From Akira Kurosawa to John Woo, East Asia has always produced some of the most interesting, exciting, and different films in world cinema. Recent years have seen film industries of countries such as Thailand and South Korea start to rival the old guard of China and Japan, making the region more exciting than ever. To coincide with the release of the powerful Chinese historical epic City of Life and Death (2009) on DVD and Blu-ray, we look down the ten best Asian films of the decade so far…
Oldboy (2003) – Winner of the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, Oldboy is the film that catapulted South Korea to the forefront of 21st Century East Asian cinema. A businessman is imprisoned for 14 years, seemingly at random, and upon release is given a three days to find out the reason for his abduction and unleash an ultra-stylised tornado of revenge. Astonishingly visually inventive, it features a stunning side on, single take fight scene recalling early 90s fighting videogames.
Red Cliff (2009) – John Woo was one of the most important figures in the golden age of Hong Kong action cinema, with classics like Hard Boiled (1992) and The Killer (1989), and even made his mark in Hollywood with Face/Off (1997). The last decade was not particularly kind to him, but last year he returned to his native China and unleashed Red Cliff (2008), a historical epic which redefines the word ‘epic’. See it on the biggest screen possible.
Hero (2002) – An virtual who’s who of Hong Kong A-listers, including Jet Li, Tony Leung, Zhang Ziyi, Maggie Cheung and Donnie Yen, star in former art house darling Zhang Yimou’s take on the traditional Wuxia genre. Yet the film is no simple chop-socky adventure. Yimuo spins a Rashomon (1950) inspired tale, where each person’s side of the story is illustrated in a different colour scheme, from a frozen blue icy lake to bright green spring forrest. It’s all the more impressive that Yimou sought out the stunning real life locations in rural China than simply relying on CGI.
Battle Royale (2000) – A Japanese high school class is picked a random, taken to an island, each given a weapon and forced to battle to the death until one remains victorious . Instantly creating a moral panic, the film still remains officially unreleased in the USA. But the film is far from a cheap exploitation flick. It’s a jet black satire on high school and the trials and tribulations of being a teenager, and a cracking thriller to boot.
2046 (2004) – It’s easy to think that East Asian cinema is all action, sex and violence, but that’s far from the truth. Wong Kar-wai made his name in the 1990s with lyrical, highly visually stylised films. Four years in the making, and with the weight of considerable hype, 2046 debuted at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival to a mixed response. But time has been kind to it and its now generally regarded as a triumph, with criticisms of its wandering multi-stranded narrative and seemingly out of place sci-fi elements giving way to it’s genuine beauty and deeper truths.
Ichi The Killer (2001) – Takeshi Miike has made a name for himself churning out gleefully immoral but amazingly entertaining and inventive films, at an astonishingly fast rate (he directed an insane 31 – yes, that’s THIRTY ONE films between 2000 and 2010). Described as the “The ultimate sadist meets the ultimate masochist”, his surreal comic book yakuza epic is shocking even for Miike, and is probably his masterpiece. Don’t let your parents catch you watching it.
Ong-bak (2003) – It seems like you can’t walk into the world cinema section of HMV without being bombarded the alleged next Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee, but in his debut film Tony Jaa proved that he is the real deal. The western marketing for the film proudly proclaimed “No Stuntmen, No Wires, No CGI” and that’s exactly what you get. The story is completely irreverent (something about a stole statue head, or something), but just sit back and Jaa do the incredible, the seemingly impossible and the borderline suicidal students.
Zatoichi (2003) – While in the West ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano is best known as the Japanese Robert DeNiro (or as the teacher in Battle Royale), in his homeland he is much more famous as a talk show host akin to Chris Tarrant or Jonathan Ross. His idiosyncratic films are equally as surprising. A remake of the long running film and television series starring Shintarō Katsu as the titular blind samurai, Kitano directs and takes the lead role in probably the only samurai epic ever made to climax in a mass tap dancing sequence.
Infernal Affairs (2002) – The inspiration for Martin Scorsese’s Oscar winning The Departed (2008), the original is considered by many to be even better. Hong Kong legend Tony Leung is a dedicated police officer who goes deep undercover in the triads; ice cool Andy Lau is a cocky young triad who infiltrates the police department. The film moves at a rollicking pace, weaving their intricate, intertwined stories together with aplomb, leading to the inevitable, bloody conclusion.
City of Life and Death (2009) – Lu Chuan’s film is a powerful portrayal of the infamous ‘Nanking Massacare’of 1937, when Japanese troops invaded the then-Chinese capital of Nanjing and ushered in a six week period of rape, torture and mass executions. It received controversy from mainland China due to its even handed and sensitive depiction of the events, showing the Japanese soldiers as real, conflicted people as opposed to soulless monsters. An important film about an incident from history that is shamefully little known of in the West that demands to be seen
City of Life and Death is released on DVD and Blu-ray on 20 September 2010.