Thursday, 22 March 2012


It was Ang Lee’s martial arts drama Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) that gave me the taste for Asian cinema. Up until that point I had been spoon fed American cinema and badly dubbed VHS tapes. I hadn’t grown tired of Hollywood movies but I was looking for a way to expand my universe. My chance came with the advent of DVD, a home-viewing format that changed the way I looked at movies. The door was wide open now, the possibilities were endless, and for the first time in my life I was able to explore (with relative ease) the wonders of World Cinema.

Jackie Chan came next, quickly followed by fantasy adventures A Man Called Hero (1999) and The Storm Riders (1998). I soon discovered the timeless beauty of Shu Qi, the unrelenting horror of Ringu (1998), and the sheer audacity of Takashi Miike. I was hooked. It’s not a definitive list by any means, but it’s not open to debate either. I was a late developer when it comes to foreign film and I’ve yet to explore its history at any great length. Much of the work you’ll find here was made in the last 30 years; I haven’t had time to dig any deeper than that, but I look forward to exploring the classics sometime in the future.

The names that follow depict my passion, an A-Z of Asian influence that best illustrates my love of Eastern cinema. Some letters proved easy, some provided me with way too many options. If you’re new to Asian cinema it might act as a guide. If you’re something of a connoisseur it may well remind you of how your love affair began.

A is for AKIRA (1988)

You don’t get much bigger than Akira, the cyberpunk landmark in Japanese animation. Akira is a 1998 animated sci-fi film directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, based on his own smash hit manga series. The plot focuses on two bikers, Tetsuo Shima and Shotaro Kaneda, battling it out over the release of dangerous psychic Akira. Rebellion, friendship and the occasional nuclear explosion provide Akira with its heart and voice, and in a world reliant on computer technology, it’s refreshing to watch a pixel free animated movie.

Highly regarded by fans and critics alike, Akira is often considered the benchmark of modern animation. Which probably explains why Hollywood is determined to sour the taste with a live-action remake. The production has just been shut down for the fourth time, probably because it would prove way too expensive to do the film justice, but thankfully we’ll always have the original movie to fall back on. I’ll always be an amateur when it comes to manga, but Akira introduced me to a brave new world, and you can’t ask for more than that.

Also see: Audition, Asami, A Tale of Two Sisters, Armour of God.

B is for BATTLE ROYALE (2000)

When people ask me to recommend an Asian film to them I always start with Battle Royale. It’s surprising to me just how many people have watched (and adored) this cult classic, even those that would never normally entertain the notion of subtitled movies. In the future, the Japanese government captures a class of ninth-grade students and forces them to kill each other under the revolutionary "Battle Royale" act. Kinji Fukasaku combines intelligent social commentary with raw unadulterated action, throwing in the occasional Japanese schoolgirl for good measure.

The dark vein of humour that runs through the heart of the picture is crucial to the films appeal; a quality found lacking in the lacklustre sequel that followed Fukasaku’s death. Labelled “crude and tasteless” by members of Japanese parliament, the film was unavailable in America for a long time, even though Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games (big screen adaptation out now) has been accused of pilfering, parallels and plagiarism. Battle Royale will always be a major influence on my love of Asian cinema though, and few films have graced my DVD player quite so much.

Also see: Baby Cart, The Bride With White Hair, Beast Cops, A Better Tomorrow.


While some letters proved quite the challenge, there were others that literally jumped off the page. From the outset at least Jackie was a minor curiosity to me. Not convinced by the badly dubbed versions on late night TV, it wasn’t until the HK Legends label arrived in the U.K. that Chan films (and Hong Kong cinema as a whole) got the recognition they deserved. In 2011 Jackie released his 100th movie and even though his career has had both its ups and downs (most of his Hollywood output with the exception of Rush Hour and Shanghai Noon), his staggering contribution to action cinema is undeniable.

If I had to pick a favourite it would be between the original Police Story (1985) and Project A (1983). Time catches up with us all of course (it’s not like he could still get away with the mesmerising stunt work of yesteryear) and in recent times he has moved into more dramatic territory - Little Big Soldier (2010) is a wonderful movie that captures the spirit of Jackie both young and old. Someday soon he will hang up his fighting boots for good, but Jackie’s cinematic legacy will forever stand the test of time. He does after all have the scars to prove it. He was once quoted as saying, “While making Supercop I dislocated my cheekbone. I didn’t even know you could do that”. Actor. Musician. Cartoon character. Legend.

Also see: Sammi Cheng, Maggie Cheung, A Chinese Ghost Story, Raymond Chow, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Confessions.

D is for DEAD GIRLS 

Hideo Nakata’s Ringu has a lot to answer for. Ghosts have been captured on film for a long time of course - it’s not like Nakata came up with the concept - but it was his 1998 horror smash that captured the (lack of) imagination of Asian filmmakers. Ever since then, we have had to endure an endless parade of lank haired, calcium deficient dead girls. For a while at least, horror it seemed, had found a new lease of ‘death’.

Much like the inhabitants of the Ringu series, Asian filmmakers have returned to the well once too often, but dark haired delights include Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-on 2 (2003), Nakata’s lesser-known drip feed of terror, Dark Water (2002), and 2004 Thai smash, Shutter. Other notable mentions include Alone (2007), Coming Soon (2008), Inner Senses (2002), and Visible Secret (2001). Phone-themed atrocities include Takashi Miike’s One Missed Call (2003) and Byeong-ki Ahn’s aptly titled, Phone (2002).

If you like your ghost stories laced in lesbian undertones, you could do far worse than the Whispering Corridors series, including Wishing Stairs (2003) and most recently, The Blood Pledge (2009). If it’s just the hair you’re craving, why not check out Sion Sono’s demented tribute, Exte: Hair Extensions (2007). I tell you, when it comes to seeing dead people, Asian cinema has it covered.

Also see: Death Note, Dorm, Dororo, Dumplings.


“Extreme adv of the highest degree of intensity; excessive, immoderate, unwarranted; very severe, stringent; outermost. * n the highest of furthest limit or degree.”

That pretty much covers the whole of Japanese cinema, doesn’t it? It’s certainly a good place to start, and the film that introduced me to the delights of extremity was Takashi Miike’s unrelenting oddity, Ichi the Killer (2001). In fact, Takashi Miike’s career has long been characterised by depravity, violence and pushing the boundaries of contemporary cinema - he also makes family films. While we’re at it, we might as well add Freezer (2000), Suicide Club (2001), and Versus (2000) to the ever expanding list of Japanese extremists.

In recent years however, Japanese filmmakers have taken it one step further, with the advent of low budget splatter fests that fully embrace the term ‘extreme cinema’. If you’re not already familiar with the works of Sushi Typhoon it’s about time you were, with films like Tokyo Gore Police (2008), Robo-geisha (2009) and Vampire Girl Vs Frankenstein Girl (2009) pushing the boundaries of cinematic acceptance. 

In my opinion though, they’ve yet to surpass the delirious delights of Noboru Iguchi’s 2008 revenge thriller, The Machine Girl. Japanese cinema shouldn’t take all the credit though; Dog Bite Dog (2006), Dumplings (2004), Gong Tau (2007) and Dream Home (2010) put Hong Kong on the map, I Saw The Devil (2010), Old Boy (2003) and Nowhere To Hide (1999) give South Korea a promising tally, and the Art of the Devil franchise has been bringing Thailand to its knees since 2004. Extreme cinema it would seem, is here to stay.

Also see: Eastern Condors, Election, Enter The Dragon, The Eye.


Action heroines are big business, and none more so than the warrior queens of Asia. It’s hard to put a finger on when it started - some would trace it back to the late 1920’s - but for me it started a lot later than that. The first Asian film I saw at the cinema was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), a martial arts movie featuring not one but three kick ass heroines. Zhang Ziyi and Pei Pei Cheng gave good face, but the real star of the show was undoubtedly Michelle Yeoh. Early success as a beauty queen and dancer lead to work in a 1984 TV commercial, alongside legend in waiting Jackie Chan.

Then came In the Line of Duty (1986), Magnificent Warriors (1987), Supercop (1992) and The Heroic Trio (1993). Several Asian actresses have jumped on the bandwagon since then, with films like So Close (2002) and Hero (2002) doing good business the world over, but only one Asian actress could potentially fill the gaping hole left behind by our favourite Bond equal – please step forward Miss Jeeja Yanin. With three films under her belt and two in production, the 27-year-old actress specialises in Taekwondo and making kick ass action movies. Chocolate (2008) and Raging Phoenix (2009) are a good example of what to expect, and only time will tell what the future holds, but until then we’ll always have Asami.
Also see: Feng Xiaogang, Fist of Fury, Fearless.


Studio Ghibli is a Japanese film studio founded in June 1985, the only true rival to Uncle Walt’s throne. The first Studio Ghibli movie I saw was 1997’s Princess Mononoke, an animated tale depicting war between forest Gods and a small mining colony. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Princess Mononoke blew me away with its attention to detail and jaw dropping animation. Miyazaki is the creative genius behind Studio Ghibli’s most celebrated work, including Oscar Award winning (for Best Animated Feature) Spirited Away (2001) and my own personal favourite, My Neighbour Totoro (1988).

My Neighbour Totoro is a sublime childhood fantasy for all the family, telling the tale of two small girls and their adventures with wondrous forest spirits. It’s also notable for one of its biggest stars. To this day, the character of Totoro (a larger than life forest spirit) features on the company logo. The second most prolific director is probably Isao Takahata, recognised most for his heart-wrenching tale Grave of the Fireflies (1988), the tragic journey undertaken by a boy and his sister against the backdrop of World War II. Other films worthy of note include 1986’s Castle in the Sky, Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) and The Cat Returns (2002). With a passion for traditional animation techniques, sublime creativity and enchanting tales, Studio Ghibli is sure to charm and bewitch for many years to come – it certainly has this Cat in the bag.

Also see: Godzilla, Gong Li, Ghost in the Shell, Gonin.

H is for HUNG, SAMMO

My first experience of Sammo Hung came alongside Jackie Chan in their classic 80’s action capers. Actor, martial artist, producer, director and fight choreographer, Sammo’s film career more than matches his hulking frame. Known as the ‘Big, Big Brother’ of martial arts cinema, Sammo has starred in some of the greatest action movies of the last 30 years, though his career dates back to the early 60’s where he first starred alongside Jackie as a young boy. Like Jackie, his biggest success stories as an actor came in the 1980’s, with films like Encounters of the Spooky Kind (1980), Wheels on Meals (1984) and Eastern Condors (1987) cementing his name in action legend. He’s barely been away from the screen since - Ip Man 2 (2010) SPL (2005) and 14 Blades (2010) have made sure of that.

Hung became famous in America thanks in part to his TV work on Martial Law (an action drama that ran for two years) but I can’t say I’ve ever seen the show myself. Of more relevance to me are the films he’s taken part in off screen. Much of the action choreography in Kung Fu Hustle (2004) has been credited to Sammo, along with films like Detective Dee: Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010), Ashes of Time (1994) and 1998’s otherwise forgettable Van Damme headliner Knock Off. He also completed fight co-ordination on Bruce Lee’s unfinished Game of Death at the request of Raymond Chow. Quite the career you have to agree, and if you want further proof of his claim to the letter ‘H’, how many Asian actors do you know that had a Welsh pop band named after them?

Also see: Josie Ho, Hard Boiled, Hero, The Happiness of the Katakuris, Hard Revenge Milly.

Written and compiled by Adam Wing 
Look out for Part Two!

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