In 2007, Martin Scorsese created the World Cinema Foundation, a non-profit organization that exists to preserve and restore films from around the world that might not otherwise not only fail to find an audience but even survive the brutal passage of time. Scorsese is widely acknowledged as one of history’s most essential filmmakers, but he is also a champion for the form overall, more deeply involved in the international film scene than even his hardcore fans may realize. The World Cinema Foundation has restored almost three dozen films already from around the world and six of them have been compiled in a box set from the Criterion Collection called “World Cinema Project, Vol. 2,” just released in a Blu-ray/DVD combo set. These films, and their supplemental material, offer something akin to a film course at a major college, allowing you to experience and appreciate works that you not only might not have otherwise seen but might have been unseen by anyone were it not for the WCF. As with any box set this ambitious, the quality varies from film to film, but it’s the cumulative impact of the six-movie experience that’s so valuable, reminding us of the variability of the art form more than anything else. I do wish the next box set would include a film by a female director, but it’s also nice to see Criterion reaching out of their typically European film-view to offer works from other parts of the world.
While it’s almost certain that you haven’t heard of all six films in the set, there are at least two very familiar names: Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who would go on to helm the Palme d’Or-winning “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” and last year’s “Cemetery of Splendour,” and the incredible Chinese director Edward Yang, who helmed acknowledged modern classics “A Brighter Summer Day” and “Yi Yi (A One and a Two)”. They are joined in this set by films from Lino Brocka of the Philippines, Ermek Shirnabaev of Kazakhstan, Mário Peixoto of Brazil, and Lütfi Ö. Akad of Turkey. Again, Criterion has been accurately criticized for so heavily focusing their releases on Europe and North America, so it’s nice to see this set truly live up to the first word in its title: “World.”
It’s also notable to consider the chronological diversity of this set. The Brazilian film, a stunning piece of lyrical silent filmmaking called “Limite,” was released, barely even, in 1931. Now recognized as arguably the best Brazilian film in history, it went virtually unseen for decades, even though Orson Welles claimed to have seen it near the time of its original release. The film was one of those works considered lost to history until it was restored by the WCP (although you should be warned that one of the reels is in such bad shape that it is still virtually unwatchable). It is a nearly-two-hour film that can best be described as dreamlike. Three people are on a boat, remembering their lives in poetic, evocative, black-and-white imagery. There is little plot or traditional dialogue cards one would see in a silent film. It is mesmerizing in its simplicity, as if you’re watching someone come up with their own language of cinema.
On the other end of the geographical and cultural spectrum, there’s Lino Brocka’s incendiary “Insiang,” the first film from the Phillipines to play the Cannes Film Festival in 1976 and a fascinating blend of high melodrama and documentary-like detail. This character study takes place in the slums of Manila and is unsparing in its brutality, both in the documenting of the conditions there and the story of a young woman who takes bloody vengeance on her rapist. The restoration here is particularly remarkable, never revealing the film’s age or reportedly weak condition of source material.
Of course, the two films from the recognized masters have notable value, even if they don’t quite hold up to their director’s best works. Weerasethakul’s “Mysterious Object at Noon” is a fascinating film experiment that blends documentary filmmaking and a classic storytelling game, the “exquisite corpse,” in which people continue the same story. It’s a surreal and strange film that works more as an experiment than a realized piece of cinema, but feels especially resonant given the works that its filmmaker would produce over the two decades since its release. Yang’s “Taipei Story,” made in collaboration with another Cannes favorite, Hou Hsiao-hsien, who stars in the film, is a characteristically detailed examination of a part of the world in flux, capturing Taiwan in the ‘80s in a way you haven’t really otherwise seen.
The final two films in the set, the Turkish “Law of the Border” and Kazakh “Revenge” feel somewhat limited by their resources, especially the latter film, which seeks to tell generations of vengeance through one deeply philosophical story. Although its storytelling doesn’t quite work, it has some striking imagery, and I must admit to a lack of deep knowledge about films from this part of the world. In a sense, that’s what box sets like this are for.
The films themselves are the real draws for this box set but the special features are notable as well, particularly introductions from Scorsese himself that offer brief history and longer featurettes that provide more, such as when Walter Salles details the impact of “Limite” or Hou himself discusses “Taipei Story.” And the booklet is wonderful supplemental material, offering essays from critical luminaries like Kent Jones, Bilge Ebiri, and more. A full list is below:
· 2K, 3K, or 4K digital restorations of all six films, presented courtesy of the World Cinema Project in collaboration with the Cineteca di Bologna, with uncompressed monaural or 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks on the Blu-rays
· Remastered digital soundtrack for Limite, created from archival recordings
· New introductions to the films by World Cinema Project founder Martin Scorsese
· New interview programs featuring film historian Pierre Rissient (on "Insiang"), director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (on "Mysterious Object at Noon"), director Ermek Shinarbaev (on "Revenge"), filmmaker Walter Salles (on Limite), film producer Mevlüt Akkaya (on "Law of the Border"), and filmmakers Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edmond Wong in conversation (on "Taipei Story," which Hou cowrote and acted in)
· Updated English subtitle translations
· Three Blu-rays and six DVDs, with all content available in both formats
· PLUS: A booklet featuring an introduction and essays on the films by Phillip Lopate, Dennis Lim, Kent Jones, Fábio Andrade, Bilge Ebiri, and Andrew Chan
To order your copy of Criterion's "World Cinema Project, Vol. 2," click here.