Top 10 Favorite Asian Films of 2000-2010
We see a lot of movies during these winter hibernations, a lot of them Asian. At first, we thought it was because we missed being away from the Motherland. But when we found ourselves back in Hong Kong this past summer, we inevitably found ourselves in the theaters, inhaling one movie after another. And that’s when we realized we don’t necessarily miss the real Asia itself, but its cinematic version. Why live in reality, when we could pall around with martial artists, triad gangsters, anime babes and perverse crazies instead?
To honor the past decade of fine (East) Asian cinema, I present my favorite films released since Y2K:
Dir: Tony Ching. Starring: Maggie Q, Anya Wu, Daniel Wu.
I’m not even going to try to defend this choice: this one is straight up a guilty-pleasure-rollocking-good-time. It’s a gem of the same high caliber as Step Up 2 The Streets. No profundity to be found here, though feel free to prove me wrong.
But really, this film sells itself – just listen to this premise. Promising girl athletes are kidnapped and trained by professional mercenaries into ultimate badass murder machines. They deceive their bigwig targets by posing as foxy high-class escorts, only to butcher these old, useless fools and take down a country of bodyguards with expert gunmanship and leggy martial arts.
And one of those women is Maggie Q. That’s all you need to know.
Dir: Edmond Pang Ho-Cheung. Starring: Eric Kot, Cheung Tat-Ming, Chan Wai-Man.
Dark comedy, with the exception of perhaps Bong Joon-ho (we’ll get to him later), cannot get any better than this. Yes, it’s a satirical jab at Hong Kong in so many ways (the economy, film industry, porn industry, socialites, triads), but it also manages to do an incredible thing, which is make us cheer on murder.
Moral implications aside, it’s one of the funniest and most fun films I’ve ever seen. The story, written by Pang himself, is balls-out wacky. Hitman Bart, during times of financial hardship, is tasked by a female socialite to film his hit on a gangster who released a sex tape of her. The shaky-cam result is useless and dissatisfying, but she gives Bart one more chance. He teams up with Cheun, an NYU film school grad and Martin Scorsese fan doomed to assisting on porno sets, to create a masterpiece of assassination snuff film. The result is gleeful chaos. Tarantino would approve.
Dir: Michael Arias. Animated by Studio 4°C.
In Treasure Town, adults aren’t the ones to be feared. As the story goes in Tekkonkinkreet, two orphaned delinquents, aptly named Black and White, run the show. The former is older, harder, and almost nihilistic in his ways, but he nonetheless protects the latter, a child with an unblemished naivete. Together they must deal with the threat of Rat, a yakuza who looks to take over the turf.
This film is the Big Daddy orgasm of visually stunning anime films. Sorry, but 5 Centimeters Per Second and Paprika ain’t got shit on Tekkonkinkreet, based on the excellent manga by Taiyō Matsumoto, and that’s because of how incredible and tenable the setting of Treasure Town is. It lives and breathes like worlds actually do. It’s got a stylish soul like no other.
Dir: John Woo. Starring: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Zhang Fengyi.
Really, it’s Lord of the Rings + Romance of the Three Kingdoms + Sun Tzu’s Art of War + Confucius’ Analects. Oh yeah, plus John Woo, who’s only the greatest director of balletic action sequences known to humankind.
The Battle of Red Cliff, the event which the story hinges upon, was so badass that Woo needed two films to do it even an iota of justice. The southern warlords Sun Quan and Liu Bei defend their land against the megalomaniac Prime Minister Cao Cao, bent on bringing all of China under his foot.
In addition to witnessing whirlwind fight scenes, we also see famous historical military tactics such as “borrowing the enemy’s arrows” and the “Eight Trigrams Formation” turn the tide of the battle. It’s no simple war. This is the epic film of the decade.
Dir: Wong Kar-wai. Starring: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Maggie Cheung.
If Red Cliff is a ballet of swords, In the Mood for Love is a ballet of unutterable desires. It’s Leung and Cheung’s dance with one another – electric in their mutual attraction yet never consummating it – that keeps us totally riveted.
A journalist named Chow and his next-door neighbor So decide together to shun the infidelity they are sure their respective spouses are engaged in. Yet in doing so, they are inevitably drawn closer together. Everything you hate or love about WKW is in full flourish here. The slow motion, the wonderful soundtrack by Shigeru Umebayashi, the rose-tinted camera that lingers like our memories.
The nostalgia, the faraway fantasy of 1960′s Hong Kong becomes a romantic exploration of sorrow and unfulfillment. And if none of it moves you, well, you’re a robot.
Also, this is also how I learned the qi pao is the sexiest costume in the Asian wardrobe.
Dir: Andrew Lau and Alan Mak. Starring: Andy Lau, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Eric Tsang, Anthony Wong.
Surprise, surprise. It was going to show up sooner or later. Other than the fact that this film alone reinvigorated an entire genre, nay, film industry, it’s also so damned good because this is exactly what Hong Kong crime thrillers should always be like: well-written and well-performed. And even though it’s slick, it’s not cliched. Well done.
Should I even bother to recount the plot? A triad gang and the popo go head-to-head when both discover that the other side has an undercover agent masquerading as one of them. Gun-pointing, psychiatrist-romancing and wire-tapping ensue.
Also, this is the film that Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning The Departed was based on, but you already knew that. If you didn’t, slap yourself. Again. Again. I hope it’s red, raw and stinging by now, so you’ll remember to watch this the first chance you get.
Dir: Edward Yang. Starring: Nien-Jen Wu, Elaine Jin.
Every film from Taiwan I’ve seen really enjoys being slow as hell. That’s totally fine with me in the case of Yi Yi, Edward Yang’s three-hour magnum opus that follows the trials and tribulations of a Taipei family, because it builds and builds into such an encompassing experience of love, loss, and quiet desperation.
Framed by a wedding at the beginning of the film and a funeral at the end, the story centers on a father dissatisfied by his work at a tech company, his mischievous younger son, and his romantically-conflicted older daughter. Meanwhile, the mother has left the home temporarily to confront her own existential crisis, and the grandmother is in a coma. Its heartbreak is so well done on every level – story, acting, cinematography – so beautifully capturing the stifling limbo of living.
Despite it being my third favorite, this film is likely the best one on my list. Many agree with me. It won Yang Best Director at Cannes and was selected by Sight & Sound in 2002 as one of the best films in the past 25 years.
Dir: Bong Joon-ho. Starring: Song Kang-ho, Kim Sang-kyung, Kim Roe-ha.
Though popular in its home country of South Korea (the 4th most viewed film after the end of its run), Memories of Murder is eclipsed on the world stage by that other Korean film, Grand Prix winner Oldboy, or even Bong’s more recent monster film, The Host.
This one is by far the best. It follows small town detective Park, who is joined by Seoul hotshot investigator Seo in solving a serial murder and rape case, based on real events from 1986-1991.
Complex, genre-bending, and thrilling, this is what Fincher’s 2007 film Zodiac should have been. The last shot is one of the most haunting of all time. Now one of my favorite movies, period.
Dir: Johnnie To. Starring: Simon Yam, Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Louis Koo, Nick Cheung.
It’s The Godfather series of Triad films. Infinitely nuanced, strikingly filmed, and brilliantly performed, Election‘s comparison to Coppola’s masterpiece is not hyperbole in the least. This is To’s own tour-de-force. Tarantino even called Election the best film of 2005.
The two films both revolve around triad members fighting over the coveted leadership position of Chairman, a role which changes every two years. They’re a fascinating look at the city’s history and compelling drama that in fact doesn’t rely on operatic gunfights but conniving backroom dealings and sudden gritty spurts of ugly violence. The movies so much embody the Hong Kong condition – conflict of tradition and modern, of displaced Chinese and immigrant identity – that I even wrote a paper on the two films.
It’s not at all pretty or shiny. Infernal Affairs this is not. But it leaves all the more an impression for it.
And finally, we come to the peak of this decade:
This is the Truth. Spirited Away embodies every quality a film should be: artistry, humanity, and wonder. It’s magical in its entertainment, whisking us to some otherworld. Yet at the same time, Chihiro’s adventure to save her parents in this dreamscape of spirits and monsters itches you in a place you can’t scratch – it’s so familiar but also so unreal. The mastery required to evoke that feeling of overwhelming nostalgia in a setting so fantastical is staggering. But luckily, Miyazaki has it in spades.
Even Tekkonkinkreet can’t touch this film. The visuals are so haunting – I will never forget Chihiro sitting on the train, cabin empty but for a few ghostly figures lost in their own thoughts, as it travels across the deep blue sea.
The movie is on one hand an story of growing up, but on the other hand also a larger allegory about a modern world drifting away from what was once known, torn between its own materialistic greed and mythologized nostalgia. A poignant story, if there ever was one.
Honorable Mentions: 2046, AV, Battle Royale, Bodyguards & Assassins, Exiled, The Host, I Not Stupid, Ju-on, Kung Fu Hustle, Lagaan, Mad Detective, Men Suddenly In Black, Millennium Actress, My Sassy Girl, Nanking, PTU, Ping Pong, Shaolin Soccer, Sparrow, the Vengeance Trilogy (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance), Zatōichi.
(Note: I realize all the selections are East Asian. I’ve only seen a few other films beyond this region, and that’s my fault and reason for not including any Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Singaporean, or other Asian films. I will be sure to educate myself in the coming months. Suggestions to get me started are most welcome.)
Disagree with some of my choices, or want to suggest some of your own? Comment below!
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TAGS: Best Asian Films • Best Asian Movies • Best Asian movies of the decade • Chinese movies • Japanese movies • Korean movies • Memories of Murder • movies • Spirited Away • Top Asian Movies • Top Ten • Triad Election
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