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7-Day Cinema Diet #24: East Asian Edition

The Handmaiden (2016)

In a heavily disrupted year for cinema the South Korean multiple Oscar winner Parasite has been QUAD's most popular film. For our first 7 Day Cinema Diet since the summer we have asked Satori Screen's Peter Munford, who has been showing East Asian films at QUAD since 2012, to pick out some other East Asian gems available on streaming services.

All films below were viewable as part of a UK Netflix subscription on the date this article was published.

Day 1 - China

The Wandering Earth

China   2019   125 min   Dir: Frant Gwo

A science fiction feature on a scale to match Steven Spielberg and Michael Bay's most lavish epics. An adaptation of a novel by the acclaimed writer Cixin Liu, it is the tale of a plan to move the Earth out of its orbit when it becomes clear that the sun is dying. Giant thrusters are built to achieve this goal but over the centuries it takes to enact the plan a huge host of dangers will imperil the human race's quest for survival. Grossing nearly $700 million dollars at the box office despite hardly playing any cinemas outside of East Asia, The Wandering Earth demonstrates that the Chinese film industry is now able to compete with Hollywood both on the level of spectacle and financial impact.

Manhunt 

China / Hong Kong   2017   109 min   Dir: John Woo

Director John Woo rose to fame as a director of violent action tales like Hard-Boiled, The Killer and A Better Tomorrow in the 1980s before decamping to Hollywood in the 1990s with mixed results (Face Off being the standout from this period). He then returned to Hong Kong in the 2000s to direct lavish epics Red Cliff and The Crossing. Manhunt sees him return to his down and dirty roots with this story of an attorney who finds himself caught up in a battle to clear his name. Woo demonstrates he has not lost the knack for directing spectacular action sequences and Zhang Hanyu is an appealing leading man, with Japanese actor Masaharu Fukuyama offering an effective foil as the detective hunting him down. 

Day 2 - Anime Masterpieces

Your Name

Japan   2016   107 min   Dir: Makoto Shinkai

In a rural mountainside town teenage girl Mitusha is bored. In Tokyo teenage boy Taki is also bored. Then one night these two strangers suddenly switch places. Mitsuha wakes up in Taki's body, and he in hers. As this bizarre situation reoccurs seemingly at random the two must learn to adjust their lives around one another and build a friendship through notes and messages. Can the two conquer forces outside of their control to finally meet? A smash hit in Japan and a huge success amongst Western anime fans also. Your Name announced Makoto Shinkai as a one-man rival to the legendary Studio Ghibli, a reputation he upheld with the equally successful Weathering With You in 2019.

In This Corner Of The World

Japan   2016   129 min   Dir: Sunao Katabuchi

This independent production was financed through crowdfunding and went on to become a word of mouth hit in Japanese cinemas and win the prize for best film of its year (either live action or animated) from Japan's prestigious Kinema Junpo magazine. Adapting a manga series by Fumiyo Kōno and demonstrating that anime is capable of handling almost any subject matter or storyline, In This Corner Of The World is the story of Suzu, an eighteen year old girl who is newly married and living on the outskirts of Hiroshima during World War Two. Suzu struggles with the duties that are now expected of her as a wife, the most difficult of which being preparing food for her family despite the rationing and lack of supplies. As the war makes life a constant struggle Suzu must also battle her own inner demons to build a life worth living.

Day 3 - Modern Day Action Classics

The Night Comes For Us

Indonesia   2018   121 min   Dir: Timo Tjahjanto

When Welshman Gareth Evans released his 2011 Indonesian-shot fight flick The Raid the world was suddenly alerted to Indonesia as a source of spectacular action thrillers. The Night Comes For Us reunites two stars of The Raid, Joe Taslim and Iko Uwais in this pulp tale of a triad enforcer who returns home after some time abroad only to find himself caught in the middle of a gangland insurrection. Featuring a nearly non-stop barrage of spectacularly choreographed fight sequences, The Night Comes For Us is an unashamedly brutal film. Anyone with a taste for bloody mayhem will come away shocked, impressed and possibly somewhat out of breath.

Furie

Vietnam   2019   97 min   Dir: Lê Văn Kiệt

Ex-gangster Hai Phuong (Veronica Ngo) is trying to live a quiet life and leave her violent past behind after becoming a mother and moving to a quiet village. But when traffickers take her daughter she will stop at nothing to get her back, embarking on a violent odyssey into the Vietnamese underworld. This low budget Vietnamese film takes a fairly cliched plot-line and uses it as a clotheline to hang a series of furious and breathtaking fight and stunt sequences, all with the remarkable Veronica Ngo at the centre. On the basis of her performance in this film Ngo was chosen to star alongside Charlize Theron in the 2020 big-budget action film The Old Guard.

Day 4 - South Korea

The Handmaiden

South Korea   2016   145 min   Dir: Park Chan-wook

For this sumptuous costume-drama/thriller hybrid award-winning director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Stoker) transposes the Sarah Waters novel Fingersmith to 1930s Korea under Japanese occupation. Korean Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) is hired by the Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee). What Lady Hideko does not know is that Sook-hee is a plant, sent by the con-man "Count Fujiwara" (Ha Jung-woo) to aid in his plan to defraud her. From this relatively straightforward beginning a plot of ever-increasing complexity spirals outwards, with new revelations arriving regularly to make the viewer reconsider everything they have seen up to that point. Featuring spectacular production design, gorgeous costumes and a winning musical score, complementing spectacular performances throughout, The Handmaiden deserves to be seen as one of the finest thrillers of the 21st century.

#Alive

South Korea   2020   99 min   Dir: Cho Il-hyung

Zombies have become so prevalent in cinema it is always a delight when a film comes along with a genuinely new approach to the genre. #Alive does just that by taking a cue from Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window. As a zombie virus runs riot throughout his city, young slacker Oh Joon-woo remains locked up in his apartment watching it all unfurl out of the window which looks out towards another apartment block opposite. But as his food supplies dwindle he is left with no choice but to venture beyond the bounds of his apartment and into extreme danger to seek food and discover help. A smart tale, with a fun lead performance from Yoo Ah-in (last seen in the arthouse hit Burning) as Oh Joon-woo.

Day 5 - Studio Ghibli

Japan's Studio Ghibli have been producing exquisite animated films for over 30 years under the guidance of masterful directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. Netflix struck a deal to host almost their entire back catalogue at the start of 2020 providing their customers an opportunity to delve into some of the finest animated films ever made. Big hitters like Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro are often picked out as the best films Ghibli ever made but also be sure to check out lesser known titles such as the two selected below which provide plenty of delights too.

Pom Poko

Japan   1994   119 min   Dir: Isao Takahata

A group of Japanese racoon dogs (known as Tanukis) with magical shape-shifting powers live in a forest with a meadow nearby. When urban developers seek to destroy their home the Tanukis must unite to fight back as they come up with a plan to sabotage the building works and scare the humans away. A charming comedy drama featuring a host of lovable heroes, alongside a never untimely environmental message.

Castle In The Sky (aka Laputa)

Japan   1986   124 min   Dir: Hayao Miyazaki

A rousing adventure tale which takes inspiration from the work of Jonathan Swift. The story begins with Pazu, a small boy, stumbling across Sheeta, a girl who has fallen from the sky. The two soon find themselves on a high-flying adventure full of sky pirates, mysterious robots, devious government agents and the legendary mythical castle of the title. 

Day 6 - Martial Arts Classics

The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin

Hong Kong   1978   115 min   Dir: Lar Kar-leung

A lot of viewers may recognise martial arts star Gordon Liu from his dual role in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill films but he was a huge star in Hong Kong long before that. In this film, generally acknowledged as one of the finest martial arts films of all time, he plays a young man drawn into an uprising against the oppressive Manchu government by his teacher. When the government brutally smashes the rebellion he travels to the legendary Shaolin Temple to learn the skills that will enable him to fight back. A film which has had wide ranging influence, from the aforementioned Kill Bill series to the work of the rap collective The Wu Tang Clan, who have referenced the film in their work numerous times and whose leader RZA made his own martial arts epic The Man With The Iron Fists in 2012. 

Five Elements Ninjas

Hong Kong   1982   108 min   Dir: Chang Cheh

Director Chang Cheh earned the nickname "The Godfather Of Hong Kong Cinema" over a near 50 year career in which he directed over 100 films for Hong Kong's legendary Shaw Brothers studio. Five Elements Ninjas offers a fun and flashy example of his style of kung fu filmmaking. It is the story of a young man is the sole survivor of an attack on his school by the ninjas of the title (each with a fighting style based on one of the elements) he must seek out a new master to gain revenge. Designed as a showcase for the skills of the then rising star Cheng Tien-chi, Five Elements Ninjas is full of vibrant colours and spectacular fight choreography.

Day 7 - Bingeworthy East Asian TV

The Forest Of Love - Deep Cut

Japan   2019   Dir: Sion Sono

Sion Sono has been one of Japan's most prolific directors for over two decades now. A seemingly endless source of wild ideas, he is the auteur behind cult hits including Tokyo Tribe, Exte: Hair Extensions, Suicide Club and Love Exposure. The Forest Of Love is his take on a true life tale of a small group of student filmmakers and a shy young girl who are simultaneously manipulated, seduced and abused by an older man. His control over them seems be total, even when his demands call for murder. Available on Netflix as both a 7 part 'Deep Cut' television series and in a cut-down 150 minute feature film version. 

Hibana: Spark

Japan   2016   

In Japan comedians often work in duos, known as manzai. The format their acts usually follow is of a funny man firing jokes at his straight man colleague with enormous speed. Hibana: Spark adapts a novel by Naoki Matayoshi and follows aspiring comedian Tokunaga (Kento Hayashi) as he embarks upon an apprenticeship under the established manzai comedian Kamiya (Kazuki Namioka). Offering a glimpse into a side of Japanese show-business which rarely is seen in the UK, this is an enjoyable ten episode series featuring strong performances throughout, including a supporting role for the now massively successful Shōta Sometani (Wood Job, And Your Bird Can Sing, Tokyo Tribe).