A List to Get You Started on Asian Movies

Since I get asked this question a lot, here’s my current list for my American/European friends who are curious about asian movies but not sure where to start. It’s not meant to be an exhaustive one, neither a “best of XXX” one, but a collection of my personal favorites from recent years that I think my non-Chinese friends may just enjoy as well.

1. Let the Bullets Fly

China, 2010, IMDB 7.2, directed by Wen Jiang, action/thriller

China’s answer to Christopher Nolan’s Inception, only better. It’s directed by Wen Jiang, China’s most talented film director from the mainland, who left Yimou Zhang and Xiaogang Feng in the dust with this period epic. Being an entertaining roller-coaster ride, it’s also exceedingly complex with profound and subtle historical and even political references that challenge even the most intellectual fans in Chinese audience. For non-Chinese, it’ll be impossible to pick up the cultural and historical references and the many sub-plots, but you should still watch it just so that you can claim you’ve watched the one movie that effortlessly defines the pinnacle of Chinese (mainland) film achievement.

I wish I could list more Mainland China movies on this list, but there ain’t too many to speak about yet. The market has been growing like a rocket though, and things will get better there.

2. Kung Fu Hustle

Hong Kong, 2004, IMDB 7.8, directed by Stephen Chow, kungfu action

Stephen Chow of Hong Kong is widely regarded as the all-time best and most gifted Chinese film maker. My generation grew up with his movies and quotes. Despite his already massive commercial and critical success, unfortunately he’s still very much underrated as a movie director and actor, . It’s similar to how Prince is so underrated as a gifted guitar shredder and musician in general despite of being already a superstar of superstars.

Kung Fu Hustle displayed Chow’s undeniable talent in full glory. It’s a wonder to behold.

3. A Chinese Odyssey Two-Part

Part One: Pandora’s Box

1995, IMDB 7.9;

Part Two: Cinderella

1995, IMDB 8.1

Hong Kong, directed by Jeffrey Lau, fantasy/romantic action

Do not be fooled by the cheesy posters on IMDB. This is the No.1 Chinese cult movie of all-time that singled-handedly carried my entire generation of those born in the 70s in China. 1995 became the most magical year in movie history not because of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, but because of Lau/Chow’s A Chinese Odyssey (released in two parts in the same year). If you think Tarantino’s quotes in Pulp Fiction or Kar Wai Wong’s quotes in Ashes of Time are uber-cool, they don’t come even close to the ones in this movie.

When this movie took over Mainland China’s colleges by storm in the form of pirated VCDs in 1995–1996, it was a common behavior among college students to read and recite its entire script, line by line off the tongue, just to demonstrate you’re the in crowd. Other than Casablanca (1942), I don’t know of any other movie that has achieved such a legendary cult status among such a broad audience. Its spectacular commercial failure in 1995 in Hong Kong only proved how visionary Lau/Chow were and how much they were ahead of their time. While everybody thought they were making another summer pop-corn comedy flick, they fooled everyone by creating an avant-garde postmodernism masterpiece with an epic time-travel love story that is still being talked about and missed by Chinese to this date.

For non-Chinese, unfortunately it’s impossible for you to understand what this movie is so great about, because the postmodernism humors in the movie run deep into the core of Chinese culture. That was the case even for most Chinese when it first came out. No translation would do justice to the original quotes, like many other Stephen Chow movies, which is really a shame.

4. Election & Triad Election

Hong Kong, 2005, IMDB 7.1; Hong Kong, IMDB 7.4

both directed by Johnnie To, gangster action

It’s actually a two-part movie. Simply put, this is the equivalent of Godfather I & II as far as Hong Kong movie goes, in a setting that defined Hong Kong cinematic scene (triad society, cop corruption), with outstanding performance by an amazing ensemble cast.

The movie is epic, profound, brutal, and very, very poetic. In my opinion, this was the last iconic film out of Hong Kong, before they lost the battle to the much more enterprising Taiwanese filmmakers and got buried in the box-office domination of Chinese mainland movies.

5. Kill Zone — S.P.L.

Hong Kong, 2005, IMDB 7.2, directed by Wilson Yip, kungfu gangster action

Donnie Yen is unquestionably the No.1 kungfu star that has filled the void left behind by Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Especially after Ip Man (2008), even the most die-hard fans of Chan and Li would have to agree that Yen has convincingly surpassed them as the best Chinese kungfu star.

Yen has been making kungfu films for many years, but it was 2005's SPL that firmly established him as the superstar carrying on the flag. It featured an alley-fighting sequence that is considered the best one-on-one fighting scene of all time (yes you heard me right), said to be shot in one take. It also featured a awesome duel between Yen and the great Sammo Hung Kam-Bo at the climax.

6. Monga

Taiwan, 2010, IMDB 7.0, directed by Doze Niu, gangster action/thriller

Gangster movies is a thing for Hong Kong, and Taiwan is never known for this genre. Doze’s Monga in 2010 changed all that. This movie catapulted him from an obscure C-list actor to A-list director, an amazing feat that was just as epic as Robert Downey Jr’s comeback in Iron Man. Monga embraced gangster violence and come-of-age tale with dazzling aesthetics. Despite of being a gangster movie, it resonated extremely well across the board because it was also a generation-defining story of the very growing pains of Taiwan itself.

7. The Host

South Korea, 2006, IMDB 7.0, directed by Joon-ho Bong, monster horror

While Hollywood’s monster movie genre has been largely following the script written by Spielberg since the 90s, Joon-ho Bong presented some kind of monster movie that was quite a different and refreshing treat. The opening sequence is simply breath-taking.

The movie is really about family love and how ordinary people overcome insurmountable obstacles to redeem themselves — a classic hero’s journey story. It featured versatile and talented Kang-ho Song, the best Asian actor of this generation (yes, better than Tony Leung from Hong Kong).

8. Memories of Murder

South Korea, 2003, IMDB 8.1, directed by Joon-ho Bong, crime thriller

It’s often considered the best movie there has been from South Korea. South Korea’s movies, collectively have been the best out of Asia in the last ten years. That’s enough of a reason to check this one out.

Asia’s best actor Kang-ho Song starred, of course.

David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007) featured a similar story, but just not as good as the original Memories of Murder.

9. Sex Is Zero

South Korea, 2002, IMDB 6.8, directed by Je-gyun Yun, high-school comedy

If you just want to let go for a Saturday afternoon or Friday late night, check out this hugely entertaining movie. This is the American Pie of South Korea version, only much better. It is outrageously funny and the lead actress is very cute and sexy (that dorm scene is a classic). However, be prepared for wild mood shift, a common theme in many Korean movies.

10. Fuyajo

Japan, 1998, IMDB 7.2, directed by Chi-Ngai Lee, gangster thriller

This list would not be complete without mentioning Japanese movies. However, I just haven’t watched enough Japanese movies in recent years to speak intelligently here — shame on me. Japanese movie deserves to be in the league of its own.

Very few people have watched or heard about Fuyajo, not to mention understanding its extremely convoluting plot, which is very Nolan-esque. It didn’t help that five languages were frequently spoken throughout the movie, despite of this being a Japanese production. I have been a great admirer of this movie for many years. It’s a hidden gem that pierces through the deepest corners of Tokyo, in a very sad love story.

Also this is undoubtedly the best movie by Takeshi Kaneshiro. The movie was almost tailor-made to leverage his multi-cultural backgrounds. Kaneshiro, for those of you who may not know, is universally hailed across Asia as the most gorgeous male Asian celebrity for the past 15–20 years. Many celebrities, male and female, admit they’re his admirers, for his legendary good look and cool. He kills people left and right with every frame he’s in.

That’s all for now. Enjoy!

Originally published at guizishanren.com.