Trances / The Housemaid
The beloved Moroccan band Nass El Ghiwane is the dynamic subject of this captivating musical documentary. Storytellers through song, with connections to political theater, the band became an international sensation (Western music critics have often referred to them as “the Rolling Stones of North Africa”) thanks to their political lyrics and sublime, fully acoustic sound, which draws on the Moroccan trance music tradition. Both a concert movie and a free-form audiovisual experiment, Ahmed El Maânouni’s Trances is cinematic poetry.
A torrent of sexual obsession, revenge, and betrayal is unleashed under one roof in this venomous melodrama from South Korean master Kim Ki-young. Immensely popular in its home country when it was released, The Housemaid is the thrilling, at times jaw-dropping story of the devastating effect an unstable housemaid has on the domestic cocoon of a bourgeois, morally dubious music teacher, his devoted wife, and their precocious young children. Grim and taut yet perched on the border of the absurd, Kim’s film is an engrossing tale of class warfare and familial disintegration that has been hugely influential on the new generation of South Korean filmmakers.
Ahmed El Maanouni’s Trances, the fifth film in Criterion’s World Cinema Project box set, is presented in this new dual-format edition in its original aspect ratio of about 1.66:1. The high-definition version shares the same dual-layer Blu-ray disc with Kim Ki-young’sThe Housemaid, presented in the aspect ratio of 1.60:1. Each film is also presented on their own respective dual-layer DVD. The standard-definition presentations on both discs have been enhanced for widescreen televisions.
Of the six films in the set Trances offeres the biggest surprise. The lone documentary (with some “reenacted” scenes here and there) was also shot in 16mm and because of this I was expecting it to be the most problematic, but it’s easily one of the most impressive looking of the bunch. Though source and shooting conditions hinder it a bit, I felt the transfer looked brilliant, and it looks like a projected film through much of its run. Long shots can look a bit fuzzy but it looks to be more a condition of the shoot. Close-ups, on the other hand, are crisp and highly detailed. Grain is heavy but natural, with no pixilation or rendering problems. Colours are also unexpectedly rich, and black levels are also inky and deep.
The DVD’s transfer also looks very good but doesn’t handle the film’s grain as well as the Blu-ray’s. It’s a little more compressed, but for a standard-def presentation it looks as good as one can expect on the format.
The material recorded specifically for this film presents only a few minor blemishes. Archival footage is scattered about, looking to come from either older 8mm or 16mm footage, or even television, and this material is in far worse condition, laced with stains, scratches, debris, and, in the case of television footage, pixilation and a general fuzziness. Past these minor issues, though, the presentation looks fantastic, the biggest surprise in the set.
The Housemaid offers an impressive presentation overall but it suffers from a few setbacks. The big one is that despite most of the film coming from the original negative, the fifth and eighth reels were missing and the best surviving elements left were heavily damaged release prints with burned-in, hand-written English subtitles that were removed digitally (a brief sample in the Scorsese interview shows that they actually took up half the screen.) The segments that come from these reels are rough, heavily damaged with scratches and tram lines, faded, blurry, and a bit jittery. It looks like there are some artifacts as well, with pixilation apparent, and it was hard to tell if this was remnants of the process to remove the burned in subtitles, or really just an issue with the source itself.
The remainder of the film fairs much better. The source is shockingly clean, with only a few noticeable bits of damage, limited primarily to specs of debris, and the image is sharp with an incredible level of detail. The black and white photography delivers excellent tonal shifts though I couldn’t help but feel contrast was boosted.
The DVD shows some heavier compression in places but it comes from the same master of the Blu-ray and still looks impressive upscaled.
Despite issues with the source that couldn’t be helped (and they’ve done an impressive job fixing things considering the condition of some of the reels used in the source) it’s a great looking presentation.
Trances (1981): 9/10 The Housemaid (1960): 7/10
Trances has one of the better audio deliveries in the set. In lossless 1.0 PCM mono on the Blu-ray and Dolby Digital 1.0 mono on the DVD, audio quality has a decent amount of range and depth, surprising for a documentary film, even though it does contain plenty of concert footage. There can be a slight edge at times, and there is the occasion where audio seems to flatten out (I suspect just a condition of the source or filming) but these issues are minor and few. A light bit of static seems to sneak into the background, but it’s faint and easy to ignore. In all it goes above and beyond what I would have expected.
The Korean mono soundtrack for The Housemaid is delivered in lossless linear 1.0 PCM on the Blu-ray and 1.0 Dolby Digital on the DVD. Neither is particularly striking, coming off flat and hollow, and distorted during the rougher moments of the film (the fifth and eighth reels.) Still, the track has been cleaned up as well as can be expected and at least doesn’t present any damage or background hiss.
Trances (1981): 7/10 The Housemaid (1960): 6/10
Both films receive introdructions from Martin Scorsese, running about 2-minutes each. For Trances he talks about the film’s restoration (the first film to be restored in the project) and how transfixed he was by the film when he first saw it. He gets into more detail about the restoration efforts that went into The Housemaid, giving a brief example of the burned-in subtitles that plagued a couple of the reels they had to use to replace the two missing ones from the original negative.
On Trances presents interviews with Scorsese, musician Omar Sayed, producer Izza Genini, and director Ahmed El Maanouni (and a narrator,) and covers the film’s production and the band Nass El Ghiwane, also giving a brief history of the band and its members. It’s not altogether that lengthy (it runs only 18-minutes) but it’s probably one of the more substantial and in-depth supplements in the whole set, offering a bit more context behind the film.
Director Bong Joon-ho then briefly talks for 15-minutes about The Housemaid and its director, talking about the elements he loves about the film and Kim Ki-young’s other work, as well as offering a political background for South Korea during the 60’s.
Both interviews are fine but I still wish there was more. At least Scorsese gets into more detail about the restorations here.
Both films look good (despite the issues that were present for The Housemaid) but the disc does offer a couple of solid features.