A brief guide to Asian cinema
Korean movie ‘Old Boy’
By Bob Corlett
Asian movies are the reason I am in Japan today. I was 13 when I first saw the anime Akira, and ever since then I have constantly searched for more and more obscure and unique Asian films. In high school I was always trying to get my friends to watch them so they could understand why I was so obsessed. I guess you could say I’m an Asian movie otaku.
Scouring the Internet and finding hidden gems is a massively rewarding experience, though sometimes turkeys do crop up. After years and years of searching for the greatest Asian films, I’ve compiled the ones I consider to be the very best into this brief guide. This list is meant to be just a quick introduction, not an in-depth discussion of the films. While it showcases only a tiny percentage of what Asian cinema has to offer, these are the movies I really think people should see. No martial arts films are included, as that is an entirely separate story altogether (which I might write, depending on the response to this). I hope you will find a few suggestions that you might not have heard of otherwise.
A quick disclaimer: if you do decide to watch one of these movies, please do so in their original language. Dubbing is useless, retracts from the quality of an actor’s performance, and can change the mood and/or meaning of a scene. Plus it sounds stupid. And besides, watching Japanese movies will help you with your Japanese. It is not for me to tell you where to find these movies, just to tell you that they are there… somewhere. If you need to find English subtitles for a film, though, then www.kloofy.net is the best place.
So let’s begin with a brief mention of anime movies. I won’t dwell on this as there is already a splendid article on anime on the Wide Island. But I have to mention the following movies:
Graveyard of the Fireflies
A boy and his sister find themselves orphaned after the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. This is by far my favourite anime and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Every student in Hiroshima knows this movie.
This is the story of a boy with strange telekinetic powers, set in a futuristic dystopian Tokyo. It’s a genuine classic and something no Japanophile can miss.
Now that that’s out of the way, on to the movies!
The Vengeance Trilogy – Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance/ OldBoy/ Sympathy for Lady Vengeance
Park Chan-wook’s milestone of Korean cinema, this trilogy features three stories of revenge played out in seemingly beautiful ways. These films should be noted for their graphic violence, but please do not let that put you off.
Save the Green Planet
A quirky tale of a man who wants to do exactly what the title says in any crazy-ass way he can imagine. It’s a sci-fi comedy with the added sheen of a Korean perspective.
Welcome to Dongmakgol
A South Korean military unit gets lost in the forest during the Korean War and stumbles upon a remote village. A comedy/drama that showcases the cinematographic skills of Korea, the popcorn scene is truly spectacular.
Three friends grow up and apart in this Korean gangster movie. An excellent cast and superior plot.
A monster movie done the way a monster movie should be done. Excellent effects and a cast that actually isn’t a load of balls.
Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring
The story of a boy who grows up in a sheltered mountainside temple and the subsequent temptations of the outside world. One of the most beautiful films to come out of Korea. Not much talking, with a very subtle technique.
A Bittersweet Life
An awesome opening that leads into a fantastic study in bad-guy redemption. Very violent, but very good.
Attack the Gas Station!
A film about people who want to attack a gas station. That is all.
Joint Security Area
Another Chan-wook masterpiece, this time set at the border between the North and South. A tragedy occurs and the Swiss are brought in to find out exactly what happened. An original and intimate look at the relationship between the two feuding countries. It smashed box office records when it opened in Korea.
My Sassy Girl
An excellent and surprisingly original “love” story that has spawned another stupid Hollywood remake. It’s quite possibly the best of the Korean “romantic” movies (though 3-Iron comes close).
Choi Min-Sik (star of OldBoy & Sympathy for Lady Vengeance) stars as a man who goes on a redemptive quest to find the story of a woman he “married” who has passed away. A truly amazing film about how we perceive people through their actions.
China/ Hong Kong
God of Gamblers
Chow Yun-Fat stars as the title character, who suffers an unfortunate accident and must be brought back to his original self by his new friends… and chocolate. A classic.
In the Mood for Love
Wong-Kar Wai’s epic tale of love and loss set in 1960s Hong Kong.
John Woo’s 80s movie is a classic of Hong Kong cinema. Features Chow Yun-Fat in a defining role as a hitman-with-a-heart, showcasing just how much Hollywood owes to the Far East.
Violent yet essential viewing.
Infernal Affairs Trilogy
Scorsese’s The Departed was based on these original Hong Kong movies. These are better.
When everybody has to die, just hire John Woo to shoot it and Chow Yun-Fat to do it (with a baby in his arms).
All About Lily Chou-Chou
A look at high school otaku culture in Japan that has one of the most ethereal soundtracks ever put to film. If you recognise a portion of it, know that Tarantino stole it from this film, not vice versa. This is always the second film I recommend to anyone who asks me about Japanese films (the first will come later).
Beat Takeshi (a.k.a. Takeshi Kitano), who also directs, and Tadanobu Asano (the greatest actor, ever) star as two samurai. Kitano plays Zatoichi, the blind, gambling addicted swordsman, and Asano is the bodyguard hired to kill him.
Survive Style 5+
Vinnie Jones is in it! Another Asano movie that is quite possibly the quintessential Japanese movie. It might not make sense, but it is just too much fun to miss. Random stories and a random plot, definitely something to watch with other people.
Dead or Alive
This film was the first international “hit” directed by Miike Takashi, who has an output of roughly three or four movies a year. A dark and violent look at the yakuza underworld (what other way could you look at it?), with the most outrageous ending ever seen on film.
The Happiness of the Katakuris
Guests of a quiet mountain hotel start to die and the owners need to find ways of dealing with this problem.
Another Miike film, this time a musical based on the Korean movie The Quiet Family. A mix of live action, stop motion and hand drawn techniques.
The Bird People in China
The story of a man who travels to China accompanied by a yakuza to find a remote mountain village. Another Miike film, this being his most relaxed and most observed piece, possibly even his best.
Kitano returns as director/actor/painter in this movie about a cop on the edge (please ignore the cliché). This is far and away my favourite of Kitano’s movies. The acting is spot-on and the imagery will stay with you for a long time. There are a couple of violent scenes, but the beauty of the others far outweighs them. During the making of this, Kitano suffered a horrific motorcycle accident that paralysed half his face, and the second half of the movie reflects this beautifully.
Tetsuo – The Iron Man
Shinya Tsukamoto’s metallic masterpiece is the classic cyberpunk movie and definitely should be watched with an open mind. It’s a very industrial film and one that needs no real plot summary, as I can’t make one.
The second greatest sports movie ever made (after White Men Can’t Jump). Only this is about the über masculine sport of table tennis. Now, I love table tennis and play it in some of my school clubs, but even if you don’t appreciate the sport, this movie is still worth watching. The story is always interesting, the characters are generally insane and the ping pong sequences are like Forrest Gump on smack. Fun for the whole family!
An extremely low-budget independent movie about guys in a forest killing each other. A guilty pleasure with over the top violence.
A Scene at the Sea
Another Beat Takeshi directed movie, this time about surfing and the relationship between a surfer and his suffering girlfriend. Very slow and barely a word is said, but in one respect this is possibly Kitano’s most powerful film.
The Kurosawa classic about rogue bandits helping a village defend against other… rogue bandits. It has inspired pretty much every film since, so for that reason alone it should be watched.
Another Kurosawa classic, this film features one story told from differing perspectives, each revealing a different side to the story. A timeless take on the power of memory, truth and the reliability of the senses.
Now for my final two recommendations: I feel these movies need to be separated from the pack due to the impact they had on my perception of what film can be and because of the power they pack in their celluloid. They are not for everyone and they require a certain commitment to watch, but their power, and moreover their stunning beauty, will remain with the viewer long after they have finished.
Nine criminals escape from a prison in Japan and band together to find their own brand of redemption. Amazing performances, heartbreaking characters, an awesome soundtrack and wonderful scenes make this the best of the best for Japanese film.
The Last Life in the Universe
Another Tadanobu Asano movie, only this time with a Thai director, an Australian cinematographer and a lot of English dialogue. I can’t say too much because this film is best viewed with no plot preconceptions and with a clear head. This is my favourite movie ever made (I hope that will be convincing enough for someone to watch it!).
I realise the films on this list are not for everyone and that some require a lot of patience to get through, but I hope you find one that sparks your interest and give it a try. I think these movies have the potential to revolutionize your whole concept of what a movie can be.
If you have any suggestions, questions or comments, please leave a comment! You can also email me at dried_lungs (at) hotmail (dot) com. I’d L-O-V-E some recommendations. I have some of these movies, so I’d be happy to send/lend them to you if you’re interested.