Asian cinema has long been on the radar of both cinephiles and mainstream audiences, influencing pop culture through blending genres, escaping patterns, and pure originality.
From heart-warming anime, to heart-stopping thrillers – not to mention Parasite, the first film not in the English language to win the Best Picture Oscar – Asian cinema has something to offer for everyone. Our authors are here to tell you about some of their favourite films from Asia.
Baahubali: The Beginning (2015) – W.G. Jones
Baahubali: The Beginning is the first of two Telugu language movies directed by S. S. Rajamouli. It follows the story of Shivudu, a simple villager in the ancient Indian kingdom of Mahishmati, and his quest to find out his true identity.
The film is everything you’d expect and more, supplying high-octane yet slightly tongue-in-cheek fight scenes, alongside musical numbers, complete with routines featuring dozens, if not hundreds of dancers. Most of all, in its heart, Baahubali is an epic of Indian proportions.
As both the most expensive Indian movie of all time, and the first part of the highest-grossing Indian film series ever, Baahubali is the poster child for a high value blockbuster made outside of the traditional Hollywood production line. The film offers a ‘Marvel-ised’ exterior paired with a culturally fascinating and engaging story.
Basically, if you’re looking for a movie with a bunch of completely ripped Indian dudes having highly choreographed yet incredibly unrealistic fights with an aesthetic somewhere between Tarzan and 300, this is definitely for you.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) – Ennis Barnett
A true gem of Asian cinema! I have never seen sword-fight scenes that are so clever and inventive. Despite having been filmed 20 years ago, the effects have not lost any of their original awe. The scenes where the protagonists hop across water while simultaneously executing a beautifully choreographed martial arts sword fight force the audience to appreciate the absolute exquisiteness of the cinematography, while being completely and utterly hooked by the action at the same time.
The plot is far from conventional, and Ang Lee, the director, is not afraid of crossing between the boundaries of genre. For example, the film begins as a mystery that involves the ‘The Green Destiny’ sword which is stolen by a masked assassin. It then progresses into romance that involves Jen Ye who flees her restrictive aristocratic family and finds herself falling in love with a bandit in the dessert. Lee cleverly intertwines these plots to produce an absolute masterpiece of Chinese cinema.
Farewell My Concubine (1993) – Michal Wasilewski
This Palme d’Or winner is a masterpiece of as big a scope as it could possibly get, being a multi-decade epic spanning over more than 50 years. We meet protagonist Douzi as a few-year-old child, being handed over to a theatre troupe by his sex-worker mother. Due to his feminine features, he will be trained to play the role of the concubine in the traditional eponymous opera.
He quickly forges a close friendship and a scenic relationship with a boy who is to play the king. We follow their journey through life from the starts in the troupe to becoming one of the most renowned actors in China. Just as they are changing with age and fame, so is everything around them; China is constantly in turmoil, from the Japanese occupation, through the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek, to the communists and their Cultural Revolution.
Farewell My Concubine gracefully intertwines the social and political landscape of the 20th century China with a human, emotional story. It explores the border between art and real life, between friendship and love, gently touching on many topics which couldn’t be found in contemporary Hollywood.
My Neighbour Totoro (1988) – Jonathan Hosking
Looking for that feel-good, colourful film to distract you from the drizzly world outside? Look no further. Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro is an absolute gem.
The film follows two girls and their father as they relocate to the countryside to be closer to their hospitalised mother. Little do they know, they have just moved next to a mysterious forest full of adorable spirits, and the delightful Totoro. From then on, the film meanders from adventure, to comedy, to family drama, all hand-drawn to perfection in Miyazaki’s signature style.
There is a tremendous amount of energy and heart that leaps off the screen, enchanting audiences with its sweetness and whimsicality. Moreover, the score, composed by Joe Hisaishi, encapsulates that marvelous mix of childhood wonderment and discovery. It serves as a great entry point into Studio Ghibli and Anime as a whole.
You will never look at raindrops the same way again.
Oldboy (2003) – Max Linton
Korea’s Park Chan-wook provides his take on Greek tragedy in Oldboy, a revenge thriller like no other.
After 15 years, Oh Dae-Su is suddenly released from his bizarre captivity in a hotel-cum-prison, and, fuelled by vengeance, he strives to find out who imprisoned him, and what wrong he must have committed to deserve it. On this premise, it would be easy to disregard Oldboy as a speck in an oversaturated revenge film market, but it is so much more.
Park guides us on a journey of twists and turns, while constantly flirting with the taboo, pushing us to our emotional extremes. He exposes the obsession for violence, vengeance, and vehemently unthinkable, and forces it into the limelight. While the film can be shocking, it is not so for the ‘shock factor’ enjoyment – these moments are rather penetrative and purposeful statements. Oldboy is a superbly surreal thriller and a must-watch for those embracing Asian, and especially Korean, cinema.
Ringu (1998) – Tom Kuson
Most people already know the conceit and reveals of Ringu; it’s an unfortunate product of being an international horror hit and of being a victim of a tepid American remake. The film centres around a cursed videotape that’s been connected to a series of mysterious deaths. If you’re one of the few who hasn’t had the film’s iconic scenes yet spoilt, do yourself a favour and watch Ringu, and see why international audiences have been glued to the Japanese horror scene ever since.
The Lunchbox (2013) – Ross McFadden
A quick description of The Lunchbox sounds a little like a bad romcom: an unsatisfied housewife and a lonely widower communicate only through notes passed in a lunchbox. Despite never having met, the two forge a deep bond and must decide whether to embrace it, or to stick to society’s expectations.
However, director Ritesh Batra takes this premise and tells a genuinely touching story about an attachment between two emotionally isolated strangers, while also showcasing Indian cuisine and celebrating Mumbai’s diverse culture. The recently deceased Irrfan Khan (Jurassic World, Life of Pi, Slumdog Millionaire) gives what is easily one of his greatest performances here; there is an understated quality to his acting that perfectly suits the film’s restrained-but-hopeful tone.
Indian cinema is often pigeonholed as extravagant or melodramatic, but The Lunchbox deftly sidesteps Bollywood stereotypes and tells a sensitive story which will easily charm you.