I’ll admit it, I’m turning into a bit of cinephile. Ever since starting uni, I’ve been immensely intrigued by the inner workings, performances and presentations of movies. The film industry is wracked with a massive history spanning multiple decades, and to witness it blossom to fruition is a sight that needs to be endured. Anyways, I could make a list of my favourite movies, but then again, I’m planning to save that for a later date. Instead, to avoid conforming to my usual routine of just talking about western movies and Japanese anime, I’ll start with ten Asian films I’d like to recommend to any filmgoer. These are the types of flicks that don’t require a lot of knowledge about writing, themes, or all the good things that make up classic and critically acclaimed movies. Anyone can just hop into these and find at least something worth talking about.
Park Chan-Wook is revered as a legend amongst film fanatics, and for good reason too. His expertise in crafting brutal, real, and somewhat disturbing situations for his characters to suffer within, is well known for pealing apart the harsh realities of their social environment. Oldboy is first and foremost, a revenge story, but it is how that story is executed that lends it its praise. You see, in most revenge fiction, the whole focus tends to be on delivering brutal, satisfying, no holds barred acts of violence towards the enemies and tormenters of the protagonist. A tale which tells of how the victim becomes the victor. It cares mostly about serving revenge on a cold platter to its target audience; themes, messages and character development are all secondary to this. Well, apart from conveying the message: “Don’t you dare mess with this guy.”
Anyways, what makes Oldboy stand out is the idea that it isn’t your typical revenge thriller. This film is unforgiving and bleak. The whole notion of Oldboy is that revenge is ugly and very rarely ends well for the avenger. This makes it stand out from the likes of say, Django Unchained or Kill Bill. Another difference is that in Oldboy, both the main protagonist and the main antagonist have revenge fantasies they want to act out upon one another. This is very dissimilar to other flicks in which the main hero is usually the one who impose judgement. Its effective in pitting two opponents with the same intentions against one another. Fans of anything helmed by director Jeremy Saulnier will be enthused by the austere atmosphere the film tries to conjure up surrounding the idea of seeking vengeance for one’s wrong-doings.
Thai films, much like contemporary anime, are very hit or miss. They tend to revile in their own conventions, visual styles and forms of humour, which therefore makes them stand out, and a little polarizing, towards average watchers (especially if they haven’t gotten exposed to Thai media in their lifetime). Thai films are written almost like your average modern anime; they’re filled to the brim with their own set of unique clichés, huge doses of melodrama, and lots of situations where characters are proposed as victims of their circumstances. Ladda Land I feel, does away with a lot of that. In most Thai horror, you usually have a ghost that’s usually a victim of some sort of event that killed him/her, and in the end, said ghost aspires to torment either those around him/her or the ones who wronged him/her. But Ladda Land is different in the sense that it focuses more so on a family getting torn apart, and how it affects them on a very psychological scale. It’s less about revenge from beyond the grave and more about how feuds and family troubles can ruin relationships. There are implications that the ghosts these characters witness are internal manifestations of their personal troubles, only made worse by the constant bridges built between them and their loved ones.
But it does have its fair share of flaws too; it still contains a high number of jump scares and lots of overly dramatic moments that have become a staple of Thai horror. Seriously though, don’t let the cheery family in the film’s poster fool you. Notice there’s a ghost in the background. This is an extremely jump scare heavy film that legitimately scared the living daylights out of me when I first watched it. Though, its also a weakness. I can’t fathom to count how many times some generic stock scare sound was utilized in this flick. Regardless, it’s a nicely paced horror flick that you could watch while your head is buried halfway in a blanket and appreciate for its attempts at telling an intense family drama.
Another Thai film! Not surprising to be honest, I mean I’m a Thai person myself. Shutter is quite possibly the most well-known Thai horror flick there is. When this genre comes into question, this is often brought into the equation. Shutter is a harrowing story of a photographer who finds himself being tormented by the spirit of his dead ex-girlfriend. And I mean it when I tell you – exes are terrifying when they get mad. Natre is relentless in her actions towards Tun and his friends. Every onscreen presence of her strikes terror, not only onto the characters, but also towards the viewers.
Personally, I didn’t like Shutter as much as most people did, but it did bring about some intense scares, some of which genuinely caught me off guard. It could have been the perfect Thai horror flick for me, but I absolutely loathed the way the final few minutes of the film came about. The writers basically forced in a subplot that was so asinine and overemotional, that it completely took me out of the experience all together. They tried to weave in some taboo subject matter into the mix as an explanation for why the ghost haunts the main characters in the first place, but it’s almost as if the writers had no clue how to execute it. Despite this, I think it’s a fun enough watch for veteran horror fans and newcomers to the genre.
A tale of two sisters
This ain’t your typical horror movie. A Tale of Two Sisters is the type of film that keeps its main plot a complete secret until the very last few minutes, where a massive twist is dropped. Before this, it builds mostly on clues that lead up to said twist, absolutely turning audience expectations upside down. It tricks viewers with its constant scares and feeling of dread into thinking it’s a conventional ghost flick, when it reality it’s a psychological drama with horror elements and a heavy emphasis on how loss can affect the mind and the soul. A Tale of Two Sisters is just as you’d expect from the title: a story focused on two sisters as their father marries another woman. Said woman appears to be ruthless, abusive and obnoxious to the human eye, and the sisters immediately detest her on-screen presence.
Also, here’s a fun fact: he’s in charge of directing the Jin Roh movie. So, feel free to keep him on your radar if you liked Jin Roh: The Wolf Brigade. He’s obsessed with violence, so there’s no need to worry about him skimping out on that stuff.
The Wailing isn’t really on the scary side of things per say. Its more about creating tension through conjuring up a bleak and unnerving atmosphere for its cast members to partake in. Its experience is more along the lines of being more emotionally involving than being terrifying. The main protagonist, a somewhat cowardly cop by the name of Jong-goo, faces a lot of trauma and bloodshed in his wake as he investigates a sickness that is ravaging his home town. This disease, which spread upon the arrival of a mysterious Japanese individual, has been claiming the lives of many people, sometimes even turning family members against one another. When his daughter is found to harbour the disease within her, Jong-goo is suddenly pushed to the call of duty.
The Wailing is also a roughly accurate examination of what could happen if an illness was spreading through a village and a spiritual entity happened to be behind it all. To save their loved ones, human beings attack one another, partake in ritualistic sacrifices, and savagely assault individuals that they assume are linked towards it. Jong-goo especially, receives vast amounts of character development throughout the course of the film, steadily moving from a doting and spineless policeman, to a vicious and unforgiving vindicator who would go at all lengths to save his only daughter. It’s a rather standard, but also well explored, reminder that humans can act like spiteful monsters when pushed to the limit. And did I mention the atmosphere? Because this movie is oozing with it!
Everybody here knows about the legendary Akira Kurosawa, right? Right? Nevertheless, Kurosawa has been coined an auteur of Japanese cinema for a reason. He’s shaped multiple films to this day through his use of narration, writing tricks and camera work, as well as his sparse knowledge of filmmaking in general. Ikiru is no exception to this. From the very start of the movie, a single x-ray image, followed by a narration, is all that was needed to let us in on the rest of the story. Kanji Watanabe, an old office worker in a bureaucratic organization, finds himself on the rough end of his life, as he’s soon discovered to have developed stomach cancer and that his son hates his guts. Due to this, he falls into a state of depression, where he begins to strike unnatural friendships with other individuals to experience the meaning of life.
And that’s a good way to describe this film: it’s about the meaning of life. Ikiru, the Japanese term for “to live,” explores why life is meaningful and worth pursuing, even in the lowest points of one’s life. It’s a film that inspires those who view it, to fight back against their depressive nature and contribute something that would add meaning to their own life span. It serves as a clear reminder that life isn’t just lonely, tragic, and unfortunate for some people, that there are joyful moments that are worth reliving, and that there are many lows, but also many highs.
Pigs and Battleships
An oldie but a goodie at that, Pigs and Battleships is the kind of film I’d recommend to people more interested in Japanese history than anything else. This film touches upon the notion of Japan being occupied by the Americans during the 1950s, as well as the impact this had on Japan’s sense of pride and nationalism. It also reflects on the lengths people would go to provide for themselves and their families during times of economic crisis.
Some people may loathe this flick for its one-sided portrayal of the two different nations. In this film, the Americans are often portrayed as goofy, degenerate imbeciles, whereas the Japanese are depicted as being more normalized and low-key in comparison. If it premiered in today’s time, I’m certain it would upset a lot of folks. I mean, have you seen some of the things people tend to whine about in movies nowadays? But much of this has to do with Japan’s cultural landscape at the time. You see, when Japan lost the Second World War, they were met with massive amounts of economic and sociological problems. Soon, the Americans occupied the nation, leading to demilitarization and an upsurge in crime and discrimination. This flick kind of represents a lot of the problems present during that time.
This film doesn’t really have a strong plot to be honest. However, it makes up for this with its erratic visual style and stunning imagery. Rigor Mortis is a unique take on the whole “vampires and ghouls” subgenre. A common everyman books a room at a very decrepit apartment complex, in which he soon discovers is overrun by strange spiritual entities that attempt to murder and agonize its inhabitants. While the characters themselves feel and act like bland caricatures, one of the best aspects of this film is just how varied and downright insane the cast is. There’s a drunk exorcist who knows kung-fu, an old lady who feeds kids to vampiric creatures, a homeless woman who acts as if she’s off her meds, and so on. None of them feel the same despite how underdone the acting may seem to audience members. Think Grand Budapest Hotel meets Constantine.
The fights in this are fun to watch, albeit a little ridiculous at times. Its basically the equivalent of a live action shonen anime with several battles featuring strong as hell characters using magical powers against one another or punching them through walls. The main lead even gains power-ups of some sort and takes advantage of them against a sizeable number of his opponents. Characters even spill enough blood to fill an ocean when slain. Its this sense of campiness that gets me hyped up for the next eventual action set piece.
Ju on: The Curse
The Grudge movies are some of the most iconic ghost flicks ever known to man. Pretty much everybody I’ve talked to recognizes that eerie deathrattle sound and the image of a woman crawling down stairs on all fours. But before The Grudge flicks got popular, the director, Takashi Shizimu, made a series of short films (which were released as part of the Gakkô no kaidan G anthology of horror stories) and two made-for-tv movies.
Ju on: The Curse, is the first of his made-for-tv instalments, and it ended up being a very horrific and malicious representation of one of Japanese folklore’s most dangerous supernatural entities. Kayako is basically an Onyro, a spirit that haunts the earth with a longing for exacting revenge against those who wrong her. In The Grudge, her spirit haunts a household in the streets of Tokyo, meaning that anybody who enters the place (or even in contact with someone who has the curse) is bound to perish. Yes, even if you haven’t contracted the curse, but you witnessed somebody who has it get murdered by Kayako’s spirit, then you’re also a goner. The one biggest reason why I’m enthralled by the Grudge movies, is that these films pull back no punches when it comes to showcasing how decimating the curse is. People cursed by Kayako and Toshiro’s wrath can be killed at any place and at any time. They’ll even find you and murder you if you construct the most ghost proof bunker there is in an attempt to hide. Imagine having a reality warper try to kill you through whatever means possible? Sounds scary doesn’t it?
Takeshi Kitano is known foremost as a prolific actor. I mean, when his name pops up in your mind, you’ll probably think immediately of his role as the maniacal villain in Battle Royale, or most recently, as Aramaki in the live action rendition of Ghost in the Shell. But prior to that, Kitano was not only a comedian, but also a director. In fact, he’s directed some of the greatest films in Japanese cinematic history, one of which is Hana-Bi.
Hana-Bi, which translates to “fireworks” in English, is a crime drama that places more emphasis on “show, don’t tell” than anything else. There is barely any dialogue in this movie and every scene, every use of imagery, and most of the character interactions, are approached with an exceeding degree of subtlety. Kitano here plays a cop who’s been wreck with grief after the deaths of his partners during a shootout gone wrong. This changes him dramatically as a character, transforming him from a once honourable citizen, to a violent alcoholic who teams up with the local Yakuza in a last-ditch effort to obtain money for his wife, who has Leukaemia. One of the most striking elements of Hana-Bi is how it relies on colour as its primary use of symbolism. Swaths of red would be used to imply death, yellow to reflect happiness, and so on… Its this that gives the film its photographic representation of symbolism.