Global HD: Bringing in Blu-rays from Around the World 
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Written by Thomas Spurlin   
Thursday, 15 April 2010

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For one reason or another, home media production companies seem to operate on separate timetables for their releases. Whether it’s because they believe an item wouldn’t sell or if the costs are too high compared to the revenue it might generate, they all have their reasons.  Even with the support from enthusiasts, a film can sometime swim in an unreleased nebulous for far longer than it should.  Case in point being Paramount’s recent release of The African Queen, a great John Huston adventure starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn that, though it saw the light of day in the United Kingdom, didn’t hit American soil until the idea had been hammered into the studio’s minds for many years.  In order to obtain a copy of the film before that, enthusiasts either had to endlessly hope for it to hit the airwaves of television, or import a copy from Europe playable only on multi-region decks.  Whether it’s that scenario or another, all countries simple doesn’t see everything on home video that they’d like.

With the sluggish but steadfast rise of Blu-ray technology, it’s almost as if the reset button’s been hit on that situation.  Now that we’ve seen films presented in 24 frames-per-second native movement with the crispness of HD’s audiovisual qualities, it’s almost like watching these movies again for the first time – and, well, the production companies aren’t on the same timetable in releasing either catalogue films or new releases to “replace” the previous release.  However, particular films might just be available in this region, or that region, which again has sparked interest in importing Blu-rays from other countries.  However, the technological bits and pieces have changed a bit, causing some issues to be absolved and others to be sparked.  So let’s say someone wants to attain a copy of a particular movie on Blu-ray that isn’t available in their designated region.  What are the steps, considerations, and problems that can occur? While there are some, it’s a bit easier to handle – though it can get costly.

Does Region Coding Affect Importing a Blu-ray?

Just like with standard-definition DVDs, Blu-rays are also coded for specific regions.  It’s what’s called a Digital Rights Management (DRM) arrangement that, essentially, ensures that sales for a particular film go to the designated studio releasing it in a specific area. With DVDs, the region coding was separated into five quadrants, but the lines were redrawn by the Blu-ray Disc Association upon the technology’s implementation. Though the general structure has stayed similar on a roundabout level – North American encapsulating one region, Europe and Russia encapsulating others – other countries / continents have been roped into other regions.  Probably the largest change is the inclusion of Korea, China, and Japan, formerly annotated as Region 3, into the field of Region A compatibility, thus making them playable in North American players without any (technical) issues.
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With DVDs, a few barriers can cause compatibility issues -- region coding being one of them, but also PAL / NTSC signals. With 1080p televisions becoming the standard, that’s no longer as large of an issue; beforehand, specific players or compatible televisions had to support PAL’s 576p/50hz resolution, but the recognition of 1920x1080p resolution as the standard has engineered Blu-ray technology to a more streamlined degree.  No conversion between different broadcast signals is required, and the 4% speedup that can cause an aggravating jerkiness in motion has mostly been eliminated.  Oftentimes, it’s only the region coding itself that separates the film on a Region B disc from playing on a Region A machine.  Naturally, a region-free disc will be able to play the core content without any compatibility issues, all points nominal with full-HD resolution.  If the resolution skips a beat, say to an interlaced 50hz signal (1080i50), then we’ve reverted back to old, problematic issues. 

Therein rests a problem: how can somebody know whether a release is actually region-free or region-locked, or whether it’s assuredly a full-resolution image? Those are questions that’ll need answering before placing an order, because companies like Amazon will not issue refunds on the basis of incompatibility across regions.  The best way to discover this info comes in working through some elbow grease and asking peers.  One website does a great job of compiling the region status of specific discs, Blu-ray Region Codes (http://www.blurayregioncodes.com/ ), but even that site relies largely on the reports from individual success and failures.  Sometimes it requires a shot in the dark by eager importers to build information about a release.  Among a community of home theater enthusiasts, it’s always encouraged to share both positive and negative experiences with importing. 


Can Blu-ray Releases Differ Between Countries?

Quality all depends on the studios handling each presentation, and whether the high-definition transfer comes from the same source. Logically, Blu-rays from the same studio released around the same time will look either identical or show barely an increment’s difference; take, for instance, the Blu-ray presentations of Tim Burton’s Batman from Warner Brothers and the Battlestar Galactica Complete Series Collection from Universal, which were released close together and carry nearly identical audiovisual treatments in both the US and UK.  In regards to region coding, oftentimes when a studio releases a film in several regions, then these discs will likely be region free (for example, the releases of Moon and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon from Sony).  This can only be looked at as a general, frequently accurate rule of thumb though, as a few studios still decide to region lock many of their discs even when they own the rights in both regions – for instance, Disney.  

When alternate companies oversee the high-definition treatments for films in separate regions, some differentiation in both aural and visual properties might be seen.  Not everyone uses the same scanning process when rendering Blu-rays, nor do they always have confirmation on color correctness, aspect ratio, or the presence of film grain.  That’s where a little research on the process implemented with each studio comes into play, and whether the director or cinematographer has given their stamp of approval.  Some regions also include lossless audio when others don’t (JCVD comes to mind), while the subtitle differences can certainly vary – both in the languages available and in two translations of a single audio source, even whether English or other subtitles are even available on either the film or the special features.  These, however, persistently rise up as talking points in the discussion about importing standard-definition DVDs, a quandary that’ll continue while there are two opinions on any subject.  Point being, don’t make the assumption that one region’s Blu-ray mirrors that of another.  

Are Special Features Affected By Blu-ray Technology?

Once you’ve ironed out the specifics on a transfer’s correctness and whether the disc will play in your machine, the next point to consider is probably the one real pain in the neck about importing a Blu-ray from overseas: special features.  Where the film’s visual presentation largely predicates on the process used to render it, the supplemental material hinges on technological handshakes. Many high-definition discs offer their slate of supplements in 1080p high-definition, which, like the ease of compatibility with the film itself, negates the need for discussion about whether they are playable on overseas machines.  Some special features, though, are offered in standard-definition, either taken from previous releases for posterity/cost-effectiveness’ sake or simply so they might fit more material onto a single disc.

 It’s here where problems pop up that glance back to the PAL / NTSC handshake issues.  Naturally, zones where PAL signals are prevalent are likely to have PAL-encoded special features, and vice versa for NTSC, and the signal won’t show up on-screen if the player, receiver, or television cannot convert the signal.  Their effects will differ depending on an individual machine’s capabilities, where some will idle for a second on the menu upon selecting the feature and others will actually play just the sound elements. On the other hand, some “standard definition” features are actually encoded in AVC/VC-1 files, which will play in any of the players – essentially meaning that they think like they’re in high-definition, though they’re clearly not in terms of quality.  This clever tactic’s popular among Warner Brothers’ releases; it makes the features playable, but many times it’s 4x3 fullscreen material stretched across a 16x9 surface.   

Let’s Talk Brass Tacks:

A lot of moving parts revolve around deciding whether to import a Blu-ray, but the biggest hasn’t really been talked about here yet.  Even with confirmation whether a disc is playable or not, whether the special features are viewable, and whether everything else from subtitles to actual screening quality checks out, it’s still expensive. Usually the shipping rates are roughly double the amount that they are for most domestic deliveries, while converting currencies – from dollars to pounds and euros, and so forth – always constitute a roll of the financial dice.  Granted, this affects everyone differently, but a penny-pincher like yours truly cannot help but feel a bit of a sting any time the dough’s coughed up for a release that’d likely be significantly less if it were released domestically.  And, of course, there are workarounds for less expensive prices, such as auction sites, but carefully analyze buying options before going that route – as, and I’m sure I don’t have to tell you this, but the net’s full of bootlegs.

Parting Thoughts:

There’s a thrill in receiving a package from overseas with an imported curiosity within the wrapping, a sense of surprise and enjoyment in having something arrive that’s unique.  That feeling heightens for movie fans, as they get to witness a piece of cinema played before their eyes with their acquisition.  Even more so, that sensation spikes with the newness of Blu-ray quality, preserving film in a way that comes as close to the look and feel of a movie theater screening as you can get – and that’s even more intriguing with world cinema, as it almost makes you feel like you’re watching the film in its native location.  Yeah, I’m waxing a little poetic about the experience, but that’s part of the uniqueness and justification of the admission price.   There are plenty of region-free Blu-rays out there to enjoy of films that may or may not make it to your location, so it’s absolutely worth seeking out some of the gems that stretch beyond the convenient reaches of your favorite domestic retailer.  However, just remember to be smart, do your research about the disc’s specs, and possibly expect to cough up a bit of dough.  

Recommendations:

Black Narcissus – Powell and Pressburger’s intimate and fraught experience in watching nuns wrestle with their inner demons in the Himalayan mountains was nominated for two Academy Awards, one for Art Direction and the other for cinematography – both of which are shown off splendidly in ITV’s rather striking presentation.  (Amazon UK Link)

I’m a Cyborg
– Park Chan-wook, director of the Vengeance Trilogy (Oldboy, Lady Vengeance), deviated from his gritty, evocative style with this quirky and unusual comedy, one that features entrancing performances and subtle, sleek production design that look great in high-definition. Tartan’s Blu-ray is crisp, cool, and a reference piece for many of my deck reviews. (Amazon UK Link)
 
Let the Right One In
-- Tomas Alfredson’s vampire film arrived during yet another peak where the bloodsucker genre hit a popular rhythm, but his tale of youthful angst within the relationship between Oskar and Eli renders a evocative tension unlike many others.  Though available on Blu-ray in the United States, it’s hard to find a “correct” copy with the proper theatrical subtitles – but this presentation from Momentum has the correct text for all titles shipped.  (Amazon UK Link)

Memories of Murder – Bong Joon-ho might be more renowned for his monster flick The Host, but his historical police procedural set during a mass-murderer’s spree in the ‘80s is a gripping tour de force. Though subtitles aren’t available on the Korean Blu-ray’s extras, the video and audio are both top notch.  (Yes Asia Link)

Sunrise – So, can silent black and white films benefit from the new technology, without the explosions and blasts of radiant color? Absolutely, and this F.W. Murnau masterwork touches on the very best of its genre through beautiful cinematography and stunning imagery.  Eureka’s Masters of Cinema branch, always a beacon of quality, handled this Blu-ray.  (Amazon UK Link)






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