Importing Ang Lee's Complete Father Trilogy

Ang Lee's Father Trilogy is in a difficult, but not impossible, situation on home video.  If you're not aware, his "Father Trilogy" consists of his first three feature films, which just so happen to also be the only three of his films where Lee also takes a writing credit.  They've been so dubbed most plainly because all three star Sihung Lung (he was also Sir Te in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) in a patronly role.  But also, as Lee has explained in interviews, because all three films were created as ways to prod and react to his relationship with his own father.  And it's pretty difficult to get the whole trilogy here in the US, but I've imported a couple alternatives to explore our international options.
1992's Pushing Hands starts things off small, but hides a surprisingly robust tale.  Lung is a Chinese citizen, staying at his son's house in America, where he spends most of his days with his working-from-home daughter in-law, Deb Snyder.  It's an oil and water culture clash, alleviated only by the time he spends away, volunteering as a Tai Chi instructor at a local Chinese school.  It starts as a light comedy with some heartfelt dramatic underpinnings, but goes in some unexpected directions as we discover the true depths of Lung's abilities.  This is clearly a low budget debut, and it feels unpolished compared to Lee's subsequently masterful body of work.  But everything that's important - i.e. the writing, the characters, the performances - are as mature and rewarding as the best of his ouevre.
Pushing Hands is the real sticking point when it comes to getting this trilogy on disc in the US.  There was an initial DVD from Image Entertainment in 1999 that's long out of print and very hard to come by.  What's more, it's barebones, fullscreen and looks like it's sourced from the tape transfer they used for the VHS, so it's not worth the lengths it would take going through to obtain anyway.  But that's all we've ever gotten.  So I tracked down two foreign blu-ray sets: Sony's 2013 Taiwanese "Ang Lee's Father Trilogy Remastered Version" boxed set and Koch Media's 2015 German "Ang Lee Trilogie" boxed set.  Now the German set is region B locked and not English friendly (a fact I'll keep repeating, because I'd hate to see anyone rush off after just skimming this post and getting screwed), but the Taiwanese set is all-region and subtitles everything into English.  And yes, even though this and the next film take place in America and have some English dialogue, more than half is in Chinese, so unless that's your native language, you really need those subs.
1) 1999 Image DVD; 2) 2013 Sony BD; 3) 2015 Koch BD.
So yeah, look at that DVD.  They don't make 'em like that anymore, thank goodness.  It's a fullscreen 1.32:1 (somewhat open matte, but definitely cropping the sides as well), washed and faded image with dark whites and light blacks.  Why did I leave the subtitles on in that second set of shots?  Because, oh yeah, they're burnt in.  And the blus?  They're virtually indistinguishable, clearly sharing a common master, with even the encoding appearing nearly identical.  So they're both a massive leap forward from the blu.  This was actually my first time getting to see Pushing Hands in its proper widescreen 1.85:1 ratio, and I have to say, it makes it feel more like a proper film and less like the direct-to-video flick it's always felt like.  Grain is solid and this doesn't look like it's been DNR'd, sharpened, or otherwise tinkered with.  Moments of deep shadow to look a little crushed, unfortunately, but that's really the sole flaw here.  And again, considering what we've had to live with for so long, they're a freakin' revelation.
Audio-wise, as you can probably guess, the Image DVD just has the one Chinese/ English stereo track.  Curiously, it also comes with an informative insert, defining all sorts of audio and DVD terms for us[left].  And again, the Chinese dialogue has burnt-in English subtitles.  Speaking of repeating myself, let me just reiterate that the Koch set is not English friendly, offering us the same stereo track, now boosted to DTS-HD, with only removable German subtitles.  The Taiwanese set, naturally, doesn't have German dubs or subs, but does have the original audio in lossless LPCM and optional/ removable English subtitles (as well as traditional and simplified Chinese).  It's worth pointing out that these subs transcribe both the English and Chinese dialogue, so it isn't quite as nuanced as the DVD's subs that only translate the Chinese.  But that's a tiny annoyance, all things considered.

The Image DVD had absolutely zero extras, and the Taiwanese BD isn't much better, with only a nice stills gallery.  But the German blu has a substantial, all-new featurette interviewing Ang Lee and co-producer/ co-writer James Schamus.  That also only has optional English subtitles, but the entire featurette is spoken in English, so it actually is completely English friendly.  It's also pretty terrific, well conducted and edited that provides a lot of information and insight into the story behind the film, from its inception to its release and surprise success in Taiwan (hence them getting this film restored on blu and us not).  A very pleasant discovery.
1993's The Wedding Banquet is the out and out comedy of the trio.  The set-up is similar: another young Chinese man living in a relationship, whose traditional Chinese parents (including Lung, of course) come to stay with them.  The twist, this time the son is also gay and has to hide his relationship from his family while they're here.  And the ante is upped when a young female friend is in sudden need of a green card.  What could be the ideal solution to these issues?  Why, a sham wedding, to fool the government and the family, of course!  So, this spills into classical screwball comedy of errors territory here, with everybody keeping secrets, playing roles and telling increasingly convoluted lies that are naturally bound to blow up in their faces sooner or later.
The Wedding Banquet isn't nearly such a disaster here in the states.  The 2004 DVD from MGM is actually quite respectable, with an anamorphic widescreen presentation and even a nice little featurette for an extra.  And unlike Pushing Hands, this has been released on blu, by Olive Films, with the featurette from the DVD and everything.  I don't have that disc, though, since I've already got the film in my 2013 and 2015 boxed sets from Taiwan and Germany.  And no, the German disc of this film isn't English friendly either.
1) 2004 MGM DVD; 2) 2013 Sony BD; 3) 2015 Koch BD.
So yeah, now everything's in roughly the same aspect ratio.  The DVD is actually slightly off at 1.83:1, which the blu-rays correct to 1.85:1, finding at least a sliver of additional information along all four sides.  The colors are a little bit cooler, but only so's you'd notice in a direct comparison like this.  Again, both blus are virtually identical, and for the most part are a very satisfactory HD presentation, although the shadows might be ever so slightly crushed (not so much in either of the comparison shots, but scroll up a little higher to the shot of them eating dinner together).  But considering now nice and uncrushed other scenes appear, like the black tuxedos above, it's a minor issue.  Detail is strong and film grain is natural, though, and overall the blus are discs quite satisfactory.

Except of course, that the German blu isn't English friendly.  Gotta keep pointing that out.  MGM has the original mono track in 2.0 with optional English, French and Spanish subs.  Koch's blu has the same mono track, but bumped up to lossless DTS-HD.  Unfortunately, it only has German subs, and a lot of the film is spoken in Chinese.  Fortunately, Sony's blu solves that with the same audio track in LPCM, and optional English (which again translate both the English and Chinese parts), plus traditional and simplified Chinese.
Extras-wise, MGM has that nice featurette, which runs just about 20 minutes long, and cuts back and forth between Lee and Schamus, in a light but informative little feature.  It also has the trailer.  And again the Taiwanese set only has a photo gallery.  But Koch comes along to stomp over all that came before them with their extras.  They have all new on-camera interviews with Lee and Schamus which run twice as long, and get more than twice as in-depth, as MGM's.  And they have another 20+ minute interview with co-star Mitchell Lichtenstein.  They've gone and given this a proper special edition.  They also have the trailer, but it's dubbed in German.  Their interviews, however, are completely done in English, with removable German subs.  I've got to hand it to Koch, they've really done a nice job with their special features here.
Finally, we end with the strongest film in the series, 1994's Eat Drink Man Woman, this time co-written by Hui-Ling Wang.  There are light touches, but this far less overtly comic than The Wedding Banquet, instead telling the touching, interconnected stories of a father (you know who) and his three daughters.  I remember a big deal in the marketing and the reporting for this film about the on-screen cooking; and yes, a series of master chefs were hired just to play Lung's hands as he prepared various, complex dishes.  Then movies like Big Night and Tortilla Soup started coming out in its wake, and the press started acting like "food movies" were becoming a genuine genre of filmmaking.  So it's funny to hear Ang Lee talk about this film and explain that originally Lung's character was going to be a master tailor, rather than chef, because all the food stuff is just superficial trappings for the heartfelt stories being told between its characters.  Lee has also become a bit more polished and stylish over the last couple years, and the production values just feel naturally higher by virtue of the fact that the film is now taking place, and being filmed in, China rather than NY.
And at first, the Eat Drink Man Woman situation feels much like The Wedding Banquet's situation.  We've got a perfectly respectable widescreen DVD with another interview featurette, this time released in 2002.  And again, it has been issued on blu in the US by Olive, although this time barebones and with forced subtitles for whatever reason.  A little disappointing, but who cares?  I've got my 2013 Sony and 2015 Koch blu-ray sets.  But this time... something's a little different.
1) 2002 MGM DVD; 2) 2013 Sony BD; 3) 2015 Koch BD.
This time the blu-rays are different!  And not just, like, minor encoding distinctions, they're clearly based on quite different transfers.  This time the DVD is a 1.80:1, with more noticeable pillar-boxing along the left-hand side.  And the Koch BD corrects this to 1.85:1.  Just the Koch, because Sony's Taiwanese blu actually goes for a more open 1.78:1 framing, with even more picture along all four sides.  So it's better?  Well, I wouldn't go that far.  Grain is decent on both blus, but more consistent on the Koch.  And the colors are all over the place on these discs, with essentially three different sets of color timing.  Like, just what color is this woman's shirt, anyway?  At some points you can chalk it up to an unknowable matter of individual preference.  Unless Ang Lee or his DP walk into the room, we can only take guesses and apply our personal judgment as to which colors are more correct.  Except, midway through the Sony blu, one scene gives us a pretty big clue.
1) 2002 MGM DVD; 2) 2013 Sony BD; 3) 2015 Koch BD.
Now, admittedly the DVD is a too dark in its own right, but the saturation levels in the shadows in this dark office scene are way off the charts on the Sony blue... I mean blu.  Now, the whole movie doesn't look like this.  You can see in the earlier cooking shot, the Sony blu has genuinely black blacks.  But here it's not a matter of taste; something's clearly just wrong.  Then you go back to the other shots, which aren't way off like this, but you still see plenty of signs of this blue for black push, more subtly in other scenes.  It's only this and one or two brief other moments that basically take place in the same office location at night that are off like this, but it really says, "hey, go with the Koch!"

But the problem with that, of course, is that the Koch isn't English friendly!  MGM's DVD features the original Chinese stereo track with optional English, French and Spanish subtitles.  Koch has the original Chinese audio in DTS-HD, but with only German subtitles, while the Sony again has the original track in LPCM, with optional English, traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles.
So MGM has another nice little featurette with Lee and Schamus, plus the trailer and a teaser.  They talk more about the food stuff on here.  Again, Sony only has a photo gallery.  Koch has two more new interviews with Lee and Koch, where they get a little deeper into the film.  This is the one where they explain how the father was going to be a tailor, etc.  And they have another dubbed trailer, but their interview pieces are once again in English with removable German subs.

Both sets are nicely packaged.  The Koch comes in a nice slip box with a separate slim digipacks for each film.  But the Sony's even nice, with a harder, thicker box housing three blu-ray cases, each in its own slipcover.  And there's an outer... obo sort of art piece on the exterior, with embossed gold lettering.  Genuinely fancy stuff.
So, it's a little more complicated than I'd like it to be; but the good news is, at the end of the day, we can own the complete trilogy on blu in very solid editions... with a nice selection of extras, too, if you're willing to spring for multiple editions.  The Taiwanese set is a nice way to get all three films in solid blu-rays, even if their Eat Drink Man Woman is a little weird.  If it bothers you, you can always just pick up the Olive disc to round everything out.  And if you want some nice extras, the German set is surprisingly good, although again, it isn't viable for the films since it doesn't subtitle them into English(!).  It's only good for the extras.  But as a companion piece, it's sweet as.

Piranha 1, People 0

Ever since doing Halloween 3, I've been eager to take a look at another one of Scream Factory's 4k steelbook reissues.  I already explained it there, but in brief, Scream's been re-releasing a lot of their titles in steelbooks, and most of them are the same discs in new packaging.  But a couple times, they've used the steelbook as a happy excuse to also create a fresh 4k scan of the film.  Double-dips can be a pain, unless you're "money is no object" rich, but restorations are always a good thing, and restorations of one of Joe Dante's horror classics are even better!  Plus, it has been almost ten years since the previous edition, so that's not too excessive.
1978's Piranha is, obviously, a Jaws rip-off.  But it's also distinctly its own thing.  There are actually more films in Roger Corman's official Piranha franchise (five) than in Jaws' (four).  Certainly, it apes a lot of Jaws' selling points, i.e. it's selling the unsettling scares drawn from the lethal sea-life that's lurking beneath the surface while we swim.  And the conflict between the protagonists trying to get the business man to cancel the grand opening of his water park, but who refuses despite the risks to the public is a total rehash of Roy Scheider trying to get the mayor to close the beach on the fourth of July weekend.  it has a draw and appealing aspects that Jaws doesn't.  It has Dante's unique sense of humor, a rambunctious plot by John Sayles and a delightful cast of character actors including Dick Miller, Paul Bartel, Barbara Steele, Kevin McCarthy, The Dick Van Dyke Show's Richard Deacon and Keenan Wynn.  It certainly references and echoes Jaws in a lot of ways, just like a billion other knock-offs have done, but this is also a very different viewing experience.  This is a Joe Dante movie.
Piranha's had plenty of home video releases on disc.  Even limiting it just to the US, there was an initial DVD in 1999, which was already replaced by 2000, and has been repackaged in several variant covers in a short amount of time.  There's the "plain" Roger Corman Classics cover, the burgundy band Roger Corman Classics cover, the Director's Series gold-framed cover, and then in 2003, a Roger Corman Classics boxed set that includes Piranha alongside three other films.  They all seem to be the same 20th anniversary special edition disc, however, released by New Concorde with a nice collection of extras but a fullscreen presentation.  We didn't get a real, substantive change until 2010, when Shout Factory took it into the HD age.  This was before they had the Scream Factory, so they just released this under a Roger Corman's Cult Classics collection.  This edition was finally widescreen and included additional features.  And now, in 2019, they've upgraded it again as a Scream Factory steelbook with a fresh 4k scan of the original camera negative and the most extras ever.
2010 Shout Factory BD top; 2019 Scream Factory BD bottom.
This is a subtle but easily appreciated upgrade.  The colors are a little flatter on this new edition, but they look more natural than the older disc, which looks like they just artificially boosted the saturation.  Still, I could see someone preferring and even making a decent case for the older disc's colors.  But that's the only area where it can compete.  The aspect ratio has been corrected from 1.78:1 to 1.85:1, and that's just not adding mattes.  The new scan actually has additional picture information on all four sides, although the bulk of it is on the sides.  The hazy over-exposure in some of the exteriors (think of McCarthy on the lake) are to some degree just baked into the film itself, but it's definitely toned down and looks better in this new version.  Grain (which is barely visible on the old disc) and detail are much more clearly captured now; you can finally read the "US" on the Colonel's lapel.  Considering they're both technically the same resolution BD discs, it's a very satisfying boost in clarity.

Both editions provide lossless versions of the original mono audio track, but the original blu lacked subtitles, which this new one adds.  So that's a welcome touch as well.
The original DVD provided some of the best extras, and thankfully they've all been ported over to both blus.  We get a terrific audio commentary by Dante and producer Jon Davison, who thankfully remember everything.  They're very funny and not afraid to acknowledge the film's shortcomings, but they also have a ton of information about all aspects of the production and an appreciation for all the finer points.  Never a dull moment.  These guys also then provide some additional commentary over some behind the scenes footage.  Then there's some deleted scenes and outtakes and of course the trailer, plus a booklet.  Then, Shout added some nice additional bonuses in 2010, including a slicker retrospective featurette and extra scenes shot for the television version.  They also add some extra galleries, a TV spot, radio spot and even the Trailers From Hell version of the trailer by Jon Davison.

Now, the 2019 steelbook unfortunately ditches the booklet, but more than make up for it with a new, second audio commentary by Roger Corman himself.  This isn't as good as the Dante/ Davison one, and disappointingly, he doesn't really comment on Piranha at all.  Instead, this is an in-depth career overview where the moderator interviews Corman about himself, walking him chronologically through every step of his career.  Fortunately, Corman's a fascinating guy and a charming talker, so it's an interesting listen (especially if you've never seen the Corman's World documentary) even if they neglect the film at hand.  Anyway, I don't think Corman could've added much to the thorough features the film already had.
So, this is easily the definitive release of the film now.  Even if you don't care about steelbooks, this is edition of the film to get.  The question for most of you, though, which is a little trickier is if it's worth double-dipping.  And I'd say it depends on how into this film you are.  If you just like it enough, you're probably fine hanging onto your Shout Factory blu.  But if you're a big Dante fan (or if you're just reliant on the subtitles), the new transfer is worth it, with the Corman commentary not really being much of a draw in itself, but at least an extra little treat.  Personally, I'm glad I sprung for it and never intend to look back.

The Infuriating Release I Finally Broke Down and Bought: The Best Intentions

I first figured out that Film Movement would be releasing The Best Intentions in 2016 when I started watching the complete, subtitled miniseries on Youtube in 2015, and the episodes were taken down by their copyright claim just as I was about to start part 2.  Slightly annoying in the moment, but who cares?  We were finally going to get a US release of one of Ingmar Bergman's most underrated dramas and the first English-friendly version of the complete mini-series anywhere in the world!  Yeah... you dedicated Bergman fans out there can already see where I'm going with this.
Film Movement didn't release the mini-series; they just put out the abridged film version.  For anyone who's not too familiar with 1991's Best Intentions, it's just like Scenes From a Marriage and Fanny & Alexander in that it was a fairly epic mini-series production made for Swedish television, that wound up getting heavily cut down into a movie-length version for international distribution.  So we're not talking about something like Scream losing a few seconds from its unrated director's cut here; the film version is about half the length (180 mins) of the complete, original director's cut (323 mins).  Really, these theatrical versions might still be of some interest to historians, and it's nice when labels bother to include them alongside the full versions.  But we're talking about some serious watering down here, done only to accommodate theatrical screening convenience that's no longer an issue with home video.  We should be able to completely forget about these bastardizations in today's world just like we shouldn't be forced to contend with those TV editions of Scarface where they changed lines like, "where'd you get that beauty scar, tough guy? Eatin' pussy?" to "where'd you get that beauty scar, tough guy? Eatin' pineapple?"  Novelty value?  Sure, but a completely obsolete way to sincerely watch the movie.
Now I'm not mad at Film Movement for taking down that Youtube edition, per se.  I'm certain that was an unlicensed upload, and when you play those pirate games, that's part of what you've signed up for.  And at the end of the day, I don't want a digital bootleg; I want an authorized disc.  I've spent literal decades trying desperately to find a way to pay honest money to obtain a copy.  But by not following that take-down with a release the complete series, they're now on the side of actively preventing us access to the complete work.  And it's not like the full version with perfectly adequate subtitles wasn't available for them to release; it was right there in front of all of us!
So what made me break down and buy this release anyway?  Well, said infuriating aspect aside, it's actually the world's first and only HD release of any version of Best Intentions, taken from an attractive 2k restoration.  There have been other DVDs before this - most visibly the 2010 UK disc from Park Circus and a Spanish DVD from Cameo which actually includes both cuts(!) but isn't English friendly - however none that can compete with this release.  And after waiting a while, and seeing that no, The Best Intentions wasn't going to be featured in Criterion's massive Ingmar Bergman's Cinema boxed set, it started to feel like this is all we're ever going to get, and abridged version still trumps no version at all.
Because it is a great film, even in its shorter cut.  Bergman wrote the screenplay based on his parents' rough marriage.  And while it's actually directed by Billie August, not Bergman himself, the combination of Bergman's writing and personal connection to the story successfully blends it in with his other works.  Right from the chilling first scene, where Samuel Froler as Bergman's father refuses to go home and make amends with his grandfather on his deathbed, I was locked into my seat.  Yes, admittedly, it does feel like many scenes play a little flatter than Bergman might've shot them with his unique creative verve.  But the drama, helped immeasurably by many of Bergman's core players including Pernilla August (In the Presence Of a Clown, Private Confessions, etc), Anita Bjork (Waiting Women, Madame de Sade, The Image Makers, etc) and Max von Sydow (no credits needed) feels as at home in the master's oeuvre as any of his other classics.
2016 Film Movement DVD top; 2016 Film Movement BD bottom.
And it was hard to resist finally seeing this in HD.  Film Movement also released a concurrent DVD version, which I managed to borrow a copy of just for comparison's sake, which means we're naturally looking at the same transfer, just one in standard definition and one in high.  The image is clean, colors are bright and attractive, and the aspect ratio... well, it went from previous releases' 1.85:1 to 1.78:1, but alright, close enough.  Grain is, uh... sporadic to absent.  It's patchy but okayish in the first set of shots, but really smoothed away in the second.  This is a dual-layered disc with a healthy of its 37.3 of its 42GB dedicated to the film itself, and the BD is certainly sharper with stronger detail than the DVD, so I'm guessing this is less of an encoding issue and more the result of digital tampering?  I don't know; I'm sure it still leaves the older DVDs in the dust, but I sure wouldn't put this release on my showroom floor.

We get the original Swedish stereo mix in... sigh... lossy AC3 on both the DVD and blu-ray.  Optional English and French subtitles are included.
2016 Film Movement BD top; 2018 Criterion BD bottom.
Extras are light but curious.  Even though they're concurrent editions from the same company, the DVD and Blu-ray editions differ.  Both discs give us the trailer, plus some bonus trailers and a Film Movement commercial, plus a nice 12-page booklet with notes by Bergman scholar Peter Cowie.  But only the blu-ray also includes an additional Bergman short film, Karin's Face.  It's a brief documentary about his mother, comprised essentially of still photographs.  So considering its subject matter, it makes complete sense why it was packaged with this film.  Of course it doesn't come with the dramatic heft or powerful emotion of his usual work, and its inclusion was a nice little treat for any Bergman fan, as it had previously only been available as an extra on a UK edition of Seventh Seal.  As of 2018, though, it's now also a part of Criterion's boxed set, so it's a little less exclusive.  A quick comparison shows that it seems to be the same transfer, restored from 35mm film elements.
So yeah, now I own this thing.  I couldn't resist and I'm not sure I regret the purchase.  But I'm still here in the exact same position I've been in for all the years before I got it: desperately hoping someone like Criterion or Eureka finally gives The Best Intentions the proper, complete release it deserves.  Honestly, it feels like I bought a DVD because I couldn't hold out for a blu-ray any longer.  The only difference is now I feel less hopeful of there ever being a decent blu option, because Film Movement's got the title licensed here for who knows how many years, meaning labels like Criterion can't touch it.  Oh, and it's region free.  I sure hope that doesn't mean their license extends anywhere overseas, too.  Because they're not gonna let us watch it online anytime soon.