Ugetsu ★★★½


This troubles me.

For as long as I've maintained a film log ("Since 1992"), I've made a point of noting theatrical screenings vs. any form of home video. That's because I don't fully trust the latter. The advent of first DVD and then Blu-ray has helped, to be sure, and I'm not one of those zealots who insists that you haven't seen the movie unless/until you've seen a good 35mm print. But I do often wonder, when underwhelmed by a classic that had previously made me swoon on celluloid, whether seeing it in a diminished condition is largely responsible for the shift.

Here's something I wrote on a private forum after watching Tsai Ming-liang's The River twice in quick succession—first on video, then on 35mm. The video version was VHS (this was back in 2001), so the difference was more extreme than it would be today, but my final observation remains relevant, I suspect.

I know I sound like a broken record on this subject, but the difference between seeing this movie on my TV set and seeing it projected was truly astonishing. On the most basic level, you simply can't see what's going on in the darker scenes on VHS; while Tsai's work is always ambiguous, you're meant to be asking yourself "What's going on here?"—not "What am I looking at?" For example, in the shot where we first see the father at the sauna:


• The room's wood paneling.
• A small bed up against the wall.
• A roll of toilet paper sitting on the bed.
• The form of a middle-aged, overweight man with a yellow towel around his waist.
• Another, thinner middle-aged man attempting to caress him.
• The expressions that play on the thinner man's face throughout.


• The part of the yellow towel that's directly in a pool of light.
• The shadowy form of someone else in the room (and that person's hand when it enters the pool of light).

But even more significant, ultimately, than the resolution issue is the psychological difference. Shots that seemed dull and static to me on TV came fully alive on the big screen; the entire movie seemed to have more energy thrumming through it. I suppose some of that may be attributable to the fact that I watched the tape late at night when somewhat tired and the print in the early morning following a three-mile walk, but in general I just don't think video's very hospitable to this kind of film. Even if you're trying to concentrate, it's easy just to sort of zone out.

And here's the thing: When I revisited The River nine years later, on video, it seemed less remarkable than it had on the big screen (even as I still thought it pretty terrific). I have no way of knowing whether and to what degree that's attributable to presentation factors. Unless I have an opportunity to see a print in future—much less likely now that I've left New York City—it's gonna remain an open question. "Like a splinter in my mind," as Morpheus would say. [Commits seppuku.]

Anyway, Ugetsu. I vividly remember my overpowering response to this film the last time I saw it, in 35mm, way back in 1996. For whatever reason, it didn't have remotely that effect on me this time. There are still a few goosebump moments—the rowboat moving through the fog, light streaming through cracks in the wood as Miyagi sews—but the film as a whole seemed much less formally stunning than The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (which, please note, I've only seen on 35mm, not yet having watched the Criterion Blu-ray sitting on my shelf). And its twin tales of destructive male idiocy seemed more simplistic and less wrenching than I'd dimly remembered. (Genjuro's story, in particular, suffered from its similarity to Kwaidan's "The Black Hair," which pushes the scenario into outright horror.) Maybe that dampened enthusiasm simply reflects the evolution of my taste over the past two decades—I've changed my opinion about quite a few movies, in both directions. But it seems equally possible that Ugetsu's power resides chiefly in elements that just don't translate well to pixels. Removing it from my 1953 top ten list caused me psychic pain. Did it get a raw deal? I may never know.