More To Asian Cinema Than South Korea: A Short List of Films to Watch

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Asian Cinema

Parasite winning four Oscars at the 2020 Academy Awards is definitely a great step in representation for director Bong Joon-Ho, the cast, crew, South Korea and Asians all around the world…but especially in North America. With these history-making wins being a landmark moment for the famous awards ceremony, people flocked to Twitter to list their South Korean favourite films. I myself made a shortlist of some of my favorite Korean dramas (which you can see below) – however, I noticed there was a particular trend amongst the lists posted that were to highlight Asian Cinema.

It seemed that the majority of threads were comprised of what would be called “prestige films” by the more popular directors such as Bong Joon Ho himself, and Park Chan Wook. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a proud member of the Bong Hive, and there’s no denying that Mother and The Handmaiden are amazing films. I too can be seen occasionally extolling the virtues of the cinematography and writing of said films. And who can deny that the Vengeance Trilogy is the best ever made? (Yes, I said it.)  But there are films and filmmakers from all across East and South East Asia, old and new that deserve recognition too. There’s more to Asian Cinema than South Korea.

In my small way of promoting these films from Asian Cinema, I’ve created a shortlist of different genres from Thailand (No, The Beach is not included), Vietnam, Taiwan, China, Japan, and  India. There may also be one or two drama – okay, just one – thrown in just because I love them so much.

Vietnam – Furie

Furie, also known as Hai Phuong (2019), is directed by Le-Van Kiet, Van Kiet Le and written by Kay Nguyen, is a tension inducing action-packed thrill ride lead by the kickass Van Veronica Ngo  – who does her own stunts -, as a mother desperate to find her kidnapped daughter before she disappears forever. You might recognize Ngo from her role as Paige Tico in Star Wars: Return of The Jedi.

Japan – Shoplifters

Written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda, Shoplifters (2018) is a heartfelt exploration of what it means to truly be a family and holding onto whatever place you hold in this world. This film will make you cry, laugh, sigh and serve as a reminder that though we can’t see the fireworks, sometimes hearing them is enough.

A bumbling pig farmer, a feisty salon owner, a sensitive busboy, an ex-pat architect, and a disenchanted rich girl converge and collide as thousands of dead pigs float down the river towards a rapidly modernizing Shanghai.

China/U.S. – Dead Pigs

In Dead Pigs (2018), by Cathy Yan, four people from very different backgrounds, find their lives connected in the most random ways after thousands of dead pigs begin floating down the Huang Pu River. The unique characters of a feisty salon owner (who reminds me way too much of the Landlady in Kung Fu Hustle), a bumbling pig farmer, ex-pat architect, a rich girl who finds her life of leisure boring, and a busboy working to support his mother, are entertaining but serve the subtle purpose of representing various perspectives of how capitalism affects our lives and ways in which we cope with it.

Thailand – Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior

Asian Cinema - Ong Bak

Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior (2003) is an oldie, but a definite goodie. Directed by Prachya Pinkaew, and co-written by Pinkaew, Panna Rittikrai, and Suphachai Sittiaumponpan. Tony Jaa stars as Ting, a young martial artists who heads to the city to retrieve a stolen, sacred statue. Along the way, he defeats anyone who stands in his way. Ong Bak was the introduction of Jaa to the international film community, and man did he do it in style (That stunt with the elephant chef’s kiss).

Taiwan – A Sun

In A Sun (2019) by Chung Mong-Hong, two sons struggle under the weight of trying to meet their parent’s high expectations of them, and two parents struggle to provide for their sons and keep their marriage together. When tragedy strikes and life keeps knocking them back, they realize how fragile their bonds are, and how necessary it is to protect them. The way Chung completely lays bare the emotional vulnerabilities of his characters are honest, necessary, and broke my heart when I saw it at TIFF in 2019, but I was glad it did.

China – The Hidden Man

Asian Cinema - The hidden Man

Based on the novel by Beihai Zhang , co-written by Wen Jiang, The Hidden Man (2018), is a highly entertaining, bonkers action set in the 1930’s.  A young swordsman, Eddie Peng, returns home to China to solve a murder case that involves his family. While searing for answers, he finds men with bullets and women he learns not to underestimate. I recommend also checking out Let The Bullets Fly and Gone With The Bullets, the other two films in Wen’s genre-mixing gangster trilogy.

India – Dangal

Dangal (2016) directed by Nitesh Tiwari and co-written by Piyush Gupta, Shreyas Jain, and Tiwari. Based on the true story of former wrestler Mahavir Singh Phogat – played by Bollywood legend Aamir Khan – and his two daughters, Geeta (Fatima Sana Shaikh )and Babita (Sanya Malhotra, who he trains to become world-class wrestlers. Despite the push back and mockery, they face for wanting to take part in a male-dominated sport, and society, both Geeta and Babita prove everyone who doubted wrong, while staying true to themselves.

China – Long Day’s Journey Into Night

asian cinema - long days journey

Long Day’s Journey Into Night (2018) by Bi Gan, is one of my personal faves. The best way I can describe it is as a trippy, visual journey that is felt as much as it’s seen. Through a mind-bending 59 minutes long take Bi shows the journey of Luo Hongwu (Jue Huang ), a man who returns home to Guizhou, in search of Wan Quiwen (Wei Tang ) whom he spent an eventful summer with 20 years before.

Vietnam/France – The Scent of Green Papaya

asian cinema - The Scent of Green Papaya

The Scent of Green Papaya / Mùi đu đủ xanh (1993) by Anh Hung Tran is a stylish, exploration of the growth of Mui, a young girl from servant to lady of the house. The films are wonderfully shot, and as Mui matures – with adult Mui played wonderfully by Nu Yên-Khê Tran –  so does the tone of the film, with the latter half having what I describe as a soft erotic feel. Though it’s been years since I last saw The Scent of Green Papaya, I can still recall the different emotions I felt, as I watched.

Japan – A Snake of June

asian cinema - a snake of june

Japan – A Snake of June (2003) by Shin’ya Tsukamoto is dark, erotic cinema that makes you feel uneasy but captivated through the interesting directing choices, and acting by female lead Asuka Kurosawa. Kurosawa plays Rinko, a woman who is being stalked by a man she’s never met, but who knows too much about her. Caught between wanting to keep a secret she’s afraid of and wanting to be free of the threat he poses, Rinko begins to challenge herself, and how society perceives her.

Taiwan – Before We Get Married

Before We Get Married (2019) Now this is a thoroughly entertaining Taiwanese Drama, as an episodic show, this shows whats beyond just Asian Cinema. It’s funny, mature and has characters facing issues many can relate to and Karaoke pods that I have to sing in. Jasper Liu and Hsueh-Fu Kuo star as two strangers who keep bumping into each other, creating bad first impressions for both of them, but fate seems to be sending them a message that they could possibly be more. Liu is intense and Kuo mates him perfectly.

You can hear more of my film and show recommendations on my podcast So Here’s What Happened!, and follow my co-host, LaNeysha Campbell, on social media at @La_Ney_Sha, and I @CarrieCnh12 . What are your favorite films from Asian Cinema?

* An early version of this post listed Before We Get Marries as a Thai-Drama. It has been corrected to reflect it correct origin.

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