Bodhi Sarkar's 'Best of 2005'
Better late than never, Mr Sarkar provides his top ten DVD purchases of last year
Whilst I love my mainstream blockbusters, I’m only really subjected to them during my visit to the local multiplex. When it comes to DVD, my shelves are reserved for independent and world titles that, in my opinion, have a bit more soul than their Hollywood counterparts. This may explain Hollywood’s tendency to mimic every successful title to emerge from the Far East in recent years. It is somewhat unfortunate that I was either submerged in my final year thesis or ridiculously bankrupt to fund my compulsive DVD buying habit. Subsequently, there are so many releases that I have been unable to obtain due to time and budgetary constraints. The following represent my most treasured purchases of 2005 in reverse order of preference. In other words – the stuff I managed to scavenge during my final year at University.
10. Joint Security Area UK Region Two
With the unprecedented success of Oldboy, South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook became a valuable contributor to the international cinema scene. It was inevitable that UK audiences would finally be exposed to Park’s globally acclaimed blockbuster Joint Security Area – a delicately rendered puzzle revolving around the DMZ that separates the two Koreas. In an era where conflict and war spread fear like a disease, it is refreshing to see a film depicting simple characters with a desperate hope for reunification. Tartan have grown to become one of the UK’s finest distributors of contemporary and world cinema. The early days of dark transfers with burned-in subtitles are a distant memory; now they are massive supporters of DTS, supplementary materials and respectable transfers. However if NTSC to PAL conversions irritate you then I suggest you look elsewhere.
9. Shutter HK Region Three
Hurrah! An original Far Eastern horror! Well alright, not really - we still have the clichéd long haired, pale faced, Ringu-cloned Asian girl but apart from that, Shutter is an incredibly well written story. This Thai movie easily dwarfs anything by the Pang Brothers in terms of adrenaline, suspense and shear intensity. Unless you are God, it is unlikely that you will be able to foresee the film’s spectacular climax. In addition, the HK disc is one of the finest bargains of 2005. Not only is the disc blessed with English subtitled extras but also boasts a colossal full-rate DTS-ES mix.
8. Bungee Jumping of Their Own South Korean Region Three
At last we come across the first of the splendid Far Eastern DVD packages. Although not as grand as certain Japanese editions, those Koreans still know how to maintain exquisite ambience. The exterior comprises of a lovely sturdy box that houses the disc and the accompanying scenario book. Being a South Korean release, importers could avoid extortionate Japanese prices and proudly display an exclusive limited edition on their shelves. The film itself was a remarkably bold decision for first time director Kim Dae-seung, who highlighted the idea of love and reincarnation. Blessed with breathtaking cinematography, Bungee Jumping of Their Own offers an alternative angle on the romantic drama genre.
7. Crying Fist South Korean Region Three
This also wins an award for being last year’s biggest surprise – the Ryu brothers can deliver a heart-warming tale about the ultimate fight for dignity. Korean cinema experts will of course recognise the brothers’ previous collaborations, where writer/director Ryu Seung-wan would be at the helm and little sibling Ryu Seung-beom usually starred as the goofball protagonist. In a surprising turn, the latter grew dreadlocks and a bad attitude for his character in Crying Fist. With Oldboy star Choi Min-sik as his competitor, the screen literally explodes when these two underdogs come face to face. Once again the DVD presentation is immaculate – the video transfer exploits the rapid exposure with incredible intensity and does not compromise on the violent DTS soundtrack. Even the fold-out digipaks are nicely decorated with images from the film.
6. Danny the Dog HK Region Three
My favourite genres collide in this unique mix of British gangsterism, martial arts and contemporary drama. Unapologetically gritty performances from Hoskins and Li result in arguably the best Hollywood Jet Li movie. In addition, Danny the Dog was filmed and set in Glasgow – although why everyone speaks in a dodgy cockney accent is open for discussion. Incidentally, this is also the only ‘mainstream’ title on my list and I use that term lightly – what I really mean is that it is the only English dialogue film that I have placed in my top 10. HK label Panorama have done sound job with the DVD, offering a brutal DTS mix and informative English subtitled supplements. Let us hope that this trend continues in 2006, allowing viewers to watch deleted scenes and documentaries in absolute comfort.
5. A World Without Thieves HK Region Three
At just shy of $7, this is the best bargain of 2005. Straight from Mainland China, commercially successful writer/director Feng Xiaogang delivers a mesmerising adventure about thieves with solid morals. Andy Lau, Rene Liu and You Ge ignite the screen with their witty yet stern performances – a perfect break from the usual Hong Kong rubbish. It is worth viewing for the fantastic pickpocket choreography alone, but when the filmmakers have provided lush visuals and an extravagant score, one must wonder why anyone would be missing this from their collection – especially at that price! Jaws begin to drop when it is revealed that the disc contains two DTS-ES mixes and even has room for two more Dolby Digital EX tracks. Thankfully the deleted scenes have been subtitled in English but everything else will have you reaching for that English-Chinese dictionary.
4. Hana and Alice South Korean Region Three
My second exposure to critically acclaimed filmmaker Shunji Iwai has filled my innards with sweetness and compassion, as he depicts a love triangle between Anne Suzuki, Yu Aoi and Tomohiro Kaku’s characters. Iwai’s expertise in combining sublime photography with an elegant soundtrack is made strikingly vivid, especially as he was responsible for composing the entire score. It was a tough call between the HK and Korean region three releases – both are the only versions available with English subtitles. However, the improved video transfer of the Korean release outweighed the 5.1 audio of the HK disc, even though the latter exhibited the original theatrical artwork but the cherry blossom filled drawings of the Korean DVD made an attractive option. Whilst neither disc opted for English subtitled extras, the Korean packaging is once again aesthetically pleasing and reassuringly affordable.
3. Sekai no Chushin de, ai wo Sakebu Japanese Region Two
We now come across another modern Japanese filmmaker, Isao Yukisada, whom I admire very much. Incidentally, we also encounter the most over the top packaging ever. Three discs are housed inside a massive cassette shaped exterior that is the size of a laptop. Included is a wealth of gifts that will most likely never see the light of day, such as a photo frame, picture booklets, calendar and audio cassette. Upon initial release, the set came to around £50 plus delivery. However for reasons unknown, it was later reduced to £16, which made it cheap enough to avoid a customs bill. This film was notorious for having special and limited editions available all over the place. However it is the three disc Japanese limited edition that stands proud on the shelf, providing it is big enough to handle all that weight. The film itself was an emotionally charged tragedy, which was beautifully retold thanks to Yukisada’s delicate filmmaking techniques. If possible, I would urge fans to also check out the J-drama counterpart to open additional tear ducts.
2. Nobody Knows Japanese Region Two
Japanese documentary filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda shares his insight into the desolate world of abandoned children with his heart-achingly beautiful drama Nobody Knows, which of course earned the young actor Yuya Yagira a best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival. The children are all non-professional actors but display such sincerity in their performances that it is very easy to feel happiness and sorrow when the characters face hope and tragedy respectively. The Japanese DVD is perhaps not the most economical solution – the extras omit English subtitles and the boxset is ridiculously expensive. However the presentation is undeniably pristine and there is a charm in knowing that you own a genuine Japanese region two copy. For those who cannot justify a high SRP then there are plenty of cheaper alternatives.
1. Black UK Region Two
To call this film a masterpiece would be an understatement, perhaps even an insult as the term is carelessly used today to describe any decent production that attracts the public’s eye. Even if I were to review it, I would find it awkward to award it a mark out of ten. Just as the Mona Lisa is a priceless painting, cherished by art lovers worldwide, I feel the same about Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s fantastic accomplishment. In addition to the marvellous lighting and tranquilising score, the icy shades and calm monochromes help paint a bleak picture. The protagonist’s exhausting journey from complete isolation into a life of knowledge has been wonderfully illustrated with incredible aplomb. Black is a title that is likely to restore your faith in life without the need for manipulation and over the top melodrama. The UK DVD comprises of a beautifully decorated digipak with brail markings on the cover, along with a few nice extras. It is a shame that the disc is now expensive and of limited supply. Until a new batch comes in, good luck with finding a copy.
Where are my films made?
South Korea and Japan share the top spot but the former would probably be in the lead if it were not for my bias towards Japanese cinema. These results may reflect on the booming South Korean film industry, where an increasing number of westerners are impressed by the quality of Korean cinema. Interestingly, there is not a single HK title on my list. However I have lost enthusiasm for Cantonese titles after the majority now contain irritating idols and unfunny humour to generate those revenues.
Where are my DVDs coming from?
Being the cheapskate that I am, I tend to go for the wallet-friendly option. HK and Korean discs are some of the cheapest on the planet – especially considering the lengths that some distributors go through to present their packaging. There are no Region One discs simply because I prefer to enjoy the Hollywood titles on the big screen. The titles I like to take home come from elsewhere. On occasion, I like to save up for a lavish Japanese or UK edition, with subtitled extras being a bonus point of the latter.
Well now that I have a steady job, car and woman (alright just the job and the car), I can continue my investment in DVDs and home cinema equipment. In 2006, I’m looking forward to Serenity Limited Edition Tin (R4), King Kong and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. In terms of cinema, I’m quite intrigued by Superman Returns and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, not to mention the countless hidden gems that are likely to pop up from time to time.
I hope that by browsing through my purchases of 2005, I have encouraged some of you to check out titles that you would normally not go out of your way to see. In return, I would also appreciate information on any foreign/independent films that you think I should really check out.
Editorial by Bodhi Sarkar
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