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ASIA EXTREME: Roots of the Extreme

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Though the ‘Asia Extreme’ moniker has only been around since 2005, Asian cinema, particularly from Hong Kong and Japan, has a long and illustrious history with cutting edge genre fare, and has been producing and distributing envelope-pushing films for nearly fifty years. While these films rarely found a home outside of their native countries, their taboo-busting efforts were not unnoticed at home where they had loyal and dedicated followers.

In the 1950s and 60s, as Japan was going through its post-war economic recovery, one of its largest film studios, Nikkatsu, decided to shift their focus from samurai and historical dramas and instead concentrate on Yakuza films and other gritty tales of urban sex and violence that appealed tremendously to the up-and-coming youth market. And though the studio was cranking out titles at an impressive rate to keep up with demand, many of these films have gone on to be considered classics, owing to the directors who helmed these efforts – people like Seijun Suzuki, who clearly brought an arthouse sensibility to films such as YOUTH OF THE BEAST (1963), KANTO WANDERER (1963), and of course BRANDED TO KILL (1967), considered by many to be his masterpiece. Not only were these films delivering more than adequate doses of sex and violence in order to satiate their audiences, there was something remarkably stylish about them, and Suzuki employed techniques that one associates more with the French New Wave than with a typical gangster film. A skilled technician and a seemingly bottomless well of innovation, his visionary films are as aesthetically thrilling as the many action-packed bullet ballets found within.

Though Japan had a strict censorship law about obscenity (which for years was interpreted as meaning the display of pubic hair and genitals was taboo), filmmakers were otherwise given tremendous freedom when it came to subject matter, and the material in many of these films is far rougher and more graphic than what their American and European peers were producing at that time. Excessive violence, rape, torture and all-around cruelty towards women was commonplace – these films were far from progressive – and still come off as disturbingly rough, even by today’s standards.

The success of these films paved the way for the rise of the Pink Film, exercises in softcore sexploitation that quickly turned into a booming industry. Directors hired for these films were given some basic ground rules as to the percentage of required sex scenes, as well as a limited budget, but beyond that they could do whatever they wanted. Struggling filmmakers from all over signed up to produce these works, for at least it was a fully-funded creative outlet. As a result, there are some wonderful Pink Films that also serve as excellent examples of trends in the avant-garde/experimental scene in Japan at this time. In the 70s, Pink Film gave way to Roman Porno, which was pretty much the same thing, but with higher budgets, and featuring actors and actresses culled from more mainstream action films.

In Hong Kong, early examples of extreme cinema can be found in the notorious Category III films, which have been around since the late 1980s. The Hong Kong rating system, which began in 1988, is not entirely unlike the MPAA system in the United States. Category III, which is used for films restricted to age eighteen and over, was originally put in place for sexually explicit material, but it soon became associated with a new breed of films that broke taboos, and sought to outdo each other in disturbing content. Though their subject matter is often shocking, and at times sickening, many of these films have performed extremely well at the box office, and some even won Hong Kong Film Awards, including versatile actor Anthony Wong for his portrayal of a serial-killing chef in THE UNTOLD STORY. Cannibalism, rape, murder, necrophilia — if it’s a tasteless subject, there’s guaranteed to be a Catergory III film about it.

What effect, if any, these films had on the directors associated with today’s Asia Extreme movement is difficult to determine (at least without asking them), but it’s probably safe to assume that each of them saw their fair share in their youth.