Map of the Human Heart
(Japanese release)
[PILF-7317]


By Joshua Zyber
July 6, 1999

Vincent Ward’s extraordinary Map of the Human Heart is a terrific lost gem of a film that was largely ignored during its brief theatrical run due to weak marketing, and subsequently forgotten on video due to some piss-poor quality control from its distributor. The movie falls into the category of what would be called an “epic romance” and is both hauntingly surreal and poetically told. In fact the best portions of The English Patient are rather reminiscent of the earlier Map. The story spans from the Arctic Circle to the firebombing of Dresden during World War II. Jason Scott Lee, Patrick Bergen, and the lovely Anne Parillaud star. Naturally, there is a requisite love triangle to keep them at odds. John Cusack also has a cameo role as the mapmaker whose scenes bookend the film.

In short, the movie tells the story of an Eskimo boy who befriends the leader of a mapmaking expedition (Bergen). Eventually the boy leaves his village to follow in his mentor’s footsteps, and joins the Air Force to fight in World War II as a bombardier. Along the way he falls in love with a French girl but soon finds himself vying for her attention with his idol.

The movie is loaded with themes of race, of identity, of belonging. Although religion is never specifically mentioned in the script, the hero’s journey takes him from a frozen purgatory wasteland up through the dream-like reaches of heaven, and then plummeting down into a hellish inferno.

The film is a magnificent visual treat, and the aerial battle scenes are among the most beautiful sequences ever committed to film. Ward is certainly one of the top visual stylists to work in the medium. His subsequent film was the equally beautiful yet somewhat dopey What Dreams May Come, and both pictures can entrance the viewer’s eye with their striking imagery and vibrant use of color. Who, after watching this film, can ever forget the two lovers on top of the hot air balloon, the mannequin woman papered in maps, or the city of Dresden engulfed in flames?

To that end, it is impossible to understand how someone watching the film could completely disregard the quality of the cinematography. Yet that is exactly what happened when it was released to video in the U.S. The movie was unfortunately financed in part by HBO in return for the television and home video rights. They botched the job horribly. Released to both VHS and laserdisc only in pan&scan format which crops off half of the original anamorphic picture, the image is also terribly washed out and grainy. It is painful to watch, and robs the film of all its original power.

I’d heard of the existence of a letterboxed Japanese laserdisc several years ago, but by that time it had already gone out of print. Since this is not a title for which there has ever been much demand, I had to search in vain for quite some time before I finally managed to obtain a copy.

I would like to say that this disc is the dream remaster I’d been hoping for, but I don’t think it quite lives up to those expectations. The picture has been slightly cropped to approximately 2.0:1 and you can see the effect of this when the film’s title appears on screen. There are no letters missing, but the whole title looks a little cramped on both sides. The video master is obviously derived from a print rather than a more pristine source such as an internegative, and there are occasional speckles and dirt-related damage. Dark scenes, especially at the beginning of the film, are murky and the whole film is mildly grainy throughout, becoming worse during shots with heavy color saturation. Some of the rear-projection process shots which looked so fabulously surreal on the big screen now just look a little fake, and even the bombing scenes speak too loudly of miniatures than they should. The disc has Japanese subtitles which generally appear below the image but occasionally intrude into it. There are several short stretches of Innuit-language dialogue in the film which are not translated into English, but for the most part the emotional content of these scenes remains clear.

That being said, this laserdisc is a dramatic improvement over the domestic issue and most of the film retains some semblance of its original beauty. The image is reasonably sharp and free of signal noise, and more of the picture is present than is lost.

Unfortunately, the audio suffers the most here. Dialogue comes across weak, and the musical score in particular sounds thin and shrill. Using the Cinema EQ function on my receiver tamed some of the brightness, but this will never be a demo-quality soundtrack. Surround envelopment is generally restricted to the musical score until the bombing raids, which become a little more active.

At the time of its original release, there was some talk that between 10 to 20 minutes of footage had been removed at the last minute. You can see clearly where there are gaps in the finished film, especially in the transition from Dresden back to the Arctic, and the concluding act is fairly muddled and confusing. That footage has not been restored to any release of this picture to my knowledge. In fact, the 105-minute running time listed on the Japanese disc jacket is four minutes shorter than the standard listed length of the movie. At first I feared that additional footage had been trimmed or that the picture had been time compressed. Luckily, neither turned out to be the case. The listing on the jacket is merely a typo. The disc clocks in at just over 109 minutes.


 
There is no chapter encoding but the side break is well chosen. The jacket artwork is interesting, but I would not go so far as to say that it is particularly attractive. The front cover has two awkwardly positioned stills from the movie. The upper photo is close-up profile shot of the lead actress that is neither very flattering nor an image one might think would define the movie. The bottom photo comes from the more striking balloon love scene, but is cropped too significantly to make a good cover image. A better choice might have been to use only a wider still from the balloon scene or to use the shining-mirror artwork from some of the release posters (seen at right). Still, it could not look worse than the cheesy montage artwork that was used for the U.S. video editions. 

Addendum

Map of the Human Heart was finally released on DVD in late 2004 with a new anamorphically enhanced widescreen transfer, a small handful of deleted scenes (not all that were shot), and, if you can believe it, even uglier cover art.
 
 

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Japanese disc jacket back

U.S. disc jacket front

U.S. DVD

 
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