This past weekend, I went out to dinner with a my girlfriend and another couple who are similarly nerdy and the discussion some how got around to Asian cinema.
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had a love affair with kung fu flicks, yakuza tales and the epic action sequences of John Woo. CFMT (which is now called OMNI or some such bullshit. CFMT is also responsible for my love of Robotech and Voltron… but we’ll come to that another time) in Toronto used to play these films on weekends. Sometimes, if you were lucky, they’d have English subtitles. A lot of the time they were just in their original language, but you could still make sense of the story through the visuals.
And what visuals they were! I recall seeing Jackie Chan’s original Drunken Master and shortly afterwords I caught a Bruce Lee film (I have a feeling it was The Chinese Connection but I can’t be certain of it).
When I was in my early teens, I saw John Woo’s action masterpiece, Hard Boiled, on CFMT. No subtitles, no dubbing, just straight forward Chinese (I’m unsure if it was Cantonese or Mandarin). I was just flipping channels and suddenly there was Chow Yun Fat sliding down a banister with a gun in each hand, shooting the shit out of any criminal that got in his way.
The film ends with a huge gun fight in a hospital.
How can you beat that?
Soon after this viewing, I began searching out other flicks of a similar nature. A Better Tomorrow, The Killer, Once a Thief. Those slowly lead into the martial arts films of Donnie Yen and Jet Li and more modern martial arts fair then I had been watching at the time.
Later, I discovered the wonderful and insane world of Takashi Miike. A Japanese film maker that quite honestly, a number of his movies… I’m not sure I can say if I actually like them or not but they are so different to what we know here in North America that they have to be viewed. Ichi the Killer is graphic and disturbing but it just has something different to it.
You would never see the ejaculation of a main character turn into a title card in a North American film.
The thing I find odd is that a lot of these actors and directors move to the American film system and that special something is just kind of lost. Other then Hard Target and Mission Impossible 2, Joh Woo’s NA films have been fairly lackluster. Jet Li started off strong but the quality of many of his films just isn’t there. Jackie Chan has become a children’s film actor (in North America at any rate. In Hong Kong, Chan is still doing really good work). It makes me kind of happy that Donnie Yen more or less stayed put (which is odd considering Yen is incredibly fluent in English).
If by some chance you’re not familiar with Asian cinema, I’ve prepared a handy guide to films you should see. These are all fairly recent films and shouldn’t be too hard to come by. I have omitted films by Kurosawa and Bruce Lee because, quite frankly, you should have seen them already.
Once Upon A Time in China 1 and 2: Featuring Jet Li, these films about Wong Fei Hung are recommended viewing for anyone who loves action sequences. Especially part 2 which has a great fight scene between Li and Donnie Yen.
13 Assassins: I can’t tell you enough how much you need to see this film. Director Takashi Miike’s samurai masterpiece. Brilliant in visual storytelling and action sequences, it also’s Miike’s most accesable work to date.
Hard Boiled: Probably the best action film John Woo ever made and defiently in my top ten action films of all time, it features undercover intrigue and dazzeling gun fights. The score is now a bit dated, but Chow Yun Fat carrying a baby and shooting guys will get you over that particular hump.
Now go my pretties, go and find these films and report back to me how much you love them.
ps My girlfriend is quite adamant about the idea that “Kung Fu Panda is the best kung fu movie ever”. And to be fair, Kung Fu Panda does embrace a lot of the style and imagery of classic kung fu films. It’s a great way to break the kids in even if my girlfriend’s reasoning of “everything is better with pandas” might be up to the individual.