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HTF Review: Owl and the Sparrow, or Cù vá chim se sè (1 Viewer)

Leo Kerr

May 10, 1999

[SIZE= 24px]Owl and the Sparrow
Cù vá chim se sè[/SIZE]​

An Image Entertainment release of a Wave Releasing feature. The 2007 feature stars Cat Ly, Le The Lu, Nguyen Hau, and Pham Thi Han, and was written and directed by Stephane Gauger. Actually, in the Vietnamese, the accent over the trailing ‘e’ is probably a psili, which looks sort of like an apostrophe rising off of the top of the letter.

The feature is 1.78:1, and is anamorphically encoded, with a Dolby Digital 5.1 track, in Vietnamese, with English and Spanish subtitles. The feature runs about 98 minutes. The main menu comes up fairly quickly after an FBI warning, a disclaimer, and an Image trailer. The packaging is a standard DVD case, with nothing beyond the disc inside.

Retail price for this DVD title is $27.98, and goes on-sale in the United States on May 25, 2010. The program itself is rated PG, with notations for ‘thematic elements and some smoking.’

The Program — ½
In modern-day Saigon, we are presented with a strange assortment of characters. A zoo-keeper; a flight-attendant; and a runaway flower-girl are the primary ones. An assortment of hangers-on, old flames, co-workers, city managers, and elephants round out the mix. The zoo-keeper (Le The Lu) was ‘recently dumped’ on the way to the alter. The flight-attendant (Cat Ly) has never had any luck with real love. And the flower girl (Pham Thi Han) decides to bring them together. Through tight hand-held camera shots, never quite revealing the whole of the scene, yet still presenting as if a cinéma vérité documentary, the makers reveal a gritty, poor, and rough world, quite honestly, unimaginable to most Westerners. And yet the characters, from reasonably well employed, to street-children, freely bump elbows in their daily (and nightly) life in the downtown streets. And over the course of about five days, the story unfolds: the ‘wicked uncle’ the girl ran from is tracking her down. The street children try to scrape up a living while avoiding the orphan patrols. And the City is having trouble making ends meet at the zoo (after all, elephants eat quite a lot.)

Something modern western viewers may find troubling is in how the story is shown. For the story is shown to us; not told. There is very little dialog, no narration, and the points are rarely belabored. It is fairly easy to miss important points without realizing that they just passed. This is a trifle of a liability, given that such a point might happen while one is reading the subtitles. A hazard, I suppose, of any foreign film.

Please note that in an effort to overcome a major prejudice of mine, The Program rating is a composite of the viewers during the screening.

The Picture
There are two significant things to consider when approaching the picture and its qualities. And, to further explore the production, it appears from the supplemental features that this film was shot with what looked like prosumer, and probably high definition camcorders. The feature was shot largely with hand-held cameras, long lenses, and close to the action. The camera — moves. Bounces. Jerks around. Almost garden hose-like in its exploration of the scenes. Apart from maybe the occasional reflector, it looks as though it was shot without much — if any — supplemental lighting. And, sometimes at night, unable to open the lens any further, they resort to an electronic “push” of the exposure, and perhaps again in post-production, yielding a grainy, and variously contrasty or flat image.

While it is generally not the intent of a review such as this to critique the decisions made in making a film, I feel that I must indicate that I generally disapprove of this ‘free camera’ (or more recently and less formally, ‘shaky cam’,) style of shooting, and rarely am able to actually watch such a film. While the lack of large-scale equipment makes set-ups go much faster, with a smaller crew, in tighter spaces, it can become quite distracting to the viewer. And with the use of the tight crops allowed by the long lenses, the producers could limit the scene to exactly what they wanted to show — easily — there were many times I found myself wishing for a wider shot to show ‘the scene.’ That said...

The image on the DVD itself is not, by a long shot, perfect. The image is usually soft, and, variously, plagued with grain. Some of this may be an intentional effect, but it also causes a bit of trouble with the compression engine, spawning MPEG halation artifacts, and the occasional bit of odd macroblocking. Also, on occasion, the highlights are driven beyond the digital video clip point, making for some nuclear-plasma skies. On some of the darker scenes, the grain and noise takes on a curious look that I associate with trying to do multi-frame digital noise reduction — particularly when there is too much noise for the process to work well.

On the other hand, there few signs of edge-enhancement.

Another issue of note. I generally let my player (an Oppo BDP-83) upscale the image for the projector. Something about how the frames, fields, and cuts are presented by the datastream caused the scaler to jump, tear, and generally be unhappy. A few minutes in, I set the player to direct-output, and let the projector scale. In most cases, this is a slightly inferior result, but in this film, it was clearly the superior path. I am not quite sure what the issue is, but I have seen it in some other foreign films, and have yet to be able to figure out the source.

The Sound
It is hard to critically evaluate the recording and presentation of dialog delivered in a language completely alien to one’s own. The speech sounded clear, mostly natural, and anchored to the center speaker. Ambient and environmental noise was relatively expansive through the space, although specific sound-effects were, generally, from the front of the sound-stage. The use of the surrounds was subtle, merely in pulling the sound-field out from the screen and 'into' the house, but not particularly attempting to ‘surround’ the listener. The musical score varied somewhat, depending on the need and mood, from expanding out into the house, or almost limited to a centered monaural track.

Perhaps the most ‘difficult’ aspect of the soundtrack for a listener’s sound-system to reproduce is of the claves-like instrument used by a street vendor to hawk the noodle-soup. The bright, ringing strikes are very loud, and just about only transient noise. But being more than just ‘a transient,’ it may reveal weaknesses and distortions in the amplification path.

The Extras
The disc includes a surprising variety of extras. Some are better than others.

First and foremost, a director’s commentary track. From the brief sampling I made, I may have to rethink my general opinion of commentary tracks. He talks where he has something to say, be it about shooting or the interpretation of a scene, or the character, or the actor. He talks about doing a small-crew (generally about ten people) shoot, location scouting, and all sorts of subjects. From what I sampled, it sounded interesting.

Second, a brief behind the scenes featurette. Widescreen anamorphic, in Vietnamese with English subtitles. Talking to the principal actors about their characters, and some of the principal production people about the story.

Third, a pair of deleted scenes. In seeing them, I know why I think they were cut; they completely change the tone of several of the characters, as well as the flow and feel of the film. Unsweetened location audio with subtitles; the ‘raw’ audio in itself is also interesting from a production analysis perspective.

Lastly a trailer and two stills galleries. The trailer is cut together with the review headlines, awards and nominations, making it really hard to figure out what is going on. The Production Stills gallery is a two minute slide show of stills from the film, window-boxed into a large graphic frame, and the Cast and Crew Stills is a 35-second slide show of stills showing the shooting of the film.

In The End — ½
Technically, this is not a great DVD. Artistically, I have problems with the way it was shot. However.

The story is variously described as ‘sweet,’ ‘warm hearted,’ or ‘charming.’ That it is. The actors are convincing in their roles — which to me is bordering on amazing for the ten-year-old girl. While the artistic decisions might get in the way, however, the technical limitations do not harm the story. I would not recommend watching this up-close on an 80+ inch diagonal screen like I did. And, in spite of everything else I have said against various parts of this film and release, I do not regret having seen it, and mostly enjoyed myself in watching it.

And isn’t that what this is about?


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