My Top 100 Favourite Asian Films


  1. EarthlyAlien
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(To be completed...)

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1
Seven Samurai (Shichinin no Samurai) 1954,  Unrated)
Seven Samurai (Shichinin no Samurai)
The greatest film ever made...
2
Fa Yeung Nin Wa (In the Mood for Love) 2000,  PG)
Fa Yeung Nin Wa (In the Mood for Love)
One of the most sensual and romantic films ever made, without one single kiss. This film is 100% pure beauty. From the colors, to the music, to Maggie Cheung... Stunning in every possible aspect, In The Mood For Love is one of the first masterpieces of the twenty first century, perfection reached in the art of film making. No matter what Kar-Wai does in the future, this will always be the film that made me 'fall in love' with him...
3
Oldboy 2004,  R)
4
3-Iron 2004,  R)
3-Iron
Tied with Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring as my favourite Kim Ki-duk film. A quiet, mysterious, sporadically violent tale of love on the run that gradually turns into something spooky, poetic and ultimately sublime. So lyrical in its wordlessness that it's practically a dance piece. The kind of film that just doesn't belong to this Universe.
5
Dolls 2002,  Unrated)
Dolls
I'll the risk gladly, but I'll say this: Dolls is one of the greatest cinematic achievements ever! Takeshi Kitano is one of the most talented and brilliant filmmakers alive! I've seen every one of his films and the truth is that there isn't a single one that isn't at least 'good'. I won't say Dolls is his best film, even though in my intimate it is my favourite one, side by side with Hana-bi, but it certainly is one of the most beautiful films I've ever seen. It might take some time and mind openness to fully get its greatness. Probably why some didn't get it at all... But there's no way you won't get blown away by this modern masterpiece. It's painfully beautiful, sad, melodic, depressing, realistic and visually astonishing! The rose garden scene is something close to sureal... Any aspiring filmmaker has to see Dolls. There's no going back there. It's pretty much a lesson of filmmaking... I can't help finding extremely transcendental that one single man (sensei Kitano) has imagined, wrote and directed this piece of pure, genuine ART... Like Kitano or not (or even know him at all), if you truly love Cinema than you can't, just can't, miss this wonderful film!
6
Chungking Express 1994,  PG-13)
Chungking Express
This is probably the most perfect and representative portray of modern life ever done in the form of film! The cinematography is a little unusual... The narrative is divided in two parts and there are some unusual and astonishing camera techniques that I admit I had never seen in a film before! Obviously, being a Wai Wong film, the main subjects are love, art and human connections...
7
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring 2003,  R)
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring
Is Cinema still an art form? It should be! It should always be about Human expression, a way of Mankind transcending itself. But the sad truth is that these days almost anyone can make a 'movie'. However, every once and a while there comes a film, a genuine piece of Art that restores my faith and love for the power and beauty of Cinema. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring is one of those films. This is a film of an extremely rare beauty. Visually stunning, from Spring to Winter you feel pulled into that place and you almost feel like you're actually there. That's how brilliant Kim Ki-duk is. There is one single location (the lake), no characters' names and almost no plot at all (one single piece of paper would probably be enough) and still, this is such a mind-opening piece of work. A reflection on life and its constant changes, full of symbolisms and with the Buddhist life philosophy in background. From childhood and its innocence, to youth and its complexity and finally 'grown up' life and its solitude. I loved the way the monk changes when he leaves the lake. Leaving as a kid in love and returning as a murderer from the 'world of men', like his master called it. The main message in my opinion. Nature vs. 'The world of Men'... Let's face it. Asian Cinema has something that no one else has. I'm not sure what is it, I don't think anyone does, but I do know that I had never seen the essence of life captured on film, like Kim Ki-duk managed. A Masterpiece!
8
Ikiru (Doomed) (Living) (To Live) 1952,  PG)
9
Lat sau san taam (Hard-Boiled) 1992,  R)
Lat sau san taam (Hard-Boiled)
A lesson on how to make an action film, given by the man who IS the genre.
10
Battle Royale 3D 2000,  Unrated)
Battle Royale 3D
The reason why Battle Royale is so loved and hated at the same time is simply because it explores an idea that the human mind is almost pre-programed to fear and reject. We are thought, when we're kids, that there are two sides: 'Good' and 'Evil'. Stealing is wrong, killing is even wronger. But the pure and unquestionable truth is that any human being has the ability to take someone else's life, or themselve's for that matter. As simple as that. That's why Battle Royale has the unique and fascinating ability to shock, inlight, entertain and divide people. It's just brilliantly honest exploring that idea. How more honest could it be than putting 42 teenagers on a deserted island and making them kill each other for their own survival? If you think about it, it's not that different than a bunch of kids with guns killing everything and everyone on their way on some random american school... Is it? Of course, the probability of something like that (the 'BR' program, I mean) happening is almost unexistent. That's why the script can be a little surreal and at times silly. But guess what? I LOVED IT! The violence, the killing, the blood... All of that loses relevance when we realize just how original and visionary (in a kind of twisted and bizarre way) Battle Royale really is. I mean, let's face it, it wasn't for the violence or the blood (seen on thousands of other, sometimes awarded, beloved films) that the film was banned from the US and almost in Japan. It was the social/polytical message. Youth has the need to be heard. As simple as that. 20, 50 years ago and now as well. When a kid is not taken seriously he makes himself heard, he asks for attention. Rebels. This may be a little 'Oprah,' but it's true. So, maybe kids boycotting their schools, writting on the board 'Today there's no class, because we don't want too!' is not that utopic... That's probably the reason why the japanese goverment didn't find it that funny. Either way, and finalizing, I just can't help finding hilariously ironic that the same country that banned this modern masterpiece from their theatres is the same one who will remake it in 2008...
11
RashŰmon (Rashomon) (In the Woods) 1951,  Unrated)
12
Tokyo Story ,  Unrated)
13
The Twilight Samurai (Tasogare Seibei) 2002,  Unrated)
The Twilight Samurai (Tasogare Seibei)
First of all, and a little warning to Samurai film freaks (like myself), the title (the international one, of course) can be deceiving. The presence of the word Samurai obviously makes us think of a typical Samurai film, which normally means lots of action scenes, swords and blood. Not the case. The main character (Seibei Iguchi) is Samurai, yes, but to be Samurai means (or meant) much more than just 'playing' with swords, Kill Bill style. It was a life philosophy, most of the time nothing to do with fighting at all. Anyone who has a little knowledge of Japanese Culture and History, know what I mean. So, The Twilight Samurai is no action flick, no high paced, bloodfull epic. Seibei is no hero. He's a struggling working man, a widower and a father of two daughters. Everyday after work ('Twilight'), unlike his collegues who go drinking, Seibei goes home to his beloved daughters and ill mother. The film is set during the late 19th century, a time when the Samurai existence was challenged and criticized as Japan prepared to replace the old costumes by the Westernized era. This is the same period that the action epic The Last Samurai, for instance (an american production, therefore more known) is based on. Here lies the historical/social importance of this film (perhaps not that clear for most people). YŰji Yamada is an 'old school' film maker. His intention was precisely to capture the real essence of the Samurai ways, through a different angle. Honor, sacrifice, family importance... Values that were as important two centuries ago, as they are today. The story is told through one of the daughter's point of view (the adorable five year old Ito) in a sort of flashback mode. Hiroyuki Sanada, as Seibei 'Twilight' Iguchi, gives a once-in-a-life performance. Hard to picture anyone else for the role. I knew him already from his charismatic character in Ringu and his performance here was the beginning of a more international career (The Last Samurai, Danny Boyle's recent Sunshine). Lost the Best Foreign Language Award at the 2004 Oscars to The Barbarian Invasions. Like I said before, don't expect the typical Samurai action-packed film. There are two short fight scenes. The Twilight Samurai is a drama. One of the best you'll ever see, but still a drama. Another masterpiece from the East and a must see for any asian Cinema fan!
14
2046 2004,  R)
15
High and Low (Tengoku to jigoku) (Heaven and Hell) 1962,  Unrated)
16
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 2001,  PG-13)
17
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (Boksuneun naui geot) 2002,  R)
18
Yojimbo 1961,  Unrated)
19
Fireworks (Hana-bi) 1997,  R)
Fireworks (Hana-bi)
My favourite Kitano film! If there is a film that best shows how genius and brilliant he is, this is the one! Perfect acting/directing and a story that, in less than 2 hours, will make you feel joy and sorrow, will make you laugh and cry and maybe will make you look differently at life and death. Probably like he does... And all of this and a simple and violent way!
20
Yeopgijeogin geunyeo (My Sassy Girl) 2001,  Unrated)
Yeopgijeogin geunyeo (My Sassy Girl)
"The 10 Rules: 1. Don't ask her to be feminine. 2. Don't let her drink over three glasses. 3. Drink coffee instead of Coke/Juice. 4. If she hits you, act like it hurts. If it hurts, act like it doesn't. 5. On your 100th day together, give her a rose during her class. 6. Make sure you learn fencing and squash. 7. Be prepared to go to prison sometimes. 8. If she says she'll kill you, don't take it lightly. 9. If her feet hurt, exchange shoes with her. 10. She likes to write. Encourage her." You know those rare occasions when a film has such an impact on you that you're literally speechless? When, no matter how hard you try, you can't seem to find words to describe what you just saw? That's kind of how I felt the first time I watched My Sassy Girl. The truth is, I never expected it to be much more than just an amusing, easily forgotten Korean comedy, a chance to have a few laughs, a nice time. It caught me by surprise. I almost felt like I was hit by a train. God, don't you just love when that happens? The film is labelled as a romantic comedy, which, let's face it, is enough to make many people think they won't enjoy it or that it's just not their "type". Why did I use quotation marks? Because romantic comedies aren't a genre. Hollywood might have turned it into one, but it's not. The expression 'romantic comedy' in the Western world (especially the ones from one particular country) has always been a sign of bad writing, bad acting, pseudo-entertaining and empty excuses for films, with (fortunely) some occasional exceptions. Now, if a romantic comedy is, supposedly, a fusion between Comedy and Romance than, yes, I guess My Sassy Girl is a romantic comedy. But to compare it to those things is nothing less than insulting. The story isn't fictional. Based on a novel by Ho-sik Kim, which was written after his famous blog on the Internet, which, post-by-post, described his adventures, joys and sorrows with his 'sassy' girlfriend. Impossible to know, obviously, which parts actually happened and which didn't, but either way, anyone who experienced half of what he did should be considered, at the very least, lucky. No matter how closely based and alike they might or not be, every single character in this film is perfect. Kyun-woo is just... impossible not to love. He's foolish, immature, naive, gets beaten by his mother when he spends the night out, lets everyone walk over him, may even be a little stupid. But he has the ability to create such an empathy among pretty much everyone. As for the (unnamed) girl, a little warning: she might very well make you fall for her. I mean, she's drunk all the time, she's threatening and seemingly unreachable and of course, gorgeous. One moment she's the toughest girl you ever saw and the next the sweetest and harmlessest. I admit that I'm a little suspect here though, because she reminded me a lot of someone close to me. Like I said, my expectations were to be amusing. But, truth be told, in more (much more) than one occasion it is hilarious. There are some scenes (like the ones in the train and in the prison or the one in the amusement park and the final one in the restaurant) that go way beyond the simple amusing. Sheer brilliance. And than, even the most typically cheesy ones (like when Kyun-woo offers her a rose in the middle of her class room) feel just... perfect. I also loved another aspect of the film. The narrative structure, divided in three parts: first half, second half and extra time. A little priceless detail for any football fan. Maybe the fact that I'm a helpless romantic fool helped a great deal, but My Sassy Girl - as you probably already figured out - really got to me. And I'm not easily conquered. So, if perfection does exist, than this is an example of it.
21
Akahige (Red Beard) 1965,  Unrated)
22
The Road Home (Wo de fu qin mu qin) 2000,  G)
23
Spirited Away 2001,  PG)
Spirited Away
A film that will always have its name written in history as one of the best and greatest animated pictures ever made. Miyazaki's most accomplished work, technically speaking. Will always be considered his masterpiece, but most of all, it's the result of a unique and brilliant career, full of magical and beautiful films. Breathtakingly beautiful, exquisitely formed, a flawlessly executed masterwork. A sheerly imaginative and groundbreakingly wondrous cinematic piece, wether the anime genre or filmmaking in general is concerned. A dream and poem in the form of film.
24
Hero 2004,  PG-13)
25
Ran 1985,  R)
26
Eureka (YŻreka) 2000,  Unrated)
27
Nobody Knows (Dare mo shiranai) 2004,  PG-13)
Nobody Knows (Dare mo shiranai)
People love to say how sad and heartbreaking this or that film is... But until you see this film, don't! If there is a perfect way of capturing inocence and hope on screen, with some humor, it was done here! Very intense and detailed film, that can make any human being on this planet cry... It also has one of the most brilliant endings I've ever seen!
28
Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War 2004,  R)
29
Dreams 1990,  PG)
Dreams
First of all it's diferent. Don't think there's any other film out there about 8 diferent dreams who suposely don't have much to do with each other... Is there? The film is visually astonishing and creative and I don't think I need to say again how original and unique it is... It's also precious to anyone who always felt fascinated by dreams and the role they play in our lifes (like myself). If there were any doubts, this masterpiece explains why Mr. Kurosawa was one of the greatest inspirations for some of the greatest and most brilliant directors of nowdays! Words can't really describe how marvelous this film is...
30
Joint Security Area ,  Unrated)
31
The Killer (Dip huet seung hung) 1989,  R)
32
Mou gaan dou (Infernal Affairs) 2002,  R)
Mou gaan dou (Infernal Affairs)
After reading a couple of reviews of some of some Flixster friends of mine and some other 'strangers' (who probably only wrote them because of The Departed) I just had to write one myself! First of all, you can't compare both films, period! It's the same thing as comparing American and Asian Cinema, which doesn't make any sense. That's a mistake that lots of people are making. American Cinema tends to be more facilitated, with more easy and accessible material, less complex. In fact, I read here more than once that certain people were confused. Guess what? That was the point! There lies the main difference between both films, I think. I mean, don't get me wrong, I'm no fool. I know perfectly that The Departed, cinematographically speaking, is as good, perhaps even better than Infernal Affairs. Pretty much perfect in almost every aspect. The acting is flawless, the direction is, as Scorcese himself, brilliant. Only the thing is... I'm still one of those (apparently few) people who believe that a film, before being a way of making money, is the result of a solitary act of creation and inspiration. An expression form. Which normally results in a screenplay. That's why (no matter how good William Monahan's adaptation is) I could never consider The Departed better than Infernal Affairs. Could never deny it's a huge cinematographic achievement, Scorcese's best film since Goodfellas and probably the best american remake ever (like my ****Ĺ rating proves), but I could never consider it 'perfect'. Not when it's purely an 'americanization' of something that was already perfect. "Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal." T. S. Eliot
33
A Bittersweet Life (Dalkomhan insaeng) 2005,  Unrated)
34
House of Flying Daggers 2004,  PG-13)
35
Happy Together (Chun gwong cha sit) 1997,  Unrated)
36
Failan 2001,  Unrated)
37
Raise the Red Lantern (Da hong deng long gao gao gua) 1991,  PG)
38
Children of Heaven (Bacheha-Ye aseman) 1997,  PG)
39
Sympathy for Lady Vengeance 2005,  R)
40
Kikujiro 2000,  PG-13)
41
Days of Being Wild (A Fei zheng chuan) 1990,  Unrated)
42
Oasis 2004,  Unrated)
43
Wand‚furu raifu (After Life) 1998,  Unrated)
44
Comrades - Almost a Love Story (Tian mi mi) 1997,  Unrated)
45
Guizi lai le (Devils on the Doorstep) 2000,  Unrated)
46
Kids Return 1996,  Unrated)
47
Ashes of Time 1994,  R)
48
Bullet in the Head (Die xue jie tou) 1990,  R)
49
Ju Dou 1990,  PG-13)
50
Memories of Murder (Salinui chueok) 2003,  Unrated)
51
ZatŰichi (The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi) 2003,  R)
52
Samaria (Samaritan Girl) 2004,  R)
Samaria (Samaritan Girl)
WARNING: THE FOLLOWING REVIEW MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS.

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There are no shades of grey in Kim Ki-duk's world, it's a black and white world of good and evil, although the two extremes are often difficult to separate. Films like The Isle and Bad Guy, in his early career, were violent and disturbing works, shocking and often sordid psycho-sexual melodramas.

The genius of this man doesn't lie there, but in the fact that he would, just a couple of years after that, shock and suprise everyone who called him a misogynist, by making two of the most poetic and visually arresting films of the 21st century: the very restrained and silent Buddhist fable Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring and then, a year later, the phantasmal and melancholy love story 3-Iron. There was violence in these films too but that remained mostly in background and was always shown in an oblique and artistically mature manner. Samaria - Silver Bear winner at the '04 Berlin Film Festival - continues the same tradition of those two films, although it somehow adds a certain amount of his early career's rawness. It's a film that moves and affects you one minute, only to utterly shock you the next.

As embodied in the child Buddhist monk in Spring..., for Kim even innocence holds innate the seeds of corruption. In Samaria, the innocence is that of two young beautiful schoolgirls, Yeo-jin and Jae-young. In order to save money to escape to Europe, the two best friends resort to prostitution, luring clients on the internet who are in no doubt about their underage status. Similarly to Spring..., the film is divided into three distinct segments:

The first, "Vasumitra", starts with one of girls reciting the mythical story of an Indian prostitute of the same name, whose clients turned devout Buddhist after having sex with her. The film then goes on to make a violent mockery of this naive and sentimental belief in the nurturing and spiritual potential of sexuality, as we see Yeo-jin (Ji-min Kwak) 'managing' the 'transactions', procuring the clients and keeping look-out for police while Jae-young (Min-jeong Seo) has sex with her middle-age clients in downtown motels. The events come to tragic conclusion when Jae-young jumps off from a window and dies following a surprise police raid.

In the second part, "Samaria", which gives the film its title - essentially a metaphor, a bizarre, yet brilliant perversion of the Christian myth of "the good Samaritan" - Yeo-jin decides to atone for her sins, to make-up for what has happened to her friend and undo the harm that has been done. She goes back through each one of the clients, sleeping with them and paying them back the money they had been saving. The courage of her gesture moves these men to reconsider the evil of their actions, hence the Samaritan metaphor. The situation gets complex when the girl's father, a police detective who is still recovering from his wife's death, comes to know about the sordid degradation that his daughter is subjecting herself to. He becomes obsessed and starts stalking the men and finally murders one of them in a typically brutal manner.

Finally, the third - and most beautiful - segment, "Sonata", tries to tie everything together. The father and daughter go on an idyllic vacation through the countryside to visit her mother's grave, and try to confront their own inner demons without telling each other anything. The film ends bafflingly when the father, after giving his daughter preliminary driving lessons, leaves her alone and surrenders himself to the police. But only after he has seen his daughter crying silently in the night, and thus making sure of her essential virtuousness.

The film itself, as you can gather from the above, works not so much on a realistic and plausibility level but more in a metaphoric and thought provoking way, even though the film itself uses realism in its storytelling to convey unfolding events. The camera mainly stays handheld, which gives the film an intensity and the feel that you are never quite sure what will happen next, which is especially evident during the middle part of the film where we begin to follow the father. The film also uses natural sound which, along with Kim's usually gorgeous cinematography, makes it another feast for the eyes.

The acting is also exceptional, not least by the father, played by Eol Lee, whose pain we can feel just by his facial expression throughout. Starting out as the loving single parent, his journey takes him through the darkest days of parenthood as he watches his daughter grow up in the most alarming of ways. The two girls also put in strong performances, especially Ji-min Kwak, the "samaritan girl". Given more speaking opportunities that we would normally expect in a Kim Ki-duk film (in 3-Iron for example, neither of the main characters actually speaks) it is refreshing to see that he changes around this formula and is not typecast by the unique skill he has for telling a story in images alone.

Again, Kim Ki-duk (who's a Catholic himself) tries to overlap Buddhist teaching with Catholic dogma and the two completely fail to blend, giving out contradictory messages. Jae-young identifies with an Indian holy prostitute who brings men closer to God by having sex with them. Yeo-jin, on the other hand, likes to hear her father's stories of saints and miracles and comes to believe that her actions by sleeping with the men will redeem the wrongs that have been done. There are few directors who so vigorously cling to certain themes and explore them through different situations as Kim does in his films.

Samaria has both a depressing and pessimistic feeling towards human nature and this refreshing sense of hope, combined with an astute eye for social detail (13 and 14 year-old girls having sex like they're adults) and aesthetic composition. This is one of the most profoundly moving and strangely transcendent tales of guilt, original sin and innocence lost in recent cinema. In one of its many metaphoric images of intruded-upon (and violated) landscape, in the film's final shot, the errant sight of a wobbling, out of control car struggling to chase a sports utility vehicle through a flooded gravel road in the rural countryside, doggedly navigating the inhospitable terrain using an innate compass that elusively, but transfixedly, points home. A beautiful, beautiful film.
53
Siwore (Il Mare) 2000,  Unrated)
54
Audition (‘dishon) 1999,  R)
55
Not One Less (Yi ge dou bu neng shao) 2000,  G)
56
Janghwa, Hongryeon (A Tale of Two Sisters) 2003,  R)
57
Fallen Angels 1995,  Unrated)
58
To Live (Huozhe) 1994,  R)
59
Eat Drink Man Woman (Yin shi nan nu) 1994,  Unrated)
60
The Color of Paradise 2000,  PG)
61
Seom (The Isle) 2000,  Unrated)
62
Marathon 2005,  Unrated)
63
As Tears Go By 1988,  Unrated)
64
Happy Times 2001,  PG)
65
Drunken Master (Jui kuen) 1978,  PG-13)
66
Nae yeojachingureul sogae habnida (Windstruck) 2004,  Unrated)
67
Once Upon a Time in China 1991,  R)
68
The Legend of Drunken Master (Jui kuen II) (Drunken Fist II) 1994,  R)
69
Jing wu ying xiong (Fist of Legend) 1994,  R)
70
Kagen no tsuki (Last Quarter) 2004,  Unrated)
71
Police Story (Ging chaat goo si) (Police Force) 1985,  PG-13)
72
Ni na bian ji dian (What Time Is It Over There?) 2001,  Unrated)
Ni na bian ji dian (What Time Is It Over There?)
Considered by many Tsai Ming-liang's masterpiece. A unique, well-crafted psychological study of grief. Alternates between comedy and heartbreaking loneliness and isn't afraid to provoke introspection in both its characters and its audience. A film that haunted me through many long days.
73
Yi Yi 2000,  Unrated)
Yi Yi
IN MEMORY OF EDWARD YANG (1947 - 2007)

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Edward Yang had been making films for nearly twenty years at the time that Yi yi took the world by storm in 2000, but most of his work had slipped under the radar of Western critics. Yi yi was the first of Yang's films to be distributed in the West, though some of his earlier works screened by the art house circuit included That Day, on the Beach, Taipei Story, The Terrorizers, A Brighter Summer Day, A Confucian Confusion, and Mahjong.

Yang was born in Shanghai but grew up in Taipei. He spent time in America, attending a semester and working as a systems designer in Seattle before turning to filmmaking. It is not surprising, therefore, that Yi yi is full of Western-friendly references (such as McDonalds, Batman and Mickey Mouse) as well as situated in a busy urban center not terribly unlike American cities. Yi yi's international acclaim can be seen in the flood of awards it won: Best Director at Cannes (turning Yang into the first Taiwanese and second Chinese - after Wong Kar-wai - to win such award). It was also voted the Best Foreign Film of 2000 by both the New York and Los Angeles Critics Circles in a year in which Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was also in the running. Most surprising of all, however, was its selection as the best film of the year by the National Society of Film Critics, making it the first non-English language film ever picked by that group for its top award.

Yang's portrait of a modern-day Taipei family builds so gradually you probably won't realize it's a near-masterpiece until it's over, but there are hints along the way. A chance encounter with a long-lost love precipitates a crisis of faith in a middle-aged businessman and father of two: Faith in his marriage, his job and the assurance that he's made the right life choices. Leaving an elevator at his brother-in-law's wedding banquet, emotionally remote NJ Jian (Wu Nienjen) runs into Sherry (Ke Suyun), the girl he once loved but abandoned, and the source of his deepest regret. What if he hadn't stood her up that night? Through a series of circumstances, NJ gets a chance to find out; his mother-in-law (Tang Ruyun) suffers a stroke and slips into a coma, leading his wife Min-Min (Elaine Jin) to confess her own deep unhappiness and decamp to a temple retreat. Meanwhile, the once-successful firm NJ works for sends him to Japan to woo a computer-game developer named Mr. Ota (Issey Ogata) while engaging a Chinese company to knock off his software. NJ has serious reservations about such dishonorable treatment of an honorable man, but agrees to go and arranges to meet Sherry in Tokyo.

From the title (which roughly translates as "One One") and characters names to the way cinematographer Yang Weihan captures their most introspective moments, Yang's film is structured around reflections, and the strongest parts of this remarkable film involve NJ's children whose lives echo their father's. NJ's teenage daughter Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee) is getting her first lessons in love, guilt and heartache, while the adorable 8-year-old Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang), in the process of falling in love for the first time, is realizing that nothing about life really makes much sense.

Yi yi has all the pleasures of the best ensemble pieces - the interactions of a large cast, delineating their personalities, their lives, their hopes and their ambitions, and bringing them together in all their contradictions and conflicts, working with each other and against each other. In this alone there is enough in Yi yi to make a fascinating and quite brilliant film, but it also manages to say so much about the everyday lives and realities of middle-class people living in Taipei - it's about city life, the conditions of family life there, the expectations for education, employment, leisure and their outlook, being part of a country that continues to grow as one of the major competitors on the world commerce market.

The real mystery of Yi yi lies in how such a deceptively simple film - less a story than a collection of acutely observed moments - achieves full-scale lightness. At just seven minutes short of three hours (a running time that flies by), Yi yi is the length usually reserved for epics, and yet the feel of the film is never less than intimate and honest. It encompasses life's primal passages - birth and death, youthful optimism and middle-aged regret - and its characters are engaged in the terrifying prospect of questioning the seemingly unshakable foundations of their lives. Yang never strains for profundity.

Yi yi is quietly overwhelming, but it's restorative and strangely hopeful rather than devastating. Yang had the rare and magic ability of allowing us to savor the texture and weight of the moments that slide by us hour after hour, day after day without ever becoming ponderous or boring. And so when we reach the end of the film, it feels as if we've been modestly presented with what turns out to be a precious gift. This exquisitely crafted film moves slowly but it's never dull. And though elegant medium and long shots predominate, it's both warm and intimate. Rather than creating a sense of remoteness, the camera's distance from the action allows it to take everything in - life, death and the confusing mess in between.

One of the reasons why Yi yi is so refreshing and genuine is that it doesn't subscribe to the lie that dysfunction is the norm. Films need some conflict to get our attention, but sometimes I get the feeling that the people who've made certain films think that the more screwed-up the characters, the truer they are. The characters in Yi yi are average people at a crossroads who are suddenly face to face with the ways in which their lives have let them down.

Most of the crises that force us to face where our lives have led us are things that nearly everyone goes through - a parent's illness, a job that seems like a dead end, a day-to-day routine that suddenly seems purposeless. And Yi yi is all the more true and poignant because we recognize that the younger characters, like Ting-Ting beginning a tentative romance that could threaten her friendship with the new schoolmate who's moved in next door or Yang-Yang being made the butt of a bully teacher's piddling little shows of power, still have these adult crises ahead of them, even though their own troubles seem earthshaking.

The real beauty of Yi yi however, is that neither the characters nor the plot can be easily summarised or encapsulated in a few paragraphs. I could stay here all night writting and I still wouldn't be able to describe a quarter of this film's resplendence and what it meant to me. Resting somewhere between the astute profundity of Wong Kar-wai and the heartfelt domestic dramas that made Ang Lee famous at home and abroad, Yi yi is a brilliant blend of bathos and pathos, of comedy and melancholy, that resonates the agony of everyday life, while offering up some answers and a glimmer of hope for the future. Watching this film will make you a better human being.
74
Last Life in the Universe 2003,  R)
Last Life in the Universe
"Many books say "death is relaxing". Did you know that? No need to follow the latest trends. No need to keep pace
with the rest of the world. No more e-mail. No more telephone. It'll be like taking a nap... Before waking up refreshed and ready to begin your next life. That's what they say.
"

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From David Lean's Brief Encounter to Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris to Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love, the chance meeting of strangers and the subsequent relationship they develop within a limited timeframe has long served as a fruitful filmic subject. There's something inherently tragic about the idea of romance cut short by the powers of fate, whether in the form of death, insuperable social taboo, or simply a planned relocation, as in the case of Thai filmmaker Pen-ek Ratanaruang's terrific fourth feature, Last Life in the Universe.

One of the first images we see in the film is a pile of books scattered across the floor, with a slipper on top. As the camera slowly inclines upward, we see a man's feet, with one slipper on, and then his legs hanging above the books. "My name is Kenji", a voice says over the soundtrack, "This could be me three hours from now. Why do I want to kill myself?" he muses, "I don't know. I wouldn't kill myself for the same reasons as other suicidal people. Money problems. Broken heart. Hopelessness. No, not me".

This is clearly a fantasy sequence, complete with two acquaintances of Kenji's entering the room and one fainting at the sight of his lifeless body hanging from the ceiling. But a moment later, we see the real-life Kenji (Tadanobu Asano) standing atop a neatly stacked pile of books with a noose around his neck. He's about to kill himself when he's interrupted by the doorbell. It's his gangster brother, who laughs upon noticing that Kenji was about to attempt suicide, an apparently routine recurrence. He hands Kenji a six-pack of Heineken, which Kenji immediately stocks, labels-forward, in his fridge, a character gesture that matches the clean order of his austerely decorated apartment (dozens of stacks of books and DVDs, and not much else line the walls of Kenji's living quarters).

This scene is an early example of Ratanaruang's rather mordant sense of deadpan humor. Perhaps the funniest and certainly one of the most brilliant comes a little later, when one character says to another that he watches too many yakuza films just before Ratanaruang, with a quick meta wink, cuts abruptly to a poster of Takashi Miike's Ichi the Killer, featuring Asano's image; Miike himself even turns up in the film, in a small part as a yakuza boss.

Kenji works as a librarian at a Japanese cultural center in Bangkok. He has attempted to shut himself off from the chaos of the outside world, but things soon spiral out of control when his brother is killed while visiting his apartment and - out of self-defense, not revenge - Kenji shoots the man who's just murdered his brother. He leaves his apartment as it's beginning to stink from the rot of the two corpses, and is about to jump off a highway bridge, when, once again, his suicide attempt is interrupted - this time by a traffic accident. Following the accident, Kenji strikes up a sort-of-relationship with Noi (Sinitta Boonyasak), the sister of the young girl whose sudden, gruesome and masterfully shot death he witnessed just as he was about to take his own life.

It's obvious, at once, that Noi is Kenji's polar opposite. She's beautiful, but moody and mercurial, and her place is an authentic pig-house, cluttered and surely infested with god-knows-what, dirty dishes piled about a foot above the sink. Nevertheless, Kenji takes it up on himself to move in with her, and, somewhat reluctantly, Noi allows him to stay - much to her abusive boyfriend's responsibility. She's teaching herself Japanese as she plans soon (as in, next Monday) on moving to Osaka, but hasn't mastered the language to the point where she can speak fluently with Kenji, who himself struggles with Thai. So, they converse mostly in broken English as their relationship, marked by a mutual sense of isolation and subtle sparks of romance, gradually takes shape.

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Writer-director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang is a self-admitted fan of filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismški, and he shares some of their preoccupations, such as wryly downplaying the language differences of his characters and showing more interest in household detail than any drama going on outside. The film also reminds me of Tsai Ming-Liang's What Time Is It There?, with its parallels, connections, and criss-crossing cultures. Some critics have also compared the film to Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation, in which a mismatched pair of travellers find each other in a cloud of melancholy. There's truth and untruth about that. Lost in Translation uncovers little bits of truth about people, and Coppola lets her characters - and her story - drift delicately through indistinct thoughts and honest emotions. Ratanaruang doesn't, he orchestrates his characters to attract or repel each other like magnets, adjusting the angles to arrive at an optimally clever conclusion.

Visually speaking, Last Life in the Universe is a little piece of perfection. Ratanaruang and master cinematographer Christopher Doyle (Wong Kar-wai's longtime DP of choice and one of the finest working in cinema today) partner together to supply this offbeat love story with an appropriately dreamy visual design. (Both would work together again in Invisible Waves). If Doyle's photography, gorgeous as always, inadvertently calls to mind his past work on films like Wong's Happy Together and Chungking Express and Chen Kaige's Temptress Moon in its expressive use of light and spatial distance, Ratanaruang's haunting rhythms and idiosyncratic stylistic sense make Last Life a strikingly fresh trip down what may seem a well-worn path.

Doyle's camera glides through Noi's house, and at one point household objects hang in mid-air, recalling the swirling vortex of leaves in Hero. This sort of moody visual poetry is the highlight of a film whose pleasures come not from peace and understanding, and not even from observing human foibles, but from watching a lizard on an apartment and such scenes. The performances are spot-on (with great chemistry between Asano and Boonyasak), the ample humor is gentle and dark, and the guns and gangsters are thankfully minor. Ratanaruang's playful flourishes are exciting - he swaps actresses late in the game, experiments with dream-vs-reality, and shows his opening title some 30 minutes into the film.

One bizarre sequence, in particular, (it could be a dream or fantasy, a stoned hallucination, or just a neat time-lapse trick - and those who've seen the film, I imagine, know exactly which scene it is I'm talking about), is altogether unlike just about anything I've seen on screen before. In its ambiguity and eerie otherworldliness, it serves to epitomize the tone that Ratanaruang successfully sustains throughout the film - and that will very likely continue to stick with you hours, even days after viewing it. Just like the film itself.

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