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.
If one were to survey Japanese films that have been distributed in America over the last thirty to forty years, certain patterns would form. Works from the great masters, historical epics, dramas, monster movies and of course horror have certainly been well represented for decades. But one genre that’s severely lacking is comedy. In 1985, Juzo Itami’s noodle-western TAMPOPO became a smash hit, playing to sell-out crowds for months. However, since that time there haven’t been many Japanese comedies to find their way into the cultural zeitgeist, but that’s not for lack of material.
Though not quite a household name, prolific auteur Takashi Miike has made quite a splash outside of his native Japan, both within the fanboy community as well as the cinephile set. Then again, when you’ve completed nearly eighty films in only eighteen years, you’re bound to get recognized.
Though Thailand’s cinematic history extends back to 1923, it’s only been in last ten years or so that Thai films began cropping up in festivals and theaters worldwide. Even at home, directors were mostly churning out populist fare, catering to the masses with low-budget genre productions. In the 1970s there was a brief period of socially critical films, which stemmed from the student uprisings of 1973 and 1976. However, it wasn’t until 1997 that Thai cinema found acceptance and acclaim in the west, and it began when newcomer Pen-Ek Ratanaraung’s debut feature, FUN BAR KARAOKE, had its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival. Considered the birth of New Thai Cinema, it paved the way for a handful of directors working both within genres (Prachya Pinkaew, ONG BAK) and strictly arthouse (Aphichatpong Weerasethakul, SYNDROMES AND A CENTURY). Yet what separates Ratanaraung from most of his peers is the international success he’s found from audiences both high and low.
Vengeance as a core theme is no stranger to Asian cinema, and it’s been employed by directors working in genre cinema (Shunya Ito’s FEMALE PRISONER #701: SCORPION) as well as those catering to the arthouse crowd (Akira Kurosawa’s THE BAD SLEEP WELL). Quentin Tarantino’s KILL BILL films were an amalgam of Asian revenge films; everything from Hong Kong Kung-Fu flicks of the 70s to Toshiya Fujita’s LADY SNOWBLOOD series.
It doesn’t take much more than a precursory glance at Hollywood’s output in recent years to conclude that there’s without question a shortage of original ideas. Reboots of old franchises (STAR TREK), endless, pointless sequels (THE SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS 2), and even toy and board game-based movies (GI-JOE, MONOPOLY) are being green-lit by studios more than willing to dump millions into their productions. But by far the most egregious offense is the ever-increasing trend of remakes, particularly of films from Asia. To look at the situation, you’d think there wasn’t a single original screenplay to be found in all of the US.
Equally as comfortable with broad slapstick humor as he is with brooding psychological drama or straight-up genre films, Johnnie To is one of the (if not the) hardest working producer/directors in the Hong Kong film industry. A genuine auteurist who also knows how to create a crowd-pleasing hit, To’s career began in television back in the 1970s. Turning to cinema towards the end of the 80s, he spent the next seven years churning out a sizeable number of genre films – everything from comedy, action, suspense, and melodramas both large and small. Most of these films found a fair amount of success at the box office, but none were runaway hits. (The closest was THE HEROIC TRIO, which featured the dream leading-lady trifecta of Michelle Yeoh, Anita Mui, and Maggie Cheung.)
In 1996 he partnered with writer/producer/director Wai Ka-fai and formed Milkyway Image, a production company that allowed for the freedom to direct the kind of films that appealed to them. Early titles, such as WHERE A GOOD MAN GOES and A HERO NEVER DIES were decidedly different than typical Hong Kong fare of the time. These were darker stories, with a greater emphasis on character than on action. As liberating as that freedom was, To soon realized he’d have to find a balance in order to remain commercially viable, so he and Wai decided on an alternating pattern – “one film for the audience, one film for us”. (Example – The somewhat abstract and dark, complex crime film FULLTIME KILLER versus the lightweight, audience-friendly RomCom NEEDING YOU.) Yet even within his mainstream films, which strictly adhered to genre convention, To still managed to insert enough signature directorial flourishes to distinguish them from the multitude of titles flooding the market at that time.
The grifter has been a cinematic staple since the early days of the medium, and there probably isn’t a national cinema that doesn’t have at least a handful of con man/woman films in their celluloid archives. Much like gangsters, the con man is often a romanticized figure – we wouldn’t want to cross paths with one in real life, but we love seeing them succeed on the silver screen. And whether dashing (Redford and Newman in THE STING) or downright devilish (Angelica Huston in THE GRIFTERS) the allure of the scam artist will never fade.
Scene from TRIAD ELECTION
Just in time for the dog days of summer, Sundance Channel is gearing up to launch the sixth season of Asia Extreme, which features thirteen incredibly cool films to dive into beginning August 1 free on demand. Just as past seasons brought an eclectic mix of cutting edge Asian cinema from visionary directors breathing new life into (and in some cases subverting) such genres as horror (ONE MISSED CALL), thriller (A BITTERSWEET LIFE), action (SAVE THE GREEN PLANET), or science-fiction (NATURAL CITY), so too does the new lineup offer fresh takes on familiar forms.