June 8, 2016

2,000 minutes

Let's say you had 2,000 minutes that you wanted to spend watching movies. That breaks down to 33 hours and 20 minutes, so you could stock up on meals and snacks and run from 8.00am to 12.40am over a weekend. What would you watch with those 2,000 minutes? I am a pretty keen fan of Asian cinema, so let's say you wanted to see some great and entertaining Asian films. You could keep things simple, I suppose, and watch the first 21 Godzilla films in a row. On the other hand you could get an in-depth understanding of a particular director, like Akira Kurosawa: 2,000 minutes would get you from his debut feature Sanshiro Sugata all the way to The Lower Depths (his 17th).

I think a little variety would be better. Under the cut are my picks, pretty much made by browsing along my DVD collection until I hit 2,000 minutes of viewing time. These are not the best Asian films ever made, and they don't really follow any kind of pattern or logic beyond them being films that have really entertained me and that I would enthusiastically recommend to others. 20 movies in all: 12 from Japan, six from Hong Kong and China, and two from South Korea. Watch them over a weekend, or watch them occasionally over the course of a year. Either way, these are 20 Asian films I would wholeheartedly recommend.

Let's start on a lighter note with Gallants (98 mins), a 2010 martial arts comedy from Hong Kong that was directed by Derek Kwok and Clement Cheng. The film follows a nerdy employee from a real estate company who gets involved in a run-down kung fu school. It is not just the film's humorous tone that makes it work: the casting of former Hong Kong movie greats like Bruce Leung and Chen Kuan-ti help to also make it an enthused and heartfelt love letter to an older generation of kung fu movie. I reviewed the film back when it was first released, and you can read that review here.

From there's let's make a sharp change in tone to Black Coal, Thin Ice (110 mins). This mainland Chinese crime film by Diao Yinan is a remarkable slow burn. It focuses on a disgraced former police detective (Liao Fan) who enters into a love affair with a suspected murderer. This film has a remarkably strong sense of place - a freezing cold coal mining town - and a stark, haunting atmosphere that makes the film linger in the mind for positively ages afterwards. My full review of the film is here.

Avalon (107 mins) remains a remarkable film for many reasons. It is a brilliantly constructed science fiction movie written and directed by Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell, Patlabor), which was overshadowed by The Matrix at the time but arguably did a much smarter job with very similar material. Strangely, despite being a Japanese film through and through, Oshii shot it in Poland with a cast of Polish actors.

After two pretty serious films it is probably worth jumping to something a lot more fun. Teddy Chen's 2009 action film Bodyguards and Assassins (133 mins) is utterly ridiculous in the most charming of ways. It is set in 1906: Dr Sun Yat-Sen is to deliver a speech in Hong Kong, but Imperial China has dispatched a multitude of assassins to kill him before he can get through town to make it. As a result a rag-tag team of martial artist bodyguards are gathered to protect the road. This film pretty much divides itself into two halves. The first sets up all the bodyguards and outlines their plan of defence. The second is essentially a 70-minute rolling action scene. My full review of the film is here.

Not only a change of tone but a change of time: Good Morning (aka Ohayo, 94 mins) is a ridiculously charming domestic comedy by Yasujiro Ozu. It was produced back in 1959 and follows two young brothers who desperately want a television on which they can watch sumo wrestling. When their parents refuse the brothers go on strike. While that's the basic plot, it is surrounded by a raft of little stories about their neighbourhood, showcasing petty jealousies, and comic misunderstandings. The film also shows off an unexpected sideline in scatological humour on Ozu's part.

The Bride with White Hair (90 mins) is one of my all-time sentimental favourites. It is a classic Hong Kong wuxia film, displaying witches, magic and heroic swordspeople through excessive use of coloured lighting, wide-angle lenses and slow motion. There are better wuxia films out there - Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon for starters - but this wonderful romantic fantasy is an all-time legend of its genre. Brigitte Lin is superb. You can read my review of it here.

Hopefully the fantasy of The Bride with White Hair gives you enough of a break to handle Confessions (107 mins). This Japanese thriller is pitch-black and enormously disturbing. A high school teacher whose young daughter has died reveals in the very first scene that she knows two of her students were the murderers. The rest of the film details her revenge. While not as abruptly graphic as Takashi Miike's Audition, director Tetsuya Nakashima still manages to make this one of the more harrowing films I've seen in recent years. My full review of the film is here.

Speaking of Takashi Miike, I always feel people who see Audition and then swear off his films as a result are missing out on one of Japan's most wonderfully eclectic film-makers. I mean check out Yatterman (107 mins), a colourful, fast-paced comedic adaptation of an old anime series. For kids it is a cheerful action movie, but for adults it's an absolute riot as the actors strut around in ridiculous costumes while the hero and villain clearly begin to have sexual feelings for one another without being able to act on their desires. It is a weird, wonderfully strange little movie.

One of the world's best directors is Hong Kong's Johnnie To, and I think one of the best introductory films to his unique style is Exiled (105 mins). The film follows a gang of triad hit-men who make the decision to spare the life of their latest hit, leading them to become fugitives from their former gangster boss. The film has a wonderfully idiosyncratic narrative and pace, exceptionally shot action scenes and wonderfully understated and weary performance by Anthony Wong. A full review is available here.

I figured it was well worth throwing in a giant monster movie, and one of the all-time best is Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (103 mins). This reboot of Daiei's low-budget Godzilla knock-off - he's a giant alien turtle - was directed by genre super-fan Shusuke Kaneko, and the love for the genre and the giant rubber-suit monster aesthetic is palpable. This is a big, enormously fun monster movie, and if you enjoy it make sure you check out its two sequels as well. My review of the film is available here.

House (88 mins) is a really difficult film to explain. It is a 1970s Japanese horror movie directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi a man who spent his career producing glossy and strange television commercials. As a result the film, which isn't really that scary, is produced like a series of those commercials all strung together. It is near-incoherent, weirdly acted, and just utterly bizarre from start to finish. It was an enormous hit in Japan when it was first released, and really is a unique movie experience. Its cult audience is just getting bigger and bigger.

Park Chan-wook's JSA: Joint Security Area (110 mins) is a military crime thriller that manages to segue faultlessly into a quite a gentle human drama. The film concerns an apparent murder in the 'joint security area' that borders North and South Korea. This Rashomon-like film was the biggest Korean movie of all time when released in cinemas, and still packs an enormous emotional punch today. Park has directed a lot of exceptional films, but JSA was the first one I saw and it still sticks with me today. My review of the film is available here.

Hitoshi Matsumoto is a Japanese writer/director with a penchant for really weird comedies. I think his best - and probably weirdest film - is Symbol, but that is really hard to track down so instead I'll go for the more recent R100 (95 mins). It is the story of a man who signs up to a bondage club with a difference: in addition to paying a fee he signs away the right for random women to approach him in public and beat him up. This story is framed by another story, about an elderly film director infuriating the Japanese censors with a film too weird and offensive to be seen by anybody. My review of R100 can be found here.

From comedy back to thrillers: Overheard (100 mins) is a stunning Hong Kong surveillance thriller from Alan Mak and Felix Chong, the writing team whose film Infernal Affairs got remade by Martin Scorsese as The Departed. The film follows a police surveillance team who have bugged a rich financier due to suspicions of insider training. Two members of the team, who are both faced with crippling debts, use the information they gather to undertake some insider trading of their own. As one might expect, things begin to go wrong. This is a beautifully plotted and very well acted film, including performances by Lau Ching-wan (one of my personal favourites), Daniel Wu and Louis Koo. A Hollywood remake has already been signed up, so watch the original now and be ahead of the curve. My review of Overheard is here.

Daimajin (73 mins) is another giant monster movie, but one with a difference. When a rival warlord overthrows the rightful ruler to a castle, the ruler's runaway heirs head up the mountain to pray to the god Daimajin to save them. So Daimajin does, transforming into a huge armoured demon warrior that trashes the castle and the surrounding town on a murderous rampage. It is a fairly short film, and very bluntly plotted, but the combination of period drama (a genre called jidei-geki in Japan) and giant monster movie (kaiju-eiga) is wonderful. Two sequels followed in rapid succession, as well as a much more recent television spin-off. My review of Daimajin is here.

Villain (140 mins) is a deeply unsettling Japanese drama. Since watching it last year I have not quite managed to ever shake it off. The film is based around the murder of a young woman, and the seismic after-effects of her death. It follows her family and boyfriend, but also her murderer and - most disturbingly - the woman who falls in love with the murderer while he's on the run. It is a remarkable and very bleak look at human nature, with multiple scenes that are just jaw-dropping in how they are staged and performance. Joe Hisaishi's orchestral score is one of the best he's ever done. My review is here.

After Villain you are going to need something to shake the creepy vibes off, and Ping Pong (114 mins) is a perfect candidate. This manga adaptation follows a teen table tennis tournament, with distinctive and funny characters and tennis scenes shot as if they are from The Matrix. Perhaps the film is a little long, but it more than compensates with likeable performances and a really pleasant sense of humour. My review can be found here.

A Tale of Two Sisters (109 mins) is a great supernatural thriller from South Korea. A family arrives at a summer house: a father, a step-mother, and two daughters. It is obvious from the first scene that there is something wrong. The family don't get along, and there's clearly an unspoken tragedy somewhere in the family's past. Then unexplained supernatural goings-on seem to start happening. This is a great film: effectively directed by Kim Jee-woon and with a really nice unexpected storyline. I think this is my favourite Korean horror film. My review is available here.

From supernatural horror to flat-out bizarre horror: Higuchinski's Uzumaki (91 mins) is a surreal film based on a manga by horror superstar Junji Ito. A small Japanese mountain town begins to fall under the spell of a strange spiral effect. People become obsessed with spiral patterns and shapes. A schoolgirl's hair starts to flail about in curls. Some students begin to transform into snails. As far as horror films go it's not remotely scary, but it's addictively strange.

For the last two hours of this 2,000-minute marathon it's worth finishing on a brighter note, and I've seen few brighter films in recent years than The Woodsman and the Rain (129 mins). A middle-aged logger in Hokkaido gets interrupted by the crew of a low-budget zombie movie. He helps them out, but then gets asked for help again, and again. He soon has the entire town roped into playing zombies, and forms a beautifully understated friendship with the movie's stressed-out and under-confident young director. This is a very gentle and remarkably sweet comedy, and very distinctly Japanese. My review is available here.

This was the 2,000th post on The Angriest. The blog started back on 7 January 2011 with a review of the British childrens drama The Feathered Serpent. The most popular post of all time remains this "Five Films" article on Mark Hamill. I noted the 1,000th post of the blog with "1,000 minutes", picking 1,000 minutes' worth of films I thought it would be worth watching. You can read that one here. Thank you for continuing to read The Angriest.

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