This is a survey of Asian cinema I have enjoyed. The emphasis is on drama, not on martial arts or special effects (the staple of cinema all over the world) or all singing, all dancing Bollywood. As ‘Asian cinema’ must consist of about 80% of all cinema, films that focus on drama, interpersonal relationships or character studies are even more likely to be lost in the crowd than in the West. There are few if any surprises in my choices: many of these films are accepted classics of cinema. My point is to link older ‘classic’ films with more recent ones that I believe will survive. All these titles are worth a viewing. If you’ve missed the great ones I hope my list prompts you to watch them; if you’ve enjoyed the great ones, my list may suggest some new names to watch for. If you love Asian cinema you’ll hate my list, just as I’d hate yours (but isn’t it great to check these things out?)
Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 masterpiece, the top of my list for a long time and regarded as one of the best films ever made, incredibly manages to combine character study, social commentary and magnificent action. Watch the director’s cut: 160 minutes of subtitles has never been less painful.
Kurosawa made this two years before Seven Samurai and both starred Takashi Shimura. Kurosawa had reached a crisis point in his life and wanted to make a film to express what he thought was important in living. ‘Ikiru’ means living; here it means more exactly how to live. It’s serious, moving and able to transform.
Apur Sansar (The World of Apu)
Best seen as the third of Satyajit Ray’s films about Apur, this has one of the most convincing relationships ever depicted on the screen, with one of cinema’s great performances by Sharmila Tagore. Compassion, insight and storytelling blend to make this one of the finest of films.
The second of Ray’s Apur films tells the story of growing up, striking out on your own, and the pain of leaving beloved parents behind. The vulnerability, the strident under confident hopes and ambitions are what we all know. Few have expressed them better than Satyajit Ray.
Life in an Indian village in its poverty, the nourishment of its ancient traditions, its faith and its strong sense of community is the subject of Ray’s first Apur film. The film in its simplicity comes close to documentary. It is this very simplicity than make it in the end, sublime.
Two Daughters (Teen Kanya)
This 1961 film by Satyajit Ray was originally three short films but was cut to two for western release. Ray once again shows that Indian issues (arranged marriages, poverty and isolation in a backward village) can have overwhelming relevance wherever you live. Again he delivers the whole package: story, direction, music. Beautifully acted, extremely moving.
Ray’s 1964 film is about the bond that grows up between a wife whose husband neglects her for the idealistic notion of bringing out a democratic newspaper and a young relative who shares her love of literature. Everybody acts honorably, the acting is superb: it is an intensely moving drama, one of Ray’s best films and his favorite.
Yasujiro Ozu made a penetrating account of the generation gap, the human condition, the weaknesses and strengths of human beings: then he cut it down to an account of less than two hours, elicited perfect acting from his cast, and created one of the best films ever made.
Kohayagawa-ke no aki (The End of Summer)
Ozu’s second last film, made in 1961, is one of his most entertaining. He became a great dramatist in the course of his career, capable of writing a part and then of directing a talented actor to interpret it so as to rival that great dramatist William Shakespeare. No exaggeration, no kidding.
Last Life in the Universe
Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s 2005 film gives you the idea of what an impact Godard’s Breathless made in 1959, before it became a film classic. Stylish, with superb photography by Chris Doyle, it’s Romeo and Juliet for the cyberpunk age. Pen-Ek manages to imitate everyone and yet be astonishingly fresh and original. Stars the ice cool Tadanobu Asano and has an incredible first performance from Sinitta Boonyasak.
Krishna lives on the streets of Bombay and survives the best way he can. Mira Nair’s 1988 drama is rooted in documentary and uses street children, not professional actors. It’s uncomfortable watching because you know it’s really happening, in many cities, but it’s colorful, fast, moving and exhilarating as well.
Shunji Iwai, graphic artist, actor and pop star made a breakthrough in 1995 with this story of two relationships with the same man that take place in the memories and through the contact of the two women who loved him. Elegant and visually beautiful, it preserves a perfect balance between the pitfalls of sentimentality and pretentiousness.
Wong Kar Wai’s delirious and beautiful 1996 film telling twin stories of unrequited love features the camera of Chris Doyle and the acting and singing talents of Faye Wong and with several Asian superstars as well. It’s funny, fast and fabulous. It’s for people who’re in love with cinema: ask Tarantino.
Zhou Yu’s Train (Zhou Yu de huo che)
Zhou Sun’s 2003 film stars Gong Li and is the story of Zhou Yu’s journey (on an Ozu train) to find what she wants without ending up under anyone’s thumb, without losing the love of the men she loves. Caught between a romantic poet and a pragmatic, ironic vet who sees into her soul, it’s not an easy journey.
Mira Nair’s 2007 film deals with the plight of emigration. The situation of those who live within two cultures is not just all about finding a better life: something’s gained, something’s lost, and as the film shows, that which is lost is sometimes heartbreakingly eleusive. A beautifully acted and directed film.
My Blueberry Nights
Made in 2007 by Wong Kar Wei, this film is in English and stars Norah Jones and Jude Law, so how ‘asian’ is it? Well, if you liked Chungking Express you’ll like this one. And it has a great soundtrack (just like Chungking Express).
Doesn’t everyone want a place where dreams can come true, where you can be the person you want to be, where you can have the love you want to have? We have these places: generally we call them the future or the past. In 2004 Wong Kar Wai made a film about this place: he called it 2046. Rarely has melancholy been so beautiful.
A film about that very first time you fell in love, Shunji Iwai’s 1998 film succeeds by its astonishing delicacy of touch and its visual beauty as much as through the acting of Takako Matsu. Nothing much happens, Nireno and the man she pursues are both inarticulate, nothing is resolved at the end: sound familiar?
Sometimes given the sci-fi tag, this sprawling two and a half hour episodic drama from Shunji Iwai stars the charismatic Chara (one of the world’s greatest pop singers). The plot has a cassette tape found in a grisly hiding place that gives the code for replicating high currency notes from street corner change machines, as well as Sinatra’s My Way (believe me, they sing it their way). About half way through it begins to dawn on you you’re watching a masterpiece.
Banshun was made by Ozu in 1949 and stars his regulars Setsuko Hara and Chishu Ryu in their finest roles. Ozu’s rigorous understatement makes this story of love and loss between father and daughter believable and heartbreakingly moving. As always, Ozu leaves it to us to fill in the bits he doesn’t show: as always, we get deeply involved.
The Power of Kangwon Province
Hong Sang-Soo’s 1998 drama about a failed relationship tells the story first from one viewpoint, then from the viewpoint of the other person. This allows us to see how each party in the relationship is able to justify their divergent emotional path yet also be aware how similar their needs and behavioural patterns are. The recreational area at Kangwon is where they might meet again, but somehow don’t. Insightful writing and original photography make this one of the great films out of Asia in recent years.
This 2001 film by Mira Nair proves that not all Indian cinema is all-singing, all-dancing. The film depicts the mosaic of relations that develop before and during the wedding, with participants coming from Texas and Australia and everywhere in between. The acting is stellar, with a cast of famous Punjabi names. Exhilarating, with wry comments on the global cultural mix, of which it is an example.
Eat Drink Man Woman
Ang Lee made his reputation with this touching and mouth watering story of moving on, getting old and the rejuvenating power of love: if you like, about the food of love. Family traditions are celebrated, matchmaking is delighfully satirised, the master chef’s daughters come of age. Happens all the time, rarely so heartwarmingly.
The Wedding Banquet
Made the year before Eat Drink Man Woman, in 1993, this is Ang Lee’s hilarious comedy about a gay couple, one of whom has to marry (a woman) to placate the parents who arrive from Taiwan prepared for a traditional wedding. Its a marvellous celebration of relationships (of any kind) and a tribute to the bonds of family.
Satyajit Ray made this film in 1962 and it proved one of his most popular. It is the story of a man who clings to his caste because he has nothing else to cling to and how he slowly abandons his prejudices in the face of the predicaments he finds himself in. In anyone else’s hands this could be dull: in Ray’s it’s absorbing, exciting, and with magnificent performances from Soumitra Chatterjee and Waheeda Rehman.
An Autumn Afternoon
Ozu’s last film, made in 1962. It’s both a poignant story of the loss we all suffer as we age, and also an extrememly funny and satirical look at self deception and selfishness (disguised as nostalgia and procrastination). Ozu was not just a great filmmaker: he was a great teacher as well.
Kurosawa was in his seventies when he made Ran in 1985. It is about the chaos (ran) that follows the abdication of a feudal leader caused by the feuding between his sons among whom he has bestowed his power. The story is similar to Shakespeare’s King Lear though based on incidents in Japanese medieval history. Both a caustic and despairing take on human nature and the greatest action spectacle ever made.
Ruang Talok (6ixtynin9)
Pen-Ek Ratanaruang sprang to everyone’s notice with this 1999 thriller, a comedy about the numbers 6 and 9. The story is familiar: woman finds a mob stash, tries to keep it and is pursued by heavies. What is astonishing is how fresh and original Pen-Ek is with this material. It’s exciting, funny and profound.
Rashomon is Kurosawa’s breakthrough film, about a crime whose story is told four different ways. No version is exactly ‘true’; no version can ever be. This is a film that camera work and editing make a great one (though you don’t think of that while watching it). Mifune’s acting is tremendously powerful.
Ashani Sanket (Distant Thunder)
The distant thunder is WWII. The more immediate calamity is the famine which caused many Bengalis to starve to death as Indian crops were confiscated by the British Army. The on screen battle is between the need to survive and the priestly role played by the protagonist, a bumbling, idealistic, ignorant brahmin. In Satyajit Ray’s hands this is an absorbing, moving account.
City of Glass
Mabel Cheung’s 1998 film is about a 20 year long love affair between two people, married, but not to each other, discovered by the children of their marriages after a fatal car accident. Slowly, bit by bit, the history of the relationship is uncovered. Strong on nostalgia and very, very tender, this is a heartfelt tribute to romantic love.
All About Lily Chou Chou
Shunji Iwai’s bleak account of internet chat as some kind of compensation for neglected, threatened schoolboy lives started as a graphic novel and was developed by contributors to an internet chat room. Lily is the singer they all adore. Uncomfortable, perceptive, startling, original: it pays re-viewing.
Hana and Alice
The story of the bond between two schoolgirls as they develop relationships with boys, this Iwai film began as an ad, was tremendously popular and then developed into a film script (remember this is Japan). It’s perceptive, wry, and apparently schoolgirls love it.
An early film from Shunji Iwai, in Picnic, made in 1996, three mental patients go on one in order to watch the world end. Tadanobu Asano, Chara and Koichi Hashizume happen to be the patients, which is pretty insane. In anyone else’s hands this would be a stiff ‘art’ film; in Iwai’s it is simply beautiful.
In this 1994 short film by Iwai, Moemi slowly unravels as her husband Yukio withdraws into his writing. She attempts to hold everything together, with string, and eventually enmeshes Yukio in her web. A cinematic fable that succeeds by quite brilliant acting that keeps you constantly involved.
Stanley Kwan’s 1988 ghost story is almost perfect. By the time we learn the first part of the story, about the forbidden love between a prostitute and a wealthy heir and their resolve to commit suicide in order to stay together we have no need of supernatural special effects: Anita Mui comes on screen and we know she has died for love and is seeking her old lover. This just works: a special film.
Ozu made this film in 1951 and it is largely about the post war impact of western culture, especially on the status of woman. But Ozu’s subject was human nature, and the larger subject is how we can come to terms with achieving our aims without harming others. Setsuko Hara and Chishu Ryu are brilliant (again).
Flavor of Green Tea over Rice
Why want what you haven’t got and may never get? How much wiser to appreciate what you do have. Ozu’s 1952 film is as simple and uncomplicated as that, just like the meal referred to in the title.
Days of Being Wild
Wong Kar Wai’s early masterpiece is reputedly unfinished. Unlike Ozu’s film just mentioned it is full of people who all want what they don’t have. Unrequited love, misplaced love, inability to love are all developed in a melancholic ambience that foreshadow Wong’s later films.
Xiu Xiu the Sent Down Girl
Joan Chen made this film in China in 1988. It details a personal tragedy occasioned by an excess of the Cultural Revolution. A willful teenage girl is used and abused, both politically and physically, and fails to perceive the love of her companion (who also has been used and abused). Beautiful photography and powerful performances from Lu Lu and Lopsang make for compelling viewing.
In the Realm of the Senses
Nagisa Oshima was a powerful force in Japanese cinema. This 1977 film about sexual obsession (based on a true story) has received a lot of wrong attention because it depicts the sexual act uncensored (ie as we all experience it). Here, passion has become psychotic, and the result is tragedy. Oshima builds tension from contrasts between vibrant ukiyo-e colors and the closed world of the lovers. The US DVD has (concealed) censorship.
Masayuki Suo made this film in 1983, long before Shall We Dance? It’s a pinku (softcore) parody of Ozu’s Tokyo Story, lots of nudity, nearly as much sexual deviation as in your typical soap opera, and it’s beautiful, funny and absorbing.
Matato Ishioka’s 2000 film is about two teenagers who get involved in Tokyo’s porn industry (scoutmen chat up likely looking girls they see in the streets). It’s accurate about the industry, poignant about loss of innocence.
Lies is a 1999 film by Jang Sun-Woo that explores just how we conceal uncomfortable facts. The subject is sex, the style is documentary. Jang shows the action (sex, S & M), draws back the camera to show the sets, shows the actors affected by their scenes, is interviewed, until we see the subject is not sex, it’s us the viewers, it’s the lies we tell, it’s the way we prefer to watch others that Jang examines.
The story of Ruan Ling Yu, a famous silent film star, is told with enormous feeling in Stanley Kwan’s 1992 film.
Fruit is Swelling
Man Kei Chin’s wise fable on the absurdity of sex is funny, wise and sexy.
Kurosawa’s (A Fistful of Dollars, Last Man Standing, The Magnificent Seven, Star Wars) innovative and funny 1961 samurai film.
Women’s Private Parts
Relax, it’s a documentary made by Barbara Wong in 2000. Chinese women are interviewed about sex. Enlightening.
Peking Opera Blues
Hark Tsui’s 1986 film has everything, in a chaotic HK style that moves you along like a whirlwind: thrilling espionage plot, unbelievably good fight scenes, comedy, and Chinese Opera. Entertaining.
Audrey Lam’s 2000 movie documents the gradual breakup of an affair by selecting 12 nights of failing interaction. Good dialogue and acting make this very believable.
©2009 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.