Alas, we come to the end of our A-Z experience with the letters R-Z. What follows depicts Adam Wing's passion; an A-Z of Asian influence that best illustrates his love of Eastern Cinema. Some letters proved easy, some provided him with way too many options. If you're new to Asian cinema it might just be a guide. If you're something of a connoisseur it may well remind you of how your love affair began. Enjoy.
R is for RINGU
It's Tuesday, September 21st. Ryuji is writing in his apartment when he hears a high-pitched noise coming from behind the chair. He notices the grainy image of a well on the TV screen and moves a little closer to investigate. A figure with lank dark hair - dressed in a long white gown - clambers out of the well. The screen flickers and the image blurs. Ryuji can barely believe his eyes as it moves closer, lurching from side to side as she makes her way towards him. His heart almost stops when the phone starts ringing in the background. He doesn’t have time to answer it, the relentless figure climbs through the TV screen and drags herself across the floor - dried blood the only reminder of her missing fingernails.
Ryuji backs away as she rises to her feet. Dark hair covers her face, disguising a frame bent all out of proportion. She turns towards him as the tension mounts, but all Ryuji can do is crawl away. Standing in the shadow of the sun, she casts an eerie reflection. Ryuji screams aloud as the true face of terror stares down at him from above. Some films are forgotten as soon as they’re put back in the case, but some films play a big part in shaping your love of cinema. Hideo Nakata’s Ringu is one such film. Dark, disturbing and genuinely terrifying, Ringu (1998) introduced the world to Sadako, one of the scariest (and certainly the most tragic) horror icons of the last twenty years. Two sequels followed, as did a prequel (related to one of the sequels), two Hollywood movies and a Korean remake. Another entry in the Japanese series is scheduled for release later this year – in 3D. Now that is scary.
Also see: Raging Phoenix, Red Cliff, Recycle.
S is for SION SONO
Sion Sono is a controversial Japanese filmmaker best known for cult favourite, Suicide Club (2001). 54 high school girls, one subway station and a southbound ticket to hell - suicide fads, subliminal messages and social commentary provide Sono with another opportunity to enthral the masses. Suicide Club touches on current themes and fears, but Sono’s film will best be remembered for it’s harrowing tone, twisted humour and startling set pieces - washed down with a catchy pop number or two. Flawed yet fearless, Suicide Club is the film that introduced me to the work of this undeniable talent. A prequel/follow up came in 2005, and while its undeniably drawn out (something Sono is often accused of), Noriko’s Dinner Table (2005) remains a startling piece of work.
2009 saw Sono pick up numerous awards for his quirky offering, Love Exposure - four hours in the company of love, obsession and romance. Love Exposure is a romantic endeavour that takes up-skirt shots, erections, martial arts face-offs and bloody carnage as seriously as it does the big L, and it comes highly recommended. Two films followed, completing Sono’s infamous ‘Hate’ trilogy, Cold Fish (2010) and Guilty of Romance (2011). With dysfunctional characters, distressing subject matter and a running time that could test your patients, Cold Fish is hardly a feel-good romp, but Sono rewards the viewer with a meaningful, harrowing and deeply disturbing tale that can’t fail to impress. Provocative, compelling and almost poetic, Guilty of Romance is helped along by a stunning lead turn and a body to match. Sion Sono continues to push the boundaries of world cinema, and he does it with fleshy bits thrown in for good measure. He’s an acquired taste for sure, but Japanese cinema wouldn’t be the same without him.
Also see: Sushi Typhoon, Summer Time Machine Blues, Sukiyaki Western, Spirited Away, Sinjie, Shutter, Storm Riders.
T is for TO JOHNNIE
There’s a good chance you’ve seen more Johnnie To films than you realise. Even when he’s not sitting in the director’s chair, the Milky Way production company that he set up with long time collaborator Wai Ka-fai in 1996 is responsible for some of Hong Kong’s best films. Big names like Andy Lau, Simon Yam and Suet Lam wouldn’t be where they are today without him, and the world of cinema would be a far less interesting place. Personal favourites include Mad Detective (2007), Election (2005), Election 2 (2006), Exiled (2006), Throw Down (2004), Breaking News (2004), the irresistibly quirky Running on Karma (2003), Fulltime Killer (2001) and Running out of Time (1999). Known over here primarily for exhilarating gangster drama, he’s not averse to romantic liaisons either, with Needing You (2000) a firm fan favourite the world over. Starring Andy Lau (shocker) and rom-com queen Sammi Cheng (shocker), Needing You is one of the finest examples of Hong Kong comedy.
When I look through my DVD collection his imprint is everywhere, and the films I mentioned above barely scratch the surface of his commitment to quality filmmaking. Accident (2009), Eye in the Sky (2007), Looking for Mr Perfect (2003), My Left Eye Sees Ghosts (2002), The Mission (1999), The Heroic Trio (1993)… the list really does go on and on. Johnnie To is one of the world’s most diverse filmmakers, a fact he can probably sum up better himself. “At Milky Way Image, we aim for a balance between the kind of movies we like and the kind of movies audiences like. My only goal is to make movies I like. As a producer, I always encourage directors to pursue their own styles, I have been a director for many years and I have a lot of respect for those of my profession.” And they Mr To, have the utmost respect for you.
Also see: Twins, A Tale of Two Sisters, Twins Effect, Nicholas Tse, Time & Tide, Tsui Hark, Three Extremes, Taegukgi.
U is for UZUMAKI
Spirals are everywhere. It might not sound like the worlds most convincing horror concept, but make no mistake about it, Uzumaki is one of the finest low-budget horror movies out there. In the sleepy town of Kurouzucho, long-time friends Kirie and Shuichi have just discovered how deadly spirals can be. All sense of reality is lost as townsfolk fall victim to a terrifying oddity, where twisted nightmares and surreal imagery combine to imaginative effect. The less you know about the story the better, because Uzumaki’s strength lies in its originality. Having a talented director like Higuchinsky at the helm doesn’t hurt much either.
Based on Junji Ito’s manga of the same name, Higuchinsky successfully apes the look of the series by drowning his movie in green colour filters. It’s an inspired decision and the film looks great as a result, with production values given a boost by the directors compelling visual style. It’s a bizarre movie for sure - deeply exaggerated but always engaging - where over the top performances are matched by dazzling imagery and creative special effects. The twist in the tale is demented, but you’ll love it all the same. With just three films to his name, Ukrainian born Higuchinsky hasn’t made a film since 2003. He did make Uzumaki though, and for that he will always be remembered.
Also see: Uzumaki. Again. It’s worth it.
V is for THE VENGEANCE TRILOGY
Park Chan-wook is a South Korean film director, screenwriter and producer. In 2009 he made the fantastic vampire romance Thirst, a film that grows into its new set of fangs at an alarming pace, making for a very enjoyable waste of time. The direction is faultless - as are the performances - with Park Chan-wook’s movie benefiting from arresting imagery and well-placed humour. I’m a Cyborg (2006) and JSA: Joint Security Area (2000) preceding that, along with the segment ‘Cut’ in horror anthology Three… Extremes (2004), but Western audiences will probably know him best for his so-called Vengeance Trilogy. The three films are not directly linked, connected by themes alone (revenge, violence and salvation), but they make for intoxicating viewing all the same.
First up is Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), actually my least favourite of the three films but that’s not really a criticism. It tells the story of a deaf-mute man who kidnaps a young girl for his sister’s kidney transplant. At times startling, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a tough watch and a little too drawn out, but it’s still a very powerful piece of filmmaking. The final part of the trilogy is Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005), concerning the tale of an innocent woman released from prison after doing time for a child killer still at large. Naturally she wants revenge, and in Lady Vengeance revenge comes with a twisted sense of humour. Compelling from start to finish, it still stands in the shadow of 2003’s Old Boy. Park’s masterpiece of modern cinema, Old Boy remains a powerful, poignant and destructive piece of filmmaking. Blessed with charismatic performances, stunning imagery and one of the finest twists in movie history, Old Boy is an absolute knock out from start to finish.
Also see: Violent Cop, Versus, Vampire Girl Vs. Frankenstein Girl, Visible Secret.
W is for WOO JOHN
From Hong Kong to Hollywood, John Woo has cemented his name in action movie legend. His high-octane movies are characterised by stylised gunplay, slow motion theatrics and of course birds. Lots of birds. John’s favourite movies are Lawrence of Arabia, Seven Samurai and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai, but we’re not here to write about John’s passion, we’re here to write about mine. So bare with me, this might take a while. Red Cliff 1 & 2 (2008-9) are Woo’s best work in over a decade and if you get the chance, check out the original two-part release, they’re vastly superior offerings. His best Hollywood movie came in 1997 with the release of Nicolas Cage and John Travolta’s aptly titled Face/Off. Having said that, I still have a soft spot for Van Damme’s Hard Target (1993), but maybe we shouldn’t get into that right now.
It’s no wonder Hollywood came a calling because Woo was on top of his game in the early nineties, with films like Hard Boiled (1992) and Bullet in the Head (1990) proving a killer combination. Which brings us neatly onto Chow Yun-fat’s The Killer (1989), not to mention A Better Tomorrow (1986), proof if nothing else that Chow Yun-fat is a very lucky man. Woo’s work as a producer makes for fine viewing too. Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale (2011), Reign of Assassins (2010), Blood Brothers (2007), and Bulletproof Monk (2003) to name but a few. Okay, you can ignore that last one - Chow’s luck had clearly run out by this point. It’s fairly evident when you look back over his career that Woo’s best work came in the late 80’s/early 90’s, with his recent run of form making amends for some ill-advised Hollywood adventures. Lets hope he can maintain this momentum into the next decade, because he sure love those birds, and when Woo takes flight he truly soars.
Also see: The Warrior, Wheels on Meals, Wire-fu, Wu Xia, Anthony Wong, Way of the Dragon, Warrior King, Wu Jing, When I Look Upon the Stars.
X is for X-CROSS
Human sacrifice, severed limbs, crazy locals and mummification, X marks the spot for X-Cross. Kenta Fukasaku (Yo-Yo Cop Girl, Battle Royale 2) is back behind the camera for his fourth feature, working from a script by Tetsuya Oishi (the Death Note movies) and based upon a novel by Nobuyuki Joko. Shiyori (Nao Matsushita) has just split up with her boyfriend, her best friend Aiko (J-Pop star Ami Suzuki) suggests a relaxing break in the mountains to get away from it all - yeah right. Two locals from Ashikari Village are there to greet the girls when they arrive, complete with arched backs, crooked teeth and native dialect. You would expect the alarm bells to start ringing but no, these girls aren’t even spooked by the creepy scarecrows that watch over the village. They’ll probably be regretting that later, mummified dead girls may keep the crows away but they don’t exactly make for good Facebook photo albums.
Nao Matsushita is good in the leading role but her character isn’t entirely memorable, she plays the token horror victim with high moral ground and low common sense. It’s Ami Suzuki who gets to have all the fun; Aiko is the wildcard of the piece with a penchant for easy guys, maniacal ex-girlfriends and high-powered chainsaws. She has her own problems to contend with when she comes face to face with Reika (Maju Ozawa). Giant scissors and a quest for revenge are the order of the day here, with Reika coming on like a cross between Little Bo Peep and Freddy Krueger. Kenta cuts loose with a stylish floury of kick ass action and devilish humour - snip, snip, snip indeed. A creepy concept, lofty performances and polished delivery combine to create a joyous, bloodstained romp of a movie that demands to be seen. This is what Japanese cinema is all about, so go on, break a leg.
Also see: X-treme Cinema (it’s a stretch I know).
Y is for YEN DONNIE
Without a doubt the biggest action star on the planet right now (and my own personal hero), Donnie Yen is to action movies what kitchen roll is to ‘The Greatest Achievements of Mankind’. Martial artist, film director, producer, action choreographer, world wushu tournament medallist and shirtless wonder, the guy has pretty much done it all - he just took his time to get there that’s all. I do have a slight man-crush on him (it’s a toss up between Donnie and Ryan Gosling) but you only have to watch his movies to understand why. Donnie’s latest might not be as commercial as what we’re used to, but if you’re looking for a film that breathes new life into the action genre, Wu Xia (2011) sure proves hard to beat. Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen (2010) paired Donnie with Shu Qi (so there was no way that was going to fail) and Ip Man 1 & 2 (2008/10) saw him take on the role of the legendary Wing Chun grandmaster, proving to be two of his biggest successes to date.
Donnie is one of Asia’s highest paid actors, and films like 14 Blades (2010), Bodyguards and Assassins (2009), An Empress and the Warriors (2008) and Dragon Tiger Gate (2006) only serve to remind us of why. SPL (2005) and Hero (2002) are two of my personal favourites though, with Iron Monkey (1993) and in particular, Once Upon a Time in China 2 (1992), establishing him as a major force in action cinema. You might even recognise him from the occasional Hollywood project, in particular Blade 2 (2002) and Jackie Chan’s Shanghai Knights (2003) – small but memorable roles they were too. Donnie faced Jackie again in 2004’s The Twins Effect 2, but the less said about that the better, and future projects include The Monkey King and Dak syu gyun ban. Donnie remains the undefeated champion of action cinema and I really can’t see that changing anytime soon, even though The Raid looks great and Tony Jaa’s finally made his way out of that damn cave. Just don’t ask him to do romance – he looks really uncomfortable when he does romance.
See also: Yatterman, Simon Yam, The Young Master, Michelle Yeoh, The Young and Dangerous, Wilson Yip, Kristy Yeung, Yuen Biao.
Z is for ZU: WARRIORS FROM THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN
Zu is a visually stunning, action packed fantasy film worthy of every Hong Kong movie fan’s film collection. Adapted from Lee Sau-Man’s mammoth martial arts novel, the film successfully squeezes 50 volumes into an often chaotic, but always engaging 110 minutes. Yuen Biao plays Ti Ming-Chi, a random warrior caught in a succession of pointless battles between warring Chinese clan. Along with Ting-Yin (Adam Cheng), he undertakes a quest to seek out legendary twin swords, which are the only weapons that can stop the arrival of an all-consuming evil – and you’ve just got to love an all-consuming evil.
Damian Lau and Mang Hoi play a pair of warrior monks, Sammo Hung fills the boots of Long Brow, and a young Brigitte Lin plays the mistress of the Jade Pool Fairy Fortress, where Tsui Hark stages some of the most astonishing action sequences in cinema history. It’s dated badly of course (that goes without saying), but the old magic is still there for anyone willing to take the ride. Nominated for five Hong Kong Film Awards in 1984, Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain will best be remembered for its influence on John Carpenters legendary Big Trouble in Little China (1986), one of my favourite movies of all time.
See also: Zatoichi, Zhang Ziyi, Vicky Zhao, Zebraman.