10 Great Asian Movies

When Martin Scorsese finally won an Oscar, it was for The Departed.  The movie also won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.  This was because writer William Monahan had adapted the screenplay from Infernal Affairs, a 2002 Hong Kong movie credited with revitalising Hong Kong cinema.  And in recent years, many American horror movies have either been remade or adapted from Asian cinema, including The Ring, Mirrors and The Grudge.

South Korea, Japan and Hong Kong have a movie industry that thrives on originality and complicated, often controversial plots.  With this in mind, here are 10 Asian movies you must see before you die (or before they kill you in some cases):
1. Oldboy (2003)

The second movie in South Korean director Park Chan-Wook’s Vengeance trilogy, Oldboy is a visually stunning tale of revenge.  A man, Oh Dae-Su is imprisoned in a room for 15 years, and one day awakes in a suitcase on a roof.  After being fed only fried dumplings for the duration of his capture, he goes to a restaurant, where he eats a live octopus before passing out.  The chef, a young woman named Mi-do takes him to her home, where he begins to attempt to discover who imprisoned him for so long.

The movie features several iconic scenes, including actor Choi Min-sik genuinely eating a live octopus (four in total were ‘used’) and a stunning, one take, fight scene.  When Oh Dae-Su finds the building he was held captive in, he is confronted by a group of thugs, blocking his exit.  Director Park chose to shoot this fight side on, in a style that will be recognisable to anyone that has played Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter.  In one continuous take, Oh Dae-Su battles relentlessly through the gang before collapsing outside.

All this leads to a shocking finale, as Oh Dae-Su confronts the man who imprisoned him, and discovers why his captor sought vengeance.  There have been persistent rumours that Hollywood will remake Oldboy, with Steven Spielberg and Will Smith once improbably attached, and now Spike Lee apparently directing.  See the original before Hollywood spoils it.

2. Infernal Affairs (2002)

Inevitably know as ‘The Asian Godfather’, Infernal Affairs is a Hong Kong crime thriller.  The first part of a trilogy, Infernal Affairs is the tale of two men on opposite sides of the law. Young police officer Chan Wing-yan goes undercover to infiltrate the Triads.  At the same time, Triad member Lau Kin-ming becomes a police officer himself.  As time passes, both sides realise that there is a mole amongst them, and Chan and Lau find themselves having to use extreme measures to prevent their cover being blown.

The movie was a smash hit in Hong Kong, and spawned two sequels, both released in 2003.  The first sequel mirrors The Godfather Part II, and focuses on the young Lau and Chan’s undercover lives.  And the third film in the trilogy serves as a prequel AND sequel to the original movie with events taking place before and after those in the first film.

Infernal Affairs is also known for being the movie on which The Departed was based on.  Martin Scorsese’s multi-Oscar winning movie transports the action to Boston and is arguably even better than the original.  But watch the original and you’ll be able to judge for yourself.

3. Election Vol. 1 (2005)

Election is a Hong Kong movie about a power struggle between two rivals for the chairmanship of Wo Shing society, one of the oldest Triad groups.  The elders of the society choose the older Lok, but his rival Big D does not accept the verdict.

Big D first punishes two of the elders by locking them in wooden crates and pushing them down large grassy hills outside the city.  He then declares he will form a new Triad society.

Most of the film is based around Lok and Big D’s attempts to seize control of the dragon head baton, a symbol of power for Triad leaders.  After many key figures (including Lok and Big D) of the society are imprisoned, they negotiate in an attempt to resolve the problems between the two candidates, while their men travel to China, trying to take the baton.  The battle for the baton escalates after the society members are released from prison, until a bloody climax determines the new leader of the society.

4. Ring (1998)

Ring is the highest grossing Japanese horror film of all-time.  Based on Koji Suzuki’s novel of the same name, it has spawned two sequels and two American remakes.  Directed by Hideo Nakata, Ring is the story of a cursed videotape.  The movie begins as two teenage girls talk about a video that if watched, results in the viewer dying one week later.  One of the girls, Tomoko, confesses to having watched the tape seven days previously, and after a series of scares, she dies in mysterious and unsettling circumstances.

A journalist, Reiko, is investigating the tale of the videotape when she hears that Tomoko, her niece, and several of her friends died in mysterious circumstances on the same night.  Reiko finds the tape that Tomoko and her friends watched, and after watching it herself, realises she has just seven days to solve the mystery of the tape, or she too will die.

Reiko enlists the help of her ex-husband Ryuji (played by Hiroyuki Sanada, who recently featured in Lost and the Danny Boyle movie Sunshine), and the two travel around Japan trying to save Reiko and end the curse.

Ring features some genuinely scary moments, including the best ‘scary woman climbing out of a TV screen’ scene you’ll ever see.  Nakata also directed the sequel, as well as The Ring Two, the sequel to the American remake starring Naomi Watts.  In the wake of Ring, many Japanese horror movies created their own version of the cursed videotape, but none have bettered Ring.

5. The Chaser (2008)

After the success of The Departed, Warner Bros. acquired the rights to remake The Chaser.  William Monahan has been rumoured to be working on a script to a movie that would star Leonardo Di Caprio.

The Chaser is the directorial debut of South Korean Na Hong-jin.  But it’s not quite a straightforward thriller.  Eom Joong-ho is a former detective turned pimp, who ends up hunting a man who has been killing his prostitutes.  Eom finds himself as the guardian of the daughter of a missing prostitute, and has to take her with him as he investigates the murders.

Although the killer is caught and even confesses, police are unable to produce evidence to convict him and he is released.  This leaves Eom to try and find the missing girl and save her life, and also stop the killer from repeating his actions.

The movie ends with a violent flourish, and the overall tone and plot make it a movie that seems like it would be tough to adapt for an American audience.  Would America buy Di Caprio as a former cop turned pimp?  Would the violence of the movie have to be toned down to get a certificate?

Don’t take the chance, seek out the original and enjoy.

6. Versus (2000)

Let’s get one thing clear immediately:  Versus is a bit crazy.  But then, it IS a Japanese action-horror movie featuring a ‘Forest Of Resurrection’ and zombies!  A man known only as Prisoner KSC2-303 escapes from prison, only to find himself in the aforementioned ‘Forest Of Resurrection’ with a group of mobsters.  The forest is apparently one of 666 portals to the next world, and after the mobsters try to attack Prisoner KSC2-303, he escapes with a girl and attempts to battle his way out.

Aside from the mobsters, he has one more problem.  The forest is home to the graves of men the mobsters have killed, and they start to come back to life as zombies.  As you might expect, this leads to a glorious orgy of blood, bullets and brains and it quickly becomes every man for himself.

If you can imagine what the bastard offspring of The Evil Dead, Highlander and Night Of The Living dead, then you can imagine Versus.  It’s two hours of carnage and features arguably the greatest punch in movie history, when one character punches a zombie so hard in the face that his hand goes straight through the zombie’s head and gets the zombie’s eyes tangled up in his fingers.  No REALLY.

7. Battle Royale (2000)

What does society do when its children are spiralling out of control?  After watching Battle Royale, it seems obvious.  You place them on a remote island, fit them with explosive neck braces, and tell them that the last one standing gets to live.  You wonder why David Cameron hasn’t brought it up during Prime Minister’s Question Time.

Japanese director Kinji Fukasaku’s final movie is a controversial horror movie that features exploding children in their school uniforms.  A group of students embark on a class trip.  On the bus journey, they are gassed, and wake up in an abandoned school on a remote island, with explosive collars around their necks.  They are told that they have three days to kill one another, and the last remaining student will live.  If more than one student remains, all the collars will explode.

The students take different paths.  Some group together, others work alone, and some decide to commit suicide, rather than kill (or be killed by) their friends.  The movie is unashamedly violent and graphic, and despite being criticised by the Japanese government, it was a box office success.

8. Public Enemy (2002)

In a lot of ways, Public Enemy is a South Korean Lethal Weapon.  Public Enemy has the same mix of action, comedy and violence that made the Lethal Weapon franchise so successful and was a box office success in Asia.  It features a loose cannon cop (Sol Kyung-gu as Kang to Mel Gibson’s Riggs), attempting to stop a seemingly untouchable criminal (Lee Seong-jae’s Cho).

Cho is a successful business and family man, but has a Patrick Bateman style psychotic side that leads him to murder.  A chance meeting between the two leads to Cho attacking Kang, but Kang does not immediately link Cho to the murders.

Kang eventually becomes convinced Cho is responsible for the murders, but after confronting him without evidence, Kang loses his job and becomes a traffic cop.  The two eventually come face to face, leading to a brutal showdown that ends the film in style.

9. Ju-On: The Grudge (2002)

Japanese horror has always had a fascination with creepy children, but The Grudge’s creepy boy tops the lot.

Director Takashi Shimizu’s horror movie begins with a young social worker named Rika visiting a house to check on an elderly woman who needs care.  Rika discovers a young boy in the house, and phones welfare service.  After the call she hears the elderly woman muttering, and as Rika tends to her, a shadowy figure appears over the woman, and suddenly turns and stares at Rika, who passes out.

The Grudge tells the stories of the people who encounter the house, and the ghostly boy and shadowy figure haunt and kill those people.  A genuinely terrifying horror movie, The Grudge has enough scares to keep you sleeping with the lights on for a few nights after watching it.

Shimizu has also directed a sequel and two American remakes (which were produced by Sam Raimi) but none have the same effect as the chilling original.

10.    Ichi The Killer (2001)

To call Takashi Miike’s Ichi The Killer violent would be somewhat of an understatement.  Bloody as hell might be more accurate.  As a publicity stunt, sick bags were handed out to people attending screenings at film festivals.  Reports of people passing out is unsurprising, as Ichi is a relentless bloodbath of violent gang warfare.

A crime lord is brutally murdered, but the scene of the murder is expertly cleaned by the killers, and his gang believe he has fled the country with millions of Yen.  His enforcer  Kakihara captures a member of a rival gang and tortures him (mainly by suspending him from a ceiling with metal butcher hooks), but when it’s clear the man is innocent Kakihara cuts off the tip of his tongue and offers it to the boss of the rival gang.  Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

Ichi The Killer is two hours of blood, guns, swords and mayhem, a frenzy of ultra-violence more common place in Manga cartoon than live action movies.  You’ll need a strong stomach to handle the carnage, but what is certain is that you’ll never get the chance to watch an American remake.

David Dougan

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2 comments

  1. A great list, some of my favourite films come from Asia and so I feel compelled to want to add Lady Vengeance (The precursor to Oldboy) and A Tale of Two Sisters.
    Also, if you can stomach it- Abnormal Beauty is an incredbly dark film thats well worth a watch.

  2. And what about the first in the Vengeance Trilogy, Sympathy for Mr Vengeance? It’s my personal fave of the three.

    Oh also Audition is one of the best films I’ve ever seen.

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