2018년 3월 2일 금요일

BLACK PANTHER's African Connection-- Interview & Discussion with Professor Corrie Decker, Associate Professor of African History, UC Davis


Black Panther, the solo starring vehicle for the Marvel Comics' African superhero, invented in 1966 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (also the year the Black Panther Party was founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, perhaps not-so-coincidentally), had already received much pre-release attention due to its rare status as a major studio tent-pole blockbuster with a predominantly black cast.  Once it was released in February 2018, the film decimated box office, earning more than 412.9 million dollars domestically and reaching the total figure of appx. 704 million dollars worldwide total (as of February 28), with the United Kingdom, South Korea (yay!), Brazil, Australia and, not surprisingly, African nations leading the fray (for some reason, it is not playing as strong in Germany and Italy).  Most industry analysts agree that the film will eventually surpass 600 million dollar mark domestically to become one of the five or six biggest hits of all time, possibly outgrossing all Marvel superhero films in the process. 

All this is pretty staggering in itself, but Black Panther is also provoking discussions all over the world for its dazzling portrayal of the fictional African nation, Wakanda, and its powerful characterizations and themes that draw upon the real-life histories of colonialism, imperialism, systematic racism and transnational exploitation of resources.  For instance, many reviewers and critics have noted that how the film's central villain Erik Killmonger (Stevens) is so much more than just a comic book bad guy.  Erik explicitly criticizes Wakanda's stance of isolationism and seeks to usurp the throne from T'Challa, the film's hero, so that he could turn the superior technological power of the African kingdom to "liberate" the black races throughout the world against their white oppressors. 

I have sat down with Associate Professor Corrie Decker, my wonderful colleague from History Department at University of California, Davis, to inquire about Black Panther's "African connection," and how the film could help us understand history and politics of the continent.  


Professor Decker, a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley History program, is the author of Mobilizing Zanzibari Women: The Struggle for Respectability and Self-Reliance in Colonial East Africa (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). In addition to histories of African regions, she also teaches courses on sexuality, gender, youth and education.  I learned so much from her knowledgeable commentaries on various aspects of Black Panther's portrayal of Wakanda and other elements. Needless to say all this education further increased my appreciation of the film.  I am sharing our discussion below, slightly edited for flow and clarity: I hope you find it as enlightening as I did. 

The interview was conducted at Berkeley, CA, on February 23, 2018. The content of the interview is copyrighted to Corrie Decker, 2018.

Kyu Hyun Kim (hereafter Q): Let's begin with the geographical location of Wakanda. In the movie's prologue they actually show the map of the African continent and to my surprise Wakanda's location is sort of specified. It looks like somewhere near Uganda.

Corrie Decker (hereafter D): I got the sense from the map shown briefly in the film that it would be located somewhere around the border between Eastern Congo and Uganda. The map and geographic features imply that Wakanda could be in Central or Eastern/Southern Africa, but other elements of Wakanda point to other regions in West or West/Central Africa, and of course the language used (isiXhosa) is South African.

Q: And the filmmakers show the landscape of Wakanda.  The city looks futuristic, of course, but the plains, the waterfalls… do they remind you of specific places in Africa?

D: They did not look like specific places in my view. There are the very large Victoria Falls on the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia, and there are certainly other places with large waterfalls and lakes in the Great Lakes region. Plains and savannahs seem to invoke Eastern Africa-- Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania… the mountainous region on the other hand…

Q: The Jabari territory.

D: Right, that was more of a fictional landscape, at least in terms of what really exists in Central/East Africa.

Q: I am impressed nonetheless that they tried to show a diversity of climates, including snow-covered, presumably very cold places.  Many North Americans might not immediately associate "Africa" with snow (Laughter).

D: It does snow in the tops of Mounts Kenya and Kilimanjaro, for example.



Q: Vibranium is of course not a real resource. The idea that a country becomes dependent on a particular mineral actually dates from the original comics. What do you think about this set-up involving vibranium?

D: You know, I kept thinking about coltan and cobalt. They are metals/minerals mined in Africa and are used in almost all high-end electronic products, such as cell phones and laptops. The scramble for coltan has contributed to some serious conflicts in Eastern Congo.  It does make me think about the alternative history-- not likely, but still-- in which Congo had actually controlled the mining and selling of coltan, what might have happened then?  Congo had been subject to external mining, beginning with copper, for the past one hundred plus years, of course, under Belgian colonialism.  

Professor Jim Smith in the UC Davis Anthropology Department has done fieldwork on this issue, and it is an extraordinarily complicated situation.  There are dozens of militia groups in conflict with one another and with various governments, and also refugees from Uganda and other countries, a lot of border crossing, upheavals, based on the exploitation of resources that goes all the way back to rubber.

Q: The main villain is Erik Killmonger, an American, and his career trajectory seems to openly indicate that the US has played a colonizing, politically destabilizing role.  And T'Challa's sister Shuri uses the term "colonizer" as a generic term for white people.  The filmmakers don't dwell on it, but still I find the choice very interesting. 

I think Lupita Nyong'o's father stated in an interview that Wakanda shows the third alternative between Africans sticking to traditions at the expense of keeping up with the rest of the world, and, conversely, embracing the Western modernity and abandoning their traditions.

D: That is very interesting.  In some ways, though, I feel that statement is a bit of an oversimplification. The dichotomy between African traditions and Western modernity has never been clear-cut.

Q: There have been African forms of modernity that this dichotomy tends to ignore.

D: Absolutely.  This idea makes more sense in terms of political discourse, as much of the political struggles in Africa have been about negotiating the impact of Western colonization, but to describe this in terms of tradition vs. modernity does not take into account the ways in which both change over time. Also, the notion that African tradition has been under threat by Western modernity has led to highly problematic ideas and arguments, such as, for instance, the concept that homosexuality is a "disease" brought by the colonizers to Africa. This kind of idea completely disregards the multitudes of sexual orientations that had existed in Africa prior to colonialism.  

Scholars such as Ugandan legal studies professor Sylvia Tamale (editor of African Sexualities: A Reader [2011]), really challenges this dichotomy through her work.

Q: This is fascinating, because some of the criticisms levelled at Black Panther's portrayal of Wakanda have been about its "unevenness," for example, how can a country still be a monarchy and also be so technologically and scientifically advanced?  But listening to you, it appears that this "unevenness" is actually much closer to the African reality.  Co-existence of traditions and modernity is a norm, not an exception, for Africans.

D: Exactly. In the Western notion of linear historical progress, democracy is always conflated with industrialization, for example, but that kind of view flattens our ability to comprehend histories of the other parts of the world.  I don't find any serious contradiction in the idea that there could be a human society ruled by a monarchy but with extremely advanced technology.



Q: Or, for that matter, a monarchy supported by very strong women.

D: Yes, although we can debate that part. Historian Robyn Spencer at Lehman College (author of The Revolution Has Come: Black Power, Gender and Black Panther Party in Oakland [Duke University Press, 2016]) has written a terrific critical reflection on feminism and the women of Wakanda.

Q: Yes! A great observation she makes in the article is that men are regarded as thinkers but women are actors. So this means that having very physically powerful, kick-ass women may not necessarily be the final answer.  Although I think someone like Shuri can perhaps be both a thinker and an actor.

D: Yeah!

Q: Let's talk about generational conflict.  What I found so moving about T'Challa's character arc is the way he recognizes the hypocrisies of his father's generation.  Chadwick Boseman gives an almost Shakespearian performance here, expressing the agony of the younger generation who painfully finds out the part of the narrative that constitutes his identity has been false, a series of lies.  

I think this kind of depiction is really resonant to the young people.  On the one hand they need role models.  But in the back of their minds they are aware that the actions and ideas of their elders have been flawed.

D: Totally.

Q: It's okay to challenge your fathers, even if you carry on their dreams.

D: Right! 

Q: How does Black Panther impact North American viewers, and not just Americans of African descent, to change their perceptions of Africa?  Or what would be the ways to improve the relationships between North Americans and Africans? Does the movie provide clear, positive messages regarding that question?

D: I think this is where the movie was perhaps a bit disappointing to me.

Q: You mean the ending?

D: In the sense that the gesture of generosity toward Oakland could signal the new beginning, it was fine, I got that. But I think it could have addressed… could have made explicit a few more issues. This topic is perhaps a bit sensitive, but I felt that Killmonger was calling to the African diaspora to rise up, but he is in a sense directing the criticism not just to the US but also to African nations. 

There is a big debate about the responsibility of African nations in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, for instance. A large number of slaves sold into the coastal slave trade came from the interior and had been captured by other Africans. So there is a nod, perhaps not explicitly intended by the filmmakers, to the abandonment of Africans in the diaspora by African nations going back to the era of the slave trade.

Q: I totally see that now that you have explained it to me. But I think that's where having a fictional nation like Wakanda works so much better. If Black Panther were an African-American hero, he would be a lot like Erik Killmonger and he would go to Africa to violently "help" "poor Africans" against the colonizers.  And in such a format there would be no room to address these complex and difficult real historical issues.

D: I am so glad that's not the movie they actually made (Laughter). What happens to the people who had left the continent against their will?  Erik's messages are conflicted: on the one hand, "let's join forces against our oppressors." On the other, "you have abandoned us."

It is a bit problematic that Erik's mother, an American, is never seen, too. But what Erik's father was trying to do, before he was stopped by his own brother, T'Chaka, in the context of black liberation movement in the US, carried much resonance with African independence movements, which, historically, led to the new wave of Pan-Africanism in the mid-twentieth century.  And yet some African Americans engaged in these global movements against racism expressed a sense of abandonment by Africans once African nations gained independence in the 1960s, and the connection between the movements faded.

African American Studies Professor Jemima Pierre at UCLA has conducted fascinating research on this and related topics centered on the African diaspora experience and global racial formation.  This disjuncture is, for instance, mirrored in the divisions between the academic fields of "African Studies" and "Black Studies" since the 1960s.

Having said this, I do think it is remarkable that Black Panther emphasizes the deep connections- past, present, and future, between the continent and the diaspora. The fact that we have a blockbuster movie centered entirely on Africans and African Americans is something to celebrate!

Q: Incredible. So many new things to learn!  Thank you so much for your time, Professor Decker.

D: My pleasure! 

2018년 1월 14일 일요일

My Favorite Blu Rays of 2017

Well here we go again!  Despite everything-- American democracy unraveling at its seams, wildfire in California and other environmental disasters, North Korea going nuclear and most likely creating untold havoc to the peace in East Asia, sad passings of friends, admirable people and great artists, some of whom were tragically young--, and despite the killing academic schedule and deadlines, I am back here at January 13, to upload My Favorite Blu Rays of 2017.  As usual, I have already completed and uploaded the Korean-language version of it, which, also as usual has a slightly different titles for its lower ranks from this one. 
   
This year, the proportion of DVDs among the discs I have procured has for the first time declined below 20 percent.  A notable development, as DVDs are still churned out with regularity by most studios: none of them has given up on it in favor of Blu Ray. Even Netflix still stocks a large chunk of its (now admittedly half-hearted) video rental items (ah, yes, don't be surprised. They still rent out the DVDs and Blu Ray rentals like the good ol' days) as DVDs rather than Blu Rays. Yet, in 2017 it became glaringly obvious that even stockpiling a good portion of desirable Blu Rays released in a single year would be more than I could handle, financially and living-space-wise (help!).

Indeed, contrary to the world and American politics that seems to be plunging down the rabbit hole (although, to be fair, there have been some good signs: victories of liberal candidates in close state elections despite active gerrymandering by the Republican establishment, Me Too movement spurred by outrageous revelations of the misconducts by Hollywood's powerful men, and so on), the Blu Ray collector had another banner year, now tinged with perhaps a slight sense of awe, to be perfectly frank. 



In 2017, the center of my BD purchase market displayed signs of a subtle migration from the US to the United Kingdom. Whatever idiocy generated from the Brexit campaign we might have to deal with in this year, the British labels really elbowed aside their brethren across the Atlantic to declare themselves.  Who could have expected, to cite just a few examples, that Arrow Video, long a specialist in the cult genre titles, would not only successfully branch off to the stateside, but also release the nine-disc (!) Jacques Rivette collection, and the British Film Institute would come up with a beautiful Blu Ray of Rivette's Celine and Julie Go Boating?  Studio Canal and Network continue to make available a slew of classic Anglophone titles on Blu-- films of Cy Endfield, Joseph Losey, Val Guest, classic SF and films noirs, to number a few.  Eureka! (mostly through its Masters of Cinema imprint) has extended its reach to more recent Asian films missed out by their American competitors, such as Kawase Naomi's Mourning Forest and Kurosawa Kiyoshi's Creepy and Journey to the Shore.  It is icing on the cake that a large proportion of these discs are Region Free, but if any year gave a serious collector of world classical cinema sufficient reasons to immediately purchase a Region Free Blu Ray player (or, for that matter, an extra Region B player), it was 2017.

Hold on, but does this mean that they are moving away from the red-carpet treatment accorded to Mario Bava, Dario Argento, the '70s Italian gialli, Hammer and Amicus horrors and other genre home video staples?  You gotta be kidding, right? Arrow is still leading the fray in lavishing the care and attention of a Vatican church-fresco restoration specialist to these titles. Frankly, I am compelled to wonder if a label like Powerhouse Indicator, now graduating from releasing the spit-and-sparkle Blu Ray editions of such usual suspects as Brian De Palma and John Carpenter to lesser-known but historically and aesthetically significant '70s and '80s titles such as Hardcore, Blue Collar and The Last Detail, is operating under a profit motive at all. We can add to all this the beyond-the-call-of-duty care these labels put into designing amazing new covers, totally in the spirit of the original films, and jam-packing each title with educational supplements.

In 2017, it was even tougher to whittle down the list to 25 than it was to 20 in 2016.  It became slap-in-the-forehead evident around early December last year that there was no way that the list could be confined to just twenty items.  At one point I have contemplated shutting down the sluice at number thirty, but that just begged the question of why not at 35, or 40, and so on.  So, here we are, twenty-five of my favorite Blu Rays of 2017.

As usual, a disclaimer: the following list is not a list of "best" movies represented in BD last year, however you might define "best." Neither does it represent technically the most impressive restorations, rescue jobs and/or transfers. The included items have only one thing in common: they were astonishing titles that gave me the pleasure and shock of discovery and re-discovery or otherwise punched me in the gut, making me realize that the world of cinema has no boundaries except those defined by your imagination. The reasons for their inclusion are intensely personal, and I let my emotional responses-- a wallop in my stomach, tears flowing from my eyes, barks of disbelieving laughter inadvertently escaping from my throat-- rather than intellectual calibrations serve as my ultimate judge.  I have a zero problem admitting that Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon and Tarkovsky's Stalker are world-classics and their availability via Criterion on Blu Ray is seriously gratifying: they are nonetheless not included in my list. Not to worry, these and other renowned titles are plenty popular in other year-end lists! (Check out Cine Savant's list, 100 aggregate best-of-the-year titles from DVDBeaver, and Mondo Digital's 30 significant titles)

As before, one package, regardless of the actual number of discs, is treated as one title.  Needless to say, all selections had to be released within the year 2017 to qualify.

25. Fright Night (1985, Eureka! Region All)


Talk about surprise!  I did not expect Eureka! of all labels to issue the special edition of this '80s favorite, transferred in 4K with positively jaw-dropping gradations in black levels as well as insane sharpness and packed to the gills with supplements, including a delightful footage of the 2008 reunion of director Tom Holland and the main cast and its piece de resistance, a 146 minute (!)-long making-of documentary, You're So Cool, Brewster.  The edition practically oozes with fan enthusiasm and sheer love for this clever vampire flick, surprisingly sophisticated and witty, epitomized by tongue-in-cheek yet never condescending performances of Chris Sarandon (as the lead vampire) and the late Roddy McDowall (as a Vincent Price-like old horror film star Peter Vincent).  A thoroughly delightful release.


24.  Rat Fink (1965, Retromedia, Region All)



This is the title that bubbled up to the surface from the Incredible Movies That I Have Not Even Heard of Until I Saw Them category. Rat Fink is apparently a follow-up effort of the team that had produced The Sadist (DVD collectors might remember it as one of the earliest special edition DVDs ever from a non-studio label, in this case David Kalat's All Day), headed by director James Landis and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. The latter of course graduated to a spectacular Hollywood career, working with Robert Altman and Steven Spielberg in '70s and beyond, and is still the most recognizable name attached to this curio.  Produced to showcase its lead actor Schuyler Hayden, Rat Fink was actually released to the theaters and even received some good critical notices.  But then, Hayden, disappointed that the film had failed to give him a star-making "big break," packed luggage and relocated to Hawaii along with his family. He was persuaded to reignite his career in '70s again, only to tragically pass on due to a freak airplane crash in California. The film's negative was subsequently destroyed in a fire.  It appeared that Rat Fink was one of those lost films that show up as "entries" in a career resume but have been seen by few other than the folks involved in actually making it. 

But then again, a well-preserved 35mm release print was somehow located, and Retromedia jumped in to scan it for Blu Ray. Is Rat Fink any good?  I don't think it is a rediscovery of a lost masterpiece (to their credit Retromedia does not try to oversell the film's historical value), but nonetheless it makes for a compelling viewing.  Like The Sadist, there is something deeply disturbing about the film's matter-of-fact depiction of awful violence-- physical, sexual and of course, emotional-- despite its relative lack of explicitness (there is no real nudity, for instance), and Hayden, not un-charismatic and looking like a cross between Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty, gives a maybe technically unrefined but riveting performance. He seems genuinely angry at the world, but is also highly convincing playing a sociopath who pathetically grovels at the feet of his manager once the goings get really tough.  It is enough for us to wonder what might have happened had Hayden managed to construct a solid foundation for a Hollywood career in late '60s.  The film, viciously cynical yet also suffused with what I think is a genuine sense of melancholy, fits in well with the other early '60s indie efforts such as the works of Monte Hellman, Jack Hill and Roger Corman (think of his subversiveThe Intruder).  


23. Parents (1988, Lionsgate, Region A)



One of the news that brought joy to the hearts of the fans of '80s horror, SF and fantasy cinema was Lionsgate's acquisition of the titles released through the old VHS company, Vestron. They even named it Vestron Video Collector's Series.  Along with the more familiar titles such as the Warlock trilogy (the first one with Richard E. Grant and Julian Sands is an underrated gem, the rest, ur, serviceable), the Wishmaster films (I am a big fan of Andrew Divoff. Somebody give him a meaty role, where he actually gets to use his multilingual talent! The movies themselves… ah well), Waxwork and its sequel, Chopping Mall and Blood Diner, the series contains some surprising entries, including a charming SFX showcase The Gate, Ken Russell's Gothic and Lair of the White Worm, and this remarkable meditation on the hypocritical underside of the early postwar suburban America, a la David Lynch's Blue Velvet.  Directed by the noted character actor Bob Balaban from a screenplay by Christopher Hawthorne, apparently a specialist in children's TV, Parents had left me an indelible impression in its combination of boldly surrealistic touches-- sometimes going overboard, as in a memorable scene in which the protagonist boy is drowned in a pool of blood that suddenly surge out of his bed-- and compellingly observed, almost repellent details of an American suburban life.

The Blu Ray comes with Balaban and producer Bonnie Palef's audio commentary and other key cast and crew interviews: a wonderful nostalgic trip to the hair-raising heydays of '80s American genre cinema hybrids.


22. The House That Screamed/ La Residencia (1970, Scream Factory, Region A)

The Spainish horror great Narciso Ibáñez Serrador's La Residencia, trimmed by 10 minutes and hawked by its American distributor, American International, as a lurid erotic horror, has been one of the titles that I have avoided as a greymarket VHS version and opted to wait for a properly transferred HD iteration. It took some time, but finally Shout! Factory's horror imprint Scream Factory has taken up the mantle in 2017, and the result does not disappoint.  We can finally appreciate the film for what it really is, a tight and unnerving psychological horror directly in the lineage of Psycho and Peeping Tom, and an indictment of religious-sexual repression that distorts and eventually destroys young minds. 


21. The Man Between (1953, BFI/Studio Canal, Region B)



The British Film Institute has been restoring major and minor classics of British cinema and releasing them on Blu Ray via Studio Canal, whose copyright library seems to be truly vast, and following their release of the impeccably produced The Fallen Idol (reviewed in this blog) is this lesser-known Carol Reed film. The Man Between has not been as well received as The Third Man, also set in the postwar Berlin, reviewers and critics no doubt pointing to the absence of Graham Greene's screenplay and its somewhat clichéd Cold War plot machinations as reasons for its weakness.  However, I found the film powerful and riveting, peppered with the time-capsule moments of the early '50s Berlin, marked by grotesque, gargantuan rubbles of the bombed buildings that look like a dystopian alien landscape covered in white snow.  James Mason is the star, an archetypal "Divided Nation" character, and as usual charismatic, if somewhat iffy with the German accent, but the movie's true guiding presence is a young British schoolteacher visiting her military brother played by Claire Bloom, practically debuting with this film.  Bloom is positively radiant as another in the series of Reed's female characters who are beautiful, spiritual but also not afraid to take charge, even in the matters of life and death. 

Considering how enchanting her presence is in this film, it is somewhat distressing to hear her talk about Reed's less than gentlemanly behavior towards her (according to her recollection) in her brand-new interview. The Blu Ray also includes a long-form documentary Carol Reed: A Gentle Eye that makes an excellent case for reevaluating the significance of this filmmaker in charting the evolution of the interwar and immediate postwar Anglophone cinema.


20. Suddenly in the Dark 깊은 갑자기 (1981, Mondo Macabro, Region All)



We Korean fans of classic genre cinema, plus fans of Korean classic genre cinema (Oh well, I am realistic: even if we combine these two constituencies, I know their numbers may not be large enough to fill the parking lots of a local Walmart store) collectively turned our heads, when Mondo Macabro, the leading purveyor of the global bizarre cinema, whose reach is seriously international, from Ukraine and Greece to Indonesia and the Philippines, announced that they will be bringing one of the local cult favorites, Suddenly in the Dark, to Blu Ray. 

Scanned from the best surviving elements stored in the Korean Film Archive, the long-vilified film, a staple in the VHS market and late-night TV screenings during which it permanently warped the minds of many pimply teenagers, now twists and turns like a dervish under the eye-popping multi-colored Bava-esque lighting, ready to sear itself into the brain tissues of many non-Korean genre aficionados!  A truly bizarre film for which that adjective is not a hyperbole, it belongs to any adventurerous classic horror fan's shelf.  Kudos to Mondo Macabro for making this release into a reality: can I dream about them one day releasing to BD seriously obscure Korean genre titles such as Insayeomu (1975), a Korean-Filipino taekwondo-action-snake-woman's curse-horror-softcore-erotica mash-up?  


19. The New Centurions (1972, Powerhouse Indicator, Region All)



The British label Indicator's big surprise BD release of 2017 was this Joseph Wambaugh adaptation, an important Merkmal in the evolution of one of America's most prolific cinematic and TV genres, "realistic" cop shows that attempt to capture the moral and political complexities of the police work.  Richard Fleischer, who, based on the sheer number of great BD titles directed by him in recent years, is due for a major re-evaluation as one of the masters of '60s and '70s American cinema, directs from Stirling Silliphant's screenplay, but the movie's core strengths lie in the lead performances of Stacy Keach (who delightfully shows up in a cast interview, thoughtful and judicious as ever), George C. Scott, Jane Alexander as well as of a host of actors in supporting roles (including a surprisingly effective pre-CHIPS Erik Estrada).


18. Hammer House of Horror: The Complete Series (1980, iTV Studios/Network, Region B)



Network, which has become one of my favorite labels since 2015, is now remastering the key genre TV series in their catalogue into Blu Rays.  Classic TV in Blu Ray is a mind-bending conundrum for an anti-revisionist like myself, as HD transfers of the 35mm film materials for certain TV shows allow us, in the 21st century, to watch them in the kind of quality never actually seen by the contemporary, intended viewers. No matter how excellent one's broadcast service and hardware might have been, it still could not have appeared as sharp and detailed as their HD remastered incarnations look to us, Blu Ray collectors, today.  So far Space 1999 (which I have always preferred to Star Trek-- granted, the writing in the former show was sometimes less than stellar, but I've always found Star Trek talky and overbearingly American, to be honest), The Prisoner (a cult TV series if there ever was one), Quatermass, The Persuaders and UFO (the latter two almost gluttonous in terms of the supplementary information Network managed into jam into the multidisc collector's boxes) have been released, but my choice for 2017's Network Blu Ray is this scrappy, short-lived (just thirteen episodes, which in a sense is a perfect number) TV series from Hammer Studios in its twilight days (of the classic period, I should add).  

Considered grungy and perhaps predictably exploitative at the time of its debut, the Hammer House of Horrors enjoys an improved reputation today, as the youngsters exposed to the show in syndication (it certainly played in Korea via AFKN, almost completely uncensored, too, with most of the nudity and violence intact) have matured and come to appreciate its unbridled commitment to the red-meat horror content. Indeed, some episodes of the series-- including "Rude Awakening," featuring the great Denholm Elliott, "Guardian of the Abyss," a terrific demonic possession tale presented in the boxset in an alternative version masked at 1.78:1 theatrical ratio (it looks fabulous!) and "The Silent Scream" starring Peter Cushing and young Brian Cox in top form-- handily beat the studio's later-phase theatrical films in terms of their sheer quality of acting, direction and atmosphere. 


17.  OSS 117 Five Film Collection (1963-1968, Kino Lorber, Region A)


As this list would presumably make it abundantly clear, 2017 was the year that Kino Lorber went berserk with the kind of completely unexpected titles more appropriate for a European label.  I had heard of OSS 117 films, a series of spy adventure novels adapted into the movies starring an American agent with the amazing name of Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath (!). My memory of these films is generally associated with the dismissive reviews blocking them into a jumble with countless other rip-offs of the James Bond franchise.  It turns out that neither the novels by Jean Bruce (continued on by his wife Josette Bruce and eventually by their children into 1990s) nor the movie adaptations are really pastiches of the more famous British secret service agent and his exploits: they are, for one, extremely French, a quality that would have been lost to an extent if watched in English dubbing, and in the versions edited by American importers to emphasize action sequences. 

These five films, starring Kerwin Matthews (yes, Sinbad himself!), Frederick Stafford (later cast in Hitchcock's Topaz) and John Gavin (considered for the role of James Bond in Diamonds Are Forever) all come with the original French language soundtracks.  In many ways dated, yet also beautifully photographed, surprisingly effective (as in Matthew's terrific karate bout with an assassin in his hotel room, for instance) and full of unexpected fun for European genre film fans (none other than George Eastman shows up as the uproariously fey supervillain Curt Jurgens's premier henchman in OSS 117: Double Agent!), I am very glad I decided not to pass by this title on the account of its rather hideous cover design (ur, this is one area for which Kino could secure some extra budget…).
   

16.  Drunken Master 醉拳 (1978, Eureka! Masters of Cinema, Region All)



As I pointed out above, I really appreciate Eureka!'s conscious inclusion of post-'60s Asian films in their repertoire, but even considering that this was a pleasant surprise.  I know there is a possibly unbridgeable perception gap between a North American and an East Asian filmgoer  grown up in '70s and '80s regarding the stardom of Jackie Chan. I don’t think anyone who was not there in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, Japan or Singapore could really appreciate just how big Chan was… and has consistently been so, throughout the last four decades.

I recently read a review of The Foreigner, whose author seems to characterize Jackie as an aging martial arts star who had failed to break it into the Anglophone mainstream: someone with the comparable cinematic stature of, say, Jean Claude Van Damme.  Bless the Belgian's heart, but seriously, guy, Chan is not Van Damme.  He is the biggest movie star on this side of the globe, and again, has been so for 40 years.  Someone with the stature of Clint Eastwood might be an acceptable comparison, maybe, but Jackie as a "local" Oriental star struggling to gain acceptance of the North American public?  A positively insulting characterization, not to mention vastly ignorant about the reality of the world: from such depths of ignorance erupt the dark forces of a Trump presidency and the Brexit campaign… sigh. 

The Masters of Cinema presentation does full justice to this ultra-low-budget, borderline-primitive yet historically momentous martial arts comedy, restoring its theatrical Cantonese soundtrack allegedly not heard since its 1978 debut, equipping it with multiple English-language subtitles (a la Criterion's ploy with Kurosawa) and a slew of commentaries and essays by the likes of Tony Rayns, Jeff Yang and the film director Gareth Evans.


15.  Liquid Sky (1982, Vinegar Syndrome, Region All)



One of the oddest cult films to emerge from '80s, which is truly saying somethin', Liquid Sky is a fluorescent, narcotics-induced pleasure dream/nightmare that also has a strangely endearing quality to it, starting with the premise of extraterrestrial(s) ensconced in a dinner-plate sized flying saucer acting as the plot's catalytic agent. I don't know whether you could call Anne Carlisle's performance "good," but she is certainly unforgettable in the dual role as a heroine-addicted poser Jimmy and an emotionally needy androgynous model Margaret. And no doubt some of you wish you could forget-- and cannot-- Paula E. Sheppard's (also in the cult film Alice, Sweet Alice: where is she now?), ur, oral performance of "Me and My Rhythm Box."

A brainchild of Russian émigré director Slava Tsukerman and a perfect film to acid-dissolve your cinephile friend's lofty idea of what an "arthouse" motion picture is supposed to be, Vinegar Syndrome presents the film, some portions of which bear the imprint of guerrilla filmmaking and less-than-optimal conditions for special effects work, in a 4K HD scan from camera negatives, complete with piles and piles of special features, some of which also look appropriately, hmm, grungy. 

And yes, I saw Liquid Sky in a movie theater. So now you know why I am like this.


14. The Day of the Jackal (1973, Arrow Video, Region B)



I fully understand the criticisms labeled at High Noon for its political stance, but I still think it is one of the greatest Westerns I have seen.  Perhaps it speaks to me because of my own outlook in life, who knows.  Fred Zinnemann, whatever his ideological proclivities might have been, cannot be questioned about his mastery of filmmaking craft. His later films in particular have the cutting precision of an unsmiling genius chess player. The Day of the Jackal is a taut political thriller with a total concentration on the procedure-- Jackal, portrayed with suave steeliness by Edward Fox, is matched by the dedicated civil servant Deputy Commissioner Lebel (Moonraker's Michel Lonsdale)-- that effortlessly paints circles around most of the contemporary thrillers depicting similar situations (Bourne films, the Mission Impossible series, with Tom Cruise always mugging the camera with his "earnest" looks, and so on). 

The only thing in the movie that strikes me as awkward is the way in which Jackal dispatches human obstacles to his project with his bare hands: at one point he strangles a person, and the poor victim simply drops dead in about thirty seconds.  Oh well, nobody's perfect.
   

13. The Last Witness 최후의 증인 (1980, Korean Film Archive/Blue Kino, Region All)



Along with A Little Ball Launched by a Dwarf, this director Lee Doo-yong's magnum opus is one of the Korean films from which we can palpably feel the underground energy of the oppressed peoples, who had just about had enough, about to erupt and topple the military dictatorships of '70s and early '80s. Based on a popular mystery novel by Kim Seong-jong, Lee's feature is an epic meditation, under the guise of an ostensibly anti-Communist crime procedural, on the sufferings visited on the good and the decent by the cruelties of modern Korean history. Korean Film Archive about a decade ago restored this film to its uncensored length of two hours and 34 minutes, leaving those lucky enough to catch it during revival screenings reeling from shock. 

In 2017, the agency issued it as a special edition Blu Ray, meticulously reconstructed with each frame cleaned and color-timed to the specifications of the director and cinematographer Jeong Seong-il, one of the masters of classic Korean cinema, complete with enthusiastic and admiring commentaries by such notables such as The Handmaidens director Park Chan-wook and critic Kim Young-jin.  


12. The Sea Wolf (1941, Warner Archive Collection, Region A)



Talking about restorations of lost classics, of course, we must not forget Warner Archive Collection, by now seemingly committed to releasing three or more Blu Ray titles per month. The last year's astonishing BD title from WAC was this cinematic adaptation of Jack London's novel, reconstructed to its original 1941 premier length of 100 minutes (previously, the 86 minute-long re-release print cut in 1947 has been the only available one) from original 35mm nitrate elements.  With Edward G. Robinson at his most incredibly diabolic, John Garfield, Ida Lupino and Alexander Knox as the intellectual narrator-scribe, The Sea Wolf is an overwhelmingly intense seafaring adventure cum film noir.  Robinson's Captain Wolf Larsen is a frighteningly crafty, cannily evil dictator of the pirate ship The Ghost, and yet the viewers are unable to unconditionally condemn him-- he is much too a familiar figure, not really the exotic and distant Enemy but, in truth, One of Us.  

A stunning artistic achievement by the sometimes underappreciated director Michael Curtiz, The Sea Wolf leads the fray in the bountiful WAC releases of 2017 including other classical titles such as Hell on Frisco Bay, Seven Days in May, Wait until Dark, Bad Day at Black Rock and Ride the High Country, among others.


11. Funeral Parade of Roses 薔薇の葬列 (1969, Cinelicious Pics, Region A)



In 2016, Cinelicious Pics flabbergasted fans of classic Japanese animation with their astonishing reconstruction and release of Tezuka Osamu production's Belladonna of Sadness. In the last year, they reached out to one of the quintessential signposts in the international queer cinema, Funeral Parade of Roses, a daringly avant-garde yet surprisingly emotional take on Oedipus Rex, interspersed with the interview segments of the young "gay boys."  The fans of Japanese SF cinema and Kurosawa Akira might be stunned to recognize the very familiar face of Tsuchiya Yoshio, the Human Vapor himself and a veteran of numerous Toho Godzilla films, in a steamy love scene with the transgender actor-singer-TV personality Peter, who memorably played Kyoami, the court jester character in Kurosawa's Ran (inexplicably looking at least a decade younger in the latter film, released in 1985!).

In addition to the impeccably HD-transferred main feature (previously only available via SD bare-bones edition via Masters of Cinema series), this Blu Ray edition collects eight short films of director Matsumoto Toshio as supplements, providing an amazing glimpse into the '60s experimental cinema that attempted to consciously break down boundaries between fictional and documentary films.  


10. Deluge (1933, Kino Lorber, Region A)



A pre-code apocalyptic disaster film, Deluge is primarily known for its climactic destruction of New York City by the huge tsunami generated by the drastic climate change (whoa, something guaranteed not to happen in real life! Fake news!), which is darn impressive in its own light, but the film is giddily entertaining as well as thought-provoking in other ways.  It is brutally honest in its appraisal of the deterioration of the American society (circa 1930s) at the face of large-scale economic disaster (especially in graphic depictions of women's vulenrability) and features a genuinely attractive heroine in Peggy Shannon, who falls in love with a upstanding survivor unaware that his wife and child had also survived the disaster and is willing to start a new life with her. 

Tough-minded but never cynical, Deluge is another pre-Production Code American classic that, when seen in a great presentation, fully measures up to its unrealistic-sounding reputation. 


9. Othello (1952/1955, Criterion Collection, Region A)

Criterion's painstaking reconstruction of Orson Welles's Shakespearian adaptations hit its zenith with the 2016 release of Chimes at Midnight.  Here we have a slightly more problematic case, a flagrantly cinematic Othello fraught with production difficulties (continuous short-changing of the budget, which led to some amazingly creative touches such as setting a key dramatic scene in the Turkish bath, where characters jaunt about clad only in towels: Welles was unhappy with the leading lady Suzanne Cloutier, whose voice ended up being dubbed in the 1955 version: and so on) and almost flaunting its dancing-at-the-edge-of-the-sword filmmaking hutzpah.  It leaves little doubt as to Welle's mastery of cinema as an aesthetic medium, but his interpretation of Othello as an actor is strangely passive, almost rigid, as if he had abandoned any effort to resist the fate's cruel scenario.  In the insert essay, Geoffrey O'Brien makes the case that his performance is a meta-cinematic reflection on his own precarious and doubt-wracked position as the creator of this project: well, maybe.  Or perhaps Welles was genuinely uncertain about how to play this role: a powerful foreigner admired, feared and respected yet never truly accepted as one of their own by the "Europeans" he is called upon to protect and serve. 

In any case, Criterion's rehabilitation of Orson Welle's films on the home video-- Mr. Arkadin, F for Fake, Chimes at Midnight, The Immortal Story, and now Othello-- has to count as one of the most amazing feats of cinematic reevaluation in recent years. This is indeed a title that reminds us why Criterion Collection remains Criterion Collection in the eyes of its devotees…


8. Caltiki The Immortal Monster/Caltiki il monstro immortale (1959, Arrow Video, Region A)



…yet, I wouldn't be surprised if Arrow Video surpasses Criterion Collection in a few years, in its care and passion in shepherding the classic titles either of academic importance or cult reputation.  We would have been glad that a title like Caltiki il monstro immortale, a minor Italian horror film ripping off the ingenuous premise of The Blob, a cheapskate but effective monster in the form of a jelly-like amorphous, amoebic creature that simply absorbs and dissolves its prey, was merely made available in a watchable form with readable English subtitles.  Only two decades ago, a film like this would have merited little more than a curious footnote in the career overview of Mario Bava, responsible for Calitiki's special effects design and wrangling as well as much of its direction. 

Today, you can trust Arrow Video to not only locate the intact elements and provide a unrealistically sparkling 2K scan of them but also to jam-pack their release with practically endless supplementary materials, beginning with two separate audio commentaries by Tim Lucas and Troy Howarth and an alternative, 1.33:1 full-frame presentation of the film, solely intended to have the widest coverage of the Bava-directed special effects. 


7. Suspiria 40th Anniversary 4K Restoration Edition (1977, Synapse Films, Region A)



Oh what can I do? I have stated elsewhere that the biggest beneficiary among the filmmakers of the optic media disc revolution has not been Jean-Luc Godard, not Bernardo Bertolucci, not Stanley Kubrick, but Dario Argento.  And here is yet another proof of that statement. 

Suspiria is not even my favorite horror film, but as a collector of classic cinema on physical media, I do not know how I could have avoided honoring this 4k restoration special edition, under the supervision of Don May, head of Synpase Films, that had allegedly taken more than three years of painstaking cleansing and recalibration frame by frame.  The result is perhaps even more stunning in terms of sound than the famously candy-colored visuals, especially in the new DTS-HD mastered English soundtrack, supposedly never heard outside the theatrical premier in 1977. 


6. Fritz Lang Silent Film Collection (1919-1929, Kino Lorber, Region A)



Perhaps not necessarily a must-have title for those who have been collecting individual discs of Fritz Lang's silent films, majority of which-- Metropolis, Die Nibelungen, Spies, Dr. Mabuse The Gambler, Destiny, The Spiders, even Woman in the Moon, a hard-to-see title not long ago-- have been out as individual BD releases from Masters of Cinema and Kino Lorber, this collection-- which includes Four Around the Woman, Harakiri, The Wandering Shadow and Lang-scripted adaption of Edgar Allan Poe's The Masque of Red Death, a big surprise, and for some of us, worth the price of the package in and of itself-- is still a keeper for me.

I freely admit that the sturdiness and heft of the hardcover book-style slipcase set that houses ten BD discs (technically twelve films in all) is one of the reasons that I find it so attractive. 2017 turned out to be a banner year for Kino Lorber all in all, and in the new year, too, its relationship with F. W. Murnau Stiftung will hopefully bring many great European BD titles to our attention.


5. T-Men (1947, Classic Flix, Region A)



Classic Flix, the hardcore classic movie rental service refusing to consider any film more recent than 1967 (now that it is 2018, perhaps they are willing to down-adjust the cutoff date to 1968?) as a part of their repertoire, has evolved into a Blu Ray-DVD producer, naturally devoted to making it available hard-to-find classic American cinema, especially films noirs. So far their slate includes Crime of Passion, You Only Live Once, The Killer is Loose, and this Anthony Mann-John Alton collaboration, an astoundingly violent (although neither explicit nor gory: not surprising since it was made in 1947!) and vicious gut-puncher. 

Classic Flix's remaster is positively glorious which puts proper blacks back into black &  white, as it were, and the disc comes with participation of noted critics and film scholars Todd McCarthy, Julie Kirgo, Courtney Joyner and others.  We are sure to see more from Classic Flix in the new year, and if we are lucky enough, for many years to come.


4. The Pulse 回路 (2001, Arrow Video, Region A)


Kurosawa Kiyoshi's modern ghost story and apocalyptic fable The Pulse is my choice for the best J-horror film of all time: more ambitious and thoughtful than equally frightening Ring and Audition, and ultimately articulating best the millennial anxieties facing the rapidly aging Japan, a nation in search of a purpose.  Arrow Video tackles the task of bringing this foreboding masterpiece-- that in a public showing unfailingly squeezes groans and moans of fear and shock out of the audience-- with passionate commitment.  
            

3. The Sorrow and the Pity/ Le chagrin et la pitie (1969, Arrow Academy, Region B)


One of the most remarkable instances in which cinematic art directly and significantly impacted the perception of controversial historical events must be the French filmmaker's reckoning of the Nazi occupation of France: Jean Pierre-Melville (who had fought in the resistance), Louis Malles, Claude Chabrol, Bertrand Tavernier, among others, have tackled this issue with forthrightness, courage and compassion, whether we, the viewers, could sympathize or resonate with the behaviors of the characters depicted in their films-- such as the young Nazi collaborator Lucien who also falls in love with a bourgeois Jewish girl in Malle's Lacombe, Lucien-- or the perspectives of the filmmakers themselves.  And of course, it was Marcel Ophuls, the great director Max's son, born in Germany yet educated in the United States, and a naturalized French citizen having spent a terrifying year in exile under the Vichy regime in 1941 at the age 14, who has crafted a massive four-hour-long documentary on the Nazi occupation of France, a multi-dimensional reconstruction of the one of the most vexing and difficult-to-confront periods of French national history.  It is one of a handful of movies that captures or even surpasses the overwhelming gravity and details of a truly great work of historical scholarship.  

Arrow Academy's special edition of this film is as respectful and serious as any Criterion or Masters of Cinema release.    


2.  They Shoot Horses, Don't They?  (1969, Kino Lorber, Region A)

One of the best films of '60s American cinema, and also one of the most searing indictments of the hideous collusion of mass media, entertainment industry and exploitation of the underprivileged in its quintessentially American form-- here represented by a seedy Californian beachfront club-house-sponsored dance marathon, a ghastly hybrid of human demolition derby, Reality TV, and gladiator's arena-- They Shoot Horses, Don't They? also features great performances of Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin, Red Buttons, Suzanna York, Bonnie Bedelia and especially Gig Young, shouting "Yowza yowza yow~za!" and belting inane pep talks at the half-dead, zombified dance contestants.  Sidney Pollack-- yes, the helmer of Tootsie-- directs with a brutally cutting, yet ultimately compassionate eye.  He also contributes a great audio commentary, along with an alternative track with participation from Fonda, Sarrazin and other cast and crew members.

I don’t think I will ever be able to forget Sarrazin's absolutely terrified face in a scene where he accidentally tears Fonda's silk stocking, and Fonda's subsequent wailing, that literally sounds like she is being torn into pieces.  And, again was the case with Gilda in 2016, this relatively unsung if not entirely ignored American classic, not accorded the stature equal to, say, Bonnie and Clyde, Midnight Cowboy, The Graduate or Five Easy Pieces, would have taken the position of the top Blu Ray of 2017, except for…


1. Hell Drivers (1957, iTV Studios/Network, Region B)



… this totally unexpected discovery, a brutal, progressive yet sinfully entertaining working-class actioner from the team of star Stanley Baker and director Cy Endfield (credited as C. Raker Endfield).    

I hope I will be given a chance to talk about this film in detail later, with the positively amazing cast consisting of Baker, Herbert Lom, Sean Connery, Peggy Cummins (absolutely brilliant and stunning as the main female protagonist, who is nobody's squeeze), Gordon Jackson, David McCallum, Jill Ireland, William Harnell, and most astonishing of all, The Prisoner's Patrick McGoohan as an almost animal-like villain, snarling and snickering with abandon.

Well, it is done.  God almighty, I was pretty sure that I won't be able to complete a My Favorite 2017 Blu Ray list but somehow I managed to do it again!  Here's hope that 2018 will see more developments toward sanity and rationality (I am not legitimately expecting anything like real social justice or international peace: my bar has been lowered so much it has long since crashed through the floor), perhaps even some real changes occasioned by Me Too Movement and other courageous efforts by women and minorities to buckle the powers-that-be, but regardless of what happens in the "real" world, I can predict with absolute certainty that there will be a surfeit of desirable Blu Rays and DVDs (and even 4K Ultra HD Blu Rays as well?) in 2018.  

Thank you for visiting this site, Happy New Year of the Dog, and Happy Movie Hunting!