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.

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