Asian Cinema Origins: Rex Baylon

Editor”s note: In the last episode of the VCinema Podcast, we discussed our Asian film origins, the titles that got us into cinema of that region. In this short series of articles, our lead writers talk about their early Asian cinema experiences.

Speaking of origins and where my obsession for film and specifically Asian cinema started, it’s quite difficult to pinpoint the exact time and moment when my cinephilia began, but two films that were pivotal in my viewing experience occurred roughly around the same time. The first occurred during my sophomore year in high school when during my usual ritual of late night channel surfing, looking for something to pique my interest, I stumbled upon Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express (1994) playing on a backend cable channel.

Although arriving in the middle of the first story concerning Takeshi Kaneshiro’s Cop 223’s initial encounter with a blonde femme fatale played by Brigitte Lin, I was immediately sucked in by the film’s visuals. Completely ignorant of Wong’s reputation with the arthouse crowd or how important Christopher Doyle’s contributions to the visual arts were, I just allowed myself to enjoy the film. Expired cans of pineapple, Tony Leung talking to a soapy dish rag, a toy airplane gliding over Valerie Chow’s sweaty body as Dinah Washington’s “What a Diff’rence a Day Makes” plays, and, of course, the pixie-like beauty of Faye Wong all contributed to branding Chungking Express onto my retinas. Thinking back to my initial encounter with the film, I think what caught me in rapt attention was the overt romanticism. Wong’s treatment of love, urban ennui, and all the other themes that are discussed ad nauseam by fans and detractors alike were all new and wholly original to me. Although Wong’s cache with cineastes has plummeted, especially after the release of his first English language feature, My Blueberry Nights (2007) and his unique visual style reappropriated by films of varying quality, the run of films he made from A Fei Jingjyuhn (Days Of Being Wild, 1990) to Fa Yeung Nin Wa (In The Mood For Love, 2000) are, in my honest opinion, all still unabashed masterpieces. Though now if I had to pop in a Wong Kar-Wai film into my DVD player, Chungking Express would not be my first choice. The romantic in me would choose In The Mood For Love, the pretentious snob would pick Dung Che Sai Duk (Ashes of Time, 1994), and the part of me that just wants to enjoy a good movie would put on Wong Gok Ka Moon (As Tears Go By, 1988), but nostalgia is a powerful emotion and sometimes I just want to be that kid again.

The next important film milestone in my casino online cinematic education occurred during the summer after I had graduated from high school. Trapped in New Jersey and with nothing to do, I passed the time by renting tapes from my local library’s film collection.  At two dollars a tape, it was cheaper than borrowing from Blockbuster, not to mention the fact that they had a much better selection. Perusing their stock of foreign films one day I came upon a VHS box with cover art featuring a scraggly looking wild-man clutching a sword and being held at bay by a kimonoed woman kneeling beside him. That bearded man was Toshiro Mifune, the woman Machiko Kyo, the film was Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), and from that day forward I would blindly follow Tenno’s films wherever they would take me, be it the lawless Sengoku era or the inner recesses of dream consciousness. Though a lot of criticism has been thrown at Mifune’s “overacting” and Fumio Hayasaka’s borrowing of the Bolero theme for the film’s score I never, then or now, believed either to be a strike against Kurosawa’s picture. In fact, what drew me in was Mifune’s hyperactive temperament and gorilla-like movements, he didn’t just have a commanding screen presence he practically drowned out the other actor’s that shared the spotlight with him. And as for Hayasaka’s score, that along with Kazuo Miyagawa’s sun dappled lighting and of course the rain storms which I would later discover to be a Kurosawa trademark all went hand-in-hand into creating the perfect period noir film that Rashomon can rightfully call itself.

After having tasted samurai cinema for the first time I was immediately hooked and followed Rashomon with another jidai-geki classic, Shichinin No Samurai (Seven Samurai, 1954). Hunger unabated though I searched and found Adam Low’s brilliant documentary Kurosawa (2001) which in turn gave me a long menu of films that I had to see, leading me then to discover The Criterion Collection, which as any card-carrying cinephile knows, has the best home media library in the Western Hemisphere. Takashi Shimura, Ozu, Tatsuya Nakadai, Masahiro Shinoda, Seijun Suzuki, Setsuko Hara, Mizoguchi, etc. etc. without my initial curiosity over Mifune’s image I would never have opened that door and I have the Neptune Public Library to thank for it all since film fans are not born, they are made.  And though the trend now is to convert everything into some sort of digital file or to watch movies through streaming media companies like Netflix or Hulu, we shouldn’t forget brick and mortar institutions which have a wealth of treasures to offer the community, if only a person is willing to dig. Holding a hard copy of a film, be it a DVD or VHS, in your hands, reading a well written essay or paperback study of a little known director/movie/region of cinema , or even admiring poster art. These are the simple pleasures which all cineastes will never want to abandon no matter how advanced the technology gets.