A Crash Course in Essential Asian Cinema

By Hubert Ta

With all the talk about the depiction of Asian characters in Hollywood, it might be especially pertinent to examine Asian cinema itself. Films from East Asia range from a mixture of traditional genres to bold experiments. Here are five films that are a good introduction if you are looking to explore the world of East Asian cinema.

Perhaps most iconic is Hong Kong action cinema. Ranging from martial arts (“Ip Man”) to cop dramas (“A Better Tomorrow”), these films typically stand out for their superior stunt work, choreographed by martial arts masters who utilize their skill to portray fights, rather than motion blur, shaky cam and quick cuts. Standing atop this genre is the legendary Bruce Lee, whose four seminal films, “The Big Boss,” “Fist of Fury,” “Way of the Dragon” and “Enter the Dragon” revolutionized action cinema and heightened Hong Kong action films’ popularity. “Enter the Dragon” (1973) was the most influential and successful of these in the United States, and was Lee’s final film. The plot is simple: Lee receives an invitation to a fighting tournament in Hong Kong from Mr. Han (Shih Kien), a former student of Lee’s Shaolin master that now runs a drug and sex trafficking operation from his fortress. Seeking to restore his school’s honor and find evidence of Han’s operation for British intelligence, Lee must balance the line between competition and subterfuge. A master-class co-production between Hollywood and Hong Kong, “Enter the Dragon” featured style and action with Hollywood production values, drops of philosophy and memorable fight sequences, especially Lee vs. Han in the hall of mirrors. As if solely produced to showcase Bruce Lee’s skills, “Enter the Dragon” helped to breach the American consciousness and brought martial arts to an international audience.

If we look at comedies, Jackie Chan’s filmography could be a category in itself, ranging from “Drunken Master” to “Rush Hour.” However, when it comes to sheer absurdity, “Shaolin Soccer” (2001) manages to surpass even the ridiculous audacity of “Airplane!” and “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” Former Shaolin monk Sing (Stephen Chow) gathers his monastery brothers to compete in a soccer tournament and popularize kung fu. Under the management of “Golden Leg” Fung (Ng Man-tat), the former Shaolin kung fu masters throw the rules of soccer and physics out the window with a striker who kicks with the force of a cannon, antagonists in the form of Team Evil (that is literally their name) and the film’s entirely tongue-in-cheek attitude.

In the context of bolder artistic experiments, “Oldboy” (2003) is a Korean thriller/mystery, the second of Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy. “Oldboy” tells the story of businessman Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik), who is kidnapped and imprisoned for 15 years. Upon his freedom, Oh Dae-su is tasked with a frantic search for the truth behind his imprisonment. A modern-day “Count of Monte Cristo,” Oh Dae-su travels a blurry line of half-truths and half-lies that confound any inkling of what lies ahead. “Oldboy” reflects the resilience of the human spirit and keeps you guessing all the way through, with a haunting theme that resonates with the film’s introspective tale of mystery.
It would be remiss for such a list of Asian films to neglect any of the premier Japanese directors such as Yasujirō Ozu or Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa’s films (“Seven Samurai,” “Rashomon”) heavily influenced cinematic traditions and storytelling. Perhaps one of Kurosawa’s finest masterpieces is “Ran” (1985), an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” and the stories of Mōri Motonari set in feudal Japan. The old warlord Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai) decides to split his domain amongst his three sons, Taro, Jiro and Saburo, causing disaster throughout the realm as they squabble over the lands with each other, the neighboring warlords and Hidetora himself. A tragic epic, “Ran” (Japanese for chaos) brings about manipulation, betrayal and graphic warfare to the Shakespearean tale, and bathes it in decadent colors and long shots that capture rural Japan. The battle scenes are impressive, filled with the grand scale of hundreds of extras and practical effects, depicting the siege of a Japanese castle and a battle on a grassy plain. “Ran” truly portrays Shakespeare in a worthy manner while retaining Kurosawa’s style, an orchestrated masterpiece that shines through blood and fire.

Finally, we come to Japanese animation. There is no equal to the mastery that Studio Ghibli brings to the table, having produced some of the best films of the genre. “My Neighbor Totoro,” “Grave of the Fireflies” and “Spirited Away” are only rivaled by equally powerful films such as “Ghost in the Shell,” “Paprika” and “Akira.”

The finest come from Hayao Miyazaki, whose film “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” (1984) is the origin of what would become Studio Ghibli. A post-apocalyptic epic set 1,000 years in the future, “Nausicaä” depicts a world where mankind’s wars have poisoned the planet. Princess Nausicaä (Sumi Shimamoto) of the Valley of the Wind must defend her kingdom as they are caught in a war between the nations of Pejite and Tolmekia, all the while trying to fend off a jungle filled with kaiju-sized insects that threaten the land. An artistic triumph, “Nausicaä” is a story of a strong female protagonist who strives to bring peace and compassion to the land in the midst of war and promote an understanding of the environment that now encroaches upon human civilization. The animation perfectly captures the story, with the voice acting, cinematography and Joe Hisaishi’s score crafting a bleak world with a beacon of hope in Princess Nausicaä.

East Asian cinema, like Bollywood and French New Wave, were profoundly influenced by Hollywood. But as the film industry evolved, these national cinemas began to exert as much influence on Hollywood as Hollywood previously exerted on them. For instance, Hong Kong action cinema and comedies infiltrated Hollywood starting in the 1970s, with Bruce Lee and John Woo incorporating the style of martial arts, stunt work and fast-paced action in American cinema. Lee’s style has been copied, parodied and referenced in a multitude of movies, TV shows and video games. Woo’s tactics of non-stop action are reflected in “The Matrix” lobby gunfight scene, calling back to the bullet storms from “Hard Boiled.” East Asian cinema’s influence and artistry cannot be limited to this list of films, but this introduction can illuminate an alternative to Hollywood, filled with its own eccentricities and flair.