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10 + 1 New Asian Movies Worth Seeing

Written by YesAsia.com Editorial Team Tell a Friend

Asian film fans are receiving a tasty year-end present: a slew of worthwhile DVDs, all being released in and around the 2005 Holiday season. The Asian Cinema powers that be have jammed the holiday release schedule with too many titles worth mentioning. To alleviate any indecision, YesAsia.com Team has put together this guide to 11 new films, designed to highlight some of the more notable releases from Japan, Hong Kong, and Korea that we feel are worth checking out. These films represent the quality and diversity of the current Asian Cinema scene. There's something for everyone on this list of 11 new films - though you may wish to warn grandma before popping in Neighbor #13. All About Love should suit her nicely, though.



Howl's Moving Castle

"Hayao Miyazaki is arguably the greatest director currently working in feature-length animation."

Based on the novel by Welsh author Diana Wynne Jones, Howl's Moving Castle is the latest film from visionary animator Hayao Miyazaki. Not surprisingly, the film is full of the anime auteur's trademark iconography: charming pseudo-European locales, a rich fantasy storyline, whimsical supporting characters, a headstrong female lead, anti-war/pro-environment sentiments, and of course, flying vehicles. Featuring the voice talents of Takuya Kimura from SMAP as the wizard Howl, with Christian Bale (a.k.a.: Batman) playing the same character on the English dub track.

Hayao Miyazaki is arguably the greatest director currently working in feature-length animation, and he brings all of his unparalleled storytelling abilities to Howl's Moving Castle. The result is an amazingly imaginative fantasy, featuring a simple, yet elegant message dressed up with charming characters, gorgeous animation, and a trademark excellent Joe Hisaishi score. If you can't tell already, we're sold on anything Miyazaki touches. He could probably base his next animated feature on the official 2006 US Tax Laws and it would still be an astounding and vastly entertaining film.



Aegis

"Aegis ably demonstrates that it isn't just Hollywood heroes who can kick ass."

Aegis is the latest in a series of films based on the work of novelist Harutoshi Fukui, who has captured Japanese audience attention with a flag-waving take on Japan's military. Previous to his films, the reigning cinema representation of the Self Defense Forces was as faceless soldiers trying to stop a giant fire-breathing lizard from stepping on random pedestrians. The 2005 hits Lorelei, Sengoku Jieitai 1549, and now Aegis have delivered active, Hollywood-type heroics from Japan's protectors - and Japanese audiences have approved to the tune of mucho box-office receipts. All three films were based on the works of Harutoshi Fukui. Clearly, the man must be doing something right.


Terrorists have taken over an Aegis-class naval vessel, and Japan is in serious trouble. Armed with a secret biological weapon, the villains aim to replace Tokyo with a smoking crater. Unfortunately for them, there's non-commissioned officer Sengoku (the righteous Hiroyuki Sanada) on board. Along with a young seaman (Ryo Katsuji), Sengoku takes on the terrorists in a manner that would do Bruce Willis (or maybe even Steven Seagal) proud. Aegis also features a score from composer Trevor Jones (The Last of the Mohicans), though it more than compensates for its Hollywood-like status with a who's who of recognizable Japanese stars, plus Korean actress Choi Min Seo as the requisite lethal femme fatale. Aegis ably demonstrates that it isn't just Hollywood heroes who can kick ass.



Neighbor #13

"Neighbor #13 plays like a cross between Ichi The Killer and Fight Club, with a healthy dose of Kill Bill/Oldboy-style revenge thrown in."

Based on the Japanese manga by Santa Inoue, first time director Yasuo Inoue (no relation) has created a violent, shocking, yet thoroughly entertaining film that lives up to the expectations of many Japanese movie fans. Juzo is a broken young man, still bearing the emotional scars from years of bullying as a schoolboy. He moves into a small apartment and takes a job at a local building site, but to his horror discovers that his childhood tormentor, Akai, is now not only his neighbor but also his boss. This awakens inside of Juzo a vengeful alter ego - the physically superior Neighbor 13, who unleashes indiscriminate waves of fury whenever Juzo's anger boils over.

Neighbor #13 plays like a cross between Ichi The Killer and Fight Club, with a healthy dose of Kill Bill/Oldboy-style revenge thrown in. It even features horror maestro Takashi Miike as one of Juzo's neighbors. The film is visually rich, mirroring Juzo's split personality by contrasting high-speed editing and lurid color schemes with long, static takes when exploring the calm domesticity of the real world. There is also an entertaining retro anime sequence as Juzo explains to his petrified friend how he can transform into a vicious killer. By turns funny and disturbing, fans of extreme Asian Cinema will enjoy the line the film treads between the horrific and the humorous. While the character Neighbor #13 may prove unlucky for some, the film will be a nasty delight for many.



The Myth

"Seeing Jackie Chan in a Hong Kong (read: not Hollywood) movie is reason enough for anyone to see The Myth..."

Jackie Chan straps on a sword and shield (not to mention a heavy-looking helmet) as Meng Yi, a renowned general of the Qin Dynasty who finds forbidden love with the Emperor's latest concubine, a Korean princess named Ok-Soo (Korean superstar Kim Hee-Sun). Chan also plays Jack Lee, a modern-day archaeologist and Meng Yi's reincarnation, who gets to pal around with voluptuous Bollywood queen Malika Sherawat. Somehow the two stories collide, but not without plenty of fighting and nimble Jackie Chan-style hijinks.

Seeing Jackie Chan in a Hong Kong (read: not Hollywood) movie is reason enough for anyone to see The Myth, but the heavy-looking helmet Chan sports tips the scale to must-see status. Chan's take on a Qin Dynasty-era general makes for drama and pageantry not common to the usual Jackie Chan action-comedies, and the veteran actor-stuntman handles the role with convincingly heroic and even tragic charisma. The supporting cast, including Tony Leung Ka Fai, Mainland actor Shao Bing, Korean actor Choi Min Soo (Sword in the Moon), and the aforementioned Kim Hee-Sun and Malika Sherawat are excellent and/or easy on the eyes. Plus, the DVD's supplementary features actually have English subtitles. For a Hong Kong DVD, the rarity of this happening cannot be accurately described.



Election

"Box office numbers in Hong Kong are usually reserved for fluffy commercial films starring a pair of girls who aren't really twins, so the success of Election is more than surprising."

What a long wait it's been. Johnnie To's Election was in production for who knows how long, but the film's journey to DVD has been rather tortuous for those accustomed to Hong Kong's short theatrical-to-video windows. Election actually premiered in May of 2005 at the Cannes Film Festival before finally arriving in Hong Kong cinemas just this past October. Even more, the film was slapped with a box-office killing Category III rating, earned for graphic depiction of real-life triad rituals. Yet the film still became a sizable hit even without the presence of a major Andy Lau-type star.

Box office numbers in Hong Kong are usually reserved for fluffy commercial films starring a pair of girls who aren't really twins, so the success of Election is more than surprising. It all starts with one man: Johnnie To. Hong Kong's leading do-it-all director has helmed everything from hard-boiled crime thrillers to cutesy Lunar New Year kitsch, but Election presents the director at his absolute best. The film details the ins-and-outs of a triad election with slow-burn cinematic tension, and possesses a dark, uncompromising ending that feels utterly appropriate. Election was also nominated for a gazillion Golden Horse awards, and will likely get the same treatment at next year's Hong Kong Film Awards. No hyperbole: anyone who cares about Hong Kong movies should see Election.



Wait 'Til You're Older / All About Love

"The attraction here: Andy Lau...plus Andy Lau and Andy Lau."

Choose from one Andy Lau or two. Wait 'Til You're Older is the Andy Lau variation on Hollywood blockbusters Big and Jack, with the pop superstar using visual effects and old-age makeup to play a young boy who ages into an elderly man within days. Those looking for a non-aging Andy Lau might prefer the Korean-style romantic drama All About Love, where he plays two identical-looking men, one romancing Charlie Young, and the other married to Charlene Choi. Bringing a pack, or even a whole box of tissues would be smart.

The attraction here: Andy Lau...plus Andy Lau and Andy Lau. Hong Kong's hardest working superstar has been absent since last year's A World Without Thieves, so two films with three Andy Laus sounds pretty good right about now. A pure romantic melodrama, All About Love is the first film from Lau's new Focus Films production house, and features inspired pairings between Lau and his co-stars Charlie Young and Charlene Choi. Wait 'Til You're Older is currently the 2nd highest-grossing Hong Kong film of 2005, and manages to squeeze laughs, tears, and solid acting - especially from Karen Mok, as Lau's mother(!) - into an entertaining 100 minutes. There are plenty of reasons to see both films. In the end, however, it's undeniably all about Andy.


Everlasting Regret

"Everlasting Regret challenges the veteran starlet to actually act, and her performance was subjected to a Hong Kong media microscope unlike any other."

Hong Kong Cinema has not seen a drama like Everlasting Regret in quite a while. Director Stanley Kwan's adaptation of the classic novel "Changhen Ge" is a sumptuous portrait of old Shanghai that shares much in common with Kwan's earlier celebrated works. Everlasting Regret defines a city through the story of a fallen woman (like in Kwan's classic Rouge), and creates a complex central character through a juxtaposition of internal and external tensions (like Kwan's Red Rose, White Rose). It's also really, really beautiful to watch, and possesses gorgeous costumes and production design from regular Wong Kar-Wai collaborator William Cheung Suk Ping.

Another large reason to watch Everlasting Regret: Sammi Cheng. Hong Kong Cinema's go-to golden girl in the new millennium, Cheng has thus far in her career essayed perky and sometimes screechingly lovable girl-next-door types in blockbuster romantic comedies that are as fluffy and inconsequential as they are enjoyable. Everlasting Regret challenges the veteran starlet to actually act, and her performance was subjected to a Hong Kong media microscope unlike any other. Cheng delivers, and is aided by Tony Leung Ka Fai, appearing in his third movie on this list of "Must See" movies. There's a connection there somewhere. Still, for Hong Kong art film aficionados, Everlasting Regret is the odds-on 2005 pick.



Sympathy for Lady Vengeance

"...a brilliant and darkly funny movie about grudges held, redemption sought, and the most important thing of all: good pastry."

JSA put director Park Chan Wook on the map, but it was his revenge films (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy) that essentially created international Park-mania. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance brings his Vengeance Trilogy to its fitting close, delivering a brilliant and darkly funny movie about grudges held, redemption sought, and the most important thing of all: good pastry. Park's protagonist Geum-Ja is a woman driven to unspeakable acts, but she's also an infamous ex-con, a converted Christian, a near-angelic matriarch, and a damn fine cook to boot. That's one complex lady.

Playing Geum-Ja: JSA actress Lee Young-Ae, who's probably better known for starring in some dinky Korean drama called Dae Jang Geum. The runaway blockbuster K-drama of 2004, Dae Jang Geum was the story of a giving, loving, and yes, near-angelic figure - kind of like Geum-Ja, except without a custom-made gun designed for maximum vengeance. Checking out Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is a chance to see Lee Young-Ae play the bad girl. Co-starring as the object of her eternal ire is Oldboy's Choi Min Sik, and many famous luminaries of Park Chan Wook's films also make surprise appearances. This is clearly Park's show, and he does DVD audiences one better by giving them two versions of the film. The first version is the full-color theatrical release, while the second is a version that slowly fades from color to black-and-white. If you choose to watch the second version, don't think it's your TV breaking.



April Snow

"Bae Yong Joon is at his most resplendently romantic in April Snow - especially during the famously hot love scene with Son Ye Jin."

There's a lot of highly regarded talent behind the drama April Snow. It starts with director Hur Jin Ho, who brought us the new Korean Cinema classic Christmas in August, as well as the not-quite-classic-but-still-pretty-damn-good One Fine Spring Day. April Snow is the story of a man and a woman, both of whom race to the hospital after their spouses have been hospitalized following a car crash. The kicker: their spouses were together, leading to the stunning realization that they were carrying on an affair. Shock and betrayal soon lead the cuckolded couple to contemplate their own affair. Aiding matters is the fact that both of them are insanely attractive.

April Snow's leading lady is Son Ye Jin, last seen as a gorgeous Alzheimer's victim in the glorious weepie A Moment to Remember. Son is an actress on the rise, but her star is eclipsed by co-star Bae Yong Joon, known for his sensitive, glasses-sporting romantic heroes in the blockbuster K-Dramas Winter Sonata and Hotelier. Bae is arguably the most beloved Korean actor worldwide; in fact, he's so popular in Japan that there's even a line of glasses-wearing teddy bears designed to resemble him! Bae is at his most resplendently romantic in April Snow - especially during the famously hot love scene with Son Ye Jin. However, what earns April Snow must-see status is not only the photogenic star pairing, but its self-proclaimed status as a "breakthrough" film for director Hur Jin Ho. As one of Korean Cinema's leading commercial artists, each and every work Hur produces deserves notice.



Welcome to Dongmakgol

"Welcome to Dongmakgol could be the Korean film people talk about well into 2006."

Reason #1 to see Welcome to Dongmakgol: it's the highest-grossing Korean film of the year. Reason #2: it marks the auspicious and exciting feature-length debut of director Park Kwang Hyun. Reason #3: it's smart, funny, touching, dramatic, and very, very good. Based on a play by writer/filmmaker Jang Jin (Guns and Talks, Someone Special), Welcome to Dongmakgol tells the tale of a rural village called, naturally, Dongmakgol. Nestled in a remote mountain region, Dongmakgol is a peaceful, playful place that knows no war - which is ironic, because there happens to be one going on. The Korean War is raging, and when both South Korean AND North Korean soldiers show up on Dongmakgol's doorsteps, smart money is that the village will get caught in the middle.

Which it does, but how that happens is what truly sets the film apart. Welcome to Dongmakol has earned comparisons to the work of Hayao Miyazaki (director Park cites the anime auteur as a direct influence), not only because of its anti-war themes, but because of its pitch-perfect blend of humor, fantasy and realism, and the unique and rich characters essayed by stars Shin Ha Kyun, Jung Jae Young, Kang Hye Jung and Im Ha Ryong. Director Park lets his imagination run free on the screen, using varying camera speeds, extensive CGI, and laugh-out-loud absurdities to create a true Asian Cinema sleeper. Welcome to Dongmakgol is currently Korea's official entry into the coming Academy Awards. Everyone out West has been talking about A Bittersweet Life or Sympathy for Lady Vengeance as 2005's preeminent Korean film, but Welcome to Dongmakgol could be the Korean film people talk about well into 2006.



Published December 12, 2005


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