Monday, January 17, 2011

Pan and Scan Bullcrap

I recently got Hideo Gosha's mid-70s jidaigeki (samurai action drama) Bandits Versus Samurai Squadron sent to me through NetFlix. It was spread over two discs and delayed quite awhile from its original place in my queue.

Finally getting to see this I was supremely disappointed in the transfer on the DVD. It's a legit copy, but from a Hong Kong distributor, and not one of the big ones like Tai Seng. Long before widescreen became the norm here in the USA, Asian distributors often had it as standard on their VHS tapes and later on laserdisc and DVD. It was just easier. Pan and scan requires you zoom in on the widescreen picture and then move the 'camera' around seeking to keep (whatever the operator feels is) the focal point of the action centered. With widescreen you just let the image roll.

So I expected an HK firm to have a crap master. Dark, grainy, or blurry. They aren't going to hit up original studio Shochiku in Japan for a superior transfer. But the pan and scan thing was just unexpected. The film starts out brutal and bloody but then has a pretty long central section where they are introducing characters left and right, and generally raising plot points that are only partway explained and really leave the viewer scratching their head. But sticking through this, the last hour or so is pretty awesome. Or it would've been if I could have seen what was going on.

There are plot twists at the end, taking the movie in a completely unforeseen, but welcome direction... shot through with the gritty sword battles that Gosha typically showcases in his films. He has this way of filming the fights so the blood flows in a convincing fashion (in real time, not in some post-slice closeup) and even the scenery gets cut too, as part of choreography shot in long takes. Included in the climax might just be the longest continuous duel I've seen in a samurai film. And it was still really believable. Samurai film duels are shockingly short compared to most martial arts portrayals in movies. Gosha's fights aren't nearly as stylised as a lot of jidaigeki directors either. There were a few closeups (clashes and grapples) where they are using really sharp goshdamn swords that had me rather tense. I saw enough in the murk of this shitty copy to at least get that much out of it.

I've seen some footage on the web showing this film in a much brighter fashion in widescreen. Even if THAT copy isn't subtitled like mine was, it'd probably be worth me tracking it down. I'm a huge fan of Hideo Gosha and I'm glad I watched this little-seen film of his... but I still feel like I missed a lot! If I was recommending films of his to track down, I'd probably go first to Goyokin or Tenchu.

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