B E S T A S I A N M O V I E S

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H---E---R---O

Starring Jet Li, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Zhang Ziyi, Donnie Yen
Directed by Zhang Yimou
Made in China
2003

  • Action with swords
  • Explicit poeticism
  • Implicit primal sessions
  • Safe enough for anyone above 13 as long as they don't expect ten galons of blood onscreen
  • Snatching a few bytes of info about the First Emperor of United China (Chih Huang-ti) is useful before watching; unless you don't mind if all the 'why's in this movie elude you completely
  • This is the one and only movie in the world that is color-coded; yet, not knowing what a color implies is not a major drawback, if you don't care about the mood of each sequence
  • 'Flying Snow' ('Feixue' in Chinese) means exactly like the meaning of the real name of Tom Cruise's co-actress in The Last Samurai, Koyuki. It's on the next page.

An unforgettable colossal martial arts epic where Tony Leung (as Broken Sword) and Maggie Cheung (as Flying Snow) -- non-kungfu persons, these are -- elevate themselves, martial-artly and emotionally, several thousand lightyears above the expectations of the fandom of Hong Kong movies since their debut in 1980's.

Having them alone is a job half-done, since Jet Li (as Nameless) is the usual Jet Li we are accustomed to, and the heartthrobbingly lupine Donnie Yen (as Sky) is not given enough space to manoever to his very best. Zhang Yimou is, of course, the best Asian director since 1990's, but (and) this is his very first kungfu movie -- which nonetheless renders all other kick-and-slash flicks obsoletely dank.

Above all else this is a philosophical and symbolic pile of images. All the sets are real -- doesn't matter how fairytale-like the lake is, no matter how beautifully nightmarish the desert is, it's supposed to be God who created the sets -- while Zhang makes the best choices of them. All the gosh-so-many-people are that many people (personnels of the People's Republic of China's Army, to be exact), not computer-generated critters. The legend transferred onto the screen itself is no typical story -- now that is Zhang's doing.

FOR MOVIE SCENES Click here

 

D E A D---O R---A L I V E

Starring Aikawa Sho, Aota Noriko, Edison Chen
Directed by Miike Takashi
Made in Japan
2001

  • Action with guns
  • Wouldn't get comprehended by anybody under 18 or over 81
  • Everything is explicit here
  • Advisable to devour as many contemporary Japanese movies as possible before watching

Nobody is like Miike Takashi; not only that he makes sequels as good as the original, but he is a genre. This movie about concrete jungle assassins and its younger second installment about the same species are essentially one quirky noir flick flavored differently from the usual Tarrantinoesqueness. Your U.K. Guy Ritchie might be dubbed Tarrantinoesque; Miike Takashi is nothing but himself. And this is Japan, man. So the incongruency and the surreal are tinted with some hues of the supernatural. And it blasts wonderfully.

 

WARRIORS OF HEAVEN AND EARTH

Starring Nakai Kiichi, Jiang Wen, Zhao Wei, Wang Xue Qi
Directed by He Ping
Made in China
2004

  • Action with swords
  • Probably okay for all age groups, if you agree that swordsplay of course means slayings
  • Explicit poetry
  • Requires an average skill to dig understatements
  • No memory of the Silk Road is needed before watching, unless you care about why there is a super-cool samurai there, and more than that why there are funky Turks all over the place while everybody else is squarely Chinese

A lavish visual feast done in a sort of traditional way; at least that's what one is bound to say after browsing over Zhang Yimou's Hero. Yet there is nothing wrong with the best-known tricks of the trade, not, that is, if they are conjured up by He Ping here; his images are deliciously hunting.

Nakai Kiichi is one of the best Japanese actors of this century -- compare, for instance, this role with another he played in When the Last Sword is Drawn (Mibu Gishiden, 2004, directed by Takita Yojiro -- click here for movie scenes) -- he steps into any role handed to him like one changing whole skin; while the lesser-known Chinese actor Wang Que Xi, in a pivotal supporting role, is absolutely mesmerizing. Jiang Wen, I guess, couldn't do much about his leading role because the character is too commonplace to begin with, and Zhao Wei is only consistent with all other roles she ever played, namely being a service for the fans wanting pretty intermezzos between swordfights and such masculine exploits.

Yet, together, all of them manage to dot the dreamlike landscapes in this movie with people worthy of oxygen for free.

FOR MOVIE SCENES Click here

 

Odagiri Joe Ueto Aya

A---Z---U---M---I

Starring Ueto Aya, Odagiri Joe, Oguri Shun, Narimiya Hiroki
Directed by Kitamura Ryuhei
Made in Japan
2004

  • Action with swords
  • The official rating is 13+ but they must have been kidding
  • Death-rate far exceeds Rambo (if you remember what that was) and closer to the 2004 Tsunami in Indonesia
  • Many scenes might be very familiar to E.R. surgeons and U.S. Army veterans who were once medics in Vietnam
  • No censorable carnal shots
  • Zero knowledge about history of Japan in 16th-century before watching is pardonable, as long as you don't mind having absolutely no idea why anyone kills or dies at all in the entire movie

A super-bloody stack of pictures involving a ravishingly beautiful 16 year-old ninja girl who kills effortlessly and efficiently and with absolutely no glee. Those aside, it lends the genre some fresh attitude -- at least the planned release in the U.S. was gnawed by worries of the would-be importer around the entire story and the dished-out images.

The time nailed down as the movie's setting is some time after Lord Tokugawa Ieyasu took control of virtually all Japan, burning aside the previous military ruler's heir Toyotomi Hideyori (click here for real history). Azumi has been trained since childhood to carry just one single mission: protecting the Tokugawa regime before anyone threatening it appears at the horizon. She and other three (male) ninjas are ordered to get downhill to write the last dot of the biographies of Lords Asano Nagamasa and Kato Kiyomasa, right in their own territories (they are real-life warlords in the most turbulent times in Japanese history; click here for history & pictures). That's not a yummy reason to live, but that's not all -- a lot worse than that is woven into this story so that it can be warranted to push child-rearing experts to nervous breakdown.

You'll never ever forget some scenes that might do such a deed; one of which shows how the tutor of the teenage ninjas selects the best of the pupils (no, it's not the way you think it is!); another is the scene where Azumi fights her way to the scaffold (the tutor is held hostage on a crucifix there), slaying what seems to be more than one hundred men. I'm one of the mammals blessed with a phobia around teenagers featured in the movies, but all other elements herein have nothing whatsoever to do with teenage minds.

And this never happens anywhere else: all but one of the antagonists or enemies of the heroes here are either loveable or awe-inspiring, and the Antagonist -- the greatest of them all -- is amazing beyond words (see the long-haired man in white in the left-side picture above). Named somewhat fittingly 'Bijomaru', this self-contented manslaughtering con of course instantly reminds you of virtually any other samurai and gunslinger movie. But Odagiri Joe, and I have no idea how, elevates this stereotype over the thinkable state of perfection. Odagiri will be everlastingly bewitching in this movie. That the whole thing doesn't at all sag is one of director Kitamura Ryuhei's most sparkling merits; since the sec Odagiri appeared you have known he would set the stage for a climax. Odagiri is simply fantastic (Click here for pictures).

Not just that; Kitamura manages to shave the grotesquely un-funny clownishness off the unlikely-to-be-the-real-world characters, such as Kato Kiyomasa's decidedly simian ninja Saru. Leading lady Ueto Aya as Azumi might be just dazzlingly lovely (click here if you really have no idea what she looks like), but at least she doesn't forget to convey emotion suitable to the occasion all the movie through. Most feature films based on Japanese comic books or animation flicks suck, but this one will never let even the hardcore anime fans down.

FOR MOVIE SCENES Click here   CONTINUE TO THE SEQUEL, AZUMI 2: DEATH OR LOVE Click here

 

J I A N G---H U

Starring Andy Lau, Jacky Cheung, Edison Chen, Shawn Yue
Directed by Wong Ching Po
Made in China

  • Action with all sorts of weapons
  • Definitely 18+
  • Just the typical assumptions about Hong Kong is okay before watching

Might be just another Hong Kong gangster flick -- or one with more guts in forcing you to re-assess the species altogether when the screen says "the end". Andy Lau, Jacky Cheung, Shawn Yue and Edison Chen all act their best in typical roles such as a no-nonsense crime syndicate's godfather, a born-to-kill hitman loving his job so much, and a super-self-conscious upstart in the same biz. The final scene of hopeless fights in the rain stays a long long time in your mind after you have forgotten this movie's title (which means 'brother').

 

( T H E---N E W )---Z A T O I C H I

Starring Kitano Takeshi, Asano Tadanobu
Directed by Kitano Takeshi
Made in Japan
2004

  • Action-drama with swords
  • Anyone before his or her 18th birthday would find it unpalatable
  • The overall pace suits those who read rather than the ones who race
  • Knowing nothing about the Tokugawa Shogunate before watching might be a serious disability

The most famous anti-hero icon in the Japanese cinema since 1960's is hereby totally overhauled by Kitano Takeshi (better known via his nickname, 'Beat Takeshi') in his own tastier way, both as the director and actor. Zatoichi is an optically-challenged swordsman making a living by massaging people when Japan was under the Tokugawa shogunate (click here for real-life history & pictures). He's not young, more than 40 years old, to be sure. He's not craving justice or goodness. He's a habitual gambler (literally, with dices) and loving alcoholic beverages rather heartily. But Zatoichi is a character so darn popular in Japan for generations of moviegoers, so naturally people doubted if Kitano would be able to yield any good hybrid of his own trademark and the firmly-embedded Zatoichiness in the mass psyche of the audience.

Surprising everyone but Kitano himself, he's done it. His Zatoichi dresses more practically, the hair is dyed blond, and the cane-sword he carries around as a walking stick is painted crimson. But he still roams the characteristic hangouts -- cheap drinking parlors, shabby roadside hotels, shady low-class casinos. Here he is involved with a stringwhanging geisha and her cross-dressing brother, a good-for-nothing casino bum, a hardworking farmer, a vengeful-bloodlusty wandering samurai, great tap dancers, and a local mob led by one truly remarkable character.

Such elements might be just any other samurai movie's. But if you know Kitano, you would have guessed that out of even these same old songs there would come, somehow, a brand-new better melody of the extraordinary. Asano Tadanobu, the regular assassin in by now quite a chunk of latest Japanese movies, takes up the role as Zatoichi's final challenger whose mental makeup deviates from his usual (compare this with the mirth of Asano's Ichi the Killer and Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl, both are released in 2004).

And, folks, you ain't seen nothin' until you have seen this particular movie.

Really.

FOR MOVIE SCENES Click here

 

MORE ASIAN MOVIES
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Best Asian Movies All Movie Pages Johnny Depp Hideaki Ito Takeshi Kaneshiro Takashi Sorimachi Daisuke Ryu John Corbett Ueto Aya Odagiri Joe Kitano 'Beat' Takashi Nakai Kiichi Sanada Hiroyuki Fujiwara Tatsuya, Kimura Takuya, Sato Koichi, Miyazawa Rie, Kubozuka Yosuke, Watanabe Ken Nakamura Toru Their Fans in Indonesia Donnie Yen, Jet Li, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Zhang Ziyi

 

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