Asian Cinema Primer

by Luke Copping

There is a whole world of cinema out there beyond the Hollywood hills, movies that you have not conceived of if you grew up on a steady diet of blockbuster studio releases. But a growing trend in the last few years has seen major studios remaking and releasing asian films for the domestic market.  The real question is why see the watered down wal-mart friendly versions of some of these great stories when you you can easily put in the effort to read a few subtitles and see the originals in all their glory.

These are the movies that will bridge the gap and ease you into east asian cinema before you start into the more obscure or visceral titles. All of these are great films in their own right and compose a sort of much watch list to help you figure out what genres and eras you enjoy.

Seven Samurai . Akira Kurosawa. 1954 . Japan
Akira Kurosawa is without a doubt The Man, Seven Samurai is the most widely recognized film to come out of Japan and is an integral piece of filmmaking history. It is also a great film to start with before exploring the rest of Kurosawa’s work. The story of an aging samurai who recruits a team of six other warriors to help defend a farming village has become a popular motif in cinema, and was even the inspiration for the 60’s western The Magnificent Seven.
if you like this check out: Rashomon, Miamoto Musashi, The Hidden Fortress

Hard Boiled . John Woo . 1992 . Hong Kong
Both John Woo and and Chow Yun Fat went on to become common names and faces in the American film scene in the mid nineties, and it was largely in part to this film and the duo’s 1989 film The Killer becoming cult hits with western audiences. Hard Boiled still remains the more accessible of the two and a great introduction to the simple but elegant style of Woo’s directing. Chow Yun Fat’s character, the awesomely named officer tequila, performs in this bullet ballet with the grace of a dancer while still bringing plenty of humor and style to the role. Hard Boiled still remains one of the best made and memorable entries in the Hong Kong action genre.
if you like this check out: The Killer, A Better Tomorrow, City on Fire

Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance . Kenji Misumi . 1972 . Japan
One in a series of Lone Wolf and Cub films (also known as the Baby Cart series), sword of vengeance sets the tone for the ultra violent ultra bloody samurai revenge flicks to follow. The first installment follows swordsman Ogami Itto, as he pushes his infant son Daigoro in a heavily armed baby carriage, in a search for revenge against the rival clan that killed his wife and servants. The films are addictive and each installment adds bigger battles, more blood, and more creative fight scenes.
if you like this check out: Lady Snowblood, Kill!, Zatoichi

Curse of the Golden Flower . Yimou Zhang . 2006 . China
Taking the directorial and artistic vision that popularized his previous film Hero among western audiences to new heights, Yimou Zhang creates a compelling story in which every location and choice of color is part of the story being told. In addition to the numerous and impressive action scenes there are powerfully performed moments of sadness, betrayal, and love in this film. Creating a much deeper overall plot and richer visual experience than the already impressive Hero.  Zhang’s other films including The House of Flying Daggers and Raise the Red Lantern are also must sees if you enjoy this film.
if you like this check out: Hero, Storm Riders, Seven Swords

Ong-Bak . Prachya Pinkaew . 2003 . Thailand
Ong-Bak belongs to a new breed of asian action cinema, and is a great example of the emerging film industry coming out of Thailand which is really starting to gain attention and following among western viewers. Starring Tony Jaa, a stunt man who takes the Jackie Chan school of stunts to new levels. Jaa uses no wires or CG in his stunt work, and his choreography makes use of traditional Thai martial arts that are a breath of fresh air in a somewhat repetitive martial arts genre. The fight and chase scenes in Ong-Bak are intense to a point that you will often find yourself wincing at the brutal impacts and strikes delivered in creative ways. The film also has a great overall story and a little bit of effective comedy thrown in by Petchtai Wongkamlao, who is a great comic foil to the raw physicality of Jaa.
if you like this check out: The Protector, Fearless, Once upon a time in China, Fists of Fury

The Eye . Oxide Pang Chun . 2002 . Singapore
While many got their first taste of asian horror from Hideo Nakata’s Ringu or its well made American remake The Ring, The Eye is in many ways a much better entry point into asian horror cinema. This is mainly due to the pacing of the film which may be more akin to western films. The film follows the story of a young blind woman who receives a corneal transplant that allows her to see the spirits that are all around her. Containing some extremely intense and well shot sequences (the elevator scene will freak you out), The Eye is a film that relies more on suspense and subtle terror rather than piling on the gore and shocks, which you tend to find a lot of in other films in the genre.
if you like this check out: Whispering Corridors, Acacia, Marebito

Ran . Akira Kurosawa . 1985 . Japan
In many well respected opinions, Ran is Kurosawa’s masterpiece, and they might be right. This re-imagining of Shakespeare’s King Lear, blends in elements of Japanese samurai folk lore to tell the tale of a kingdom torn apart by the machinations of the rulers three sons as they vie for control of his territories. Filmed in a distinctive style, using very long shots to show the meticulously constructed sets and battle scenes, Ran is so grand in scale that it seems almost overwhelming. But Kurosawa keeps control over his large cast and guides them through a truly impressive production.
if you like this check out: Kagemusha, Red Beard, Ikiru

Oldboy . Chan-Wook Park . 2003 . South Korea
Oldboy is the second part of Park’s loosely connected revenge trilogy, which also includes Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. It follows the tail of Oh Dea-Su, a man who is locked in single room for fifteen years with no knowledge of why he has been imprisoned. Upon his release from his captivity, he sets out on a quest for vengeance against his captors and sets of a chain of individuals seeking revenge that culminates in a shocking finale as the nature of his imprisonment is revealed. The amazing cinematography and well thought out production work, in conjunction with an original and thought provoking story, makes for some truly unforgettable twists and images.
if you like this check out: In The Mood For Love, 3 Iron, Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl

Tetsuo: The Iron Man . Shinya Tsukomoto . 1989 . Japan
Tsukomoto is the godfather of asian extreme cinema, and Tetsuo: The Iron Man is his original masterpiece. It is a disjointed black and white film full of shocking and experimental images.  The jarring industrial soundtrack and plot concerning the fusion of flesh and technology in a man’s body, create an atmosphere that is both nightmarish and completely enticing all at once. Tetsuo is more of an experience than a film and is difficult to describe with words alone. See it.
if you like this check out: Ichi The Killer, Stacy, Visitor Q, Tokyo Fist

Luke Copping
Luke Copping was a founding member and now is an occasional contributor for Auxiliary.
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