The Best Modern South-East Asian Films Across Every Genre

Crazy Rich Asians took the summer of 2018 by storm.  It was a landmark film that forced Hollywood to admit minority-led casts are bankable. People lost their minds over the movie.  It is a pleasant confection full of all the cliches and expectations everyone expected from the romantic comedy genre.  In other words, perfect.  However, the inherent importance and cultural significance at times seemed to overshadow the actual film itself. Rainmakers seemed shocked that cinematic Asian culture could be so attractive to the masses.  This is a bit confusing because South-East Asian films are everywhere and they have always been as good, if not better, than American cinema since the days of Kurosawa.  Sure, they are often not produced by an American studio, but there are many Asian films, across every genre that is perfectly accessible to the casual moviegoer.

This opinion is not to take away anything from Crazy Rich Asians, because that was a good film  There are just a lot of masterpieces out there that everyone can easily enjoy.  Whether you prefer romance, horror, sci-fi, action, or any other genre, there are modern South-East Asian films out there for you.  You don’t have to wait for the Hollywood machine to diversify in order to see wonderful films from Japan, China, Korea, or any number of other Far East film industries.

 Action-Adventure: The Raid: Redemption (2011)/The Raid 2 (2014)

These Indonesian films are FANTASTIC action extravaganzas.  There is virtually no story to the first film.  It is just a cop fighting his way, floor-by-floor, to the top floor of a building full of a drug dealer’s army.  That’s it. Green Light…GO. Take deep breaths when it is done and try to relax. You will see some of the greatest choreographed fight scenes that you will ever see.  That is until The Raid 2.  This movie is so action-packed, so full of WOW moments, and taken to such epic heights of lunacy that you can hardly believe your eyes.  That really is all I can say. It is 150 minutes of non-stop action that never feels boring, repetitive, or unoriginal. It is simply astonishing.  

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Thriller: Oldboy (2003)

Say what you will about movies like Hostel & Saw and how they portray torture; this masterpiece exhibits the most excruciating torture you may ever see, albeit the psychological kind.  A man named Dae-Su is held prisoner in a motel room for 15 years, for no apparent reason. Then he is released, also without reason. Dae-Su’s desperation for vengeance, his desire for life, his loneliness, and determination to drive himself one step forward, is astonishing.  It is an almost unbearable plight to behold…and that makes it brilliant. This movie will stick in your brain a long time after it is over.

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Drama: The Handmaiden (2016)

Park Chan-Wook is a master filmmaker.  The Handmaiden is every bit as good as Oldboy.  It is hypnotic, tense, puzzling, titillating, and nearly every other positive adjective one can think of.  The story focuses on the niece of a rich, perverse book collector and how several people are scheming to possess her and her fortune. This mesmerizing film will always keep you guessing and you will be held almost excruciatingly at the edge of your seat.  The performances are all top notch, especially the two lead actresses, Kim MIn-Hee and Kim Tae-Ri.  Also, Park has a patented way of shocking the audience in ways that are so blunt, sexual, and violent, yet somehow not gratuitous, that refreshingly takes you by surprise. It is the most mature film on the list, it pulls no punches, and is deservedly on many people’s Best of 2016 lists.  

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Family: CJ7 (2008)

Stephen Chow is on this list several times because he is such a whimsical filmmaker.  He has such a goofy cinematic spark that few directors have. In CJ7, Chow tackled a more mature, subdued, E.T. the Extraterrestrial-style fable. He plays the destitute father that brings home a orb from a junkyard as a gift for his young son.  It turns out that it is a futuristic alien Furby with regenerative powers. However, the draw is not the creature, although that will placate the kiddies.  The draw is the heartwarming relationship between father and son. It is extremely well done.

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Horror: Train to Busan (2016)

Southeast-Asian horror is a very unique genre, and it puts off a lot of people.  The abstract thrills of the movies that inspired The Ring and The Grudge are definitely not for everyone.  So here is a flat-out zombie horror film.  Not just that, but it is one of the best zombie films in years.  In fact, it is so good that there was recently an intense Hollywood bidding war for the rights to the American remake.  Train to Busan’s zombies are stiff sprinters that infect and spread in seconds.  The movie has the audacity to put them onto a South Korean bullet train and populate the train with children, teens, and pregnant women.   The kills, the action, and the hero moments are plentiful. This is as mainstream a film as you can get, regardless of the Korean subtitles.

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Comedy: Kung-Fu Hustle (2004)

Stephen Chow really is bonkers.  Imagine a Bruce Lee kung-fu film made with Looney Tunes. That idea really is the only way to get the ridiculousness of Kung Fu Hustle across.  Chow directs and stars as a poor schlub who wants to join the Axe gang. The gang has been terrorizing an apartment complex not knowing some residents inside are secretly superhero-level kung-fu masters.  This is a glorious, laugh-out-loud farce.  As you watch it, and women in hair curlers are fighing greasy old men in The Matrix-style precision, you can’t believe it works as well as it does.

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Fantasy: Journey to the West (2013)

Tackling yet another genre, Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West is ambitious in its fantasy.  This is an adaptation of a 16th century novel about an aspiring demon hunter having a run in with a band of actual demon hunters led by the magnetic Qi Shu.  It follows the group from encounter to encounter as they smite evil from this world. They fight demon fish in a watery village right out of Waterworld.  They fight a pig demon in a grand restaurant.  Then they find the Buddha-imprisoned Monkey King under a mountain and things get really strange.  There is so much fantastical imagination in this film that it seems to burst at its seams.

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Romance: Three Times (2005)

Director Hsiao-Hsien Hou has been heralded as the “best director alive” by some cinephiles.  This is his heartfelt yet devastating anthology that has the main characters playing lovers in 1911, 1966, and 2005.  There is an astonishing talent behind this movie. There is hardly any dialogue, no special effects, and the camera is pretty stoic, but the raw emotions jump off the screen through body language and atmosphere in a powerful way.  However, the entire success hinges on the 1966 story about a Military man looking for the girl he befriended from the pool hall he visited on leave. It will make your heart sing.

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Animation: Spirited Away (2001)

On a list of best Asian Films, this is one has to be the most obvious addition.  If you have never treated yourself to the world of Hayao Miyazaki and Ghibli Films, do yourself the favor.  There is a reason why this man is cherished as one of the greatest animated storytellers of all time. He has a vision and style that looks nothing like anything you have seen before.  This film is his most iconic. Spirited Away is a sort of Alice in Wonderland story, where a young girl is magically transported into a spirit world full of creatures, witches, monsters, dragons, and many other whimsical characters.  Miyazaki’s animated imagination compares somewhat to Guillermo del Toro. His creations are beautiful, otherworldly, and sometimes grotesque. Even so, the strongest part of the movie?  The young girl, Chihiro.  She has the full character arc from a frightened, lonely child to brave, loyal friend.   It really works. This is simply one of the greatest animated films of all time, from any country.

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Science-Fiction: The Doomsday Book (2012)

Just as in the horror genre, some science-fiction Asian films are a bit too esoteric for the casual movie lover.  However, Doomsday Book is a solid sci-fi anthology that can appeal to everyone.  Not counting the first of the three entries, because it is more zombie-horror than sci-fi, the second two installments are wonderful.

The Heavenly Creature is a story that would make Isaac Asimov proud.  A cult has deemed an android the title of Buddha, believing it has cognitive intelligence and has reached Nirvana.  There is a PhD thesis worth of ideas between the cult, the repair technician, and the company that is out to destroy their creation.  It is full of all that great what does it mean to be human? conjecture, and it really gets the brain and the heart racing.

Happy Birthday is a story that would make Douglas Adams proud. It follows a family of four in a bunker, waiting for an oncoming meteor to hit earth.  The comedy surrounding what the meteor is and the hijinks that happens in the bunker is wonderfully absurd. The story truly is high fantasy and ridiculous, but doesn’t some of the greatest science fiction come from tones like that?

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Sports: Shaolin Soccer (2001)

Yes, Stephen Chow again.  In 2001, Chow made a soccer movie that is the spiritual cousin to Kung Fu Hustle.  It follows the most common sports tropes, except that the group of athletes that come together are master martial artists.  They bring their unique skills to the soccer field and play with such physics-defying insanity that they make Space Jam look like Hoop Dreams.  There is no way these hyperkinetic, hyper-stylized films should work at all.  But, Chow brings such fun and enthusiasm to the proceedings that it is nearly impossible to not get caught up in them.  

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Martial Arts Epic: Hero (2002)

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was a wonderful cinematic achievement, bringing hyper-stylized martial arts to the common filmgoer. For this list, however, Zhang Yimou’s Hero blows it out of the water.  Jet Li plays a warrior who has gained an audience with the Emperor, but may only approach him after he tells the tales of how he dispatched each of the Emperor’s would-be assassins.  The stories unfold like an epic poem crossed with a heavenly fantasy. The fighting is not fighting. It is a glorious ballet involving weapons. Each and every sequence is unique and beautifully perfect.  

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Black Comedy: The Quiet Family (1998)

This blackest of black comedies surrounds a family that has bought a mountain cabin, a kind of stopover for hikers, but they never have any visitors.  When their first visitor commits a graphic suicide, they feel like they have to cover it up.  No one will EVER stay overnight in the suicide cabin. Of course, their cover-up leads to worse and worse things happening and it is absolutely, hilariously dark.  It is like Very Bad Things, but on steroids.  The violence is more intense and the comedy is more hysterical.

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Musical: Tokyo Tribe

This crazy film almost defies description.  It is like an Asian Terry Gilliam’s Gangs of New York crossed with a Japanese hip-hop musical version of 1979’s The Warriors.  Tokyo Tribe is about a handful of rival gangs uniting against a common enemy warlord.  Throughout the incredibly directed antics, a hip-hop beat rumbles beneath the surface.  Occasionally, a young, hooded boy raps to the audience to explain plot developments. It is unlike anything you have ever seen, I guarantee that.  It has rapping, beatboxing, hard R-rated content, swordplay, and martial arts. Probably the most unique film on this list of unique Asian films.

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Western: The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008)

Yes, even classically-inspired westerns out there among the litany of Asian Films.  Man-oh-man is this just the greatest form of entertainment.  This film is an overblown mashup of spaghetti westerns, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Mad Max: Fury Road.   It is hyper-violent, action-packed, meticulously directed and edited, and funny.  Though the film is made in Korea, it has absolutely everything you’d want from a big budget American blockbuster in the same setting.  There isn’t much delving into characters or themes…but that is not what this movie was about. It is only about the spectacle, though that spectacle is perfect.

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