The Last Witness [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - South Korea - Korean Film Archive/Blue Kino
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (6th August 2017).
The Film

“The Last Witness”<최후의 증인 / 最後의 證人> (1980)

Detective Oh Byeong-ho (played by Hah Myung-joong) is on the case of the murder of Yang Dalsoo (plyaed by Lee Dae-keun), a brewery owner and family man. Able to close various cases in his unorthodox but effective ways, the murder of a seemingly ordinary man turns into a case much deeper and much longer than Oh or the senior police staff could see coming. When confronting Yang’s widow and son as well as the townsfolk, they tell him to look further back - a few decade ago in Munchang. There was much more to the story than a simple murder as the clues dated back to the Korean War.

Commander Son (played by Choi Seong-ho) was the leader of a communist rebel group hiding in the mountains. But with his execution by his own men, the leadership and morals of the group start to fall apart. Soldier Kang Malho (played by Hyun Kil-soo) tries to take care of the dead commander’s daughter Son Jilhye (played by Jeong Yun-hi) as the battles continue, but eventually the group gets surrounded by the Southern forces leading to multiple deaths and multiple incarcerations. From this incident and the years passing, Oh discovers there are many leads to follow - the men that were imprisoned and their stories, the commander’s daughter’s brutal life following the war, and the most shocking of all - that a murder victim from the past was in fact was not killed at all…

Director Lee Doo-yong started his directorial career in film in 1970 and during the following decade made a name for himself as a Taekwondo action film director with films such as “Manchurian Tiger” (1974), “Left Foot of Wrath” (1974) and “Visitors in America” or as it is more well known by the bizarre title of “Bruce Lee Fights Back from the Grave” (1976). Looking to give a more serious tone to his filmmaking, he delved into historical dramas and melodramas while still keeping a commercially viable respectability. He would take on the most serious of all stories up to that time with “The Last Witness”, a detective story written by Kim Seong-jong that was first published in 1974. A murder mystery that is told in non-linear form, it is a story that the audience must piece together along the way just as the detective would to. This is not the case of Columbo where the audience knows what had happened. This is not the case of “The Thin Man” mysteries as Nick and Nora Charles are always one step ahead of the killer. Instead “The Last Witness” does nothing to dumb down the story and lets the audience second guess, make double takes, and try to figure out the mystery, possibly before the detective does. Like later Korean breakthroughs such as “Oldboy”, “Mother”, or “Memories of Murder” in the 2000s, “The Last Witness” was a sharp yet complex work that required attention due to its narrative structure and number of characters. It is a fascinating work, but it does have its flaws. Its overall lengthy runtime with multiple plotlines do make things hard to follow as well as when characters return to the plot after a long period or characters whose names are mentioned in passing only, audiences should try to have some notepads ready. Besides the need to have a smart audience, the film had a larger hurdle to overcome and that was the government censorship board.

The original 158 minute finished film was submitted for government approval on September 5th, 1980. More than 30 minutes of the film were removed. 68 minor edits including scenes of rape and government bribery were deleted and a 120 minute version was made. On November 15th, 1980 the film opened theatrically with an underwhelming box office performance with an attendance of 7,424 after ten days. As it was considered confusing and unintelligible due to the missing amount of material, the film was pulled from theaters and mostly forgotten about. In 1982 the Korean Film Archive acquired the original negative from Sekyoung Films, which was a 154 minute version, which had all the government censored material intact, with the four missing minutes being precut by the production company before the submission. For many years the supposed longer cut of the film was virtually unseeable with the exception of a few. There were television showings as well as a VHS tape, but they were based off the cut theatrical version. In 2002, the Korean Film Archive’s print was officially screened for the first time for a general audience at the 3rd Jeonju International Film Festival. Screenings followed in the years at the Archive as well as the 2008 Cinemateque Friends Film Festival which held a retrospective for director Lee Doo-yong. It was also in 2008 that the Korean Film Archive issued the film on DVD for the first time in the world in its longer 154 minute runtime.

A full nine years later in 2017, the Korean Film Archive has restored the film in 4K - a first for the organization to do an in-house 4K restoration, and now available on Blu-ray.

Note this is a region ALL Blu-ray and a region 0 DVD DVD set which can be played back on any Blu-ray and/or DVD player worldwide

Video

The Korean Film Archive/Blue Kino presents the film in 1080p in the AVC MPEG-4 codec, in the original theatrical 2.35:1 aspect ratio. As stated the film was previously issued on DVD by the Korean Film Archive in 2008 and the results were fair but underwhelming due to there being no major restoration. The Blu-ray was transferred from a 4K restored edition made from the original uncensored negative held by the Archive. Overall the restored picture quality looks great though a little underwhelming in certain aspects. The uneven colors of the DVD edition have been balanced out with skin tones being cooler and backgrounds having a grey tone as the director intended in having a colder and bleaker look. Details are great and there is a good amount of film grain present in the image making it look very natural. Black levels on the other hand are not as dark as they could be, being a bit on the dark grey side. White levels are also not very bright making the transfer slightly muted. There are some instances of color correction done such as day for night scene filters missing from the 2008 DVD edition, all approved by the director for the new remaster. Damage has been digitally corrected, repairing warps, scratches, missing frames, and other anomalies though things such as gate hairs were left as is for the transfer. Due to the anamorphic lenses used in shooting the film, some of the images may look a little distorted such as characters looking like they are rounder in appearance or characters on the sides looking like they are on a diagonal axis but that is how the film was originally shot.

The runtime for the director’s cut on the Blu-ray is 154:32.

Audio

Korean DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono
The original mono track is presented in lossless audio. Like the image, the sound has also been remastered from the original elements. Most Korean films at the time were post synched with no location soundtrack used and this film is no different. A problem with many Korean films of the period were the limitations of the audio, with high pitched sounds having distortion and low end sounds being quite flat. Korean Film Archive have painstakingly remastered the audio to have well balanced levels of dialogue along with the music and effects and the results are very pleasing. There are virtually no instances of pops or cracks in the audio and music sounds wonderful. Do keep in mind that it is still a mono track and it does have its limitations. Compared to the 2008 DVD edition, the differences are like night and day.

There are optional English, Japanese, Korean subtitles in a white font for the film. The subtitles have also been redone with a new translation. There were no instances of spelling or grammar errors in the English subtitle track though there were a few times where there were double spaces between words rather than a single space. The font is easy to read and very well timed.

Extras

Korean Film Archive has issued a Blu-ray + DVD dual format set for the first time with this release. All their previous Blu-ray releases did not have a DVD copy. This release of “The Last Witness” packages together the 4K remastered Blu-ray edition plus the 2008 original DVD edition together.

DISC ONE (Blu-ray)


Audio commentary by filmmaker Park Chan-wook and film critic Kim Young-jin
This newly recorded commentary track in 2017 features Park Chan-wook (“Oldboy”, “The Handmaiden”) along with critic Kim Young-jin in a fairly chatty track that does not give too much information on the production but more on the two’s thoughts over the film. They discuss their first viewing of the film, the editing techniques used, as well as the acting style. Not all is positive as they do talk about some of the cheesy choices used that probably would not work in today’s film world.
in Korean Dolby Digital 2.0 with optional English subtitles

Audio commentary by director Lee Doo-yong and film critic Kim Young-jin
This audio commentary features the director along with Kim Young-jin and was recorded for the 2008 DVD edition. Unfortunately the Blu-ray does not include subtitles. But on the brighter side the DVD edition does have English subtitles. Why did they decide not to make English subtitles for this commentary track, especially since they have a subtitle track file available? More details are in the DVD section below.
in Korean Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

"Digital Restoration: Before/After" featurette (1:55)
This short featurette showcases splitscreen views of the before and after process with some text explanations. Some pretty terrible damage can be seen and all should be thankful for the work that KOFA did to remaster the film.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 2.35:1, silent with English and Korean text

Image Gallery
A collection of 16 stills in color and black and white are presented in a manual slideshow, with behind the scenes and posters of the film.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4


DISC TWO (DVD Copy)

* The Film (154:06)
As stated the DVD edition is the same as the 2008 release, featuring an unrestored transfer of the film. There are dust marks, scratches, and other damage found throughout, as well as issues with colors looking a bit orange or red and dark colors looking a bit too dark. It certainly is watchable but is not the ideal way. The audio also has its troubles with hisses and pops throughout.
in anamorphic 2.35:1 NTSC, in Korean Dolby Digital 2.0 mono with optional English, Japanese, Korean subtitles

Audio commentary by director Lee Doo-yong and film critic Kim Young-jin
In this audio commentary the director of the film is moderated by critic Kim Young-jin. Not only does he give mentions on the specifics such as the casting process or the camera movements, but he talks about working with Im Kwon-taek, the censorship issues and his reaction to seeing the cut version of the film and more. There are English subtitles available for the commentary on the DVD though it should be stated that the subtitle quality is fairly poor with grammar and spelling issues throughout. It is intelligible but compared to the subtitle standards on the Blu-ray disc, it fails. That may be the reason why it wasn’t made available on the Blu-ray as they would have required a new translation.
in Korean Dolby Digital 2.0 with optional English, Korean subtitles

Audio commentary by film director Oh Seung-uk and journalist Ju Sung-chul
The director of “Kilimanjaro” (2000) and “The Shameless” (2015) Oh Seung-uk and journalist Ju Sung-chul also give their direct thoughts to the film. Topics include Lee’s Taekwondo films and how he grew as a filmmaker, how hard it was for the film to be understood with 30 minutes removed and much more. As with the first commentary on this disc, the English subtitles are fairly bad in terms of grammar and spelling. There is a lot of overlap with this commentary and the newly recorded 2017 commentary. Maybe that was the reason that it was kept off from the Blu-ray disc but it is a strange omission.
in Korean Dolby Digital 2.0 with optional English, Korean subtitles

Image Gallery
Here is an image gallery that is different in content to the Blu-ray gallery. Most of the stills are just film stills rather than for behind the scenes.
in anamorphic 1.78:1 NTSC

44 Page Book
The 44 page booklet includes essays, credits in Korean and in English as well as one essay in Japanese. The first essay by Kim Young-jin is titled “An Overwhelming Wave of Power: The Films of Lee Doo-yong” which is an overview of Kim’s career and how ““The Last Witness”” falls into his filmography. The next essay is by Cine 21 editor in chief Ju Sungchul entitled “If Only We Had Watched The Last Witness at the Theater, in Its Day” which discusses about how the film failed initially but later became a very well regarded film, as well as his own analysis of the film. Then is an essay by film critic Inuhiko Yomota entitled “Lee Doo-yong: The First Korean Filmmaker I Came to Know” in which the Japanese critic discusses how he discovered Korean cinema which was extremely limited to find in Japan years ago and how he came to appreciate Lee’s work. Last is “The Last Witness”: The First Fruit of the Korean Film Archive’s Own 4K Digital System” which discusses the process of mastering the film in 4K. All of these essays are offered in both Korean and English. The essay by Yomota is also offered in Japanese, the original language it was written.

It’s a bit frustrating that KOFA decided NOT port one of the commentaries from the DVD to the Blu-ray and also frustrating that the English subtitles for the director’s commentary were not ported to the Blu-ray. At least they decided to offer the DVD copy to have all the extras together. Maybe they should have done that with their Blu-ray upgrade of “Housemaid” which did not port all the DVD edition extras.

Packaging

The discs are packaged in a clear keep case which is housed in an outer slipcase, as spine #007 in the Korean Film Archive Blu-ray series. The booklet is also housed in the slipcase.

Overall

“The Last Witness” is a complex detective story that delves in politics and war, with characters having to go through a deep and dark place in their memories to see the truth. Largely ignored in its theatrical run with the butchered cut, the longer director’s cut has been reevaluated as one of the most important Korean films ever made, highly influencing countless Korean films in the 2000s. The Korean Film Archive’s Blu-ray offers great audio and video for the film itself plus a good new commentary, but their presentation of having some extras on the Blu-ray only and some on the old DVD copy only is clunky, but the release comes highly recommended.

The Film: B+ Video: A- Audio: A Extras: B Overall: A-

 


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