Possibly Better From Australia? The Killing Fields (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

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.
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 Joffe 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 and I'm going to refer you guys to a screenshot on another review site in a minute. I do, however, still have my original Warner Bros Killing Fields DVD from 2001, and of course I have Umbrella's 2012 blu-ray. But even if you just look at my on-site comparison between the DVD and Australian blu, you'll see the whole story: it's a question of source material (and extras).
Warner Bros 2001 DVD on top; Umbrella Ent's 2012 blu-ray below.
Boy, these are pretty different, huh? One thing this isn't a case of: the same old transfer being slapped on an HD disc. No, the blu-ray is much bluer heavier on contrast. Yeah, the blu has more picture on the sides, particularly the left. But more than that, there's the bold blacks, bright highlights, and a bluer tone. Except for one shot. One quick two-second shot on the 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 the blu-ray, 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.

I think what's going on here is that the Umbrella blu is taken from a print, and Warner Bros is using the same or similar master the DVD used. Here's that link I mentioned earlier; taken from an excellent review of the US blu by blu-ray.com: http://www.blu-ray.com/movies/screenshot.php?movieid=43498&position=12  It's not an exact frame match, but it's the same moment as my second set of shots, above. You can plainly see it's much closer to the old DVD in terms of color and contrast.

That said, Umbrella's transfer is a fine presentation of this bluer print. Compression is strong on the blu-ray; 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 watching the film, if you're not directly comparing it to US releases, the colors don't look particularly off (apart from that one brief shot, which is strange).  As you can see from the other screenshots on this page, it's not like every scene has a strong blu hue or anything.  The only thing that really struck me on my initial watch is that the blacks might be a little crushed.  But then after going back to the DVD and comparing the transfers now, I do feel the US colors are more natural and almost certainly correct. So, transfer-wise, I would rank them WB DVD < Umbrella blu < WB blu. But the WB blu isn't exactly a fancy 4k scan of the OCN either, so I'm not sure the Umbrella disc is so far behind, so much as it is noticeably different. But don't get me wrong. Warner Bros still looks decidedly more correct.

Oh, and the US blu offers a 2.0 DTS-HD track, while Umbrella has 5.1 DTS-HD audio. And the DVD has a standard Dolby 2.0 track. But I don't regret picking up the Umbrella blu-ray over Warner Bros', and it's not because of the 5.1.
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 Joffe. 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 has a nice booklet. 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 here. 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.
It's a bit frustrating that no one's released a really comprehensive release of this film: the Warner Bros transfer with all of the extras on the Australian blu, and the additional interviews from the UK blu as well. If you're a hardcore fan of the film, or just have the money to spend, you could import all three for a "total package" experience. But for most of us, it's going to be about deciding between the USA's transfer and Australia's features. For me, the US transfer is best but not amazing, and the Australian extras really are excellent; but it's all going to come down to personal preference. So now that you have the facts, choose away.

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