Asia has had a profound impact on pop culture, maybe even more so than we realize. Whether through spectacularly staged martial arts extravaganzas, gritty crime dramas and action thrillers, supernatural tales of terror, or giant monster mashes, Asia has given us plenty to absorb and to learn from. Here’s a quick rundown of some quintessential viewing from a region of the world that rivals Hollywood in terms of powerful entertainment.
The most well known of the recent Asian crime dramas is Wai Keung Lau and Siu Fai Mak’s Infernal Affairs (Hong Kong, 2002), the first of a trilogy, which inspired The Departed, Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning remake. In this tense thriller, a yakuza (a member of the Japanese mafia) is a police mole, and an undercover cop is a mafia informant, and their bosses entrust them with the task of uncovering and ratting each other out. It’s a highly effective film with a moral core.
The hyperviolent crime dramas of John Woo made an action star of Chow Yun-Fat and brought both men to Hollywood. Two of the team’s most acclaimed efforts are the gangster thrillers Hard-Boiled (1992) and The Killer (1989). Both feature high body counts, so be prepared for some super-intense action.
Oldboy (South Korea, 2003) is a grisly movie in which a man imprisoned in a strange building for 15 years seeks revenge on his captor as well as the reasons for his imprisonment. There are plenty of odd twists, not to mention a frazzled climax. This is the first of three similarly themed movies from director Chan-wook Park.
On the lighter side of things, Jackie Chan’s Police Story (Hong Kong, 1985) shows him playing a cop who will do anything to bring down a corrupt mob boss. The role allows Chan to indulge in both his incredible stunt work and his flair for physical comedy. The impressive stuntmen fly through so much shattered glass that it’s amazing real blood wasn’t spilled.
Speaking of blood, Takashi Miike’s infamous Audition (Japan, 1999) has hardly any, yet its torturous final images will make you think you’ve seen plenty. It’s a tale of a widower who pretends to be a television producer in order to meet a beautiful woman, but when the woman discovers his deceit, he learns about her psychotic nature. Audition makes Fatal Attraction look like a family picnic.
If you’re looking for character-driven political intrigue rather than loads of violence, check out Purple Butterfly (China, 2003), a 1930s period piece in which a Manchurian freedom fighter (Ziyi Zhang) battling Japan’s occupation must seduce her former Japanese lover in order to set up an assassination.
TALES OF TERROR
While Japanese horror has found incredible international success, thanks to movies like Ringu (1998, remade as The Ring in 2002) and Ju-On: The Grudge (2000, remade as The Grudge in 2004), other Asian countries also offer plenty of creepy, long-haired women; spooky children; and frightful visions to go around.
Brothers Danny Pang and Oxide Pang Chun (The Messengers) brought us The Eye (Hong Kong, 2002), an unnerving tale of a violinist, blind since childhood, who regains her sight through corneal transplants but then also starts seeing spirits wandering the earth. It’s one of the scariest Asian horror flicks yet.
Other recent efforts take familiar themes but make them nerve rattling and fear inducing, including Cello (South Korea, 2005), which finds a music teacher’s family stalked by a malevolent spirit; Shutter (Thailand, 2004), wherein a photographer and his girlfriend are plagued by an angry female spirit after they flee the scene of an accident; and Premonition (Japan, 2004), about a sinister daily newspaper that foretells the death of one man’s loved ones. Each movie has its own original moments and may have you keeping the lights on that night.
And we can’t forget the roots of this current horror wave. The Cannes-honored, four-story anthology Kaidan (Japan, 1964) is a supreme example of how fantastic set design, intense performances, and unnerving sound effects can be much creepier than musical bombast. Empire of Passion (Japan, 1978), from controversial director Nagisa Oshima, tells the story of a woman and her lover who are haunted by the ghost of her former husband after they kill him. Both of these classic films are romantic and poetic and prove that a film does not have to be outright horrifying to get under your skin.
POUNDING FISTS AND STINGING, SINGING SWORDS
Asia has produced some stunning action films on a variety of topics, and the physical prowess of the performers certainly puts many Western action heroes and villains to shame.
A seminal entry in this area is Enter the Dragon (U.S., 1973), Bruce Lee’s first and only major American film, which was shot in Hong Kong. Playing a hired spy who infiltrates the karate tournament of an island-bound crime lord, Lee blends his fist-pumping fury with emotional chords for stronger-than-standard action fare.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Taiwan, 2000) takes martial arts to a higher plane. It’s a powerful period piece about the quest for love, a stolen sword, and the untamable power of a young warrior and her conflicts with the world. The surreal flying and fighting sequences (by Yuen Woo Ping, the fight choreographer of The Matrix) have now become standard in both Asian martial arts movies and Hollywood superhero flicks.
Two stunning period pieces that succeed in the Crouching Tiger way are Hero (China, 2002), in which Jet Li plays a potential assassin to old China’s ultimately unifying emperor; and Curse of the Golden Flower (China, 2006), about the deadly power struggles of a ruling Chinese family in the Tang dynasty, starring Chow Yun-fat and Li Gong. Both movies are rich in character and have dazzling scenery and cinematography. Of course, the granddaddy of them all is Akira Kurosawa’s Oscar-nominated Seven Samurai (Japan, 1954), in which the titular characters defend poor villagers from marauding bandits. It’s a masterful film on all levels.
If you’re looking for a more humorous side to martial arts, check out Jackie Chan’s goofy Drunken Master (Hong Kong, 1979). He plays a reckless kung fu fighter who gets schooled in the power of the Eight Drunk Gods by an alcoholic master. It’s not at all politically correct, but it is funny, and it offers a chance to see a young Chan strut his stuff.
The semihumorous homage Tears of the Black Tiger (2001), set in Thailand, takes the form of a classic Western and is a weird blend of tear-jerking romance, heart-pumping action, and off-the-wall parody telling a wrong-side-of-the-tracks love story between a gun for hire and a wealthy heiress. Unintentionally humorous but totally a product of the ’80s, Legend of the Eight Samurai (Japan, 1984) finds once-ferocious Sonny Chiba (of Street Fighter fame) among the titular cast that help a princess vanquish the resurrected enemies of her family. Part of the Samurai Collection on DVD, which also includes Ninja Wars and G.I. Samurai, Legend comes complete with big fight sequences, flying rubber monsters, and massive foam-rock sets. It’s charming in its earnestness.
ALL MONSTERS, GREAT AND SMALL
Japan has most famously produced the mean, green Godzilla, who has stormed his way through 29 films, frequently destroying Tokyo, battling other giant monsters, and teaching us not to wreak atomic havoc on Mother Nature. A competitor to Godzilla’s kaiju throne was Gamera, the giant flying turtle-like creature who arrived in the ’60s, first to attack mankind and then to challenge earth’s enemies in a kid-friendly way. The original series got a major face-lift in the mid-1990s with three films — the first being Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (Japan, 1995) — that made him edgier. Mothra (Japan, 1961) started as a kind creature, became a friend and a rival of Godzilla, and then returned decades later as an earth savior in The Rebirth of Mothra trilogy (Japan, 1996–1998).
Not all monsters are flesh and blood. Take Daimajin (Japan, 1966), in which a stone warrior statue comes to life to end the reign of a brutal tyrant after a helpless villager begs for his aid. It’s a pretty basic story line (in fact, that’s the plot), but the buildup to the moment of the statue’s insurrection and its massive rampage pay off. It was followed by Wrath of Daimajin and The Return of Daimajin. All three movies were filmed together and released within a year.
But it’s not just massive monsters that can take hold of your mind and warp it. Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People (Japan, 1963), also an effective chiller, is about seven well-heeled seafarers who are stranded on a remote Japanese island after surviving a storm while at sea. One of their only sources of sustenance is delectable mushrooms that transform them into strange creatures, so you know there’s trouble.
And be on the lookout for the new South Korean film The Host, about a monster that emerges from a river and goes on a frenzy.
THE ASIAN-AMERICAN EXPERIENCE
Also worth noting are recent movies chronicling the trials and tribulations of Asian-Americans. In Red Doors (2005), three Chinese-American sisters embark on a soul-searching quest for their missing father that proves to be personally enriching. American Pastime (2007) peers into the lives of people at a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II, showing how they used baseball to cope with their hardships. And let’s not forget The Joy Luck Club (1993), which explores the cultural clash between a Chinese-American woman and her immigrant parents, whose values are more traditional.
The films herein scratch only the surface of what Asian cinema has to offer, not even touching on Japanese anime and the massive Bollywood industry of India. But they make a good place to start.
For more on these movies, visit IMDb.com, Amazon.com, HKFlix.com, and Asian-DVDs.com.