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August 25, 2005 4:44 PM   Subscribe

I'm interested in learning more about East Asian cinema. Which films should I see?

I’ve only seen a few East Asian films, and would like to learn more about this tradition.

So, fellow MeFites—which films should I watch? It would be very helpful if you could pen a few words telling me why you think these films are important. Breakthrough role for a particular actor? Great cinematography? Reflected a cultural zeitgeist? Just a lot of fun to watch?

Oh, they need to be available on DVD and have English subtitles. I have a region-free DVD player.

posted by luneray to Media & Arts (33 answers total)
I’ve only seen a few East Asian films, and would like to learn more about this tradition.

Which films have you seen (and which did you enjoy)?
posted by j.edwards at 5:25 PM on August 25, 2005

Wow, that's a pretty wide topic, covering everything from contemporary Hong Kong action films to classic Japanese epics. Having said that, here are a few that immediately come to mind as among my fave films of all time:

Kurasawa, Kurasawa, Kurasawa! Seriously, he's one of the greatest directors that ever lived. I'd advise starting with Rashomon (it's the quintessential "one event retold from multiple points of view" film, not to mention one of the top movies of the 20th century), then take your pick from Seven Samurai (the basis for The Magnificent Seven), Throne of Blood (based on Macbeth), Yojimbo (basis for A Fistful of Dollars), Ran (based on King Lear). All boast extraordinary visuals, compelling dramatic stories, and stunning performances from Toshiro Mifune.

For contemporary cinema, you can't go wrong with the essential (pre-American) John Woo action films, often starring the awesome Chow Yun-Fat and/or Tony Leung. The biggies are Hard-Boiled, A Better Tomorrow, and The Killer. They're basically shoot-'em-up gangland melodramas with genuinely exciting action/fight scenes (often featuring pretty jaw-dropping choreopgraphy) and fine performances. Another great (and more recent) film in this vein (though not directed by Woo) is Infernal Affairs.

Another wonderful director is Wong Kar Wai. His 2046 is out now; it's a sequel (of sorts) to the wonderfully sad, yearning, sensual In the Mood for Love. I also really love his Chungking Express.

Then there's the more operatic historical martial arts films of recent years -- Hero, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and House of Flying Daggers were all big hits in the past couple of years.
posted by scody at 5:34 PM on August 25, 2005

"East Asian" is pretty broad. Movies from Hong Kong, Japan, China, Taiwan will all be different.

A few Hong Kong sub-genres:
  • Flying people. In Hong Kong action movies, people can literally fly through the air (with the help of wires).
  • Cops and robbers. Often quite dark and violent by Hollywood standards (although maybe those are just the ones I remember).
  • Wacky comedies.
In general, Hong Kong movies tend to be quite overtly emotional and sentimental compared to Hollywood movies. This applies particularly to action movies.

Some of my personal favorites (i.e. I bought them on DVD):

Flying people:
A Chinese Ghost Story
The Bride with White Hair
The Heroic Trio

Cops and robbers. Be warned, most of these are extremely dark. Don't expect the hero to survive unscathed.
Hard Boiled (dir. John Woo)
The Mission (Milkyway)
Full Alert (dir. Ringo Lam)
Expect the Unexpected (Milkyway)
Infernal Affairs

Wacky comedies: see pretty much anything from Stephen Chow, e.g. From Beijing with Love, God of Cookery, Shaolin Soccer, Kung Fu Hustle.

Lost and Found (UFO)
posted by russilwvong at 5:49 PM on August 25, 2005

I am quite partial to Yimou Zhang's films, and while I liked "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers" well enough, his earlier films are better.


Red Sorghum
Ju Dou
To Live
The Story of Qiu Ju
Raise The Red Lantern
Shanghai Triad

Of these, I think the first three are the best.
posted by briank at 6:13 PM on August 25, 2005

Mostly I know HK stuff, so I'll focus there.
One thing that one gets a lot of in HK movies is mawkish sentiment. If you want to see how far this can be taken, see some John Woo movies. If you want to see good movies, avoid them entirely. There, I said it
The best arty director in HK is Wong Kar Wai. See everything of his, starting with Fallen Angels, probably the most accessible.
The best, or anyway a really great, action director in HK is Corey Yuen, e.g. The Legend of Fong Sai-Yuk.

Nobody's mentioned "Beat" Takeshi Kitano's movies yet (Japanese, of course). Sonatine may be the best.
posted by Aknaton at 6:38 PM on August 25, 2005

Don't think "Flying People" when you think of the Crouching Tiger type films; think "a Chinese take on superheroes". I'm no Asian scholar, but I think there are strong parallels there.

Scody has an excellent, excellent answer. Total best answer right there. Except she missed a couple of my favorites!

Farewell My Concubine introduced me to Asian cinema. It's a powerful film of a completely foreign (to me) culture. It's about Chinese opera, friendship, and revolution.

I also loved the recent Korean film, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...And Spring. It has an awful title, but it's a glorious film, simply beautiful to behold. A simple tale of two monks who live in the middle of a lake, and yet so much more. I don't know of any other Korean films to recommend...

Also, I'm surprised nobody has mentioned master animator Hayao Miyazaki, whose Spirited Away is one of my favorites. (I find the rest of his stuff rather hit and miss, though.)

I have a substantial subsection of Asian cinema in my DVD collection, though most of it is stuff that was popular in the west. The movies I decided I had to own:
  • Hero
  • House of Flying Daggers
  • Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
  • Spirited Away
  • Kiki's Delivery Service
  • Farewell, My Concubine
  • In The Mood For Love (which is another fantastically beautiful film)
  • Ran
  • Rashomon
  • Seven Samurai
I look forward to seeing 2046 next weekend. And I look forward to discovering more great Asian films.
posted by jdroth at 6:46 PM on August 25, 2005

Hirokazu Kore-eda is good; I think his "After Life" is one of the finest movies I've seen in recent years. Kurosawa, of course.

The thing that you have to remember when watching Japanese movies (I haven't seen many from other parts of East Asia) is that they move at a different pace and with a different structure than American movies; it can sometimes feel like "When does this movie begin?"--but then, I was raised on Hollywood movies.
posted by Jeanne at 6:51 PM on August 25, 2005

what scody said. I'd also check out, if I were you, Takashi Miike, Tran Anh Hung, Hou Hsiao Hsien, the almighty Pen-Ek Ratanaruang
posted by matteo at 6:52 PM on August 25, 2005

also of note: Kim Ki Duk and Chanwook Park
posted by matteo at 6:54 PM on August 25, 2005

I think that Chan-wook Park is brilliant, though increasingly very dark, particularly with his "revenge trilogy." I saw "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance" at a film festival a few years back and it blew me away.
posted by desuetude at 6:55 PM on August 25, 2005

Oh yes, strongly seconding After Life (I'm watching it again tonight, incidentally), Farewell My Concubine, and Spirited Away, which I forgot to mention the first time 'round. All top-notch. Enjoy!
posted by scody at 6:59 PM on August 25, 2005

I'll second Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, & Spring; it's a gorgeous parable that probably is more enjoyable if you're familiar with Buddhism at all--at least, that's part of why I enjoyed it so much.

The same director also made a film called The Isle, which is just as beautifully shot, and is, be warned, quite a bit more ugly in terms of characters and the viciousness and degradation people are capable of inflicting on both others and themselves. Ebert has a pretty good review of it, but I'd recommend against seeking it out until after you've seen it, as it spoils the intensity of some scenes.

Hayao Miyazaki is indeed one of the high-water marks of animated films. Beyond his work, if you see no other anime (or you become convinced it has nothing serious to say or treat), see Graveyard of the Fireflies. Have kleenex handy.

Takashi Miike is on the "extreme" end of Asian film bits. I describe his output as "mostly terrible, but with amazing bits", where the amazing bits make up for the dull amateurish bits. Every film that he's done that I've seen is like that. I'd recommend Audition as one of the most effective horror flicks ever made in any language--it's not the usual sort of horror where it's basically Looney Tunes with blood-squibs but actually, well, horrifying. His other stuff tends to be more cartoonish and over-the-top and thus less disturbing. "Dead or Alive" is a decent place to get a feel for that, from the kind of hyperkinetic assault he's very good at (the opening five minutes or so of it are something else), to the dullness he's also unfortunately prone to, to the kind of utterly insane curveballs that'll either be part of his charm, or the final coffin nail in the viewer's disgust with him, depending on temperament. :)
posted by Drastic at 7:15 PM on August 25, 2005

Marusa no onna ("A Taxing Woman") definitely fits into the 'just fund to watch' category.

I also vote for anything by Beat Takeshi... he's a legend.
posted by bruceyeah at 7:44 PM on August 25, 2005

Ugetsu (aka Ugetsu Monogatari). The best Japanese movie I've seen, and close to the best of any film I've seen from any country. In my mind, much more memorable than the better known "classic" Japanese movies of the same era. But probably the more I write about it the worse my representation of it would be. So I'll stop there!
posted by shoos at 8:30 PM on August 25, 2005

Wong Kar Wai is one of my favorite living film-makers. Pretty much everything directed by him is worth watching with the possible exception of "As Tears Go By." I really like his take on the traditional period martial arts flick, "Ashes of Time."

Takeshi Miike has his moments, but avoid the third and final part of his "dead or alive" trilogy; it's utterly awful.
posted by juv3nal at 8:40 PM on August 25, 2005

Takashi Miike.
posted by juv3nal at 8:41 PM on August 25, 2005

I second To Live. It's one of the best movies ever.
posted by weston at 8:45 PM on August 25, 2005

Check out some Thai films, beginning with Last Life in the Universe, a moody and slightly surreal drama with Japanese superstar Asano Tadanobu shot by Christopher Doyle.

Last Life director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang also made the very funny comedy-thriller 6ixtynin9.

Nang Nak is an atmospheric and quite scary story of man who refuses to believe his wife is a ghost.
posted by soiled cowboy at 8:47 PM on August 25, 2005

Juzo Itami was the director of A Taxing Woman--I'd look into all his stuff (in addition to most of the other stuff mentioned here), especially Tampopo.

I like the fantastical HK action movies like Bride With White Hair, but you kind of need to give up your expectations of plotting and pacing to watch it. Not so big on Takashi Miike.
posted by adamrice at 8:54 PM on August 25, 2005

Nobody's mentioned these as genres yet, so:

Completely wacky they've-gotta-be-stoned kung-fu:
Shaolin Soccer
Kung-Fu Hustle

The aforementioned Kiki's Delivery Service
Ghost in the Shell
Grave of the Fireflies
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:55 PM on August 25, 2005

Scody has it down, pat. Take it from me, I'm a filmgeek.
posted by filmgeek at 9:26 PM on August 25, 2005

Ashes of Time is one of my personal favorites (first Video CD I ever bought), but I wouldn't recommend it to someone just getting into East Asian movies. Way too inaccessible--lots of stretches where nothing seems to be happening, plus a convoluted and non-chronological plot. Wong Kar-Wai's other movies are much more accessible.

For Ashes of Time fans, I highly recommend watching it in conjunction with The Eagle Shooting Heroes. (Same cast, similar plot, same production company--but it's a wacky comedy.)
posted by russilwvong at 11:20 PM on August 25, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone.

Yes, it is a broad request. Deliberately so. The more films on the list, the better the chance I can find some of them at the video store!

Related question...anyone know the name of this Japanese film? It was a comedy about a detective whose name was Miku Hama (I think). Typical down on his luck private eye whose office was in a movie theater.

Films I have enjoyed:
Heaven and Hell (aka High and Low)
The Hidden Fortress
Princess Mononoke
House of Flying Daggers
The Miku Hama one
Raise the Red Lantern
Story of Qui Ju (?)
Chungking Express
Crime Story (I think this was the title. Starring Jackie Chan)
Shaolin Soccer
The Scent of Green Papaya

Ones that made me go 'meh':
The Returner
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (It was beautiful to look at, but I must have missed something about the story, because it didn't grab me at all)
China Dragon (Zhongguo long)--maybe it was funny to the Taiwanese...
posted by luneray at 12:35 AM on August 26, 2005

...and now I'm late to the party. Anyhow, check out Fukasaku's Shogun's Samurai and Kurosawa's Kagemusha and Throne of Blood. If you'd like to try the kung fu deal, go find some late 70s/early 80s Sammo Hung like The Prodigal Son, Magnificent Butcher, or Warriors Two. For the more prepostrous kung fu, try Master of the Flying Guillotine (just re-released in a nicer edition since it was referenced in Kill Bill) and Duel to the Death.
posted by j.edwards at 12:42 AM on August 26, 2005

Eat Drink Man Woman (dir. Ang Lee) is a nice film about a chef who has lost his sense of taste and his 3 grown-up daughters. Old Boy is totally fucked up! It's like an East Asian version of Happiness or Gummo. Mentally I file it under "deviant" films. Good to watch, but totally fucked up. Nobody Knows is a heartbreaking tale of 4 children abandoned by their mother. It reminded me a bit of Flowers In The Attic, but has an atmosphere similar to Elephant. Brother (dir. Takeshi Kitano) is awesome! It's a brilliantly comic violent film about a Japanese gangster who comes to live with his brother in the USA. It even stars Omar Epps (of E.R. and First Time Felon fame).
posted by xpermanentx at 2:07 AM on August 26, 2005

"Zatoichi", Takeshi's revisitation of the black and white films from the 60s is a bizarre and wonderful mash of styles-
feudal Japan with blind swordfights + cross-dressing + musical vignettes + clog dancing + comedy = curiously lovable. I've never been that fond of his films but seriously, this is a work of pure craft. Exciting, inventive, damn clever, funny and occasionally blood-soaked

South Korea is really gaining a foothold in world cinema, so I'd also recommend "Old Boy" if you can stand some cinematic violence-
a great deal of gore in this, but taken as a whole the film is more psychologically (or psychotically) driven than physically. The lead roles are astonishing, and if you're a computer game fan you really should watch it for the side-scrolling beat-em-up action sequence.

I'd also add my voice to the clamour for both "Infernal Affairs" (but leave the sequel well alone) and "Spring, Summer... Spring". Completely different genres but both of them are great movies which leave you thinking.
posted by NinjaPirate at 2:10 AM on August 26, 2005


The Most Terrible Time In My Life is the movie you were thinking about with Maiku Hama. It's mostly funny and somewhat strange. I must throw in my advice to see Kar Wei's films, any of them. He is shaping up to be the greatest director of all time. That level of cinematic art cannot easily be transcended.
posted by JJ86 at 4:43 AM on August 26, 2005

If you enjoyed Hiyao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke. I highly recommend Satoshi Kon's Perfect Blue, Milennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, and the excellent TV series "Paranoia Agent." I also recommend Isao Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies - tragic anti-war story featuring two Japanese orphans. Another good anti-war film (non-anime) has just been released to DVD, Kinji Fukasaku's Under the Flag of the Rising Sun.

And don't forget the Japanese horror films that inspired those awful Hollywood remakes. Hideo Nakata's Ringu series (he also directed Chaos). Takashi Shimizu's Ju-on. Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Dark Water, Cure, Seance, Charisma and Doppelganger.
posted by plokent at 7:13 AM on August 26, 2005

Has Ozu really not been mentioned yet? Good Morning was my introduction. I second/third In the Mood for Love, Akira. If you want to see the best movie about food ever, ever see Tampopo.
posted by scazza at 8:54 AM on August 26, 2005

Defintely the later work of Yasujiro Ozu
(IMDb listing), if you're into classic Japanese films. (But they're contemporary dramas and comedies -- don't expect samurai, ninja, or actors in rubber suits stomping on models of Tokyo.)

The first response gushed about "Rashoman" -- my opinion isn't popular, but I find that picture unwatchable.

posted by Rash at 9:43 AM on August 26, 2005

Heh. I took a class in East Asian Cinema a couple years back. Unfortunately, most of what we saw has already been mentioned.
Here's the curriculum, as far as I remember it, and I recommend every one of these movies (we had an excellent teacher):
From Hong Kong:
A Better Tomorrow 1&2 (The same cast! Different stories!)
The Killer
Hard Boiled (These four are all Woo flicks).

The Swordsman 2 (Recommended if you liked Crouching Tiger. It's insane and great).

The Drunken Master 2 (Jacky Chan's greatest film. The first Drunken Master sucks ass, but the second one is fantastic and totally different).

Once Upon a Time In China (Jet Li's Chinese Western)

He is a Woman, She is a Man (A good gender confusion comedy).
Chunking Express
Fallen Angels (Both by Kar Wai Wong)

From China:
To Live
Raise the Red Lantern
(There were probably more, but I don't remember them)

From Japan:
Laputa (Miyazaki, great movie about air pirates)
Throne of Blood
Double Suicide
Black Rain
Floating Weeds (I hated it at the time, but I've seen it again and loved it. Really, really slow though).
Tampopo (Hilarious noodleshop foodporn comedy)
Ososhiki ("The Funeral" fantastic dark comedy about Shinto death)
Tokyo Drifter (amazing Mod Yakuza flick)
Tetsuo Iron Man (insane stop-motion animation)
(There was another one about a post-apocalyptic Tokyo that was probably from the late '70s which involved a gang of teenagers who were selling bags of blood. It was really creepy, but I don't remember the title. Perhaps someone else could help.)

Oh, and from Thailand (which we didn't see in class) I recommend "The Eye" as excellent Asian horror.
posted by klangklangston at 9:44 AM on August 26, 2005

A couple more Japanese oddities:
The Mystery of Rampo and Black Lizard, about/by Japan's self-styled Edgar Allan Poe, "Edogawa Rampo". Very pretty and very odd, respectively.
Audition is one of the more disturbing movies I've seen of late.

But these are only after you've seen everything listed above (which I haven't quite!). Second Tampopo and Eat Drink Man Woman as absolute musts.
posted by Aknaton at 10:48 AM on August 27, 2005

Here're some more recommendations from a similar recent question.
posted by edjusted at 11:05 PM on August 27, 2005

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