Ang Lee's Underrated Lust Caution: Domestic Vs Import (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

So, this could either be a post about what a terrific recent release Lust Caution was, and why it's so baffling, then, that it never got a blu-ray release; and we just look at caps of the DVD and feel bitter about the decline of physical media... OR it could be a post about how there's a perfectly excellent blu-ray version available from Asia, and comparing those crisp, high-def screenshots to the US DVD. I choose the latter! Let's be positive! And hey, this blu-ray here is even Region A, so no one has anything to complain about - huzzah!
If you missed Lust Caution initially, don't feel too bad, just know that it's something you should correct. A lot of us jumped off the Ang Lee train, I think. Remember when he only did incredible movies like The Ice Storm, Eat Drink Man Woman and Sense and Sensibility, and if his name was on a poster, it meant "must see?"  Yeah, then things got a little hazy and there was a Hulk flick and what was that teenage Woodstock movie? I actually saw it and I still don't know. So, you can be forgiven by not somehow getting the undelivered message that this smaller, less publicized Ang Lee film was actually the kind of compelling cinema we expected from him in the 90s, not more, uh, whatever the heck it is he tends to do now. According to the imdb, he's preparing a Kojak movie starring Vin Diesel?

Yeah, forget contemporary Ang Lee; this is classic Ang Lee. And that's not to say it's just like his old films superficially... I don't think he ever made a spy thriller before. But in the sense that it's a thoughtful film examining the subtle human nuances of its characters rather than showing off excessive CGI. It's about the Japanese occupation of China during World War II, and a group of young students who get caught up in a very violent plot to support the resistance.  Despite their youthful innocence, they find themselves having to murder and sacrifice their identities for a cause they probably don't even fully understand. It gets pretty dark and pretty real; in fact, part of why you might not have seen it at your local cinema is because it was released with an NC-17 rating here in the states.
In fact, while it didn't play big enough for Universal to release Lust Caution on blu-ray in the US (did I mention that?), they did release did distinct DVD versions. The theatrical NC-17 cut and an abridged R-rated cut. So if you're going to take a pass on importing and quickly snag a DVD, be careful which edition you're throwing in your cart. The cuts were actually for the sex rather than the violence, despite a couple of the violent scenes being particularly brutal. But then again, the sex in this film could get fairly violent too, which is probably what really gave the MPAA such a hard time.

So we've got the NC-17 Universal DVD, and the Korean blu-ray from Art Service. And don't worry, no, the blu is not censored; it's the complete NC-17 version. In fact, just to be thorough, let's also throw in the Hong Kong blu-ray from Edko Films. They even released a steelbook edition (the one I've got; pictured right). It's region free and also the fully uncut version; but I don't think anyone reading this is going to come away wanting this version. You'll see why in a minute - it's time to compare.

Universal's USA DVD on top; Art Service's Korean blu-ray below.
So on first glance they look pretty much the same. After all, it's a brand new movie, so you expect every release to use the same basic, already digitally prepared master. One's just the HD version of the other, right? Well, not exactly when we look closer. For one thing, the DVD is missing a little bit of picture along the top and bottom. That's because it's very slightly letterboxed to 1.85:1, whereas the blu is at 1.78:1. It's a very slim distinction (see what I did there?), but the DVD version is probably the correct of the two. Otherwise, colors, framing, brightness, all the same.
All Service blu-ray on the right; Universal DVD on the left.
But getting in close, that SD/HD distinction is very real. This frame is just a cropping of the upper comparison shot. And when you get in this close, you really see the difference between a DVD and blu-ray. Not only are the edges much smoother on the blu than the blocky DVD, but the compressed grain winds up making his skin look all blotchy and spotted. So if you were worried this Korean release might be some dodgy upscale or something, no; it's a true HD 1080p image of the original transfer.
Edko's Chinese bl-ray
All Service blu on the right; Universal DVD in the middle and Edko Chinese blu on the left.
So what about that Chinese blu? Well, for the most part it's really the same as the Korean blu-ray. It has all the same features and specs; it even has the same menu screen. It's the same HD 1.78:1 transfer (maybe a micro-smidgen smoother? But it's really imperceptible in motion). The thing is: it's a BD-R. Dual layered, but still a BD-R. I had consistent problems with it freezing and skipping on my players towards the end of the film, and even failing when trying to rip it on my PC. The Chinese disc is actually the version I bought first (not knowing it was a BD-R until after I opened it up and looked at the disc), and the Korean disc is the one I replaced it with. So I'd stay away unless you're comfortable taking the gamble.

Audio-wise, the Korean blu features DTS-HD 7.1 audio, as well as PCM 7.1 and Dolby Digital 5.1 options, whereas the DVD just offers Dolby 5.1. These audio tracks are the original Mandarin, because that's the original language of the film that the characters are speaking (although, curiously, the DVD also provides a French dub). All three editions I'm covering offer complete English subtitles, and not just for the film, but the extras as well. But if you want language options, this is where you might find the Chinese risk worth taking: It has Mandarin LPCM7, Mandarin Dts-HD 7.1, Mandarin 5.1, and French, Thai and Japanese dubs, all in 2.0. It also has the most subtitle options, including English, Spanish, French, Korean, Thai, Japanese and two Chinese tracks (not sure what the difference is between the two). But really, all most of us will care about is the Mandarin audio with English subs, which is available on all the releases, even for the extras.
Yes, there are extras and the blu-rays have got them, too. The primary extra that's on all three releases is a seventeen minute featurette entitled Tiles of Deception; Lurid Affections (or Tiles of Deception, Lust Affections as the blu-rays both label it). It's pretty good, with interviews from Lee and the cast. But it feels kinda promotional, with lots of clips from the film you've just watched. This isn't the kind of great making of feature that comes on a fantastic special edition, but it's not without merit and is at least worth having.

That's it for the US DVD, except for some previews for Atonement, Elizabeth: the Golden Age, a generic ad for HD DVDs, and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, that autoplay when you start the disc, making them more of a detraction than an attraction. But the blu-rays also include three theatrical trailers for the film itself, two TV spots, and an animated poster and photo gallery. Nothing particularly of interest, but again we see the Asian releases having the edge and getting a little more care. The Korean blu also has a nice booklet that folds out into a mini-poster.
So that's where we stand with Lust Caution. A terrific film, but you've got to import if you want a blu. I really don't see Universal doing anything more with this film now that it's no longer a new release. But then again maybe Criterion will pick it up one of these years and give it the lavish special edition treatment, and even crop it back to 1.85. But you could be holding your breath for a long time. Art Service's blu-ray already exists.

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