Monday, May 03, 2021

Adventures in the Third Dimension: Windows and Dynasty

I haven't watched nearly as much on my shelf as I thought I would during the pandemic; I get decision paralysis staring at it, and even with the stuff in virtual theaters, I find myself thinking that I just won't enjoy it as much as I would in person. And yet, with the chance to go back to theaters relatively guilt-free approaching, I've been doing some big disc orders. Some because places are shutting down, some because sales are crazy-good and I want to make sure companies understand that I will buy physical media if they offer it.

And, of course, because 3D Blu-rays are fading away here in the USA, and increasingly around the world, I'm picking up anything that even vaguely interests me, and my "unwatched 3D discs" shelf now looks like this:

… with four more on the way from Hong Kong. They aren't quite ready for a spot next to the HD-DVDs, Dreamcast games, and Atari cartridges, which I also loaded up on as they were being phased out. It's kind of fun to do that - I'm not really a collector, and kind of hate the mentality, but there's still a little rush from buying low, even if it means that a thing you enjoy isn't doing so well.

Still, it's cool that there are still people out there trying to play with the format and preserve the legacy. The folks at L.A. 3-D SPACE would be running monthly screenings on the West Coast in normal circumstances, and while they haven't quite kept that schedule up online, they had one last Sunday. The 3-D Film Archive, meanwhile, does awfully impressive work restoring 3D movies and partnering with various distributors to get them into people's hands, As they've pointed out on a few occasions, these discs are probably as good as some of them have looked, given how tricky projection was back in the 1950s. Their current Kickstarter is for Revenge of the Samurai Women, through 5 May 2021; but check their page if you're reading this later; they may be running another.

For all that both of their latest presentations had some flaws, I got a kick out of both of them; Kevin Ford's Windows has me a little more inspired to play around with my Reto 3D camera when there's more wandering around to do, with perhaps a little more emphasis on how to use it to get a little less "realism" and more ways to use the third axis to emphasize depth and specific elements. That's something you also see in the supplemental material on the Dynasty disc; the bits on 1950s commercial use of 3D are an odd match for the feature, but kind of a fascinating document on how that photography was both artificial and immersive, especially considering how the cameras and viewers were far more built for each other than my cheap-ish camera and the various ways I view the results (also, that fine-grain Kodachrome is pretty darn amazing). One is a look inside a massive department store in 1950s Texas, and the photography is good enough to put me in the space and consider how today's equivalents aren't really the same - they're not cut up into specialized but still comfortable spaces the way this one is. I'm not sure that the everything-in-one space model is necessarily good - it's a local Amazon or Wal-Mart - but there's something about turning the corner and having the store become something new. The only stores I can recall feeling like that are Harrod's in London and, to an extent, Jordan's Furniture.

Windows '15

* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 April 2021 in Jay's Living Room (L.A. 3-D Space special, SBS 3D YouTube via Roku)

I am a bit of an easy mark for parts of Kevin Ford's Windows; shots near the beginning and end are pieces of Boston where I've stopped and tried to frame up a nice 3D photograph. I, of course, am not a professional cinematographer with high-quality prosumer equipment, so mine don't tend to come out quite so nice.

Ford is, though, shooting the footage edited into this movie over the course of a couple years, returning to sites he shot professionally after hours to get some footage for his own use, often focusing specifically on how they would look in 3D. That footage is generally focused on the place itself, rather than people; even when shooting on the streets of New York City, Ford seldom if ever follows a subject, but sort of treats the people there the same way he would wildlife in the pieces shot far from the city center; the way they move about gives you some idea of the structure of the place, but isn't there to serve a narrative purpose.

It's nifty material, contrasting urban, natural, and abandoned spaces, and Ford has a nice eye. One thing that makes an especially strong impression is that shooting in 3D is not simply about more accurately capturing the world as it is: The nature of the technology heightens the impression of one thing being in front of another; things are solid but not in a way that we can reach out and touch. Getting a good 3D effect often means putting the camera in a place where we wouldn't generally place our head. It creates a peculiar combination of reality and unreality, even in a documentary. The trade-off for the enhanced texture and depth is a greater awareness of the camera.

Ford does a fair job of pulling it together, with the soundtrack from Airspace doing a great deal to create a vibe that complements all the ways the film is a bit off-kilter and also ties the different segments to one another. 80 minutes does turn out to be kind of a long time for something like this, though - it feels like an exhibition or installation, but without the ability to explore at one's own pace, and while Ford mixes the environments up, there were a couple places when I stopped and wondered if we hadn't already done a certain bit before.

It's a nifty curiosity for those of us that like 3D photography, at the very least, though probably not nearly so compelling to a general audience. Although you never know; it could certainly be a good way to introduce people to the format, at least in bits and pieces.

Qian dao wan li zhu (Dynasty)

* * ¾ (out of four), bumped to * * * in 3-D
Seen 1 May 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong 3D Blu-ray)

It's a bit of a shame that the 3D booms of the 1950s and 1980s didn't spread particularly evenly around the world, especially to places like Hong Kong and Taiwan; by the time 3D became a regular component of action-movie releases another 30 years later, martial-arts cinema wasn't quite what it once was. In between, a few people decided to play with 3D kung fu in 1977. It didn't stick, for one reason or another, but that doesn't mean there's not some fun to be had in the 3-D Film Archive's new restoration of Dynasty.

The story is kind of familiar - the Ming Dynasty is being secretly controlled by the likes of Eunuch Tsao (Pai Ying), with sole holdout Prince Chiu (Chin Yung-Hsiang) gone into hiding in the Shaolin temple. Also there is Tan Sao-Chin (Dorian Tan Tao-Liang aka Bobby Ming), the son of a murdered loyalist general and a martial-arts prodigy. Hopefully, he'll match up well against Liang Tsi-Wu (David Tang Wei), and ambitious lieutenant in Tsao's forces looking to leapfrog Generals Liu (Chin Kang) and Zhao (Lin Tai-Hsin) by helping him stop his most dangerous enemy - especially since the fight with the temple's abbot (Ma Chiang) has left Tsao temporarily without his own considerable kung fu skills.

Like a lot of martial-arts movies from the period, Dynasty arrived in the United States dubbed into English; unusually, the new release only has that and not the original Mandarin soundtrack, and I can't help but wonder if it would be a better movie story-wise if the dialogue weren't being tweaked for better lip-sync and delivered by voice actors with a mishmash of accents. The dub doesn't quite set the movie up for mockery, but it turns the melodrama down in a movie that can use it - Pai Ying's award-nominated performance as a grandly evil villain mostly still comes through via his physical acting, both in how he carries himself and his fighting, but none of the others are quite so effective. Maybe some different inflections would help a bit with the film's somewhat odd structure, where much of the attention is on Tsao and Liang rather than the hero; it plays, at times, like a sort of slasher movie, with Tan the off-screen boogeyman emerging just long enough to knock off Tsao's minions, who progressively put up a better fight.

The good news is that the action is above average - martial arts director Han Ying-Chieh performed the same role for King Hu's wuxia classics and Bruce Lee's Hong Kong hits - and while there's more than a bit of wire-fu, the big fights are nevertheless fast and athletic, often culminating in nasty kills and played out with an entertaining combination of choreographed grace and exhausting effort. Han and director Chang Mei-Chun seldom let a fight be just an athletic demonstrating, making sure that the various characters still feel like they've got their own style and making sure that Tsao's (often justified) arrogance or Tan's rage comes through with their fighting styles, and making the impossible endurance some characters exhibit satisfying rather than silly. Cinematographer Chen Jung-Shu takes to the third dimension impressively well, and the three of them let it dictate their staging in striking ways.

As a result, parts will look silly when watched flat, whether it's a monk rigidly pushing a staff toward the camera or scenes where there are objects in the extreme foreground that get in the way. Like many 3D movies, Dynasty is often at its best (and most 2D-friendly) when it's encouraging creative use of space, something which translates well no matter what format in which one watches the film, but there's still plenty of well-shot fun with the third dimension, especially as the film heads toward the finale with Tan facing down a half-dozen warriors armed with flying guillotines and a final fight where it's very handy to be clear where three people are in relation to each other. It's also worth noting that 3D wasn't the only new toy these filmmakers were playing with as they often made sure that an army would ride past the audience on horseback to show off the quadraphonic sound.

Strip the special formatting away, and Dynasty is a solid if not tremendously remarkable wuxia action movie. Throw it in, though, and you've got flying guillotines coming straight at your face, and if that's a mere gimmick, then more movies should have that kind of gimmick so well-executed.

Also at eFilmCritic

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