As the year draws to a close, the time has come for VCinema contributors to take a look back at 2014 and select their Asian cinema highlights from the past twelve months. Not all the films here are necessarily 2014 titles, but they all received international exposure this year and can be classed as 2014 releases beyond their home territories. In addition to picking their favorites from this year’s crop of releases, our contributors have taken this opportunity to discuss related experiences – such as academic conferences, festivals, and retrospectives – that were particularly important to them in 2014.
2014 was another fine year for Asian cinema with the highlights of my year largely coming from China and South Korea. Black Coal, Thin Ice was a sly thriller by Diao Yinan in which a lumbering ex-cop becomes obsessed with solving a series of crimes that date back to the late-1990s. Following its surprise Golden Bear win at the Berlin Film Festival, there was a slight critical backlash against Diao’s film for its perceived lack of political context, although this fatalistic procedural filtered a fair amount of social critique through its appropriation of classic noir tropes. As it was restricted to the festival circuit, Zhao Dayong’s haunting Shadow Days was less widely seen, but proved to be a brilliantly realized narrative extension of the director’s documentary Ghost Town (2008). Returning to the remote mountain village of Zhiziluo to explore the community from the point of view of a young couple on the run, Zhao crafted a disquieting ideological commentary that folded the related traumas of China’s past and present into one space. Also from China’s independent sector, Peng Lei’s offbeat comedy Dancing in the Room concerned the efforts of a recent university graduate to forge a career in Beijing, only to become a member of its growing ‘ant tribe’ (educated young people forced to take menial jobs in order to survive in the capital). Hip, humorous and heartfelt with a fuzzily romantic shoegaze soundtrack (Peng fronts the alternative band New Pants), Dancing in the Room is a charming slice of city life.
South Korean cinema was equally varied in 2014, with Song Hae-sung’s comedy-drama Boomerang Family providing a highly enjoyable look at the boomerang generation (young adults who move back home due to various level of dependency). Even-handed in its depiction of family strife with terrific performances from Park Hae-il and Yoon Je-moon as a pair of squabbling brothers, it builds to an emotional conclusion but offers much spirited hilarity alongside the personal realizations. A Hard Day marked the triumphant return of writer-director Kim Seong-hun with a hard-boiled cop thriller about a beleaguered detective trying to cover his tracks when he is involved in a hit-and-run incident. Mixing taut suspense and gallows humor in equal measure, this sharp genre piece provided sheer entertainment from start to finish. The international release of Bong Joon-ho’s futuristic adventure Snowpiercer – not to mention the director’s much-publicized negotiations with the Weinstein Company to ensure that his full vision would receive US distribution – easily made it the most high profile South Korean film of the year and it proved to be a thrillingly provocative experience which balanced big ideas with blockbuster spectacle.
This is the first year since I have been contributing to VCinema that Japanese cinema does not feature prominently in my round-up, although I would like to draw further attention to Ryohei Watanabe’s unsettling directorial debut Shady, which chronicles the strange relationship between two alienated schoolgirls. Hopefully, the relative absence of Japanese cinema in my 2014 review has more to do with my lack of access to new releases over the past year than it does with any creative slump on the part of its filmmakers, and I look forward to catching up with The Great Passage, Tokyo Tribe, and The World of Kanako, amongst others, in 2015.
In terms of my academic activities, it was a great honor to be invited to participate in the 3rd East Asian Film Studies Conference at Chung-Ang University where I presented a paper on the use of film noir tropes in the rural histories of Zhang Yimou on a panel alongside Daniel Martin (Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology) and Yun Mi Hwang (University of Ulsan).
Well, once again I saw a helluva lot of Asian films this year. No surprise there. While many were at film festivals or series here in New York, I also saw a good number of online screeners of recent releases as well Blu-rays and DVDs of new and older movies. Here are a few thoughts about a small sample of my past year’s viewings.
The 13th New York Asian Film Festival and the 8th installment of Japan Society’s JAPAN CUTS series provided lot of great films, several of which were co-presentations. I especially enjoyed Matt Chow’s comedy Golden Chickensss, in which Sandra Ng, who received a Star Asia Award, reprised her role as Kam, a charming madam. The film also featured a slew of cameos by Hong Kong actors and actresses. One of the best, in my opinion, was Donnie Yen doing a comic rift on his Ip Man with references to Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster.
I also got into comparing Hollywood versions of certain Asian films. I especially liked The Lake House, Alejandro Agresti’s 2006 remake of Lee Hyun-seung’s Il Mare (2000). The Ring (2002) by Gore Vervinski was inferior to the 1998 Hideo Nakata original, but still quite decent. The Pang Brothers’ 2008 remake of their 2000 thriller Bangkok Dangerous was a real disappointment.
There were several Korean films that came out or became available on Blu-ray a/o DVD in 2014. The Attorney, which features yet another outstanding performance by Song Kang-ho, was fantastic. So too were The Pirates and The Admiral: Roaring Currents. Quite often these and other great films were shown for free at Korean Movie Night NY, sponsored by the Korean Cultural Service, soon after being released in South Korea.
China Lion offered North American theatrical releases of some fine films, including Women Who Flirt and But Always.
As I write this, Japan Society is in the midst of its current monthly series The Dark Side of the Sun: John Zorn on Japanese Cinema. Zorn, perhaps best known as a jazz musician, is quite knowledgeable about Japanese films and has put together an eclectic collection of films never before screened at Japan Society here in New York. Things started off in October with Inflatable Sex Doll of the Wastelands (1967). It was followed in November by the silent film Crossroads (1928) and continued with the Nikkatsu pink film Top Stripper (1982), which was shown on December 11th.
The biggest disappointment I had in 2014 probably was The Protector. My rating of 2.5 stars may have been a bit on the generous side; a 2 star (fair) rating is probably more like it. RZA may love and appreciate Asian action films, but that does not merit him starring in one, let alone going one-on-one against Tony Jaa, whose career has unfortunately not lived up to its initial promise.
2014 has been an unusual year for me in that my consumption of films slowed considerably, and what I have seen has been limited to one genre mostly, as you will see from my round-up. The one film that gave me goose bumps during its entire running time was The Raid 2. I’ve seen it several times now, and the sheer audacity of the film is still staggering. It will take decades until another film can reach the same magnitude of martial arts insanity and epic visual storytelling that The Raid 2 achieves. It’s The Godfather (1972) of action films, a sweeping crime saga that puts its contemporaries to shame.
All of that aside, there were still several action films that did impress me this year. Wong Ching-Po’s Once Upon a Time in Shanghai had some solid action sequences, even if the acting and screenwriting were a touch too melodramatic. Philip Ng is a physical force to be reckoned with, and the film’s visual style is stunning. Any narrative deficits the film has are made up for with cinematic style and a healthy dose of martial arts smack downs. Once again, Andy On proves that, even if his acting skills aren’t always top notch, he can throw down with the best of them.
And speaking of melodrama, No Tears For the Dead managed to balance out its tear-filled running time with a balls out finale that features some spectacular action set pieces. If you loved the sparse but incredible action scenes from The Man From Nowhere (2010), yet found the dramatics to be a little on the emotionally manipulative side, then you’ll love Lee Jeong-Beom’s follow up. It starts with a John Woo-inspired nightclub shoot out, replete with a hitman that makes paper cranes, and ends with a Diehard inspired climax that blasts through the roof. Plus, I’ve always been a big fan of Jang Dong-Gun, and he wrecks havoc here, breaking bones and filling bad guys full of lead.
Last but certainly not least, is one of my favourite horror films of the year, Over Your Dead Body, Takashi Miike’s slow burn meditation on a Yotsuya Kaidan, arguably the most famous ghost story from Japan. It’s a methodically paced film with stunning performances and some incredible cinematography. Every frame is a painting, every moment a feast for the eyes. And all things being Miike, it leaves you quite stunned by the end. It’s a spectacular piece of filmmaking from one of Japans contemporary masters.
I’ll end with one thing I regret, which is not seeing the 4K restoration of King Hu’s classic, Dragon Gate Inn (1967) at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. From what I heard the restoration is breathtaking, so here’s to hoping that if finds its way to Blu-ray or some other home viewing friendly format soon.
The highlights of my 2014 with Asian Cinema consisted of two events that were waiting-to-be-asked-to-prom moments that finally happened.
The first moment was initiated in 2013 but its fruition came in 2014 – I was asked to deliver an academic paper on my favorite director, Hong Sangsoo. Scholar Marc Raymond from Kwangwoon University, asked me to be part of a Hong Sangsoo panel of papers at the 2014 Society of Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) conference held in Seattle (Marshall Deutelbaum of Purdue University also delivered a paper on the panel.) My paper dealt with an aspect of Hong’s work I’ve long appreciated. Thanks to the setup of key scenes, we disconcertingly watch men watching women yet we the viewer are not complicit in the male gaze. I focused on two scenes, the classic scene in Turning Gate (2002) where our main character gets caught taking a gander at a young lady’s gams and the tremendously awkward scene where both male characters of Woman Is the Future of Man (2004) hit on the same waitress inside, and stare at the same woman outside, of a Chinese restaurant. The positioning of the women in the scene as mostly out of focus and Hong’s guidance of our eyesight all prohibit us from engaging in the same behavior of the lecherous males we watch. By asking me to be a part of this panel, Raymond enabled an opportunity for me to consider in depth an insight into Hong’s oeuvre I’d been dabbling in for a while.
The second moment culminating a metaphorical Saturday night sitting by the phone is when Joel Shepard, recent recipient of the San Francisco Film Critic Society’s Marlon Riggs Award, asked me to be a part of the triennial Bay Area Now series at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. His folks would do all the work, I just needed to tell them a single film I wanted them to bring and guarantee that I could say a few words of introduction when it was screened. I chose Han Hyeong-mo’s classic melodrama Madame Freedom (1956). South Korean films from the 60s and late 50s have been fairly neglected by San Francisco film festivals so I took this opportunity to try and fill that gap with my tiny shovel. Plus, I’d never had a chance to see the film on film, so this screening was as much fulfilling my needs as it was those of San Francisco cinephiles.
Whereas the Hong panel had me watching lots and lots of Hong, which I do fairly regularly, having watched three screenings of Our Sunhi (2013) in a theater thanks to the San Francisco International Film Festival this year, the Madame Freedom screening had me catching up on another master of South Korean melodrama, Shin Sang-ok. I had picked up Princeton professor Steven Chung’s book Split Screen Korea: Shin Sang-ok and Postwar Cinema (University of Minnesota Press, 2014) at the treasure trove of books on sale at SCMS and found that book a wonderful reference point for conceptualizing Madame Freedom. In addition, Thomas Hughes’ study Literature and Film in Cold War South Korea: Freedom’s Frontier (Cornell University Press, 2014) has interesting insights into the different endings between the film and the book by Chong Pi-sok on which it is based. As a result of Chung’s book, I finally got around to watching some Shin DVDs I’ve had sitting around for some time.
Other Asian Cinema highlights in theaters would be Emir Baigazin’s Harmony Lessons and seeing Snowpiercer twice with a packed audience, each time hoping those around me unfamiliar with the great Kang Sang-ho will seek out other films he’s been in. I also took a chance at an Eon store in Yamaguchi City, Japan and purchased Iwauchi Katsumi’s Retsu go! Wakadaishô! (Let’s Go! Young Boss!, 1967) without subtitles and delighted in the 1960’s style of it all. Now if I only knew what they were saying …
I was lucky enough to see some fantastic films this past year, due in part to the Japan Society and the New York Asian Film Festival. Not all were released in 2014 but most were screened here for the first time. I’m truly a horror fanatic and this year’s NYAFF/Japan Cuts screened some amazing ones. Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, written and directed by Sion Sono, had me laughing as I reveled in the blood splatter. A group of young filmmakers gets involved in a gang war, and turns a real life blood bath into a hit film. The Snow White Murder Case is based on the novel of the same name by Kanae Minato. This engaging crime thriller directed by Yoshihiro Nakamura follows a young woman who becomes the prime suspect in the murder of a fellow co-worker. Soul, written and directed by Chung Mong-hong, is a Taiwanese horror film looks at the demon possession of A-chuan and the impact it has on his father. I found the film to be both gruesome and heartbreaking.
Rigor Mortis, directed by Juno Mak, pays tribute to the influential horror comedy series Mr. Vampire (1985-1992) and even brings back some of the original cast. A public housing unit is haunted and an actor initially looking to commit suicide is the only one who can save the building’s residents. Miss Zombie is another heartbreaking film that sucked me right in. Directed by Sabu, the film takes place in a future Japan where zombies are trained to work. A female zombie goes to work for a couple and she ends up forming a strange bond with the woman of the house and her son. It’s quite a powerful film.
Besides the horror films, I also got to see Lee Sang-il’s Unforgiven, a remake of Clint Eastwood’s classic Western. It stars Ken Watanabe as an aging samurai who survived the purge by Meiji period and comes out of retirement to kill two men who mercilessly abused and disfigured a prostitute. I love both the original and the remake, though Ken Watanabe’s portrayal of the renowned samurai who seemed broken by his circumstances was excellent.
Back in October the Japan Society began the monthly film series The Dark Side of the Sun: John Zorn on Japanese Cinema. It features some very rare screen gems and I attended the opening night to see Inflatable Sex Doll of the Wastelands, a First Wave pink film directed by Atsushi Yamatoya, who wrote many exploitation films for Wakamatsu Productions. Another pink film I saw for the very first time was The Embryo Hunts in Secret (1966) directed by the Godfather of pink himself, Koji Wakamatsu. They’re both absolutely brilliant exploitation films that beautifully represent the genre.
Of course I saw many other films over the year but these are definitely the best of the bunch and I highly recommend them all.
2014 was a great year for my own watching of Asian cinema. I have spent years learning and writing about it, and this last year also included teaching it. However, this has all meant I have had very little time to actually sit down and watch these films.
Thankfully I got to change that at the high point of my year – the East Winds 2014 Festival. It was a great opportunity to see some of the latest films from Asia, even though some of them were duds – I’m looking at you Z Storm and Bugs! More exciting was seeing the output of Thailand and Taiwan, whose films are often overlooked by UK distributors, represented here by such titles as Partners in Crime, The Swimmers, and The Teacher’s Diary. Hopefully, the profile of these national cinemas will continue to grow through festivals such as East Winds, and UK audiences will see more of them in future years.
Other high points involved catching up on both contemporary and older releases. Snowpiercer was as excellent as I hoped it would be as Bong Joon-ho effortlessly injected style and thought-provoking themes into a scenario that would not be out of place in a no-brainer Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster. Following this film, I hope that Bong, and other South Korean directors, will continue to make their mark in Western cinema.
Film 4 has also continued to delight UK Asian film fans by regularly screening both classics of Asian cinema and unseen gems for late-night TV viewers. Throne of Blood (1957) was shown as part of an Akira Kurosawa season, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was the best version of Macbeth that I have ever seen on-screen. A few months ago, I also caught Zhang Yimou’s debut feature Red Sorghum (1987). I hope to have a review written for VCinema soon – though I can definitely say now that it’s as visually gripping as his later works.