Other 2003 Asian Picks from Brian


It is never easy keeping up with the current Japanese film scene for a couple of reasons. They tend to take a long time to release the films on DVD – and when they do they rarely have English subs and on top of that often cost over $60. So most of us are dependent on the films being picked up and released by non-Japanese distributors or coming across them in film festivals. So there are tons of Japanese films I haven’t seen from last year. In no particular order, here are a few I saw that I found worthy of checking out. I am generally using the films in Midnight Eye’s list of 2003 films as my guide as to what came out.


Everyone expects a Miike film to be weird but the last five minutes of this film is mind bendingly weird like nothing I have ever seen – it will have you re-evaluating the sexual act - and yet it’s touchingly humanistic in a bizzaro “Jules et Jim” way. The film is surprisingly bereft of violence except for one poor dog that gets his due (oh and a fellow who . . . well its hard to explain without demonstrating with a large spatula). It is about a young Yakuza who gets orders from his higher ups to kill his immediate boss who he seems to have feelings for . . . . While driving him to his death though, a sudden stop in the car seems to do the work for him, but when the body vanishes the film turns into a very Lynchian search for him as the young Yakuza comes across a number of very peculiar natives of a small town. It is by turns very funny, at times totally mystifying and at times somewhat dull but always a small kick in the head or a tickle to your midsection.

A Laughing Frog

I saw this a while back and found it to be a very intelligent droll film that slowly falls into place over its running time. A wanted man is on the run from the cops and ends up finding refuge with his ex-wife who he had cheated on when they were married. Nevertheless, she hides him in a secret alcove behind a wall but begins to cleverly assert herself over him and persuade him to sign divorce papers.  She makes him to listen to her lovemaking and other parts of her everyday life that goes on as he silently has to stay put. Nearly the entire film takes place in the house and it slowly unfolds like a mannered play. It is comedic to some extent in a very subtle way, but also quite thoughtful and playful.

Like Asura

You mean they make Japanese films that have no violence, decapitations, sex, schoolgirls or lactation explosions? You would hardly know by the films that get most of the attention or are given DVD releases with subs - but this is one of them. It is about four sisters from the youngest at 25 to the oldest at forty-something - and their relationships with each other, their elderly parents and the men in their lives. Told in a bite size episodic narrative, it slowly gains real emotional ballast by the end - a little comedy, a little drama, a little tragedy. I enjoyed it a fair amount and it won the Best Director Award at the Japanese Academy Awards.

Snake in June

I went into this one expecting to hate it ala the Korean film "Bad Guy" from the blurbs I had read. A social worker is secretly photographed pleasuring herself and the fellow then blackmails her into doing slightly perverse things in public. My reaction to the prospect of seeing this was ugh – another misogynistic film - but I had to watch this for other reasons - and was pretty much blown away by it. Filmed in a blue tint like an avant-garde expressionistic silent film, it is at times stunning and hypnotic - a few images will have you gasping at how cool they are and never wanting them to stop. And in the end this turns out not to be an exploitation film at all – or misogynistic - but really about a woman coming to terms with who she is and what she wants to be. Strange, chaotic, pretentious and sublime.


Taken from a popular work of fiction, this is another film of female empowerment but very different from Laughing Frog or Snake in June. Four middle aged women work in a meat processing company and do their best to make ends meet and to help take care of their families – but none of them are very happy with the lives they have ended up with. One of the four kills her abusive husband and calls the other three over to help dispose of the body. They find out that they are pretty good at this – meats or human – it’s all the same to them – and they decide to go into the business of body disposal. It becomes quite tense as some bad guys come looking for them.

Moon Child

This outlandish concoction of vampirism, gangsters, sci-fi, heroic bloodshed, romance, philosophy, male bonding and pure melodrama is strangely entertaining and by the end surprisingly heartfelt and sort of profound in a cheesy movie kind of way. Taking place in the near future, the Japanese economy has collapsed and a flood of impoverished immigrants has moved to Maleppa, a (fictional) city in China, to live. Sho, a young Japanese street urchin finds an unconscious man, Kei, and pulls him into his hideaway to recover. Kei repays this gesture by saving the lives of Sho and his two friends when a gangster comes looking for them – by devouring him. He is a vampire. They develop a bond of a very peculiar sort.

Jump ahead fifteen years and the four of them are now in cahoots to rob (and for one of them to eat) other crooks. One night while doing so they come across Son (Wang Lee Hom) who is already there to kill the large gang for raping his sister (Zeny Kwok) and after teaming up to obliterate the crooks all of them become fast friends afterwards. But as time goes on, this group collapses as one is murdered, one disappears and two end up being in rival gangs. With silly but enjoyably cool Matrix like action sequences mixed into the loopy melodrama that is spread over a number of years the film manages to hook you in like an afternoon soap. Two Japanese rockers, HYDE and Gackt, play Sho and Kei and they are fascinating to watch in their sleek Bowie androgyny. It was also a pleasure coming across Zeny who has sadly gone missing in Hong Kong after two terrific films, Merry-Go-Round and Glass Tears.

Yomigaeri: Resurrection

It really felt like a TV movie of the week on one level, but I ended up finding it quite moving on another level. It’s basically about a small town in which dead people begin coming back to life to reunite with their loved ones - but it isn't a horror film at all - but really a soapy drama/romance with a "life affirming" message throughout. The cynical side of me feels like I should roll my eyeballs at it, but I ended up getting sucked in completely and totally buying the whole thing from the weepy reunions to the inevitable partings.


I don’t know if I can really recommend this film – a guilty pleasure for me - but it has a certain corny bad popcorn likeability to it. If you are a fan of Princess Blade then this should appeal to you as it has much the same feel to it but with a bigger budget. From the director of Versus, it stars a petite cutie pie swordswoman who deals out death like a deck of shiny playing cards - much of the action is quite cheesy and yet quite satisfying in some bubble gum ultra violent way. Azumi has been trained to be a professional assassin from childhood - this takes place back in the samurai days - but underneath the vast death count is a girl who just wants to have fun and do girlie things - but her calling keeps calling her back - at one point she literally takes on 100 or so sword/rifle wielding killers and rips through them like a hot blade through melting butter - not exactly believable since she must weigh about as much as my left arm - but it is fun to watch! The heroine, Ueto Aya, has the acting range of a glass of water, but you are almost willing to overlook this because of how cute she is and what short skirts she wears. It is sort of like mindlessly sucking on a slurpy for over two hours.


With thoughts jumbled in her mind like broken speeding comet fragments, Rei (Shinobu Terashima) wanders through the convenience store looking for wine to help her sleep and to keep out the voices from her head. So detached from life that she is almost shell shocked, she wants to connect even in some small way – “I want to touch someone”. Into the store walks blonde haired Takatoshi (Ichi the Killer, Nao Omori) and they gaze at each other for a second – a small gesture that she exists – and as he passes he lightly touches her. “I want him – he is good enough to eat” she tells herself and follows him outside. He is a truck driver delivering loads all over the country and she gets into the truck with him – they engage in desperate love making and she asks him if she can come along. He assents. It turns into a journey of healing and understanding that is wonderfully natural and slow paced in its dialogue and narrative. This has shown up on most Top 10 lists of Japanese films – often at the very top or near it – and though I don’t think I would rank it quite that high it certainly is a uniquely intimate film that speaks to the inner pain we all share sometimes.


I ended up seeing a lot of Korean films this year and thought that Korea more consistently than any country produced quality entertaining films. They weren’t all classics - though some four were – but most of them were enjoyable on some level and all simply look so good. This was I thought a nice change from last year when I found myself disliking a lot of what I thought were really tiresome Korean comedies that ruled the box office. Here are some short thoughts on a few that I especially enjoyed in no particular order.

The Classic

No one is turning out better romances than Korea these days. They tend to fall into two basic types – light comedy or soapy tearjerkers that generally have a high level of melodrama waiting for you. This film would definitely fall into the soapy category, but it does so with such earnestness and innocence that it is nearly impossible not to be pulled into the lives of the people portrayed. In parallel the film depicts two romances some twenty years apart of a daughter in the present time and her mother in the past and the cumulative effect eats right into the marrow. It has wonderful production values and is all around a totally classy film.

My Tutor Friend

One comic character that Korean films have nearly all to their own is the adorable feisty female that was exemplified so well in My Sassy Girl and has taken up residence in a number of films. They have this one particular combination of facial expressions that begins with their eyes squinting, a look of pure disdain comes over them, then a quick head flick and finally they petulantly blow out air through their pursed lips that always gets me. I would love to get that thrown my way some day. Su-wan (Kim Ha-neul) has the look down perfectly and has many opportunities to use it in this enjoyably harmless and far from taxing fluffy romantic comedy.

She is a college student who earns a bit of extra money tutoring high school students and gets stuck with Ji-hoon (Kwon Sang-woo), an arrogant rich kid who is her own age but has fallen two years behind due to poor grades. He wants nothing to do with this arrangement, as he prefers keeping his cool uncaring James Dean image and the attentions of the hotties at school. Finally though, he is put in a position where he needs to excel in school and turns to her for help. Though the pacing of the film is a bit slack, there is plenty to like here – two very appealing performances, some decent action and one of those crazy Korean chaotic endings that they do so well.

Memories of Murder

At the very beginning of the film the audience is told that this is based on the true story of a serial killer who was never found by the police. Oddly, this doesn’t really lessen the tension that the film provides, but it does lend it an underlying layer of true pathos and eeriness. The killer may still be out there somewhere. Waiting. A series of young women are being brutally murdered in a small Korean town and the police go from one possible suspect to another, but they can’t pin it down. The film follows these cops as they become more and more obsessed with tracking the killer down and their lives slowly disintegrate as they see other women dying despite their efforts. It is a powerful film that will leave you with a big gnarly pit in your stomach as it refuses to tie everything up neatly and just says in effect “this is how real life is” and it hurts.

My Wife is a Gangster II

This sequel to the very popular first film doesn’t seem to have received many accolades from critics or Internet posters, but I thought it was actually more amusing than the original. It doesn’t have nearly as much action though and that may be an issue with some folks – it becomes much more of a family screwball comedy/drama and the character of Shin Eun-gyeong is portrayed in a much more sympathetic light than previously. Shin gets knocked out in a fight and loses her memory. A kindly restaurant owner finds her and he takes her in to recover and she begins working there. As time passes, she is amazed by her incredible dexterity with knives and assumes she must have worked in a circus at one time. While she is making a deposit in a bank one day, three thieves rob it and she quickly turns the tables on them much to her own shock. Some of her old rivals get word of this and come to hunt her down. Get ready to rumble.

Save the Green Planet

I have seen this described as a black comedy but I sure wasn’t doing any laughing while watching – it felt more like a worm eating its way through my brain. Violent, freaky, numbing and despairing, it is not an easy film to watch or react to, but one that should be experienced because sometimes that is what film should be about. Shin Ha-kyun plays a mentally unstable young man who is sure that aliens have infiltrated the human race and are on the verge of attacking in full force. To ferret out their plans he kidnaps a wealthy industrialist who he thinks is one of these aliens and begins torturing him in some painful to watch scenes. Your sympathies are torn apart as the film relates back-story on the two men – Shin has clearly gone around the bend but he has a tragic sad past that to a large degree was the responsibility of the businessman who is an arrogant elitist. The ending is one that seems to divide viewers – many hate it, others find it brilliant – I am still trying to decide.


Two single female friends are each about to turn thirty and neither has any prospects of marriage in sight and there is a certain amount of panic in their eyes. Chang Jin-young has just been dumped by her boyfriend and been demoted at work, while Uhm Jeong-hwa goes through boyfriends like tissue paper but can’t maintain a relationship with any of them. In this sweet low-key comedy they both meet the man who might fulfill their needs, but at the same time they don’t really want to give up their independence. In the end this is more about their friendship than their love affairs. This rarely goes for big laughs and settles for being a slow paced and slyly amusing look at being single in contemporary times and also occasionally pokes sweet fun at other romantic films.

A Tale of Two Sisters

This was absolutely my favorite film from last year - from anywhere. It is a brilliantly opaque horror film that has the trappings and cinematography of an art film, but keeps the horror firmly in place like a corpse nailed into its coffin. It is absolutely chilling and creepy at times, beautifully filmed and edited like no other "horror" film I have seen - and it leaves you feeling like you were punched in the stomach at the end. It can be extremely confusing and is open to multiple interpretations of what happened, but it is like being trapped in a glorious room of mirrors for two hours as you try and discern what is real and what is delusional. A father and his two daughters come to stay in their country home where the new stepmother is waiting for them. Things begin creaking in the nighttime and this fragile and not very happy family is stretched to the snapping point of insanity. Just fabulously exquisite.

Wild Card

This is a very solid if not original police procedural film that reminded me of the old Ed McBain 87th Precinct books. A band of sadistic young thugs are sporadically robbing helpless victims and leaving them dead or brutalized. Two cops get on their trail, but clues are few and far between and they turn to some other criminals to help them out. The film also focuses to some degree on their personal lives – one has a wife, the other is infatuated with a woman that he sees on the street. It also brings in a number of the other cops from their station into the story and this all adds up to a sense of day-to-day realism that I enjoyed.

Please Teach Me English

Much of this romantic comedy is just plain goofy, but it has such a sympathetic core that I ended up liking it a lot more than perhaps I should have and found myself laughing a lot more than perhaps I should have! It is like a face full of sticky sweet taffy. The main pleasure is actress Lee Na-young who plays an awkward, bespectacled romantic dreamer with such utter charm that you just want to hug her. She is a clerical government worker and one day an angry foreigner comes in to complain about his gas bill, but since no one in the office speaks English they all lose face and so send a not too keen Lee off for English lessons. Here she meets Jang Hyuk and immediately falls for him, but he only has eyes for the sexy Australian teacher (Angela Kelly). It becomes a mish mash of comedy, fantasy and drama that leads you exactly where you want to go.


I only saw two films from Thailand that I thought were topnotch films from last year - most of the others I came across were low budget quickies. Of course I have yet to see Ong Bak because there is no version with subs out yet.

Last Life in the Universe

Two deaths bring together a lonely Japanese ex-pat living in Bangkok and a Thai working girl in this lush languorous still life filmed by Christopher Doyle. This film is cool to the touch. Sleek, distant and dreamlike, the plot is secondary to the mood, atmosphere and visuals that are created. The compositions in the film are stunning – opaque colors infuse the scenes - it opens with a shot of a lime green lizard on a green wall – then to two chairs against the wall – then to a man hanging from a noose – all beautifully framed. Later a blood-splattered wall begins to almost take on the look of a Japanese water painting as it drips down and takes form. It is a beautiful film that at times might test your patience with its suffocating stillness, but it is at the same time fascinatingly oblique.

One Night Husband

Underneath the slow artistic surface lies a film with a heart of noir. One evening a woman’s newly married husband goes out and doesn’t return and in her search for him she discovers things about him that show another darker side. This small low budget indie film received a fair amount of deserved critical praise as it made the rounds of a number of film festivals (Berlin, Hong Kong, Deauville) in 2003. To some degree it has that film festival flavor to it with its artistic ambiance, slow pacing, long silences and emotionally stifled characters. It crawls along in the shadows slowly revealing truths in which very little is what it initially appears to be. By the tingling finish I was completely hooked.

Mainland China

Warriors of Heaven and Earth

This is a straight out tale of gallant heroism and male bonding during the Tang Dynasty with loads of action and shot in the stunning vistas of the Gobi desert. An Imperial agent and a wanted criminal find themselves fighting together against a band of cutthroat killers and learn to respect each other as they methodically and skillfully kill the bad guys by the dozens. If they survive though, they have promised to duel in Beijing. It stars Nakai Kiichi, Jiang Wen and Vicky Zhao-wei.

Green Tea

Two of the same actors from “Warriors” star in this all together different film. Vicky Zhao-wei and Jiang Wen meet on a blind date and it quickly becomes apparent that this will be a short night as he is quite obnoxious and the studious and conservative Vicky wants nothing to do with him. Something about her intrigues Jiang though and so he continues to chase after her and slowly she accepts him as a friend. He then meets a woman that is her exact double – but she plays piano at a bar and leaves with the occasional man for money. He thinks they must be the same girl but is never sure as they are so totally different, but he finds himself falling in love with both – or is it the same girl. Much of this plays out in tight close-ups that make it very intimate and almost claustrophobic. Though in theory I suppose you would classify this as a romance, it is a very cool and distant one until its passionate ending. The cinematographer is Christopher Doyle and he gives it a polished sheen that glistens. The DVD from WA unfortunately forces you to be a speed-reader as the subs often stay up for a nanosecond.


It wasn’t much of a year for Bollywood and I only ended up watching a handful of films made during the year that had received some decent word of mouth. There are a few others that I have yet to get around to that are also suppose to be quite good such as Kal Ho Naa Ho and Baghbaan.  Here are a couple though that I enjoyed.

Koi...Mil Gaya

Science fiction films are very unusual for Bollywood, but this one happily indulges in UFOs and cloying aliens. It certainly has aspects of E.T. about it, but even so it was a delightful and charming film that had me happily sitting there in the theater throughout. After it was finished my friend leaned over and said “let’s stay and watch it again”. Hrithnik Roshan plays an adult character but one with the mind of a child – that is until an alien shows up and cures him and makes him a super stud so that he can romance Preity Zinta. I need one of those. Hrithnik gives a lovable performance that is amazingly sweet without going too saccharine.

Calcutta Mail

A taut noir tale of a man (Anil Kapoor) coming to Calcutta looking for revenge and to retrieve something very dear that belongs to him. He has to go up against corrupt politicians and psychotic gangsters, but not to worry – he has the stunning Rani Mukerjee in his corner. It is beautifully filmed and well-paced, but would probably have been better served without the musical numbers as they sidetracked the narrative for no real purpose and broke the tense mood of the film at times.

Chalte Chalte

Throw Shahrukh Khan and Rani Mukerjee into the same film and you are guaranteed a certain level of enjoyment. Both are terrific in this story of two people who fall madly in love with one another, get married and then allow the fairy tale to fall apart. Lots of luscious musical numbers and the two most charismatic actors in Bollywood today.

Chori Chori

Basically, this is an Indian version of the Hollywood film, House Sitter, but while that was a comedy this is an out and out romance and a fairly enjoyable one. Rani Mukerjee loses her job and her place to live and with no where else to go she moves into a home being built by Ajay Devgan for the woman he wants to marry (Sonali Bendre). Rani pretends that she is engaged to him and when he discovers her ruse, he goes along with it to make Sonali jealous – but how many men could resist Rani for very long – not many.