R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: Asian Cinema Explosion

Let me tell you folks, as a guy that loves to watch movies I’m having an absolute blast at the moment. No, it wasn’t because of the recent return of Freddy Krueger, which was pretty much a bust and made me long for both the goofiness of Robert Englund or at least the fun of last year’s Friday the 13th remake. It’s not even because I’m gearing up for the summer movie season, which I’m still cautiously optimistic about. It’s because recently I got to experience a goldmine of awesome releases; all of them action packed, all of them high energy, and all of them Asian films I’ve been looking forward to for some time.

Now before I get to those films, I’ve got some business to attend to. April has come and gone and a Bad Ass of the Month needs to be recognized. Now despite the fact that there have been two big action films that came out this month (Kick-Ass and The Losers) and I loved both of them quite a bit, the competition for this award this past month wasn’t even close. It’ll come as no surprise that only one true unstoppable killing machine hit theater screens during April and walked away with her bloody prize without even breaking a sweat.

Bad Ass of the Month – April 2010

Hitgirl, played by Chloë Grace Moretz – Kick-Ass

I’m pretty much as shocked as anyone that the little sister from (500) Days of Summer just took the title of Bad Ass of the Month away from the likes of Nicolas Cage and Jeffery Dean Morgan, but then again, it’s 2010 people, and I’m a pretty open-minded person. Flat out, Hitgirl is the most bad-ass (and kick-ass) character to hit American theater screens this year, and completely steals what is probably the most hardcore action film the first half of 2010. Merciless, foul-mouthed and hilarious, Chloë Grace Moretz’s character is a one man slaughterhouse, taking out gangsters by the dozen wielding guns, knives, and a detachable pair of swords, and hats off to the Moretz for doing all her own stunts while she’s at it. While there’s been a lot of controversy surrounding the age of this character, I’m simply saluting one of the best action heroes of the year. Hopefully, action veterans everywhere will step up to the plate and not let a little girl show them all up by year’s end.

Now back to our regularly scheduled program.

You know, there was a time when I was really disheartened by the state of a lot of Asian cinema. A lot of the film makers and action stars that I knew and loved from the Hong Kong movie industry were either being imported to America or simply becoming too old to be able to really be taken seriously anymore. The influx of CGI seemed to make matters worse in a lot of ways, as there were a few gems that took advantage of the technology (Shaolin Soccer, Kung Fu Hustle), but many more that used CGI to create empty spectacle as opposed to the stunt heavy action that got me interested in Hong Kong films in the first place.

The mantle of trying to further push the envelope seemed to pass to the Japanese, with films such as Ringu, Audition, Battle Royale and others causing a sensation in the late ’90s, early 2000s which made them the “go to” place for Asian imports for a while. Unfortunately, the oversaturation of J-Horror seemed to kill their momentum, and I remember starting to look elsewhere for the next big thing from the region. The pattern then repeated for South Korean film makers in the mid part of the last decade, with directors like Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho coming onto the scene, but then again momentum cooled.

Now it seems we’re in a whole new period.

No longer does it seem that one country is the center of Asian cult cinema. Instead, we’re getting a wide variety of movies from several different countries, all of which are coming at us with vibrant films of high caliber value. This is including examples from places such as Thailand and Indonesia, who are arguably making the type of full-throttle-stunt-oriented movies that Hong Kong used to make with such reckless abandon. Japanese and Korean cinema are both growing rich with talented film makers that are finding new ways to shock and exhilarate us. Perhaps most heartening to myself, Chinese and Hong Kong have seemed to merge and then re-emerged back onto the scene, but now with a polish that was never there before, displaying the same exuberant energy that made us pay attention to them in the first place, but making their films look and feel dramatically more legit. Actors and directors that left for America are returning to Hong Kong to start anew, and those that stayed to refine their craft are emerging as bigger names than ever.

I didn’t think I could be more excited after 2009, with entries such as Red Cliff, Ong Bak 2 and Ip Man all blowing my mind, but so far 2010 has come up big with the cinema of the East. Just in the last few months I’ve experienced a whole slate of films that have re-invigorated my enthusiasm, and not just for Asian cinema, but for cinema in general. What’s even better, is that there are more films on the horizon that are still coming out this year, as Ong Bak 3, Ip Man 2 and Reign of Assassins have me pumped about as much as any other projects I’m looking forward to. Even if none of those end up meeting my expectations though, I’ve already been excited by what I’ve gotten to see in 2010.

Here’s a quick rundown of what I’ve had the privilege of experiencing so far, with hopefully many more to come before 2010 is over. I’m actually planning on going more in-depth with many of these films in the next few weeks, this intro just managed to go a lot longer than I expected.

Shinjuku Incident Starring Jackie Chan, Naoto Takenaka, and Daniel Wu. Directed by Derek Yee.

How interested would you be in a movie that starred Jackie Chan, but contained no kung fu and no comedy? More than likely you would think the prospect of such a movie ridiculous, and that the chances of it being good would be even more remote, but you’d be dead wrong. Shinjuku Incident tells the story of a man who emigrates illegally from Hong Kong to Japan, searching for his fiancé, but faced with starvation he forms his own little crime family with the people around him, making a living stealing where ever he can. Eventually coming into conflict with the local police force and Yakuza gang in the area, the movie culminates in a bloody feud with some hard hitting violence.

Now let me tell you, I wasn’t ready for Jackie Chan’s performance in this movie. He’s a man that takes the reins of his “family” out of necessity, but you can still see that he’s struggling with the good man he used to and wants to be. This is a man that carries out cold blooded murder and chops off limbs, but his evil deeds are killing himself just a little more each time he has to break the law. If this is the type of performance we’ll be getting from him in the future, then I’m totally on board with dramatic Jackie Chan roles. If you’re a fan of Jackie or just Hong Kong crime movies like Infernal Affairs, Protégé or PTU, this is a movie well worth seeking out.

Bodyguards and Assassins Starring Donnie Yen, Nicholas Tse, and Leon Lai. Directed by Teddy Chen

Imagine if 16 Blocks took place in early 20th Century Hong Kong, and also imagine that it is a really, really good movie. Bodyguards and Assassinsis that movie. Starring an all-star Chinese cast and telling the true-life tale of a group that came together to protect an important freedom fighter, this film is garnering a ton of great reviews and awards for its terrific mix of drama and brutal action. I’m sure running from one end of Hong Kong to the other is tough enough, but doing while being hunted down by dozens of assassins makes it near impossible.

While the plots may be very similar, in terms of quality 16 Blocks isn’t in the same league as this film, which has incredible dramatic performances all around to go with one amazing setpiece after another. This is intense movie making from start to finish and once the bullets, swords, and fists start flying, they don’t stop until the very end of the movie. Director Teddy Chen manages to combine the trappings of the historical drama with the tone of the classic “Heroic Bloodshed” Hong Kong films of the ’80s and ’90s to give us a really impressive production here that deserves a lot of the attention it’s been getting overseas.

Merantau Starring Iko Uwais, Sisca Jessica, Christine Hakim. Directed by Gareth Evans

Considered the Indonesian answer to Ong Bak, Merantau is about a young man named Yuda (Iko Uwais), who in the ancient tradition of his village, leaves his home in order to become a man and find himself. Once he journeys into the city, he rescues a girl being beaten by her boss and inadvertently stumbles into a world of prostitution and human slavery. Setting out to save the girl, he puts his life on the line to save not only her, but a group of strangers, and a whole lot of gangsters get put down hard in the process.

All you really need to know about this movie going in is that Iko Uwais is awesome. He is awesome in the movie’s amazing action sequences, which are done in a very realistic style and probably represent the best fight scenes I’ve seen in any movie this year, and he is also able to carry his dramatic scenes, which often are the sticking point with most action stars. There’s an innocence about his performance that reminds me of Tony Jaa in the original Ong Bak, but like I said, I think his dramatic scenes are more powerful than anything Jaa has done before.

Also worth noting is that this is my cinematic introduction to Silat, which is a fluid style martial art that is very different from Jaa’s very violent Muay Thai. It’s an interesting style to watch, and it’s so fun to see something unique when I’ve seen thousands of fight scenes before the ones in this film. I hope this is the beginning of a trend where more countries come out with their answer to Ong Bak, but if it’s not, this movie is a more than worthy successor.

Raging Phoenix Starring Jeeja Yanin and Kazu Patrick Tang. Directed by Rashane Limtrakul

Just as Tony Jaa emerged with Ong Bak and then followed up with the madness of The Protector, Jeeja Yanin follows up her amazing debut in Chocolate with a piece of over-the-top insanity. How crazy could it be? Well early on in the movie Yanin’s character Deu is nearly kidnapped by a gang of cross-dressing villains who have been on a spree of stealing women off the street in order to experiment on them with various types of drugs. She is rescued by a group of heroes that have all lost loved ones in the past to the kidnappers, and have been battling the villains by raiding their strongholds in order to save their latest victims. What do they use to battle the kidnappers? A combination of muay thai, drunken boxing, and break dancing, eventually teaching their martial arts to Deu in order to battle the forces the evil.

Now when I say this movie is insane, the plot description I just gave doesn’t really do justice to the film. For example, the opening fight scene/rescue takes place in a parking garage that is apparently adjacent to a stadium that is full of metal sculptures that make it look like a set out of Escape from New York. Many of the bad guys fight our heroes while wearing dual pogo sticks with blades on them, which make them look like an offshoot of the wheelies from Return to Oz. Again, it’s just something you need to see to believe. The end of the film takes place in the villain’s lair, which is apparently a giant underground cavern with rope bridges straight out of an Indiana Jones film, and did I mention the muay thai, drunken boxing, and break dancing? While not as “good” per se as Chocolate, this is definitely a fun movie to watch, just get ready for it to be as weird as it is action packed.

Goemon Starring Yosuke Eguchi, Takao Osawa, and Ryoko Hirosue. Directed by Kazuaki Kiriya

Do you like ninjas? How about Lord of the Rings? How do you feel about movies that are nearly all CGI backgrounds, most notably Speed Racer and 300? If you liked all of the above, then Goemon is absolutely for you. Throwing caution to the wind, director Kazuaki Kiriya’s film about a ninja version of Robin Hood that gets caught up in a struggle between warlords for the title of Shogun of all Japan is like a really awesome live action anime that doesn’t let things like historical accuracy or physics get in the way of showing you a good time. The less I say the better, just know this movie looks awesome and feels as epic as it needs to be.

The Good, The Bad, The Weird Starring Song Kang-ho, Lee Byung-hun, Jung Woo-sung. Directed by Derek Yee.

Straight up, I’ll tell you right now that I had more fun watching this film than I have any other movie this year. An “Eastern Western” of the highest degree, director Kim Ji-woon’s epic of three outlaws searching for a map set against the backdrop of WWII is an absolute blast. I hope that there’s some truth to this universe set in 1930s Manchuria where the area is a stand in for the Wild West; full of gunfighters, Mongolian bandits, Korean Independence fighters and the Japanese Army. Borrowing heavily from Sergio Leone, Kim Ji-woon manages to still make the movie all his own, and his vision is an awesome one to behold.

This is a definitely a movie I want to go into further, but I’ll say right now that this is a film with limitless energy and action scenes ready to blow your mind, especially a 15 minute chase scene that seems to just go and go that is absolutely applause worthy. The cast is outstanding, especially Song Kang-ho, who continues to impress after incredible performances in films such as Thirst, The Host and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. Also, those that were intrigued by Lee Byung-hun as Storm Shadow in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra should absolutely check him out here, as his bad guy is just unbelievably cool, and may just be one of the best villains of the year. This movie is actually available on-demand right now, so you should stop reading this column immediately and check it out.

Alright, that’s it for this week folks. The Summer is finally here so expect some good times ahead, but be on the lookout for some of these films. I’m sure to come back to them real soon.

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