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A view on Blu-ray and DVD video by Leonard Norwitz

Chamagodo [Blu-ray]

(aka "Asian Corridor in Heaven" or "Insight Asia: Asian Corridor in Heaven" or "One More Silk Road")

 

(Produced by KBS, Korea, 2007)

 

 

 

 

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Review by Leonard Norwitz

 

Studio:

Theatrical: KBS Television, Korea

Blu-ray: KBS Media

 

Disc:

Region: All

Runtime: 360 min

Chapters: 6 p

Size: 25 GB

Case: Standard Blu-ray case x 2 in slipcover

Release date: November 7, 2008

 

Video:

Aspect ratio: 1.78:1

Resolution: 1080i

Video codec: AVC @ 17 Mbps

Audio:

Korean Dolby Digital 2.0

 

Subtitles:

Korean, Japanese, English

 

Extras:

• none

 

 

The Film: 10
As I consider how to put my thoughts and feelings about this video, I am suddenly taken with the idea of documentary as a kind of high-tech zoo. Both permit a part of the population, usually city- dwellers like ourselves who have access to the means to watch these things, to peer into a world that they are unlikely to have any contact with otherwise. In the present case, the subject is ourselves, not so much as we, who are watching this, are, but we who we once were: people who actually live their traditions and beliefs, not simply honor them a few of times a year on designated holidays.

Cutting right to the chase: despite its lack of extra features, low bit rate, and absurdly high price, Chamagodo is a must-have high-definition documentary that, once you start watching, and especially on a large screen, it is unlike anything you have ever seen. It is an experience akin to the reading of Moby Dick or attending a performance of Wagner's Ring. This is because the cumulative experience is much more than the sum of its parts, let alone a scene here or there, or the couple of dozen screen captures contained in this review.

Throughout the series, I found myself pausing every 20 or 30 seconds to photograph this image or that in a vain effort to capture the essence of what passed before my eyes - there were that many of them. Human interest and historical context aside, Chamagodo is relentlessly beautiful. Every shot, every placement of the camera, every movement across the frame is a work of art. The photography is effortless, yet when you consider the locations, you can't help but marvel at the impossibility of it all, let alone what the participants themselves are about. I should mention that various descriptions of the content of this series cites the "Ancient Tea and Horse Caravan Road.” The word “road” in this context should be taken advisedly, for these remote trails are often only one meter wide and not meant for anyone with a fear of heights or open spaces.

Chamagodo is the product of subtle teamwork. In each segment, the journey pauses for a moment as the traders, trekkers, workers and pilgrims speak to us (not to some unseen interviewer to camera left or right, as is usually the case these days). They share with us their feelings and expectations about their unusual journey – unusual for us civilized urbanites – their calling, if you will. Why do they continue to do this, generation after generation, for hundreds of years? Why do these women bend, load and carry 20 Kg of water, hour after hour, day after day? Why do these men make a seven-month 1500-mile pilgrimage over every imaginable terrain, stopping every five paces to fully prostrate themselves in a momentary prayer. How could it have come to pass that tea grown in China would have been packed across 14,000 ft passes to Tibet 200 years before the Han Dynasty merely in exchange for horses? How did anyone come up with the idea, let alone how could it have become a driving life force for two millennia? And why would a 70-year old 500 gram packet sell for $100,00 today. How did these trails, many hundreds of years old, some parts of which are cut right out of the mountainside, come to be? Watching these people, not for a few seconds or minutes as with other documentaries, but for an hour at a time, is a redirecting meditative experience.

As with Moby Dick and The Ring there are side trips. We break off from the main path to join other groups on similar paths, only to return. We are invited to a tent as a storm rages outside, or to prayers by Tibetan Buddhist monks, or to a local public health clinic to examine one of our elderly pilgrims who began his trek with a life-threatening illness. We visit Mt. Kailash, sacred to Buddhists and Hindus alike, and Lake Manasarowar, said to be the origin of the Indus and the Ganges and where all sins are cleansed, and seek out the myth of Shambhala and the "Palace of the Moon." The left brain is on hold as these journeys seem to float past our eyes. Narrative connections are made almost as an aside, and yet our guide seems to know all.

The camera serves as a window onto a world touched by civilization only at the fringes - perhaps the most extraordinary of which is the sight of giant trucks giving way to a handful of pilgrims, walking and prostrating themselves on the highway. The camera’s all encompassing depth of field seems to be set for 6 inches to infinity, while the microphone picks up everything from the sound of the wind, to the rushing river below, to the breath of the horses. Do not be surprised if you begin to think you can hear the ice as it watches the travelers pass by. It's all very zen-like and mind-altering. Yet all we are doing is picking tea leaves, or harvesting salt, or bathing in a lake, or pulling trapped horses out of swamp, or praying, or hunting whales, or daring the gods. Somehow each of these stories becomes an adventure. I'm not entirely sure how.

Episode 1. The Last Horse Caravan
Episode 2. Road to Pilgrimage
Episode 3. Tea Makes the Road Open
Episode 4. The Salt in Yanjing
Episode 5. Himalayan Salt Trek
Episode 6. Guge. Mystery of the Lost Kingdom

Official Site is HERE and a few quick video snips can be viewed HERE.

 


 

Image: 9/10
The first number indicates a relative level of excellence compared to other Blu-ray video discs on a ten-point scale. The second number places this image along the full range of DVD and Blu-ray discs.

Despite the transfer employs relatively low bit rates and is 1080i to boot, the image is jaw-droppingly beautiful. It’s hard to take our eyes off it. Not every scene is without technical issues: much of the pilgrimage is less than perfect: it suffers from occasional fringing and is not nearly as sharp as the other episodes, and some footage from the Myths of the Guge is of historical vintage. In the long distant master shots of hillsides, we can make out that familiar dithering as the image tries to make sense of itself. We may need to squint to see it, but it is there. Perhaps because I know the bit rate is so low that I sense a faint lack of density. I’ve had guests who are simply bowled over by the image and do not comment on anything lacking.

Because it is shot on location and in HD video, contrast is high and latitude is almost non-existent. I can’t image any other part of the world that would tax the limits of the medium so. On occasion, there are areas of the frame that are completely blown out from uncontrollable overexposure. Yet – and this is the thing here – the image is so direct and unmanipulated that its magic comes through effortlessly: we are transported to another time and place as if we are there. I mean it – really. It’s like a window has just opened into another world by way of a direct feed from the camera. Planet Earth never looks like this. In its best moments, Wild China doesn’t come close. Much of the time, the image here is so good, the skies so pure and noiseless, that we can’t help but wonder what it would have looked like at bit rates of 40.

And there’s still more to admire: Movies shot on HD-video have an advantage for those of use who still employ 30 fps displays, such as my otherwise satisfying JVC D-ILA RS10. There is virtually no motion distress because, unlike motion pictures shot at 24 fps that require pulldown to work out the discrepancy, the frame rate for HD-video is the same: 30 fps. As creatures walk across the frame, even during a pan in another direction, there is no hint of blur. This is a relief of unspeakable proportions!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Audio & Music: 8/7
That sense of immediacy we experience with the picture, we experience with the audio – this without the help of an uncompressed surround track. There seems to be no "enhancing" post-processing, no attempt to rationalize the different acoustic environments. And again, the nagging complaint: how much more convincingly we could feel the ground beneath our feet, touch the wind, the snow and the stream if we could hear it as keenly as we know would have been the case in a PCM or other uncompressed mix.

Choi Bul-Am's warm and inviting narration is always rendered clearly, even hypnotically. There are extended sections where he does not speak, and when he returns we are not jolted into a left-brained consciousness (unless you read the subtitles) but engaged like another instrument of the soundtrack. While there is a main theme for the series, most of the music departs from this and supports in an ever-varying, self-effacing manner the visuals and drama unfolding before us.

 

Operations: 3
This Blu-ray set is a pin-up for bare bones editions. In addition to its having no extra features, there are no episode summaries in any language in the video content and none in an insert on the Korean edition. Curiously, the Japanese edition includes a 4-page “:booklet” that describes the series – in Japanese. The menu design is simple enough. Each episode is marked in Korean and English, but the non-expanding chapter thumbnails are not. The subtitles are clear. There are only a few places where I didn’t immediately understand the intent of the translation. It has its share of clumsy, if literal, usages (e.g. “traders” would have worked better than "stablemen".)

 

 


Finally, a word about the box design – or rather the lack of one: It was Korea's attention to DVD packaging that won me over several years ago. The packaging and art work for their Special Editions, like The King and the Clown or Wonderful Days, or for their home grown television series, like Damo, are worthy of pride – for them and for me as a collector. None of this attitude has been assumed for Korea's Blu-rays – not for their movies or for this expensive television documentary. The slipcase, made of an easily crushable thick paper, houses two regular Blu-ray cases. That's it. Except for the box cover and disc face art, the Japanese and Korean editions are identical in this respect.

I wish there was a way to show our dissatisfaction with Korea's approach to high definition video. Of the seven Korean-produced Blu-ray titles listed at YesAsia (The Host coming from Magnolia and very much the exception) all are done on the cheap: they are either 1080i, when 1080p is the standard, and at low bit rates so that they can make do with single-layered capacities. Unfortunately, as of this writing, there are no alternatives. I had hopes that the Japanese edition of Chamagodo would remedy one or more my misgivings about the KBS edition but, alas, it is identical, except for the writing on the box and the fact that the discs are "pressed in Russia" – a fact that seems to change nothing.

For those living in North America, I advise picking up the Korean edition through Hanbooks in Los Angeles HERE. In other areas, it’s a toss-up between YesAsia for the Korean edition or Amazon/Japan HERE for the Japanese.

 

Extras: 0
Even more than Planet Earth, we miss a making-of documentary. How this project came to be, how Korea and China got together on this, especially for filming in Tibet and, most of all, how the several teams obtained the footage they did and what challenges were presented in the doing of it, are questions that will have to remain a mystery – unless and until a follow-up documentary is offered. But don't hold your breath.

 

 

Bottom line: 9
Chamagodo is a fascinating, hypnotic 6-part documentary shot where no high-tech video production team has successfully gone before. The audio is straight-up DD 2.0, yet clear and unfussy. Planet Earth may be the king of flora & non-human fauna documentaries, but Chamagodo must now be the new benchmark where we are the subject. Unlike Fox’s recent documentary, Home, Asian Corridor in Heaven respects its audience and assumes we don’t have to be scolded or hit over the head to make its point. Very much the contrary.

Leonard Norwitz
June 27th, 2009

 

 

 

 

Thinking of buying from YesAsia? CLICK HERE and use THIS UPDATED BEAVER PAGE to source their very best...

 

About the Reviewer: I first noticed that some movies were actually "films" back around 1960 when I saw Seven Samurai (in the then popular truncated version), La Strada and The Third Man for the first time. American classics were a later and happy discovery.

My earliest teacher in Aesthetics was Alexander Sesonske, who encouraged the comparison of unlike objects. He opened my mind to the study of art in a broader sense, rather than of technique or the gratification of instantaneous events. My take on video, or audio for that matter – about which I feel more competent – is not particularly technical. Rather it is aesthetic, perceptual, psychological and strongly influenced by temporal considerations in much the same way as music. I hope you will find my musings entertaining and informative, fun, interactive and very much a work in progress.


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