Saturday 4 July 2015

Bologna Diary Seven - The Japanese selection chooses film over digital and misses its chances

Shin Heike Monogatari
Let me take a moment to unpick the selection of Japanese films that comprised the strand called “Richness and Harmony: Colour film in Japan”. The program notes are by Alexander Jacoby & Johan Nordstrom, both scholars who had presented the previous three year’s selections of early Japanese sound films. In those years several films that were quickly dubbed masterpieces, but were unknown outside Japan, came to light. Most notable among them was Hiroshi Shimizu’s A Woman’s Cry in Spring.  

This year’s selection commenced with a screening of a new digital restoration of Kenji Mizoguchi’s Shin Heike Monogatari/Tales of the Taira Clan (1955). The colour in the film, a major point of all these selections was superb, a tribute to the qualities that digital restoration brings. Following that there began a series of screenings of new 35mm prints made by the Japan National Film Centre from their holdings. And that decision to make new prints was where the trouble began. The copies on display turned out to be classic examples of the long term problems associated with colour fade and processes that have simply not worn well. I wont go into this chapter and verse because the point is a simple one. Digital restoration allows the institution retrieving the film, bringing it back into life and maximising access, to work to actually RESTORE the colour. As was shown by the Mizoguchi film which lead off the selection this brings the film back to its original life. It removes the engulfing, nostalgia-inducing fades to yellow and brown and shows us the film as the director and the cinematographer wanted us to see it. Whatever the purist reason for making new prints and thus accepting decline into fade and age, it’s the wrong decision as any one of a dozen other films on screen at Bologna demonstrated. I think maybe the Film Centre needs some tutelage, perhaps from Grover Crisp at Columbia whose magnificent restoration work on Charles Vidor’s Cover Girl (USA, 1944) enthralled the crowds who flocked to it.

I should also mention that my earlier slagging off about the selection of Kajiro Yamamoto’s Hana no naka no musumetachi/Girls in the Orchard (1953) was dealt with in the program. The superior Karmen Comes Home is apparently slated for ‘restoration’ and screening next year. We are promised a digital copy.

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