To some, Asian cinema is nothing more than a breeding ground for Hollywood horror remakes.
But that overlooks the fact that Far Eastern film-makers were among the pioneers of the moving image along with their American contemporaries in the 20th century.
Just in time for the release of Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs (which is sure to be one of the most important films of the year) we take a look at the best that Asian cinema has offered so far in this century.
Poetry (2010, South Korea)
Poetry is a beautifully absorbing story of an elderly woman faced with the shame and indignity of an atrocious crime committed by her grandson.
Its gentle and meditative flow mirrors the nature of the central character, making for a cohesive and spiritual cinematic experience. It contemplates a number of serious issues such as death, memory and the negative impact of modernity, but does so in such a light and seemingly effortless way that it never gets so heavy as to disturb the central sentimental portrait.
Battle Royale (2000, Japan)
Before the massive franchise that was The Hunger Games there was Battle Royale, and it’s just about the most gory fun you can have while watching a film.
Take a group of unruly high-schoolers, drop them on to an island and equip them with a vast array of weapons in what is set up as a kill or be killed situation then sit back and watch the blood-bathed carnage ensue.
It ushers in a serious subject matter and then turns it into one of the most outrageously violent and uncompromising films ever to come out of Japan – which, to be fair, already had a reputation for reproducing brutality in the most extreme and graphic ways.
Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003, Taiwan)
Goodbye, Dragon Inn is one example of challenging art-house cinema which is most certainly worth your attention.
Set almost entirely in an old cinema, it focuses on the few people who have shown up to see a final showing of the 1967 classic film Dragon Gate Inn. Like most films by Tsai Ming-liang, there are only a few lines of dialogue throughout – instead he chooses to focus on the actions and expressions of the characters the film so perversely studies.
As you watch you begin to realise that you’re also taking part in the dialogue of the film. As the meta element becomes transparent, something so pure is translated: this is simply a film about watching a film.
Oldboy (2003, South Korea)
Revolving around a premise so twisted and disturbed that many a scene will forever be forged into your memory, Oldboy is a startlingly bold and brilliant example of east Asian extremity on film.
In many ways Oldboy put Korean cinema on the mainstream audience’s radars. It was a landmark film not only for the attention it gave to South Korea but in how it managed to turn the Vengeance Trilogy concept into something much more: a fully accomplished and complex piece of cinema that provoked academic discourse as much as it thrilled its audience.
Spirited Away (2003, Japan)
To merely call Hayao Miyazaki’s films animations would be doing them a massive disservice. He creates richly textured worlds that are filled with hope and discovery – and a grand sense of childhood wonderment that can be embraced by adults as much as kids.
A modern day Alice in Wonderland set in an otherworldly reincarnation of Japan, Spirited Away is every daydreamer’s fantasy. It follows a normal every day girl Chihiro as she explores a spirit world, where she finds work in a menacing and enchanted bath-house in the hope that she can find a way to return home to her parents.
Voted in BFI’s top 10 films to see before you’re 14, Spirited Away provides a beautiful experience that will stay with you throughout your life.
Still Walking (2008, Japan)
Hirokazu Koreeda seems to be the modern heir to the Ozu throne that Japanese cinema has been so desperate to fill.
Still Walking echoes the delicately balanced mood that was achieved by Ozu’s greatest films. It appears understated until, inevitably, it finds a way to get under your skin.
Taking the sombre tale of a family still in mourning after the loss of their eldest son in a tragic accident, its true genius is in how, through all of the struggles and sorrows it details, it shows that one can always find a light in the heaviness of life.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall Past Lives (2010, Thailand)
Describing Uncle Boonmee can quickly make it become a bit of a hard sell. It’s a film that is (perhaps more than any other on this list) to be watched and not read about. It’s as close to a transcendent experience as one can have during two hours of watching images on a screen.
Essentially it centres around a dying man on his last few days on earth, exploring what it means to accept death and the concepts of reincarnation. It does so with such a deep compassion for its subject matter, that it becomes simultaneously personal and universal – as its poetic world takes hold of you.
The World (2004, China)
Jia Zhnagke’s The World flirts so dangerously close to an absolute failure that it just manages to be one of the best films of the century so far. Set in and around a Chinese theme park filled with miniature world landmarks, it’s a fascinating and essential look at how the East views the West.
It functions as a comedy, drama and critique of a Chinese culture which is in danger of becoming too removed from tradition. It produces surreal image after surreal image as iconography is juxtaposed with tourism, creating images that you will continually find fascination with.
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring (2003, South Korea)
“Rarely has a movie this simple moved me this deeply. I feel as if I could review it in a paragraph, or discuss it for hours”
This was the opening line of the late, great Roger Ebert’s review of Kim Ki Duk’s 2003 triumph Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring.
It’s a film about Buddhism, but it’s so much more than that: it’s a film about life and all that it holds. It’s so masterfully assembled that it seems to drift by without scenes or events – merely unfolding images before us.
Much like the title suggests, it’s also a film about routine and renewal – two centre points of the Buddhist faith – showing them in such an authentic way that it elevates the film to a level of purity which feels on par with any religious text.
In The Mood for Love (2000, Hong Kong)
There are a few special films out there – films that defy criticism. Films in which every scene feels inspired, moving and utterly perfect in form. In The Mood for Love is one such film.
It’s the essential art lover’s film. It’s clear that each detail of Wong Kar Wai’s film is painstakingly thought over – his use of colour and lighting perhaps perfected like no other film in the 21st century.
Beyond the aesthetics there’s the most deeply impassioned love story about two lonely neighbours whose lives are gently woven together. Sweepingly romantic and undeniably sensual – In The Mood for Love is perhaps the most complete and exquisite cinematic nugget ever to come out of Asia.
Share this on Twitter: