Cinesphere: Asian Cinema Worth Seeking Out

I’ve been reading “Best Of The Decade” lists for the last month and planned on doing my own. But I’ve decided to just talk about a couple of trends that I’ve been noticing in filmmaking over the last decade instead.

Some of these trends bode well for the future of film, others not so much. This post talks about one of them. And it’s a great thing. Asian Cinema is kicking ass.

In just the last year or two, SHOPLIFTERS, PARASITE and ASH IS PUREST WHITE were released. That is amazing because all three are exceptional films.

SHOPLIFTERS is a Japanese film about a make-shift, not blood-related family that makes you question the nature of family and reminds you that being poor isn’t a good time. It deals with class, money and the harsh side of living in a rich country and being left behind.

It could have easily slid into shmaltzy sentimentality and, honestly, comes damn close to doing so. But the director, Hirokazu Kore-eda, pulls back at just the right moment. Just as you’re in danger of being overwhelmed by an “aw shucks” warm fuzzy feeling, the movie reminds you it’s not really that kind of story.

Kore-eda has actually made several notable films over the last decade. SHOPLIFTERS is my favorite but 2004’s NOBODY KNOWS is also very high on the list. It’s about some kids left to cope on their own in some very difficult circumstances. And it’s terrific.

Earlier in the decade, Japan also brought us HOSPITALITE and, its kick-in-the-gut, sister film HARMONIUM by Koji Fukada. One was a black comedy, one was the same basic story taken a very dark direction which still haunts me. The plot of both involves a small printing shop and a stranger who ends up staying a while.

On a completely different note, after years of stagnating and the laughable attempts to do a Hollywood version, the Godzilla franchise came roaring back (pun totally intended) with SHIN GODZILLA.

Like the very first Godzilla film, GOJIRA, it had a more serious dramatic tone and a monster that was actually interesting. The do-nothing government officials in the film were said to be modeled after those officials who didn’t take decisive action during the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Great filmmaking? Not if you’re looking for SHOPLIFTERS or HARMONIUM. But, if you’re a Godzilla fan, this movie was a desperately needed reset.

Needless to say, there were a ton of great Japanese movies made in the last decade well beyond the few examples I have named. There is an entire generation of interesting filmmakers working right now. Some of which, I hope to write about in the coming months. But, for now, let’s move on and talk about what the rest of the region was up to.

Korea. The Korean film scene has truly come of age. PARASITE, for instance, deserves every bit of critical praise and hype it is getting. For those of you who don’t know it, you really need to fix that. But, basically, it’s about a family that becomes intimately involved with a much wealthier family. It’s a dark comedy, yet, horrifying. It’s also completely unpredictable.

From that description, it sounds a little like SHOPLIFTERS or some of the other Japanese films I mentioned. It’s not. It’s distinctly Korean. And that’s kind of the point.

The director, Bong Joon Ho, has gone on record saying he is shocked that anyone who isn’t from South Korea likes it. In his mind, it was such as specifically, Korean film about Korean culture that there is no way anyone else would really understand it. Turns out, he was wrong.

A whole lot of people can connect with its bleak take on modern capitalism and the traps we have set for ourselves. But, as the director’s remarks would indicate, the film is uniquely Korean, not Japanese or Chinese. And that is true of many of the Korean films of the last decade, whether they be domestic drama, crime films or comedies. They have clearly found their own voice and are doing great things.

One last note on Korean films of the decade, TRAIN TO BUSAN and its animated sequel, SEOUL STATION deserve a mention since I dropped SHIN GODZILLA into the discussion earlier. Zombie films were pretty much done and dusted by the time they got made. Yet, like SHIN, TRAIN TO BUSAN and its sequel brought some desperately needed new life back to the genre (so to speak).

And then there are the Chinese. The decade has been a fascinating one for Chinese cinema. Hong Kong has gone largely dormant as the epicenter of great filmmaking. The days of John Woo and Wong Kar-wai are long gone. It’s the writers and directors from the mainland that are doing the most interesting work now.

ASH IS PUREST WHITE by the highly prolific, Jia Zhangke, is an example of this trend in Chinese cinema. The plot description reads almost like a classic noir. An attractive woman becomes entwined with a powerful crime figure and joins him on his rise and fall. But the film is almost nothing like that.

ASH is about a woman and her love for a powerful crime figure as that man falls further and further from power. He becomes bitter and pathetic, yet the main character continues to love him.

More importantly, ASH IS PUREST WHITE is filmed on a scale which makes the story not just that of two people but of the entire nation. The viewer witnesses China’s transitions from rural based, Communist culture to a more urban-based quasi-capitalist one.

There are scenes in the movie that take place in cities soon to be, literally, submerged by China’s ambitious dam projects. Other scenes show fields turned into dense cities seemingly overnight as people from the country flood to them in search of work. It’s truly epic stuff.

The same director took a more on-the-nose approach to the subject in 24 CITY. It’s a film about a secret military factory and those who worked in it. The factory goes from state owned for military use, to privately owned refrigerator manufacturing to a site for expensive condominiums.

There is not one main character in the film but several. Their stories are often heartbreaking. There’s one, in particular, about a woman, her husband and only son who embarked on a 15-day journey to relocate to take jobs at the military factory.

The family got off of a boat and went ashore for a rest stop. Somewhere along the line, their young son got separated from them. He was nowhere to be found. The boat was on a very tight schedule. It had to leave to continue its journey to the factory. The mother and father were ordered back on the boat without their son.

Keep in mind, this was in an era when China felt like its security was seriously threatened and the factory was an essential supplier of desperately needed aircraft parts. In that context, the tragedy makes sense and is that much more horrifying. The son was left behind and they never heard from him again.

Gripping, unforgettable stuff. I can only hope that those that control the Chinese film industry allow such stories to continue. Stories about cultural and economic change on a scale that’s hard to imagine. Stories which question the high cost of such changes.

I don’t think it’s coincidence that many of the movies I’ve listed deal with subjects about adjusting to our capitalist age. Each has its own very specific, very local, take on the issue. Yet, the theme of our time may be the brutality of living in such a harsh, unforgiving global economy. The topic has certainly resulted in some great films.

There were so many good movies from Japan, Korea and China in the decade beyond the ones I’ve named. And that’s not to mention the film industries of Vietnam, Thailand and many other places in Asia. These were just a few of my favorites. I was trying to make a greater point. It was a great decade for Asian movies. A trend that I hope continues.

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