Sunday, October 26, 2008

Wherefore Art Thou, Red Sorghum DVD?

Having once been obsessed with the Chinese Fifth Generation films, I have most of Zhang Yimou's films on DVD. I own two editions of Raise The Red Lantern, one of my all-time favourite films. I bought the Taiwanese edition in Taipei at a time when there were no proper DVD releases of the film. I own two copies of Ju Dou, one a local VCD and the other an R1 edition DVD. Unfortunately the R1 DVD is full-screen; I can't understand why Razor, the studio that released the DVD, would do so. If you check the specs on Amazon, it says "2.35:1." That needs correcting.

The transfer, too, is rather piss-poor.

MGM's Raise The Red Lantern fares so much better, with a fair quality transfer and the correct aspect ratio.Yet the picture resolution is still a tad wanting.

And now I have two copies of Red Sorghum, the first film in Zhang's "red trilogy." I had the film on VCD for years, having to put up with the crap burnt-in subtitles and terrible picture. Then recently I discovered the China edition DVD and was surprised to find that it had English subtitles. Unfortunately, the transfer is very piss-poor, clearly from an analogue source. The subtitles are passable, with some minor mistakes. But the worst is the aspect ratio. I don't remember anymore what the correct aspect ratio is for Red Sorghum, but the DVD clearly has it wrong. The top of the picture is cut off most times. (DVD Beaver has a review of this Chinese edition here.)

I remember many, many years ago when I first saw Red Sorghum on TV (yes, very surprising that Malaysian TV actuallly showed the film). It was a Sunday afternoon, and I only caught part of it. I remember switching on the TV just as the strange little scene at the meat shop was unfolding. I still recall seeing the cattle head being dropped on the table, and actor Jiang Wen eating it. Then I remember the scenes with the Japanese soldiers. It was all very weird to me at the time. But then anything from Mo Yan is usually a little strange.

Now, seeing it again after so many years, it still has some considerable power, its celebration of peasant resilience and its overwhelming atmosphere of isolation, solitude and devastation. It's definitely not Zhang's strongest work, but it was certainly a strong start.

Now, is Criterion or anyone else ever going to give the rightful royal treatment to Zhang's early films, especially the "red trilogy"? Like the Italian neo-realists and the French New Wave, China's Fifth Generation filmmakers deserve seats in the same hallowed halls.

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