10 Films from the Past Decade that Cemented Asian Cinema’s Art-House Home

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An article by Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir laments that few of the films currently screening at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival will flicker on American screens after the prints have been spirited away to the other side of the world. Sure, but what the article doesn’t say, is that thanks to the boom Asian cinema experienced in the early 2000s, it not only has a permanent home in American art-houses, it’s also well on its way to losing that ridiculous moniker (why not just call it Half the World Cinema?).

Thanks to showcases like the NYAFF and people like Quentin Tarantino, Korean, Hong Kong, and even Thai films are starting to develop their own unique celluloid identities for Western viewers. And so the complaint of tepid distribution and white-faced remakes doesn’t stick, especially when compared to the sub-titled market at large. European films, which saw similar growth in the 1960s, hardly keep the espresso machines warm at the Film Forum. If anything, the numerous sold-out shows we’ve attended at NYAFF rival similar niche cine-gatherings such as Walter Reade’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema. As for identity theft, Hollywood wouldn’t be Hollywood if it wasn’t a vampire of ideas.

So, in the spirit of late game analysis, it’s list time. Here are ten turn of the century, Half of the World Films, that cemented their creators as art-house staples. Is it incomplete, unfair, inaccurate? Of course it is. Let us know what we’ve missed/ignored.

1. In the Mood for Love (Hong Kong, 2000) – Barely arriving in time to meet the audience at Cannes in 2000, this Wong Kar-Wai nostalgia piece is sweet emotional torture — you can’t see it without tearing up. Not Wong’s strongest work — that has to be Happy Together — but still, a heartbreaking journey accompanied by some of Christopher Doyle’s best cinematography to date, with a soundtrack that’s as melancholy as the images.

2. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (Korea, 2002) – Easily the strongest of the Vengeance Trilogy — sorry Old Boy fans — which manages to merge unrelenting violence with genuine emotional sucker punches. The only film we’ve ever seen where sliced tendons and extracted organs don’t seem exploitative but expressionistic. All the tragedy of Shakespeare with more blood. A lot more blood.

3. Ichi the Killer (Japan, 2001)– Japan provides an interesting conundrum for this list considering that Japanese cinema has been a constant art-house player since Rashomon premiered at Venice in 1950. Japan’s rapid economic recovery and its absorption of Western motifs is probably what allowed the easy consumption, which is why Takashi Miike’s insanity is so significant. There is simply no comparison to this prolific madman, whose depth of imagination is only rivaled by the amount of bodily fluids excreted in his productions. Ichi is a fine example, among many, of his devilish craft.

4. The Killer (Hong Kong, 1989) – It makes us feel old to say this, since we saw it on VHS when we were in high school, but John Woo’s endlessly imitated undercover cop flick is a classic, the same way the Jean-Pierre Melville films that inspired it are. Woo’s insertion into Hollywood has been both brilliant and disastrous, but his cool-handed approach to 9-millimeter pistols is immortal.

5. Irma Vep (France, 1996) – OK, not an Asian film, and not a very good film either (sorry Assayas fans), but a film that works as the perfect metaphor for the impact Hong Kong film was having on cinema in the ’90s. Besides, the ever-magnetic Maggie Cheung in a cat suit is one of the decade’s most iconic art-house images.

6. Running on Karma (Hong Kong, 2003) – The partnership between Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai probably single-handedly saved the Hong Kong film industry in the late ’90s, and has created a steady flow of films that manage to adhere, bend, and cross genres, often in the same frame. Running on Karma is the most extreme example of this flexibility and is a metaphysical head-scratcher that marks their departure from Scorsese-inspiring gangster epics to something that defies categorization.

7. The Scent of Green Papaya (Vietnam, 1993) – For some reason this meditative, slowly unfolding film about rural life in Vietnam, creates a stir. Why anyone would hate this film, for political or cultural reasons, is a mystery to us, but director Ahn Hung Trahn is another figure who bridges the seemingly constant cinematic exchange between French and Asian sensibilities.

8. Café Lumiere (Taiwan, Japan 2003) – Speaking of trans-continental exchanges, no list would be complete without the love him or hate him Hou Hsiao Hsien. Some critics have called BS on his brand of slower than slow cinematic progressions, while others have called him the most important filmmaker working today. Café Lumiere is a middle-ground that merges the Taiwanese director’s unique pacing with French and Japanese aesthetics, creating a blissful experience.

9. Woman is the Future of Man (Korea, 2004) – We’ve seen a lot of Korean films that deal with messed up relationships, regret, and too much drinking, but Sang-soo Hong is the master at weaving tales of romantic confusion and male immaturity. Part alcoholic daydream, part uncomfortable verite sex romp, this film doesn’t exactly fly by, but has stuck with us ever since it served as our introduction to Hong’s honest, and cringe-inducing, world.

10. Goodbye Dragon Inn (Taiwan, 2003) – What better way to end a list about the so-called demise of Asian cinema than with a film whose framing device is a movie theater on the eve of closure which happens to be showing King Hu’s 1967 landmark martial arts epic Dragon Inn. It is both a love letter to the classic Wuxia films that were also supposedly a dead genre, as well as a representation of the type of cinema now considered dead by distributors.

For what it’s worth, Dragon Inn saw a popular remake in 1992, and was the inspiration for countless ’90s martial-arts epics that culminated in 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a film often pointed to as the beginning of what some are now calling the demise.