2020년 8월 26일 수요일

Thoughts on ROAD TO KINGDOM - Part II: Evaluating The Boyz & Pentagon Stage Performances

Continuing our discussion of the Road to Kingdom show from Mnet, I and Alessandra are now ready to look at some samples from the shows. Again as before the texts are copyrighted to Kyu Hyun Kim and Alessandra Kim and cannot be cited without explicit permission from both authors. All screenshots are copyrighted to Mnet/CJ E&M and used under the fair use rule pertaining to the US copyright laws.

Q: Let’s talk about their stage performances individually, then, shall we?  First up is The Boyz’s creative adaptation of Taemin’s Danger, uploaded on May 14, 2020, the video of which is currently pulling approximately 2.83 million views (as of August 23. 2020: the full performance version is at appx. 2.1 million views).

A: This is an ambitious reinterpretation, as the original is done solo by Taemin, with back dancers.

Q: The intro is superb.  It is mysterious and pulls the viewers right in, along with the visually arresting imagery of a pocket watch swinging like a pendulum, and the members striking poses like mannequins, hiding their faces.

A: I feel that the idea of “phantom thieves” is much more clearly articulated here than in Taemin’s original MV.

Q: They seem to deploy the references to “Western” cultural tropes very well too.

A: The Boyz has some excellent English speakers among its members.  However, linguistic fluency is not the same thing as cultural fluency.

Q: So true.

A: Kevin Moon (and also Jacob Bae) among the members is originally from Canada, and he contributes much to the English- or American-culture-inflected staging done by The Boyz. 

Q: I wonder how much they had the control over the camera angles and movements?

A: I am sure the latter had been pre-coordinated with the choreography. No matter how elaborate and ingenious the choreography is, if the dance is seen only from the front, it could get boring.

Q:  Would you say that certain aspects of their choreography, such as use of hand gestures, are distinct from those of other boy groups?

A: Their choreography is certainly not like that of girl groups, who usually put a lot of delicate movements into their hand gestures (the opening of Twice’s Feel Special, or the ending part of IZ*ONE’s Secret Story of the Swan, for instance). Nonetheless, they make use out of most of their body parts in precise and intricate patterns.  Their dances could get insanely complex, but their synchronized symmetrical formations somehow never strike one as chaotic or confusing.

Q: Do you think The Boyz present the narrative or theme of their stage presentations well?

A: They were really the group with a consistent theme that ran through all of their presentations. Their performances of Danger, Reveal, and their final stage, Checkmate, were, for example, threaded through by the themes of the loss of kingship, its retrieval and new challenges to it.  

Q: I think they understand the essential point, or core message, of the myth they are taking on much better than other teams.  Verivery’s reinterpretation of Mamamoo’s Gogobebe was well done, but its evocation of Aladdin and his magic lamp was really based on the Disney film, not the story of Aladdin himself in The Arabian Nights (which, according to some sources, was apparently a later addition to the collection with no evidence that an authentic Arabic text of the story had existed, not to mention that Aladdin was originally supposed to be a Chinese!).

Q: Let us then look more closely into Pentagon’s performance of Monsta X’s Follow, uploaded in June 11, 2020, and currently (as of August 23, 2020) registering just under one million views (the full-length version records approximately 752 thousand views).  I happen to really like Monsta X’s original, and the changes Pentagon have made to both the music and choreography are intriguing.  The tempo has been slowed down considerably, which suits Pentagon’s current style. Hui also as usual showcases his great range as a vocalist not to mention virtuosity as a music producer-arranger.  Do you think perhaps he is too much of a dominant figure?

A: I think Hui adds a lot as a leader and a musical talent to the team’s identity.  It is in a way inevitable that he sometimes overshadows individual members, given his strong personality and emotional power he projects.

Q: Some leaders are like orchestra conductors, more concerned with how each member does with his or her instruments (vocals, dances, rap, etc.) and bringing them into a total harmony than his or her own performance, but Hui is definitely more of a lead singer of a band.

A: Yes, but it is also true that without him Pentagon would probably not retain its distinctive color. 

Q: How about the choreography?

A: Some of the set pieces they put together for the Follow performance are quite terrific. The spreading-multiple-hands routine is actually very difficult to pull off.  I feel, though, that it and other set pieces are not as organically linked to one another as they could have been.


Q: Was there any concern about cultural misrepresentation or appropriation among international fans about the stage’s “Egyptian” motif, as much as Verivery’s Gogobebe adaptation generated?

A: I honestly do not know.  In the show, Hui and Yuto disclose a funny exchange about how the latter misheard “Follow” and “Pharaoh” and inspired the former to come up with this Egyptian motif, but I don’t know if that’s entirely true.  Perhaps the original song’s “Middle Eastern” flavor has possibly inspired Hui to go to that direction.  There is also good use of camera direction that appropriately highlight some members doing rap interludes and Hui’s high-note vocal performance.

Q: It is interesting at least for me to observe that Pentagon’s performance is as masculine and aggressive as Monsta X, yet somehow feels different in flavor. I mean, different types of masculinity and aggressiveness.

A: Pentagon’s is darker. 

Q: Interesting you say that.  What would be a good word to describe Pentagon’s darker orientation? Resentment?  (Laughter) Maybe the French concept ressentiment, which was my choice for the translation of the Korean word han.

A: How about angst? 

Q: Wow, that’s really perfect. (Laughter) 

A: You have previously talked about Stray Kids in their songs like 19 and Chronosaurus the young people’s anxiety and trepidation as they are forced to grow up and become responsible social members. I think Pentagon’s songs and performances might project a similar but perhaps more distilled and focused sense of angst that resonate with many of their fans. 

Q: I find interesting that Woo-suk, not Hui, sits on the throne at the end of the performance. Is there a hidden message that he is the future king? 

A: Perhaps. I still feel that this was a very direct transition, from point A to point B, compared to what The Boyz have done throughout all of their performances, connecting all of them through a grand narrative of the kingship stolen and recovered.

Q: Any final thoughts on Pentagon’s Follow presentation?

A: I think they presented a solid performance. Their fans would be very pleased, but perhaps it has more of a cult appeal than something that could reach out to and convert non-fans into their devotees. 

Q: Let’s then talk about The Boyz’s adaptation of VIXX’s Quasi una fantasia, also uploaded in June 11, 2020 (viewed approximately 1.4 million times as of August 23, 2020, while the full performance version records approximately 1.6 million views).  It is not as flamboyant as their version of Danger, but it is equally impressive in the sophistication of design and harmonious presentation with every member participating fully.

A: Really wonderful.

Q: Would you consider their version “feminine,” with the striking visual set piece in which each member transforms into a flower petal.

A: Hmm, I don’t think they are quite “feminine” in the traditional sense, although for sure their dance moves are sinuous, fluid and beautiful.  The Chinese traditional dances and the Korean fan dance come to mind as I look at them. Truth be told, Ateez and The Boyz, among other K-pop groups, have always embraced a wide range of sexuality in their MVs and stage performances. 

Q: So have Monsta X, but the absence of, or perhaps more accurately, deviation from the Western sense of masculinity does not seem to affect their aggressivity.

A: True.  In any case, the formations are exquisitely worked out, without any enforced sense of rigidity, as in a military formation. 

Q: The use of props, as usual, is ingenious.

A: Yes, the flowers gradually blooming, expressed through a dolly movement of camera over the group members dancing with different versions of a tree branch, for one.  This is my choice for the most beautiful performance put together throughout the whole Road to Kingdom show of this season.


Q: I almost wish that The Boyz could put up a stage musical, or even a musical film that simply takes the old and new kings and the “growth” motifs they had deployed throughout the show and fleshes them out into a straight narrative.

A: That would be legit fabulous.

Q: Well, thank you so much for this highly entertaining and educational conversation.  I hope we can come back for more discussions of various aspects of the contemporary K-pop, visual, performative and musical, the whole pizza, crust, cheese, toppings and all.

A: You are most welcome, Professor! 








2020년 8월 25일 화요일

Thoughts on ROAD TO KINGDOM: The K-pop Boy Groups Compete Against One Another, and Present Some Amazing Performances- PART I

Hello, for fellow fans of and those curious about the current popularity of k-pop as a cultural phenomenon as well as a genre of musical performance, I am planning to upload a series of pieces on k-pop throughout the remainder of this year and early next year.   I would like start with a discussion of the South Korean TV show Road to Kingdom.  Joining me as a researcher and a discussant is Alessandra Kim (pictured on the right), Senior majoring in History and International Relations at University of California, Davis, and a longstanding member of the EKHO Dance team, a k-pop cover dance group (you can check their latest [August 18, 2020] performance video here.    

Road to Kingdom, aired from April 30 to June 18, 2020, was a TV show developed by the major Korean music entertainment company, Mnet, and aired on its broadcasting service, in which seven k-pop boy groups competed against each other to secure a spot in the upcoming show Kingdom, which will begin later this year. The seven groups were chosen due to their supposedly “lesser known” status among Korean music fans, and included Pentagon, ONF, Golden Child, The Boyz, Verivery, Oneus, and TOO. Every round of performances had a certain theme that the groups were able to interpret freely and creatively, allowing them to showcase specific talents in the composition, production and performance.  Q indicates Kyu Hyun Kim, and A indicates Alessandra Kim below. All texts herewith are copyrighted to Kyu Hyun Kim and Alessandra Kim and cannot be reproduced or used without permission of both Kims. All screenshots are used under the fair use rule applied in the United States and are copyrighted to Mnet/CJ E&M, unless otherwise indicated.

Q:We can begin with what Mnet had in mind when they created this show Road to Kingdom, as a sequel to Queendom. Obviously, they would not have come up with it if the latter had not been successful. However, as we all know, they were subject to extensive criticisms due to the big scandal involving the manipulation of the rankings of participants for their previous hit survival audition programs, the Produce 48 and 101 series.  Have you read and heard any criticism of Queendom or Road to Kingdom regarding this issue?  In other words, the complaints that the rankings of the participating teams have been “rigged,” or otherwise do not accurately reflect the input from the viewers?

A:  I think these two shows have different methods for generating their rankings.  For a rundown of how votes were calculated for Road to Kingdom, you can take a look at hereThe contest results of the show were generated from a point system that consisted of four rounds of gaining points: Round 1 and 2 set the maximum points at 10,000 each, and Round 3 for15,000 points, but each round had different scoring criteria. Round 1 was entirely based on votes from the contestants. Round 2 was based 30% on contestant votes and 70% on online audience votes. Round 3 was similar to Round 2, but the extra collaboration stages had a different calculating system wherein contestants and online audience voters would rank the collaboration teams from 1st to 3rd.  A fourth round, called the “comeback round,” was absent from Mnet’s female version of the show, Queendom , and consisted of the points being awarded for online streams from fans on YouTube and Naver TV. This was done to replace the live audience votes, who could not attend the performances due to COVID-19.

(Road to Kingdom publicity still photo showing Pentagon: copyrighted to Mnet/CJ E&M)

Q:Yes, though it still makes little sense that Golden Child was dropped.

A: I totally agree.

Q: When The Boyz did the third-round competition of Sunmi’s song…

A: The Heroine.

Q: Yes, The Heroine. They made sure that Golden Child’s name was included among the shouts-out to the participants, even though the latter had already been eliminated. They (and other teams) continued to refer to them as “seven teams.” I think there is a subtext that the participating idol groups are perhaps not happy with the elimination process, not so much with the idea of competition itself or how the rankings are generated. And I think The Boyz was trying to express that unhappiness, within the limits of what was allowed in the program, of course. I would love to watch an interview, maybe years later, in which they could frankly discuss what they really thought of the survival format of this program and programs like this. 

A.  Some fans have raised the issue of TOO participating in with these teams because they just were too new, having debuted on April 1st, 2020, less than one month before the show formally begun. Of course, it was due to no fault of their own that they ended up there: it’s not like they insisted on being picked. It would have made more sense, though, had other groups been rookies as new as them.

Q: I almost felt sorry for them. It was clear from their attitudes that they found having to compete against such seasoned groups intimidating or awkward.

A: Right, there was a sense of sympathy among the fans for TOO that it was rather unfair for them to have been burdened with this situation.

 Q: There was actually a scene where TOO’s leader, Lee Jae-yun, wept after seeing Pentagon’s Shine stage. I felt really sorry for him, because I don’t think it was just because he was moved by Pentagon’s performance and tribute to its oldest member, Jin-ho, due to be inducted into military service. He looked actually distressed and was probably reminded that even if everything went all completely successful in their future career, they would still have to face this moment of unwilling parting due to the military service. Who could have been the alternate group had they gone for more experienced one instead of TOO?

A: Ateez, maybe, but then again, they are already rumored to be a contender for Kingdom, the upcoming series in which The Boyz will compete as the result of winning the Road competition.

Q: Interesting, you like Ateez, right?

A: I do!  But their fandom is perhaps smaller than other well-known boy groups, and some thought that they should have participated in Road to generate publicity.

Q: The Boyz did an amazing job with their performances in the show. Is that a consensus opinion among those you know?

A: Many of my friends are already fans of The Boyz and Oneus, so they were predisposed to root for these teams, but yeah, many do agree that The Boyz did the fabulous job.

Q: Pentagon is very experienced but perhaps seen as a perennial underdog?

A: Yes, they went through a lot of hardships, their original member E’Dawn departing not too long after their debut, and so on, and now their oldest member is going into military service. I think they have a very strong and dedicated fandom, but the latter’s size is not expanding much.

Q: Why do you think that is the case?

A: I think some people I know, and maybe fans I have observed, prefer Pentagon’s sunny, optimistic songs like Shine, Naughty Boy and Humph!  Many of them became fans of Pentagon due to these songs. But they are a bit befuddled, perhaps, by the dark, psychologically tormented music recently put together by Hui, the team’s super-talented leader.

Q: What about Oneus?

A:  They had a lot of fans carried over from survival shows, including Produce 101 and Mix Nine. My favorite Oneus song is Lit: I mostly love it for its interesting choreography. In my view they need some kind of clear-cut concept or signature style. 

Q: Hwanwoong is much praised for his dance skills.

A: Yes.

Q: In the show, they come across as so young and cute.  Especially compared to, say, Pentagon, who looked grizzled and, like, full of han (Korean word for ressentiment, although difficult to translate). [Laughter] ONF is supposed to be read as “On and Off?”

A: Yes, I do think their dance skills are great.  Unfortunately their existing fandom has been comparatively smaller in size. They are still not very well known.  I hope Road has made some impact in publicizing their talents to the general public.

Q: Personally, I feel their music is really great, especially Moscow Moscow, which does not sound like a k-pop idol song at all.  Now we come to Golden Child.

A: I think they are disadvantaged because they lack a senior team, like BTS for TXT at Big Hit, who could serve as a sort of locomotive that has laid out the rails for them to advance on.Their MVs are clean, pleasing and illustrate the skills of the members pretty well, but perhaps could have been made a bit more attention-grabbing.

Q: For the performances in Road, I really loved those of The Boyz, ONF and Golden Child. Those were my favorite teams in terms of the appeals of the stage performances they put together. Did you think the things that The Boyz pulled off in the show, for instance, were also present in their previous outings, such as MVs?

A: I think they have had much greater access to resources this time around. But The Boyz had always boasted one of the cleanest, most harmonized choreography styles among boy idol groups. I would choose Astro, Seventeen and The Boyz as my top three teams in the cleanest, neatest choreography category.

Q: It was really interesting to compare The Boyz’s MV of Reveal and their stage presentation of the same song in the second round of Road. I felt that their official MV was more about internal struggles, about the gap between what one retains inside and what he (or they) allows to be shown to other people.  And the visuals reflected that sense of walled-off anxiety. But the performance version was altogether different. It was really like watching a series of classic paintings: it came off as not a plea for love, but a confident declaration of power. They had all members and dancers were captured in a magnificent vista at the climax. After seeing this, I am thinking like, hey, they should just make their own MVs from now on. [Laughter]

A: I think The Boyz just took all the available resources and made full use out of them. In my view they made most of the fact that they had a lot of members: eleven, I believe. To be sure, there are advantages and disadvantages for having a large group as opposed to a small one. Having said that, like Seventeen, The Boyz designs elaborate formations and moves that highlight seamlessness and sophistication of their group choreography.

Q: They do not seem to rely too much on aggressive gestures or what I would call “martial arts” dance moves. [Laughter]

A: It is important to have a good range of intensity in dance moves: if you keep your dances “powerful” and fast all the time, it could become tiring and repetitive. The “quieter” moves are not necessarily easier to execute and require a lot of coordination as well.

 Q: Let’s talk about storytelling, or narrative elements embedded in the stage performances, conveyed through singing and dancing. The Boyz-Oneus collaboration stage was interesting to me, because it was self-reflexive: they took Sunmi’s song and made it essentially about being an idol singer.

A: It was a great idea, in the sense that the staging was already taking place in the context of all the prefatory steps they were taking, which were shown as a part of the Road to Kingdom show. So the viewer’s awareness of this context created a level of extra depth to the performance, rendering it more meaningful. 

Q: Do you have some sense of how non-Korean/international fans perceive the result of the competition?

A: I think most of them agree that The Boyz deserved to win.  But a sizable number of those whose opinions I have surveyed felt that Oneus should have ranked higher.

Q: What do you think is the reason for such low scores for Oneus? 

A: I just feel that they cannot do as many things as some other teams, because there are only six members, and with an even number of members, making formations could be a challenge. The audience has to be able to see all members, and I think Oneus has to go an extra mile than, say, The Boyz does, to design an impactful performance in a confined stage simply because of these physical reasons.

Q: Road to Kingdom was initially advertised as a show in which rookie groups compete to make themselves known. In reality, the only group that met that criterion was TOO. The rest were actually industry veterans, especially Pentagon, more or less unfairly treated by the whole system, I think, and I could feel that there was this added subtext to the whole show, almost a sense of rage, like they were all internally screaming “We have all been unjustly neglected for all these years!” while posing and smiling for the camera.  In a way, this hyper-competitive situation is analogous to the Korean social system, or Korean educational system. You are so frigging talented to begin with but you nonetheless work like a mule for three years, five years, and finally you get a chance to sit on this one chair reserved for only one winner, in a place already teeming with equally talented and hardworking competitors.  [Laughter and Sighs]

Just for fun, can you speculate who would be competing members for the Kingdom show?

A: Well, the internet speculation ranged far and wide: Ateez, Monsta X, Seventeen, NCT 127, Stray Kids, Astro, Nu’uest, TXT, SF9, and iKON.

Q: Who would you root for?

A: Ateez, but there is a worry about the significant gap between Korean and international perceptions of the group.

Q: Can you explain to me why such differences of perception have arisen?  You are in a unique position to see this issue from both sides.

A: When they debuted, I think their MVs, dances and music were conceptually very strong, but perhaps considered too edgy for some Korean viewers.  International fans embraced their hard-core hip-hop styles and I also think they are extremely versatile. Still, I do not really know why they are not as popular in Korea. They never score well in the Korean music show competitions and it is frustrating. 

The brand reputation rankings the Korean Business Research Institute releases (and reported here by soompi for the month of May, 2020, for instance, does not even include Ateez in the top thirty (in fact, no team that had participated in Road to Kingdom, including The Boyz and Pentagon, is included). The groups ranked in the top ten are BTS, Oh My Girl, EXO, Blackpink, Twice, (G)I-DLE, NCT, Red Velvet, IZ*ONE and Seventeen.  There is also the Billboard Social 50, which is a popularity chart based on followers, online engagement, and streaming. I do not have access to the official lists, but Twitter accounts dedicated to charting and streaming a certain k-pop group will provide weekly or daily updates (For instance, https://twitter.com/ateez_charts). Other notable rankings include number of Spotify streams, Apple Music rank, Twitter mentions and trends, Gaon album chart, Naver real time search, Genie music streams, and so on.   

Q: Despite suspicions about the ranking system and vote counting that Mnet is saddled with now, Road to Kingdom seems to have served some useful purposes for the participating groups. They had many good arenas to showcase their talents. I am truly happy for The Boyz in particular and the way they made the best out of this opportunity was impressive.  I also must say I was very touched by the camaraderie and respect the boys (not just The Boyz but all boys ^ ^) displayed toward one another, as the young people engaged in the same profession and life-goals. I really admire their professionalism and dedication to their music, dance and performances. The Boyz is right, they are all in this together and they deserve each other’s support.

A: I agree that it is refreshing to see k-pop groups interacting on this level and being not only respectful, but encouraging and supportive as well. In an industry that seems so territorially divided by entertainment companies, it is nice to see all the groups together, in a show that is less brutally cutthroat than, say, the Produce series. However, since some of these groups were more of “rookies” compared to others, I still feel as if there was a barrier of respect and seniority. If Kingdom manages to put together a lineup in which all participating teams have the equal footing and the comparable level of experience within the industry, it will be interesting to see how those groups interact, since I’m sure some of them are already friends.

(In Part 2, we look in detail into select stage performances!) 

2020년 4월 30일 목요일

Il cento notte di orrore PART 4- DANIEL ISN'T REAL (2019), UNDERWATER (2020) & THE DEAD CENTER (2018)

Still not giving up! I am back with the fourth installment of Il Cento notti di orroreOne Hundred Nights of Horror review series. It’s more than a year, in fact, that I have put up the last installment. The delay has little to do with the frightening pandemic sweeping the world at this moment, that has rightfully elevated Stephen Soderbergh to the seat of the prophetic film artist of twenty-first century (which he probably did not want, but what can I say? I cannot watch the film again at this moment, despite its hopeful ending, for fear of becoming too depressed). I am certainly not enjoying wads of free research time, and the promised glut of film reviews for both Koreanfilm.org and M’s Desk are, surprise, surprise, not exactly materializing. M’s Desk at least has old Korean-language reviews from more than a decade ago that can be uploaded with less-than-extensive revisions.  If I could not get my academic work done with great efficiency, I thought I would at least get the film reviews flowing, but of course, having little time to do one often means having little time to do the other, as well.  Anyway, enough cranky talks.   

Needless to say, not contributing anything to Q Branch does not mean I have stopped watching movies, although even in this area I have more or less failed to adequately catch up with the untouched and unopened piles of Blu Rays.  More cheating: I have uploaded the reviews of three Korean horror films recently to our mothership site— 0.0MHz, The Divine Fury and Warning: Do Not Play— so they will count as Nos. 11, 12 and 13. Therefore, this list shall start with No. 14. Well, we are approaching the 1/6 point of the hundred pretty soon. Ever optimistic that we shall see through it by the end of this physical year (what a strange year 2020 is shaping up to be!).  As usual, the rating system is based on the Japanese critic Futaba Juzaburo’s invention: a white star counting for twenty points, and a black star for five points, with somewhere between 55 and 60 points pinned down as the “average” score, given that almost no movies actually score higher than 90 or lower than 30.      

14. Daniel Isn’t Real (US, 2019). A SpectreVision/ACE Pictures Entertainment Co-Production, distributed by Samuel Goldwyn Films. 1 hour 40 minutes, Aspect Ratio 2.39:1. Directed by Adam Egypt Mortimer. Written by Brian De Leeuw, based on his novel In This Way I Was Saved. Cinematography: Lyle Vincent. Music: Clark.  Watched through subscription: March 2020, Shudder.  SpectreVision, a company co-founded by The Hobbit star Elijah Wood (who even manages with his associates a podcast series interviewing major horror-fantasy creators, available via Amazon and other venues), is fast becoming the go-to production house for me to catch the new American indie horror opuses, outdistancing Blumhouse in terms of their batting averages as far as I am concerned. Their ninth motion picture, released theatrically just before Richard Stanley’s return vehicle Color Out of Space, received some welcome publicity due to its legacy casting, Miles Robbins, son of Tim and Susan Sarandon, and Patrick Schwarzenegger, son of Arnold and Maria Shriver, playing the introverted protagonist Luke and his “imaginary friend” Daniel.

At first glance, the film seems hopelessly conventional, trying its hand yet again at the split-personality premise that was already stretched to the breaking point in such mainstream thrillers/fantasies as Fight Club (1999) and Mr. Brooks (2007). However, Brian De Leeuw’s screenplay is actually pretty clever: he quickly establishes that Luke is well aware that Daniel is his imaginary friend. Daniel, too, while appropriately suave and cocky, seems genuinely committed to Luke’s welfare, not just offering the latter the timely advice to look and talk cool but also compelling the shy young man to confront some tough truths about his life (at one point Daniel helps Luke prevent his mother [a convincingly disturbed Mary Stuart Masterson] from committing suicide), before revealing his true colors. I was not expecting much in terms of the emotionally affecting interaction between these two, but, to my surprise, the movie takes time to build their relationships, and manages to capture interesting ambiguities in Luke’s “friendship” to Daniel. The young actors are also more than adequate in their respective roles: Patrick Schwarzenegger is rather restrained and believable as the darkly handsome Daniel, with just the right amount of flashes of reptilian sadism. Miles does not get to show his acting prowess properly until he is “taken over” by Daniel but is nonetheless able to convey Luke’s intelligence and anxiety without reducing him to a whiny schmuck. 

Daniel Isn’t Real starts off by semi-seriously exploring the psychological traumas suffered by Miles but by the two-thirds point transforms into a blatant monster show, wearing the influences of the better-known ‘80s horror films such as second and third installments of Nightmare on Elm Street series on its cuffs. It might disappoint some viewers who would have preferred the movie to take the Fight Club route, but I, for one, liked its somewhat reckless indulgence in gloppy special effects makeup and the borderline-chintzy massage-parlor-cum-haunted-mansion ambience representing Luke’s subconscious realm. Sure, its frantic climax and ending probably needed a few more tucks and trims: the denouement certainly makes sense in terms of character motivation but, given the affecting performances given by the leads up to that point, could have been much better. All in all, though, Daniel deserves a praise: it is a clever and charming horror flick that does not pretend to be more meaningful than it is. Another third-base hit from SpectreVision. 

15. Underwater (US, 2020). A 20th Century Fox Presents TSG/Chernin Entertainment Co-Production. 1 hour 35 minutes, Aspect Ration 2.35:1. Director: William Eubank. Screenplay: Brian Duffield, Adam Cozao. Cinematography: Bojan Bazelli. Production Designer: Naaman Marshall. Special Visual Effects: Blair Clark. Music: Marco Beltrami, Brandon Roberts. Rented April 7, 2020: Vudu.  In retrospective, Alien has turned out to be perhaps the most influential horror SF films of the last half-century, providing templates for countless features, nearly as much as The Exorcist has done for demon-possession/religious horror sub-genre. Underwater is yet another one that could count itself among the progenies of the Ridley Scott-directed classic, right down to the protagonist Norah (Kristen Steward), clearly an updated version of the original’s Ripley (Signourney Weaver’s star-making role).  Right away, the film puts a select crewmembers of an undersea drilling operation (run by a shady corporation with a Chinese-sounding name Tian Industries) into a life-or-death crisis, as the seventy percent of the station collapses in a matter of minutes, killing most of the personnel. They have to deal with the unimaginable levels of water pressure as well as a hitherto unknown species of deep-sea creature, the existence of which, the flashing main titles ominously suggest, has been covered up by the corporate interests. 

Like Brad Pitt-starring Ad Astra, Underwater is technically well put together: it showcases what a high-end Hollywood production could achieve both in terms of creating a superbly realistic setting, tightly sealed yet overrun by all manners of rubble and debris, and depicting a completely otherworldly deep-sea environment nonetheless devoid of neither life nor illumination. Director William Eubank is certainly capable of wrangling complicated action sequences and visually conveying the terror and mystery of the deep-sea environment, but as was the case with The Signal, on the strength of which he was probably able to nab this project, he has not yet learned how to modify his chosen template into something original or powerful in its own way (Some wags over-exaggerate the “conventional” quality of Dan O’Bannon’s screenplay for Alien, citing other precedents such as Planet of the Vampires and It! Terror from the Outer Space. I am quite certain that O’Bannon, had he survived [he died in 2009] to see the way Ridley Scott continued with the Alien franchise, his response would have been unprintable, at the very least useless for the purpose of promoting the latter films). 

The surviving crew members are nicely played by an appropriately multiracial cast— a jokester with a teddy bear fixation (T. J. Miller), an African deckhand (Mamoudou Athie), an Asian biologist (Jessica Henwick) and a frazzled otaku engineer (John Gallagher, Jr.)— but their odyssey to reach the escape pods is rigorously conventional, no matter how technically complicated it gets (as soon as one character insists, “the Shepard station is dead, there’s nothing there,” you know immediately that the allegedly destroyed station will show up in some capacity). At least Vincent Cassel as the captain of the rig gets to play a decent guy.

For me, the best thing Eubanks and company have done was to cast Kristen Stewart in the title role. Stewart, always an underrated actress even after working with the likes of Woody Allen, Ang Lee and Oliver Assayas, initially looks all wrong for a Ripley stand-in, with her cruel blonde-dyed crew cut, but even when she has to run around in bikini underwear (just like what Sigourney Weaver had to do in Alien’s final reel), she projects a winning combination of resilience and vulnerability.  While she carries the entire narrative on her shoulders like Atlas, Stewart is unable to uptick the creativity quotient of this slickly made studio blockbuster. Especially disappointing from my perspective is the design of the Big Mama monster finally revealed at the end: it is better than the ridiculous eels-sprouting-from-a-pufferfish thing that shows up in the inexplicably popular Deep Rising, but mostly it reminds us just how incredible H. R. Giger’s design work for Alien really was, and how essential a memorable design is for a monster show like this. ☆☆☆

16. The Dead Center (US, 2018). A Sequitur Cinema/LC Pictures Production. 1 hour 33 minutes, Aspect Ratio 1.85:1. Written and directed by Billy Senese. Cinematography: Andy Duensing. Producers: Shane Carruth, Denis Deck, Jonathan Rogers, Billy Senese. Editor: Jonathan Rogers. Music: Jordan Lehning. Purchased: Arrow Video Blu Ray, Region A. Release date: October 22, 2019. I probably would not have watched The Dead Center had Arrow Video not released it stateside in a special edition Blu Ray. Despite my efforts to keep abreast of any and all well-known horror & dark fantasy films stateside, sometimes an interesting example passes through the cracks.  Developed by director Senese and Jeremy Childs, who plays the Patient Zero in the feature, from their short film The Suicide Tapes, The Dead Center does not reveal its genre stripes until quite late in the plot. Before that, it focuses on the mounting frustrations and self-doubts of a psychiatrist Forrester (Shane Carruth, well-known for directing and starring in the indie mind-fornicator par excellence Primer), in what appears to be a dour, low-budget version of The Hospital.  When he encounters a patient who has inexplicably returned to life after committing a suicide (Childs), Forrester at first genuinely tries to help the latter with all the available tools of the trade. However, his perception of reality begins to slip from his control as he realizes that the Patient Zero had apparently been affected by a phenomenon, or a malicious being, left deliberately unclear which in the film, provisionally called “Mouth of Death.”  

The Dead Center is the kind of phlegmatic, you-should-be-afraid-of-shadows-in-the-corners-of-your-room psychological freakout that one tends to associate with the heydays of contemporary J-horror, although its reigning masters such as Kurosawa Kiyoshi and Miike Takashi have been making much more robustly genre-knowledgeable, straightforwardly “scary” films than Senese’s. It is quite successful in generating an atmosphere of quietly anticipated dread and stained-brown-hued despair, held together by an effective performance from Carruthers (looking like a handsomer version of Ron Silver), ably supported by Poorna Jagannathan as his equally harried supervisor and Childs as the mysterious (possibly undead) victim. The scenes set in the morgue, hospital rooms and corridors have that uncomfortable sense of wrongly lit rooms threatening to disclose some disgusting details about its walls or floors at any moment. This pervasive atmosphere is the best thing about the film.

Unfortunately, once Dr. Forrester goes over the edge and become convinced that some Evil Presence is lurking inside the Patient Zero, The Dead Center gets locked into a conventional structure of a zombie plague film, with the typical downer of an ending thematically sensible (especially in regard of what Senese wanted to convey in terms of his motivation in making the film, trying to make sense out of a close friend’s suicide) but emotionally unsatisfying. It might have been helpful, at least for me, if the visualization of “Mouth of Death” was less abstract than it is in the film, or conceptually truly out-there.  As it stands, the final third of the film neither reaches the Lovecraftian heights of plain weirdness, nor provides some intriguing insights about its characters and their psychology.  Having said this, I must say that the abrasive and nerve-wracking sound design of this film, that comes across with all the bells and whistles— or in this case, all the screeches and moans— in the Arrow Blu Ray version, does its job impressively well.

The Dead Center is well-constructed, competently directed and acted, and is plenty creepy: it could well have been an US-indie-circuit equivalent of Kurosawa’s masterpiece Pulse (Kairo), but in the end, it wraps itself up all too neatly and tightly.  Still recommended to the fans of psychological horror (not really recommended to the fans of the medical or “body” horror, despite unnerving scenes involving an autopsy and so on). ☆☆☆★

2020년 1월 29일 수요일

My Favorite Twenty Blu Rays of 2019: A List

It was especially tough to come around to work on this list in 2020, given my annoying health conditions (not anything life-threatening, but this whooping cough or whatever has now stayed with me for nearly a month and shows no sign of leaving), and concentration of so many stressful personal matters— including death of a family member— in the months of November and December pushed everything into the already hectic month of January 2020,  jam-packed with teaching and book-writing schedules.  In any case, I was absolutely convinced that I would not be able to upload My Favorite Blu Ray list for the year 2019.  Well, what can I say, if you are reading this, I have somehow managed to complete it again this year. I am certifiably insane, is all I (or my wife) can say. Considering that I uploaded the My Favorite DVD list of 2008 in December 28 of that year, you can see how at-the-very-last-moment ritual it has become for me.  Well, maybe one day I might entirely give up on it.  But we have not yet reached that year, it seems.

Despite some personal setbacks and sorrowful events, 2019 was again a too-good-to-be-true year for a Blu Ray collector of classic cinema.  It also marked the year wherein I finally took care of one of my gotta-do agendas for the last half-decade, that is, purchasing a sixty-five-inch 4K Ultra HD OLED TV, with its 1.5 millimeter-thick screen to match the superb Home Theater setup in our living room.  We did get hold of an LG 4K Ultra HD Blu Ray player as well, but the enhanced format would not receive much attention until when I have thoroughly, exhaustively extracted the maximum pleasure out of sampling my existing Blu Ray collections, from the austere, magnificent black and white cinematography of Kobayashi Masaki’s Harakiri/Seppuku, to the kind of brilliant hues and depths of image never before enjoyed by the TV viewers now available due to HD restorations of classic TV shows such as UFO and The Persuaders, to the dodgy animation effects and grain-covered less-than-pristine looks of ‘80s horror opuses such as Hellraiser and its sequels.  Not surprisingly, having this greatly enhanced venue for viewing the new 2K & 4K HD transfers as well as meticulous restorations executed by valiant physical media companies only double and triple my appreciations of what they have done.

I should note here, though, that apparently for this TV the god-awful “True Motion” or whatever it is that they call it these days, which messes with the 24 frames-per-second rate of a motion picture so that it would look like a badly captured wedding video, was the default setup. I had to go into every (there was at least a dozen) picture mode and disable it one by one, except maybe for the “Sports Replay” mode.  It irks me to think that someone somewhere might be watching, say, North by Northwest or the original Star Wars in this cheapjack video-motion mode and think this is the “right” way to watch these classic films. Are any of you committing this kind of unpardonable sin by any chance? I couldn’t care less about in what mode you watch latest Marvel movies, but please, please do yourself a favor and turn off these fancy-schmantzy “video enhancement” functions while watching classic cinema.

I think I have made it clear some time ago that I do not pay attention anymore to the industry “prognosis” about “death” of the physical media.  What this prognosis really means is that the market size of the physical media is shrinking as that of the streaming giants is increasing, which we have known for the last twenty years. Big Yeti-hairy deal.  After all, why do you think the label Twilight Time chose to call themselves Twilight Time?  But I am increasingly convinced that, no matter how dominant the streaming service gets, there will always remain a rather significant section of the market reserved for the physical media.  I had once thought that they would go the way of VHS tapes or LP records, provided what Korean kids have been doing for the last decade (and presumably Sinophone kids will be doing in the future), i.e. giving the right for the viewers to “own” a movie at seven dollars per pop became a global practice.  But I honestly do not see Disney or Netflix turning this kind of practice into a global norm anytime soon.  Beside, Netflix has apparently decided that, without joining the boutique physical media market, they will never have the kind of respectability that old studios, say, Warner Brothers, still command, and reached out to Criterion Collection to release some of their choice items, Roma, The Irishman, Atlantics, Marriage Story and American Factory in 2020 (Remember my citation of this Collider piece last year about why Netflix had not really “made” it unless they released their more prestigious products through Blu Rays and DVDs?).   

So, we do not know if American democracy as we know could survive this year, or if North Korea could still remain intact as a belligerent quasi-monarchy by the end of this year, but one thing is certain: barring a global nuclear war or a massive scale alien “cleansing” of the earth’s most destructive parasitic organisms, i.e. humans, I would have collected dozens or more of highly desirable Blu Ray discs (this time, hopefully, a few 4K UHD ones as well).  Now, another list like this for 2020 is definitely not guaranteed.  Yet, its possible failure to materialize would have little to do with the unavailability of desirable or precious items, and would be all about my health, stress level or top-priority preoccupations at the year’s end. 

So much for the talk about the (uncertain) future! As is the case with every year, I would like to reiterate that this list is not a compendium of the greatest or even historically most meaningful Blu Ray releases in 2019, nor is it an assessment of best restorations or the most high-quality presentations of particular motion pictures: it is a highly personal, eclectic and eccentric report of the discs that I had purchased within the last year, with the operating keywords being “(re) discovery” and “emotional responses.”  Last year, I had spent such an agonizing time deciding the items between the ranks of twenty and thirty or so that I ended up inflating the number of the chosen ones to twenty-five.  This year, I am back to twenty (Thank God).  However, as my bilingual readers might have noticed, the selections do not exactly replicate the Korean-language version uploaded here.  It has occurred to me that I could easily have drawn up entirely different lists of fifteen Blu Rays for Korean- and English-language, but as you might have guessed, had I committed to that project, I would still be writing them during the Easter. 

So without further ado, let’s dive into the list! A note to those not familiar with Blu Rays: Region “A” discs are playable without modification in North America, Japan and South Korea, whereas Region “B” discs are playable only in Europe. I don’t know if Brexit is going to have any effect on this? Sorry, that was sarcasm.  

20.  La Prisonniére (1968, Region A, Studio Canal-Kino Classics)

One of the most visually stunning releases of classical cinema in 2019, this last film directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot might not sit well with a large chunk of contemporary critics and viewers, especially regarding what some of them might consider to be the great filmmaker’s retrograde view of his female protagonist, José, luminously embodied by Elisabeth Weiner.  She is a TV program editor in a rather European-style “open” marriage to sculptor Gilbert (Bernard Fresson), drawn to a sexual game of domination and humiliation practiced by their mutual friend, art gallery owner Stanislav (Laurent Terzieff). What ensues is, depending on your critical stance, either a super-cynical critique of the “revolutionary spirit” of ’68, especially its credo of emancipation through uninhibited celebration of sexuality, or a modern-day examination of the death of romance, as clinically disturbing in its honest exploration of the manipulation and distortion of emotional exchange in so-called “falling in love” situations.  Either way you cut it, La Prisonniére is not an easy film to like, or defend politically. 

Kino Lorber’s amazing presentation of this tough and disturbing yet fantastically beautiful film, based on the 4K restoration of original elements by Studio Canal, goes a long way to entice new viewers to resist pat denunciations of the film.  Lending them helping hands is the wonderful Kat Ellinger, who in a thorough and enthusiastic commentary makes the case for Clouzot’s final opus as a severely misunderstood and underappreciated masterpiece. Also included is a delightful interview of the still-luminous Elisabeth Wiener. 

19.  ffolkes (a.k.a. North Sea Hijack) (1980, Region A, Kino Lorber)

One of those mid-level genre films that you fondly remember from cable TV broadcasts or chance encounters as VHS tapes, the ridiculously titled ffolkes (not that North Sea Hijack is any better, to be truthful) was, as commentators Howard S. Berger, Steve Mitchell and Mondo Digital’s Nathaniel Thompson point out, made at the tail end of a British sub-genre of “marine techno-thrillers” specialized by the likes of Alistair McLean. Directed by the old Western hand and John Wayne associate Andrew V. McLagren, ffolkes ought be as stale as a piece of leftover Thanksgiving turkey. Instead, it turns out to be a charming and brisk action thriller that never overstays its welcome, and somehow navigates like a slippery eel through potential pitfalls, such as characterization of the protagonist Rufus Excalibur ffolkes (he insists on writing the last name all in small letters) as a blatant misogynist who loves cats instead of women.

Honestly, it would be dishonest for me to pretend that a film in which the sweaty Anthony Perkins looks the bearded Roger Moore directly in the eyes and intones, “I still don’t like your face,” would not hold a special place in my collection. And it comes in a Blu Ray presentation that has no right to be as bright and clear as the Antarctic ocean gleaming in the pale sunlight.

18. The Colossus of New York (1958, Region B, 101 Films)

Another minor classic that, far more than many other A-list SF films, had haunted my childhood memories, The Colossus of New York is a rather cheap production that employs a distinctive minimalist outlook, supervised by director Eugene Lourié, but with an indelible monster-hero who is also one of the cinema’s first fully realized cyborgs, a Golem-like hulking humanoid into which a genius scientist’s brain is deposited.  This film was released as a no-frills Blu Ray from Olive Films stateside in 2012, but for some reason I have missed out on it. 

I finally got a chance to watch it via my OLED TV through the Region B 101 Film’s release, so perhaps the wait was worth it.  Watching the film anew certainly confirmed its ahead-of-its-time prescience in relation to its serious exploration of such heady issues as merging of machines (“automations” as the film calls them) and human organisms, global environmental problems and ethics of extending one's life against his or her wishes.  Indeed, the protagonist’s father, Dr. William Spensser (Otto Kruger), comes off as a true villain of the piece, treating his son not as a human being but as a resource to be exploited for the benefit of the mankind. The startlingly surrealistic climax, in which the Colossus attacks a convention of scientists and journalists gathered at what appears to be a child’s nightmare version of the United Nations building, preserves the weird but effectively allegorical character of what could have been just another ‘50s killer-robot-on-rampage potboiler. 

The 101 Film release, in addition to its excellent transfer, comes with a droll but informative commentary by film historians Allan Bryce and Richard Holliss (a team who had previously recorded another spiffy commentary for the company’s Crack in the World Blu Ray).

17.  Woman Chasing the Butterfly of Death (1978, Region Free, Mondo Macabro)

Here’s one desperately wishing for a collective release of all of Kim Ki-young’s available filmography in Blu Ray! Woman Chasing the Butterfly of Death, better known in an abridged title, Killer Butterfly, is one of the craziest, most hilarious and simultaneously most unsettling films made by the mad genius Kim, whose cinematic universe is a perverse fantasy fairyland in which arch, existentialist observations and stark-raving-lunatic Freudian fetishes are deliriously blended with cheapskate special effects and hallucinatory visuals.

Mondo Macabro has come up with a new 4K transfer from (admittedly pretty beat-up) negative, presenting this rarely screened film in its best behavior, and fills up the supplements with such enlightening materials as interviews with the still-gorgeous actress Lee Hwa-si (utterly unforgettable from Kim’s sui generis masterpiece Ieodo), producer Jeong Jin-woo (a prolific director of his own, Does Cuckoo Cry at Night?, Janyeomok) and Our Intrepid Editor Darcy Paquet, among others.  A perhaps-too-strong pill of antidote for those who immediately think of “Buddhist temples” or, more specifically, Kim Ki-duk painting Buddhist sutras with a cat’s tail when “classic Korean cinema” is mentioned.

16. Of Flesh and Blood: The Cinema of Hirokazu Kore-eda (1995-2008, Region B, The British Film Institute)   

Even though I was moved to tears after watching The Third Murder and The Shoplifters and recognize him as one of the greatest living Japanese filmmakers, somehow Kore-eda Hirokazu’s works have never won me over completely.  All the same, watching these two most recent films by the master prompted me to look for a Blu Ray copy of Nobody Knows and Still Walking. Sure enough, as if they had telepathically responded to my request, the British Film Institute conflated these two gut-wrenching gems with two of Kore-eda’s earliest hits, After Life and Maborosi into a beautiful boxset.

It is truly worth the price of this boxset to be able to appreciate the supplements that carefully balance production histories, academic analysis and testimonies by the participants of Kore-eda’s cinematic projects. As an icing on the cake, the set comes with a 72-page companion pamphlet that really cannot be properly called a “booklet.” 

15. Fantomas: Three Film Collection (1964-1967, Region A, Gaumont-Kino Lorber)

Kino Lorber surprised us in 2017 by releasing a five-film collection of the French-language OSS 117 series that have been commonly thought as Gallic knockoffs of James Bond, but seen in the eye-opening gorgeous HD transfers, proved themselves to be fascinating entertainments on their own and not pale imitations of the British agent's antics.  This year Gaumont and Kino Lorber turn their attention to the 1960s adaptations of the venerable super-villain Fantomas directed by the redoubtable Andre Hunebelle. 

The motion pictures in question are more of physical comedies than crime thrillers, donating much time to sometimes-exasperating antics of Louis de Funes as Police Commissioner Juve, but they do come with the superbly charismatic Jean Marais, a onetime partner of Jean Cocteau, as both Fantomas and his journalist nemesis Fandor, whose eye-popping action stunts (at one point in full view climbing into a flying helicopter!) and larger-than-life yet utterly charming expressions recall classic Hollywood stars such as Kirk Douglas.  Not earth-shaking masterpieces of cinematic arts, the Fantomas trilogy (whose name, by the way, is apparently pronounced “Fantoma-S,” not “Fang-to-ma” as I have always thought) are nonetheless a thorough delight.

14. Slaughterhouse Five (1972, Region A, Arrow Video)

There was a time when I thought that George Roy Hill was one of the greatest American directors of all time. Not that I have come now to depreciate his works in comparison to the more critically celebrated American (or European) films of his generation, but for all my adulation of his filmmaking craft and commitment to characterization, Hill’s filmography is not as well represented in my collection, compared to, say, Sidney Lumet, William Friedkin, or even John Schlesinger.  Taking a big step toward amending this situation is Arrow’s release of this adaptation of the allegedly unfilmable Kurt Vonnegut novel, remastered with the new 4K transfer of the original negative.  Slaughterhouse Five, basically a powerful Viet Nam era slice of Americana, captures the mordant black humor, existentialist despair and flights of fancy in the allegorical mode of science fiction present in the Vonnegut novel and visualizes all these elements into a series of vignettes both achingly personal and grandiose, all backed up by elegant, non-bombastic (see the sentence below) classical tunes judiciously selected and arranged by Glenn Gould.  

It is an astonishingly faithful adaptation of Vonnegut, handled with exquisite care by one of the top labels operating in the Blu Ray market today. If you are looking for a famous SF film that trashes the agendas of the celebrated original novel, go watch 2001: A Space Odyssey.

13. Viy (1967, Region Free, Severin Films)

Based on Nikolai Gogol’s short story, Viy is one of those films that genuinely replicate the mysterious qualities of a childhood fairy tale that also contain truly frightening and nightmarish elements, largely inaccessible to the adults after they have grown up.  Only classic Disney films, with their mind-shatteringly scary sequences suddenly intruding into the consciousness of helpless children while watching such supposedly innocuous titles as The Snow White and Fantasia, seem to be able to match these qualities present in abundance in this Russian piece of phantasmagoria.

A big, pleasant surprise is that Severin Films took it upon themselves to release the remastered transfer of this delightful but genuinely scary classic in a special Blu Ray edition, complete with a lecture-slash-interview from the cult director Richard Stanley, an overview of the Soviet fantasy and SF by John Leman Riley, an author of books on Shostakovich and film music, and three silent shorts, including Queen of Spades, super-scary adaptation of a Alexander Pushkin story.  Хорошо́! 

12. The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987, Region Free, Second Run)

One of the most controversial and outright disturbing documentaries ever made, Hara Kazuo’s The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On is both a searing indictment of the normalization of war experience and a radical challenge to the ethical and epistemological perimeters of a documentary.  Okuzaki Kenzo, a self-proclaimed anarchist and a war veteran, is a deeply unhinged and maniacally driven individual who would stop at nothing to uncover the whitewashed truths about his squadron’s experiences at the tail end of the Pacific War— cruelties, murder, cannibalism.  The uber-documentarian Hara obsessively follows Okuzaki around, recording his increasingly urgent, angry and, frankly, frightening behavior, as the latter repeatedly violates the privacy of the fellow Pacific War veterans, disrupts the latter’s lives, and finally resorts to near-lethal violence to “squeeze” the truths out of them. If you had anticipated a genteel, “Japanese-like” rumination about the tragedies of a war, you would be knocked into speechless state of shock or a hasty retreat after hitting the eject button. Either way, you will never be able to think the same about Japanese war experience or documentary as an art-form after watching this jaw-dropping, deeply disturbing (but also, in many ways, positively exhilarating) film.

Amazingly, Hara Kazuo was actively involved in not only the transfer but also overall package design of this Second Run Blu Ray, providing a brand-new interview, alarmingly candid and illuminating. Not to be missed is a thoughtfully curated essays on the film by Tony Rayns, Jason Wood and Abe Mark Nornes’s extremely thought-provoking write-up of a conversation between Hara and Michael Moore (yup, that Michael Moore).

11. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978, Region B, Eureka! Masters of Cinema)

Fred Schepisi, one of the prominent Aussie immigrants to Hollywood who got started in ‘70s and early ‘80s, along with Peter Weir, Philip Noyce, Bruce Beresford, Gillian Armstrong and, ahem, George Miller, had already debuted with great acclaim with The Devil’s Playground (1976), perhaps the definitive Catholic Boy’s Boarding School film in cinema history, but he became internationally renowned for this overwhelming fictionalized account of the real-life “Breelong Murders” in 1900, that confronted head-on the darkest chapter in the history of his country.  Shockingly gruesome and unflinching, at times heart-stoppingly beautiful, calmly observant yet seething with urgency and suppressed outrage, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith captures that awesome moment in which the cumulative experiences of racism and exploitation and the damage it inflicts on human spirits, like swelling, scorching rivers of magma that flow underground, undetected for decades, suddenly erupts to the surface, and in the matter of seconds obliterate human lives.

In releasing this title, Eureka has employed the Australia-based Umbrella Entertainment’s new 4K transfer for its longer (2 hour 2 minutes) domestic release version and has done its own remastering for the slightly truncated (1 hour 47 minutes) international release version, resulting in two noticeably different color schemes, an intriguing choice for the consumers.  The supplements, starting with two commentaries, are firmly centered on director Fred Schepisi, the most interesting for me being a Q & A session with actor Geoffrey Rush interviewing Schepisi following a special screening during the 2008 Melbourne International Film Festival.

10. Rogue Male (1976, Region B, British Film Institute)

A surprise dual-format release from the BFI, Rogue Male (the intriguing title is apparently a reference to a bull elephant separated from its herd, yet who stalwartly survives, fighting the natural elements) is not so much a remake of Fritz Lang's Man Hunt (1941) as a return to the latter's literary source, Geoffrey Household's popular 1939 novel.  This BBC adaptation, filmed with obviously limited production resources nonetheless holds its own against the American adaptation, turning its fidelity to the source novel's gruff eccentricity and unadorned brutality into one of its virtues. The appropriate re-adjustment of the film's historical context also yields some additional pleasures, as it is quite openly critical of not only Neville Chamberlain's appeasement, which is to be expected, but also the chauvinistic and isolationist mentalities of the British elite society in late '30s (difficult not to notice some eye-rolling parallels with the Brexit in all these).  

Aside from production history-centered supplements, the excerpts from Eva Braun's home movies (approximately 7 minutes), somehow appearing slicker and professional movie-like than its recreation in the present film, and a reel of the British Union of Fascist March documentary (about 9 minutes) are also included. The latter, full of eager-beaver white Britishers, men and women, in comfortable, everyday getups, grinning and giving enthusiastic Sieg Heil salutes to the camera, is scored to an eerie, ambient electronic music composed by Chris Zabriskie (aptly titled "Raise Your Hand If You Think Evil is Increasing in This World").  

9. Hammer Collection No. 4: Faces of Fear (1958-1962, Region Free, Powerhouse Indicator)

Is it just me, or as Indicator piles up their fabulous box-sets of Hammer films and moves further away from the best-known Dracula and Frankenstein films toward the more obscure titles, it seems to me that they are doubling and tripling their efforts to present as much information and analysis as they could jam pack into these sets?  While we eagerly await volume 5 of Hammer film collection from Indicator, open for our perusal is their “Faces of Fear” collection, the highlight of which should surely be Joseph Losey’s apocalyptic horror-SFThe Damned.

Just speaking for this enigmatic and coldly superior indictment of the Cold War fatalism in the guise of scientific rationality, it is here available in a new 2K restoration of both 1 hour 36 minute international cut and the 1 hour 28 minutes domestic release cut, with literally hours of video and audio supplements that cover all aspects of production from its director, screenplay, location shooting, actors and music in addition to exhaustive academic and film-historical analysis of the film and its cultural contexts.  At this juncture it is quite impossible for me to imagine another Blu Ray edition that could even equal, much less surpass, Indicator’s frankly obsessive-looking husbandry of their catalogue titles.

8. A Bucket of Blood (1959, Region Free, Olive Signature Series)

A public domain title whose copyright protection has lapsed poses a singular but familiar problem for the producers and consumers of DVDs and Blu Rays. Basically, this situation allows any cheapjack company to release the disc of such a title without any concern for the best presentation, flooding the market with inferior, bargain-bin products. This in turn ends up taking away financial incentives for a decent label to invest in restoration of the original elements, reducing a chance of the title ever being seen in its best conditions. There have been some prominent examples of this specific type of nightmare for collectors, and it seems that Roger Corman’s Bucket of Blood might end up joining the limbo at least for a while. 

But not to worry!  Olive Signature Series, so far mainly notable for spiffy re-packaging of their earlier releases (High Noon, Invasion of the Body Snatchers) into must-have special editions, has joined the fray and given us a new 4K remastered edition of this cult classic, packed to the gills with witty and informative supplements, including an interview with the 91-year-old Dick Miller (who had passed away in January 2019: you will be missed!).  Seen in this glorious new transfer, A Bucket of Blood is revealed not so much a light-headed topical comedy as Corman’s trial run of sorts for his Poe adaptations, a genuinely effective psychological thriller that easily renders into obsolescence the snickering put-downs mainly based on its parodistic presentation of the Californian beatnik milieu.

7. The Ida Lupino Filmmaker Collection (1949-1953, Region A, Kino Lorber)

Perennially the figure cited when someone asks if there was any notable female director in the history of Hollywood cinema, Ida Lupino the director is best known for the genuinely unsettling film noir The Hitch-Hiker, but this collection gathers together in one boxset a strikingly diverse examples of her producing-directing-screenwriting-and-acting prowess, from her uncredited directorial debut film Not Wanted to her harrowing chronicle of a young dancer’s struggle with polio (Never Fear) and to a thoroughly absorbing examination of the self-delusion of an American patriarch (played with sensitivity by Edmond O’Brien) who believes his dual marriage to two women (played by Joan Fontaine and Lupino, the newly-married-wife and ex-wife of the film’s screenwriter and producer Collier Young) is a perfectly workable arrangement (Bigamist). 

Taken as a whole, Lupino’s keen eyes for dynamic cinematography, social consciousness and tough approach to characterization all declare themselves in these works, making a powerful case for her American auteur status. The collection is graced with excellent and committed commentaries by the likes of Imogen Sara Smith, Kat Ellinger, Barbara Scharres and Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and a reprint of the pioneering review-analysis of the Lupino opuses by the late critic Ronnie Scheib, a specialist in documentary films at Variety.

6. Cluny Brown (1946, Region A, Criterion Collection)

Every year I end up including, without really intending to do so, what you might call a small gem, an unassuming if not entirely obscure film directed by classic masters in between their better known great works or at the tail end of their magnificent careers.  Last year it was Frank Borzage’s Moonrise: this year it is Ernst Lubitsch’s last film, an utterly beguiling romantic comedy from 1946. It might be perhaps a stretch to read Cluny Brown as a feminist film, yet the eponymous orphan whose life aspiration is nothing other than working as a competent plumber, played with such heart-dissolving radiance by Jennifer Jones, is definitely not waiting for Charles Boyer’s “professor” to come and save her from an obligatory marriage to the town apothecarist. 

Breezy, witty, yet unexpectedly moving in its moment of authentic insight and compassion toward its verbose, life-loving protagonists, Cluny Brown is a complete delight as well as a motion picture that gives you the spiritual equivalent of dipping your toes into a stream of brilliant, clear water after an hour of satisfactory hike.  And, of course, leave it to Criterion Collection to bring it to the attention of collectors like myself.

5. Akio Jissoji: The Buddhist Trilogy (1970-1974, Region B, Arrow Academy)

If the ability of a label to locate, curate and present in the best available quality the rarest, the least expected yet most deserving titles in the vast ocean of world cinema of the past was the only yardstick for inclusion in this list, then it would be handily dominated by Arrow Video, even elbowing out Criterion Collection, especially since they have established the Arrow Academy imprint. The Sorrow and the Pity, Khrustalyov, My Car!, The Voice of the Moon, Walerian Borowczyk’s Short Films and Animation Collection, Luchino Visconti’s Ludwig, and more idiosyncratic yet essential titles have been available through it, in addition to the arthouse staples such as Fassbinders, Woody Allens, Eric Rohmers simultaneously covered by Criterion, Masters of Cinema and other labels. Yet, the one area that they truly leave their competitors in the dust are their catalogue of positively amazing Japanese-language titles, often packaged in bountiful special editions: Suzuki Seijun’s Taisho Trilogy and The Early Years volumes, the seven-disc set Kiju Yoshida: Love+ Anarchism, Horrors of Malformed Men, The Bloodthirsty Trilogy and, the most amazing of them all, Uchida Tomu’s Bloody Spear at Mt. Fuji.   

Not surprisingly at all, Arrow Video outdid itself again in 2019 by dropping on us the boxset that contains not only the so-called Buddhist trilogy, This Transient Life, Mandala and Poem, but also a later companion piece It was a Faint Dream, a series of Art Theater Guild productions directed by Jissoji Akio, well known in the field of SF-fantasy TV (some key episodes of Ultra Seven, for instance). Aggressively expressionistic, with their madly roaming and sprinting cameras, and disturbing in their amoral and politically suspect pursuits of beauty and understanding, Jissoji’s quasi-experimental, insanely vigorous films are tough to assess without prejudice, even tougher to get out of your mind once you have encountered them. And in truth I cannot think of a better venue than this meticulously packaged Blu Ray edition to access these films. As is the case with La Prisonniere, walking through these dangerous yet enticing pathways with us are sensitive yet candid (non-defensive) commentaries and introductions by David Desser, the premier English-language authority on the ‘60s and ‘70s Japanese art cinema.

4. Detour (1945, Region A, Criterion Collection)

Something of a surprise in the sense that Detour, a notorious Poverty-Row production that, under the direction of Edgar G. Ulmer, has become one of the premier examples of cinematic nihilism, perhaps the purest distillation of the film noir worldview ever committed to celluloid, might have been a better fit with an Olive Signature or Arrow Academy release.

In the real world it was of course Criterion Collection that carefully restored the problematic elements into a 4K HD transfer, presenting the film in its pristine, mesmerizing new looks along with a host of great extras, spearheaded by Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen, a witty, ironic but extremely informative and provocative documentary about the ostensible “King of B” auteur.   

3. Godzilla: The Show-Era Films (1954-1975, Region A, Criterion Collection)

Hey, I have little to say about this collection, other than to note that one of the reasons cited by at least one fellow reviewer-collector for not including it in the year’s end list, that nearly all of the Godzilla films found here have been previously released in the HD format, just did not fly with me.  On the contrary, I suspect Criterion’s massive collector’s album— with slots for eight Blu Rays carved into a hardcover picture-book cum jacket— is precisely designed to entice those of us, who have double and triple-dipped into the physical media well as far as Big G is concerned.

I mean, what can I say? Would Toho Co. be able to come up with something like this set? Not in a million years.  And yeah, we really deserve to see Godzilla vs. Megalon (in Japanese, by the way, there is no “n:” it’s just Megalo. And it is Radon in Japanese, a shortened form of Pteranodon, not Rodan, while we are at it) in a sparking HD presentation. People pay twenty bucks or more to purchase a 4K Ultra HD Blu Ray copy of Transformers: The Last Knight, for God’s sake.

2. Ultra Q (1966, Region A, Mill Creek Entertainment)

So it seems that the Showa-Era Godzilla collection would be the only item in the Japanese special effects-SF sub-genre to make it to this year’s list, but no, there was yet another surprise waiting in the trenches.  Mill Creek Entertainment has previously released DVD collections of Ultraman and Ultra Seven, unfortunately failing to clear up the controversy surrounding the sub-par quality of the transfer of the former (apparently due to the contractual mishap on the part of Tsuburaya Productions).  Now they are coming up with Blu Ray versions of these iconic series (and to the fandom’s delight, appear to be committed to turn out all classic Ultraman series from ‘60s and ‘70s in HD, including Return of Ultraman and Ultraman Ace), but it was their release of the proto-Ultraman series, the superbly intelligent and provocative Ultra Q, that really made collectors like myself sit up and notice.

Clearly benchmarking the US TV genre staples such as The Twilight Zone and Outer Limits, Ultra Q, ambitiously attempting to showcase at least one theatrical-film-grade monster or creature every week, was a happy confluence of high production quality, unbridled imagination opening up the sites for some genuinely intriguing SF ideas plus provocative social allegories, and swashbuckling but charmingly naïve protagonists.  A true classic of its kind, Ultra Q is presented by Mill Creek in an astonishingly excellent series of transfers, easily besting their Ultraman and Ultra Seven Blu Rays in clarity and detail. By the way, you might think that, even if a bit expensive, a True Bone (a Korean reference… sorry, I was teaching the other day about the ultra-rigid hierarchy of aristocratic categorization in the ancient Korea known as Bone Rank system) collector like myself might want to purchase Japanese releases, even if missing English subs.  As a matter of fact, there is a native release of the 4K UHD boxset of Ultra Q.  It is no frills-bare bones, no English subs edition, and officially costs approximately 700$ per pop.  No, that’s not a misprint of seventy dollars, it’s seven hundred dollars. Can’t wait to see how much dough it could fetch a year later at e-Bay, huh?  Thanks, but no thanks, we (and judging from Amazon.co.jp pages, droves of Japanese fans as well) shall stick to the Mill Creek boxset.

1.  Klute (1971, Region A, Criterion Collection)

So it would have seemed that Godzilla or Ultra Q took the top seat this year but, as usual, a rediscovery of another “minor classic” ‘70s (technically it’s 1968 to 1977, but let’s not split hairs) American motion picture elbowed and kneed into it, pushing away gargantuan Japanese beasties.  I hope I could spend some time before I die to talk about why I believe the ‘70s American cinema is one of the (perhaps the) culminating apexes of modern cinematic arts, and why the films made in this period could be subject to endless cycles of rediscovery and reappreciation and would not be exhausted of their potential.  Please don’t be like those European auteurs who need to emancipate themselves from their narrow, cigarette-smoke-drenched, male-centered cinephilic notions.  Yeah yeah, snicker, go ahead and yap about the freaking ’68 “revolution” until your kidneys go out.  So many of these people are not qualified to lick dusts off the sandals of George Roy Hill, Sidney Lumet, Alan J. Pakula or even Arthur Penn. 

And finally to irk you into a brain-exploding apoplexy, Jane Fonda is a great actress.  Without having to be nobody’s artistic “muse,” I might add (Klute was filmed just as Fonda was divorcing Roger Vadim and being subject to vilification as “Hanoi Jane.” But the film precisely captures her real feminist struggle in her utterly devastating performance. That only assures its timeless status as an American work of art).

Well, I am done. Positively miraculous that I could complete this list again, without either ruining my day job or killing myself, but hey, that’s power of the physical media.  I don’t know how the US presidential election or South Korean general election would turn out, or if Parasite would actually win the Best Director or even Best Picture Oscar (wouldn’t that be something?!)  but I can be absolutely certain that another tsunami of desirable Blu Rays would assault my senses in 2020. 

Here’s my respectful bow to Arrow Video, Powerhouse Indicator, Kino Lorber, Criterion Collection, Mill Creek, Eureka, The British Film Institute, Severin Films, Second Run, 101 Films and many other unmentioned but equally hardworking labels out there, for putting out these Blu Rays.  And to many of my compatriots out there, who love watching “old movies” to death.