Possibly Better From Australia? The Killing Fields

Naturally, Q isn't the only blu-ray that's better from Australia. I'm going to be looking at a few of these in the next couple weeks, but this one's really debatable. Today we're looking at The Killing Fields, again from Umbrella Entertainment. Warner Bros released their 30th Anniversary digibook blu-ray of this title in 2014, but Umbrella had already beaten them to the punch in 2012. This gave Warner Bros the advantage, which they used to come ahead in some departments, but still fall short in others.

Update 4/21/16 - 11/5/22: It's always bothered me not having the US BD in this comparison; it's such an essential part of this film's story on blu.  I almost felt like I shouldn't have made this post without that blu.  Well, now I've got my hands on a copy, and it's Update Week, so when better to flush this post out a fuller, more informative edition?
The Killing Fields is a seriously impressive, moving film. On the extras, the creators stress that it's not really a war film, and I'd agree. It doesn't stake itself on any particular army's side and doesn't follow which wins or loses, or even how the soldiers do in combat. It's a true story about the journalists staying (initially) at the American embassy covering the devastation in Cambodia during the struggles between the Khmer Rouge and the government in the early 70s. It's a rag-tag international collection, but we focus primarily on New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston) and his local translator/ protege Dith Pran (Haing S. Ngor, who won the Academy Award for this performance). It's a powerful look at the consequences of war on a nation of people, and also a bit of a platonic love story between these two men.
I already called this film impressive, but that really is the word to describe this picture in my mind. It's got an incredibly authentic feel, thanks in no small part to its incredible locations and production value. Filmed in and primarily around Cambodia just a few years after the events that inspired the film, the history and violence is totally alive in this picture, populated by Cambodian citizens reliving their own experiences on camera. Among them is a surprising supporting cast including John Malkovich, Julian Sands, Craig T. Nelson, Bill Patterson and of course Spalding Gray (Swimming To Cambodia is about this film). There's also a very unusual but effective soundtrack. It's almost impossible to believe that this was the first film of writer Bruce Robinson (Withnail and I) and director Roland Joffé until you realize it was produced by heavy hitter David Puttnam, the man behind everything from Chariots of Fire to Ken Russell's crazy Liztomania. He was able to enlist the cooperation of multiple governments to help realize an uncompromised and unflinching vision that doesn't shine anybody involved in a sentimental light.
So, I don't have Warner Bros. 30th Anniversary blu-ray, but I've read extensively about it...  Thank goodness, we don't have to rely on that anymore.  I do have WB's 30th Anniversary blu now. I still also have my original Warner Bros Killing Fields DVD from 2001, and of course I have Umbrella's 2012 BD. But even when I was relegated to comparing just the DVD and Australian blu, you could get the gist of the story: it's a question of source material (and extras).
WB 2001 DVD top; Umbrella 2012 BD mid; WB 2014 BD bottom.

Those screenshots are pretty different from each other, huh? One thing this isn't a case of: the same old transfer being slapped onto HD discs. No, the Australian blu-ray is much bluer and heavier on contrast, with heavy blacks and bright highlights. I'm fairly confident what's going on here is that the Umbrella blu is taken from a print, and Warner Bros has access to the negative, or at least an earlier film element source. That's why the newer blu is much closer to the old DVD in terms of color and contrast, and Umbrella's blu is way out in left field. Well, except for one brief moment. A quick two-second shot on the Umbrella blu-ray is totally different, and really stands out from the rest of the film while watching it.
Warner Bros 2001 DVD on top; Umbrella Ent's 2012 blu-ray below.
This is a set of shots that take place in the same scene. Ngor is crawling under a fence, we cut away to see if he's been spotted, and cut right back to him. On Umbrella's blu, the cut back to him is starkly different in color timing, as if it went from day to night. I went back to the DVD, and it doesn't have that issue; it all matches perfectly.  Same with the US blu-ray.  I'm guessing Umbrella was missing that shot and patched it with the old SD master?  Now I'm way off in speculation territory, so let's leave it there.  Suffice it to say, Umbrella's transfer is a fine presentation of this film print - compression is strong, and it looks like a real HD image compared to the soft DVD. In fact, detail seems stronger here than on the Warners Blu, even (look at the rocks on the ground)! And as you can see from the other screenshots on this page, it's not like every scene has a strong blu hue or anything.

And the WB blu isn't exactly a fancy new 4k scan of the OCN either.  Both it and their DVD are 1.78:1, leaving only Umbrella matted properly to 1.85:1.  The DVD has some overcast colors (how red is that SD helicopter shot?), which both blus correct in their own way, with Warner Bros looking decidedly more correct.  It also preserves more detail.  Look at the background behind Waterson in the second set of shots, with Umbrella's looking considerably washed out.  Neither image is super sharp or clear; they feel like almost equivalent presentations of their film elements.  It's just that WB has the far superior master, which makes it the clear winner in terms of PQ.

All three discs have the original stereo mix, but only the US Blu-ray's is lossless DTS-HD.  Umbrella's mix is lossy, though they try to make up for it with a lossless True HD 5.1 mix.  But of course, that's a revisionist remix.  Also, only the Warner Bros have optional subtitles (English and French on the DVD, English, Spanish and French on the blu).  Warner's blu also throws in a lossy Spanish dub.  So this is another easy win for WB.  Why did I insist the Umbrella disc had its advantages?
Extras play a particularly strong role with this title. Just about every release of The Killing Fields, including all three discussed so far, include an excellent commentary by director Joffé. He passionately discusses every aspect of the film, from his getting hired to the real events behind the film. He's alone with no moderator for the entire two and a half hour running time, and he never stumbles or leaves us with a moment's dead air. He's very engaged and even if you've seen the the other features I'm about to talk about, it's unrepetetive and highly informative.

But that's about it for the DVD and the US blu. They have the trailer, and the blu is a mediabook with some nice artwork and essays. But The Killing Fields has been released in many countries, all with differing extras, and I believe the Australian disc to be the best in this regard. Again, they pretty much all have the commentary. But the UK disc has multiple interviews, and the German disc has a substantial documentary. There's also a French DVD that has some very interesting sounding features consisting of about two hours worth of interviews with real Cambodian refugees. But all of that's in French with no English language option, so we can take that one off the table.
So, yes, the Australian disc takes the crown in this department. It features one, and by far the longest, of the interviews from the UK disc. A very detailed, hour-long discussion with producer Puttman. He is still very serious about this film and has a lot to say, and almost none of it repeats the commentary track. It helps that he's got a very informed, intelligent interviewer asking him questions and it's just edited enough to keep you engaged the entire hour.

And even more importantly, it also has the documentary that was on the German disc. This is an hour-long British television special about the film, made before the film had even been released, which goes very deep into the film. It interviews the key players in the cast and crew, but goes well beyond that, filming them shooting in Cambodia, showing authentic wartime footage and talking to the real people, including the real Schanberg and Pran. It's narrated by William Shawcross, a journalist who was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of Cambodia during that time, and provides coverage of the true story that rivals the coverage in The Killing Fields film itself.

The Umbrella blu also includes the trailer.
So, we're left to decide which we value more: PQ (and language options) or fascinating special features.  There is some hope that Imprint (also from Australia) is about to save us from that Sophie's choice.  They have a new BD coming out at the end of the month with all the extras from the Umbrella disc, plus plenty more.  It really looks impressive, though it remains to be seen which master they'll be using for the film itself.  And most dishearteningly, it's only being released in a big boxed set of Joffé's films.  $130 is a pretty substantial barrier to entry if you're only interested in The Killing Fields.  So most of us will still probably be deciding between the affordable WB and Umbrella options.  Maybe we can talk Warner Archives into giving it a proper 4k restoration one day?

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