (15 min.) about his former teacher Ritwik Ghatak, and on “Dry Summer,” director Fatih Akin talks (15 min.) about director Metin Erksan and we get a few brief snippets of a 2008 interview with Erksan, who passed away in 2012.
The short program “On Trances” (2013) mixes interviews with producer Izza Génini, director Ahmed El Maânouni, and band member Omar Sayed. For “The Housemaid,” director Bong Joon-ho (15 min.) discusses how his generation of filmmakers and film enthusiasts re-discovered Kim Ki-young’s largely out-of-circulation work.
The best extra of all is the thick square-bound insert booklet that tucks in next to the three keep cases. The 64-page booklet has an all-star lineup of critics. It kicks off with an overview of the World Cinema Project by Kent Jones and then includes lengthy, substantive essays on each individual film: Richard Porton writes on “Touki Bouki,” Charles Ramírez Berg on “Redes,” Adrian Martin on “A River Called Titas,” Bilge Ebiri on “Dry Summer,” Sally Shafto on “Trances,” and Kyung Hyun Kim on “The Housemaid.” The essays are ambitious in scope, sometimes not only contextualizing the films within the director’s body of work, but tackling an overview of an entire national cinema. One of the most fascinating pieces of information I learned: many films in South Korea were destroyed in the ’60s and later because of a new fad in which people circled their straw hats with a strip of celluloid.
A release by Criterion guarantees a wide audience, and this exciting first volume of “Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project” expands the collection’s breadth significantly. I have no knowledge of any precise plans for further upcoming Criterion release in the series, but other titles restored by the World Cinema Project are, to say the least, quite appealing: Ousmane Sembène’s “Borom Sarret,” Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s amazing “Mysterious Object At Noon,” and Edward Yang’s “A Brighter Summer Day” are just a few releases to look forward to.
For now, we’ll have to get by with a set that includes some pretty sensational films. Perhaps “Touki Bouki” is the standout, but “A River Called Titas” is no slouch. And I sure liked “Dry Summer.” “The Housemaid” is damn fun. Fortunately, there’s no need to choose just one. Or two. Or three.