Thursday, June 30, 2011

Miscellaneous Musings – On Being (Poorly) Preserved for All Time

June 30, 2011

On Being (Poorly) Preserved for All Time

The other day I finally had the chance to visit the Kaoshiung Film Archives in southern Taiwan. The building is dedicated primarily to the preservation of Taiwanese films that were shot locally, and there’s a similar film archive in Taipei City. At the time of my visit, the ground floor was home to an homage to popular women in film, from Jane Russell and Betty Davis to local Taiwanese actresses. Most of the descriptions were not translated into English, but from the few that were I learned a bit about several of the actresses and genres that have been popular in Taiwan over the years, as well as an interesting tidbit about the fanfare that used to accompany film premieres. Apparently, entire casts were flown to the island just so adoring fans could see them in person.

Posters of popular old movies line the staircases that lead to the two upper floors. I recognized the poster for The Kingdom and the Beauty, as well as the musical The Love Eterne, which I still have yet to see. On the second floor are screening rooms where people can sit and watch any of the movies stored there. Running on one of the screens was a black-and-white Taiwanese film that appeared to be magnificently preserved. If I’d had more time, I would have liked nothing more than the sit and watch one of them, for a movie seemed the perfect respite for the searing heat outside. The only question was whether the films had subtitles or not.

Perhaps I shouldn’t say, the only question, for as I have found out far too frequently recently, not all subtitles are created equally. No, instead of company’s adopting a policy of spending whatever it takes to ensure that a film is accessible to audiences everywhere, we get versions of films that practically ensure that they remain largely unknown outside of their country of origin. Who, after all, wants to sit down to watch a film whose subtitles are occasionally so poor that your head begins to question whether what you just saw in front of you was even English, phrases that are so awkwardly translated that you almost swear that someone simply typed the script into an online translation service and copied whatever jumbled gibberish just happened to appear on the screen?

And in a world as connected as this one, it doesn’t take long for word to spread that a particular DVD or Blu-ray should be avoided. The most recent editions of John Woo’s The Killer and Hard Boiled have accrued quite a bit of vitriol, some deriding the quality of the film, others declaring the subtitles to be below acceptable standards. While most people are aware that DVD enthusiasts can be rather unrealistic in their expectations and unnecessarily demanding at times (I remember one reviewer providing a laundry list of all of the features that could have been included on the DVD of the film Dutchman, which I’m sure did not fly off the shelves the way The Matrix did), I have no doubt that comments such as these affect sales.

I suspect that many would-be consumers are quietly holding out for new editions of these films that will blow them away, as if all it takes is for the right studio to obtain the rights for the films to be preserved in the form that they richly deserve. I hope they’re right. I, on the other hand, have begun to sense that the pendulum is swinging the other way, away from restoration projects and drives to put out the best possible release of our favorite films. Case in point: The Killer.

Convinced that if anyone would recognize the importance of preserving films from Hong Kong, it would be a company from Hong Kong, I recently purchased Fortune Star’s release of The Killer on Blu-ray, and I must say I was fairly impressed at first, for the graphics of the company’s logo are amazing clear. My excitement quickly rose, as I began to believe that I would soon see the film as it had been seen back in 1989. Needless to say, my hopes were quickly dashed, for soon the screen was filled with a rather grainy picture of Chou Yun-fat sitting in a church that seemed slightly off color. It was immediately clear that the film had not been restored. If there is a bright side to this experience, it is the fact that the majority of the subtitles were correct. Throughout the entire film, I only noticed two grammar errors. Still, it was disappointing. Here is one of the most important Hong Kong films of the past twenty-five years, and this is what people wanting to discover it for the first time will have to sit through in order to see it.

Unfortunately, my second experiment with one of Fortune Star’s Blu-rays was even more troubling. When the remake of A Chinese Ghost Story was released in May this year, I decided it was a good time to give the original a spin, and I will say right away that I’m glad I did. However, people watching the Blu-ray have to put up with subtitles that far too often make little or no sense. In fact, there were times when I read the words that appeared on the screen and knew right away that I would never be able to make sense of them, not even if I paused the film and read them several times. I had a similar experience with the last year’s Clownfish, and I wonder if I would have enjoyed these films a bit more if a little more care had gone into the making of the product.

My point is this: I don’t think we’re going to get another chance at this. Realistically, DVDs and Blu-rays will eventually be phased out in favor of products that are downloaded straight to computers and televisions. And with this shift will almost certainly come a reduction in profits, as the price people are willing to pay for a digital file will undoubtedly be less that what they’re willing to pay for a physical product. This will probably lead to companies spending less to produce such valued special features as director’s commentaries, making-of documentaries, and deleted scenes. It’ll probably also end the million dollar restoration projects that have excited film fans so much. What we’ll have therefore are the films in the state they are in whenever this change finally becomes permanent, and if the Blu-rays for The Killer, A Chinese Ghost Story, Clownfish, and Gangster Rock are any indication, this is likely to disappoint a great many people. Like I said, I hope I’m wrong.

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