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Category:    Home > Reviews > Drama > Crime > Suicide > Media > Japan > War > China > Epic > Taiwan > Comedy > Martial Arts > Thriller > Austral > A Balance (2020/Film Movement DVD)/Hsi Shih: Beauty Of Beauties (1965*)/Inspector Wears Skirts 2 (1989/*both MVD/88 Films Blu-ray)/Monolith (2022/Well Go Blu-ray)/To Die For 4K (1995/Sony/Columbia/Cri

A Balance (2020/Film Movement DVD)/Hsi Shih: Beauty Of Beauties (1965*)/Inspector Wears Skirts 2 (1989/*both MVD/88 Films Blu-ray)/Monolith (2022/Well Go Blu-ray)/To Die For 4K (1995/Sony/Columbia/Criterion 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray w/Blu-ray)

4K Ultra HD Picture: B+ Picture: C/B-/B-/B-/B Sound: C+/C+/C+/B-/B- Extras: C-/C+/C+/C-/B- Films: B-/B/C/C+/C+

Now for a new group of women-centered releases...

Yujiro Harumoto's A Balance (2020) is about young videographer Yuko (Kumi Takiuchi) trying to get to the bottom of why a young lady in school was bullied into suicide. An ugly, all too common occurrence, the TV network she works for is on the conservative side and starts to become an obstacle when she starts to get results and get more aggressive than they might like. Her father also works at that school and when he gets tied up into the mess, she has all kinds of new issues to work out before she can get closure on the story and her life.

This may run long at 153 minutes,but it justifies its length by being surprisingly good, thorough and engaging, though it could have still be a little shorter. The performances are solid and casting convincing. Besides the serious subject matter, it is also a character study of media, sexism and a culture that allows anyone to be driven to self-destruction, something that oddly keeps being ignored worldwide. To its credit, it starts to get to the heart of the matter, but has to tell its other storylines as well.

As I watched, it was as relevant in Japan as it would be in the U.S., Europe, the U.K. or anywhere this 'phenomenon' continues. Those interested will discover it is worth going out of your way for, length notwithstanding.

A trailer is the only extra.

Li Han-hsiang's Hsi Shih: Beauty Of Beauties (1965) is one of the great epic films of its decade and time, yet has been lost for way too long as it is up there with Lawrence Of Arabia, Spartacus, Doctor Zhivago, How The West Was Won, Andrei Rublev, The Leopard, War & Peace (1967,) Khartoum, El Cid, 55 Days At Peking, Chimes At Midnight, Cleopatra, Exodus, 300 Spartans and so many other classics and mega-productions that made the decade so special. This one is from Taiwan and is one of the most important films they ever produced, bringing to life the brutal war between two Chinese Kingdoms in the Warring States Period of 475 - 221 B.C.

Chiang Ching plays the title character, a woman sent by one party to distract the king of the other and help the cause of victory, but her goal to help the King of Yue, Goujian (Li Zhao) to preoccupy and distract King of Wu, Fucha (Mu Chu) goes as planned, but only to so much of an extent. Like Ridley Scott's recent and highly underrated Napoleon (2023,) the film strays and deviates from the actual history to make many other epic points, some of which you need to know the history of to understand and many others that you can read by what the filmmakers intend. Very graphic, raw and shocking for its time, the film would get a hard R-rating and maybe an NC-17 for its graphicness, but it is all in context to the story and makes you feel like you are there as all the great epics do. Many films have been shot in Taiwan and even take place there, but this is a signaler lost epic masterwork that deserves to be recovered and rediscovered like I Am Cuba and if we are lucky, it will.

As a matter of fact, versus most of the bad action epics with their phony digital visual effects and horrid scripts and worse, this spectacle blasts them away with stunning battles, massive production design, top rate ambition, great acting, incredible costume design and so many cinematic touches that I was shocked this was out of circulation for so long. No, it is not perfect and has some off moments and it is long, but for the most part, Hsi Shih: Beauty Of Beauties is a priceless one-of-a-kind film (originally shown in two parts and still never made its massive budget back, sadly) that all serious film fans need to see. Restored the best it could be like the recent releases of Bondarchuk's War & Peace (1967) and Kurosawa's Dersu Uzala (1975, both reviewed elsewhere on this site) remind us that the crisis to save world cinema is more important than ever because losing any film like this would be catastrophic and when they are saved, it is incredibly satisfying. Catch it ASAP!

Extras include a Reversible Sleeve with original poster art and illustrated booklet with essay by Tom Cunliffe, while the disc adds a Restoration Comparison, an interview with Oriental/Asian Cinema expert Tony Rayns, and an Original Theatrical Trailer.

Wellson Chin's The Inspector Wears Skirts 2 (1989) is a sequel to hit 1988 film we recently reviewed at this link:


That might have been a good commercial move, but this is really just more of the same as most sequels are, though I have to give credit to all for trying to keep the martial arts antics at a high pitch. Too bad the script is obvious, with the gals battling a team of foreign intruders while still having to deal with a group of sexist male counterparts. Too predictable, but safe narratively, if not stuntwise.

Jackie Chan co-produced and his stunt team is all over the place, while Amy Hip, Wai Yin-hung and Sibelle Hu take the leading roles. For fans only, but it is at least a smooth production.

Extras include a Limited Edition Reversible Sleeve with original poster art and double-sided poster, while the disc adds a Stills Gallery, separate interviews with stuntmen Mars and Go Shut Fung and Director Chin, Feature Length Audio Commentary by Frank Djeng and an Original Hong Kong Theatrical Trailer.

Matt Vesley's Monolith (2022) has Lily Sullivan as a fallen journalist getting into podcasts and hoping to redeem her journalistic credibility when she stumbles across some kind of bizarre conspiracy that seems too bizarre and almost fictitious to believe, but decides to see where it goes. Might she find out more than even she expects?

Well, she can act, but this is a 'stuck-in-a' movie (mostly on a desktop, et al) no matter its contents and frankly, despite how good she is and I give her credit for taking so much of this on her own, I did not buy it in the end despite thinking a few moments would actually go somewhere. You might find a few parts more interesting and should check it out if that's the case, but Sullivan ultimately is the only reason to try this one out and I look forward to seeing her in something, anything else.

A trailer is the only extra.

Gus Van Sant's To Die For 4K (1995) is legendary actor/writer Buck Henry's brutal (maybe not brutal enough) satire of media gone horrid with Nicole Kidman acing her role as the ditsy, pretty anchor lady who knows she's hot, knows how to talk to an audience and will do anything, ANYTHING, to be the biggest news personality on U.S. TV. She gets involved with a good guy (Matt Dillon) for reasons he thinks are sincere, but she's a little more off than he or her family (initially) realize. When she starts to seduce some teen boys (Joaquin Phoenix and Casey Affleck, very convincing as easily manipulated) and thinks killing her husband could help her career (!!!???!!!) all eyes and cameras will capture the inevitable fiasco.

Kidman was considered a good actress at the time, but herself had been a big child star since her days as a big name in her home market of Australia, but more than a few doubted she could pull off her role here. She did and it was a career-changing and building role. She was more than formidable and convincing, plus the rest of the cast and Van Sant turn out a very consistent film. My issue was always that it did not go far enough and was maybe a little too self-contained and that limited its satire and the missed opportunities are more obvious into the early digital HD era, with the Internet, social media and the rest of the mess.

Thus, it is also a sad time capsule as the prophecy of hard, serious, mature, intelligent news giving way to big ratings, big profits and a certain madness that Network! (1976) first warned us about has become all too true. Like the great campaign Sony had for Verhoeven's Starship Troopers (1997) featuring the brilliant hit ''Song No.2'' by the incredible British band Blur, trailers for this film perfectly and very appropriately featured the first solo hit record by co-founder/co-lead singer of The Eagles, Don Henley, with ''Dirty Laundry'' from a full 13 years before this film was made. Neither hit from either trailer appears in the actual film, yet they are still well associated with their respective releases.

To Die For was not over a decade late after its hit song of choice, it just did not totally finish the job Henley and Network! began, but it is still something when it does work and is worth a look, even if you have seen it before and were only so impressed, if you can remember it fully. Glad it got this top rate treatment from Criterion and Sony.

Extras include a high-quality paper foldout on the film with illustrations, tech info and an essay by film critic Jessica Kiang

  • Audio commentary featuring Van Sant, Director of Photography Eric Alan Edwards, and editor Curtiss Clayton

  • Deleted Scenes

  • and an Original Theatrical Trailer.

Now for playback performance. The 2160p HEVC/H.265, 1.85 X 1, Dolby Vision/HDR (10; Ultra HD Premium)-enhanced Ultra High Definition image on To Die For 4K looks as good as it ever did, shot on 35mm film with old analog video and other forms of image quality in between. The best performer on the list, thew look is solid and consistent, including Kidman in character talking to the camera first person in a slightly degraded image suggesting analog video degradation. Even if the analog video has dated, its points and intent are as relevant as ever. The 1080p 1.85 X 1 digital High Definition image on the Blu-ray version is fine for what it is, but does not look as good or have the full range of image quality the 4K version has. The DTS-HD MA (Master Audio) 5.1 lossless mix on both discs show its age, an upgrade from the analog Dolby A-type noise reduction used in its original theatrical prints that shows its age in the dialogue and some of the background sound playback. It will never sound better.

The 1080p 2.35 X 1 digital High Definition image transfer on Beauty can show the age of the materials used because the original 35mm camera negative definitely has aged a bit, but much hard work has gone into the 4K remaster and it looks as good as it has in many decades. Fading is still apparent and the widescreen scope frame is used exceptionally well. Real anamorphic lenses were used, but are not credited anywhere and we could not find out about them or the type of color 35mm negative film used to shoot the movie. Our guess, however, is Agfa, ORWO, Svema, Tasma or even early Fuji or Ferrania. It could even be something obscure or very rare, but it is also not identified here or anywhere else we could find. We'll update this section if we can confirm what was used. The Cantonese PCM 2.0 Mono sound shows its age even more and though much hard work was used to restore the sound, it was in bad shape and the technology used to record it was limited, even by 1965 standards, so only expect so much from it. Sadly, this is the best the film will likely ever sound.

The 1080p 1.85 X 1 digital High Definition image transfer on Skirts 2 can also show the age of the materials used, but this is far superior a transfer to all previous releases of the film on home video and has some good color, but softness and slight permanent damage throughout persists. The Cantonese PCM 2.0 Mono is better than the English Mono dub version, but sonics are as limited as the original, so only expect so much sound-wise. This is likely as good as the film will ever sound.

The 1080p 2 X 1 digital High Definition image transfer on Monolith is a digital HD shoot and is a consistently blue-looking image that is fine for the genres attempted, but is just too softish throughout to really enjoy, while the DTS-HD MA (Master Audio) 5.1 lossless mix has some good sound, but an inconsistent soundfield and does not deliver like it could have.

The anamorphically enhanced 2.35 X 1 image on Balance is consistent enough, but just too soft for its own good, which is a shame because this is shot and edited well. Both Japanese lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 and lossy Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo are included here, but the 5.1 mix just edges out the 2.0 version, but audio is not too bad. Wonder how much better this would play on Blu-ray?

- Nicholas Sheffo


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