When I first started to closely follow the release of Asian films on DVD, it was the summer of 2000. I'd built up a nice little library of Hollywood action films and had a hankering to add some Jackie Chan and Jet Li titles to my collection for variety. As I researched what was available, I discovered that some Region 1 DVD releases featuring those stars had been tampered with; eventually my eyes were opened to the incredibly rich variety of cinematic delights available from Asia and I was condemned to a lifetime of poverty as every available entertainment dollar was poured into the search for more, more, more.
What I've tried to list here are a few pictures you may not realize are readily available on DVD in the US and Canada. I restricted the list to more recent films -- with one exception -- and have not included historical martial arts epics, which have already received plenty of attention, or comedies, which are criminally under-represented on Region 1 DVD. What are your favorite, lesser-known Asian films? Please share your discoveries by leaving a comment.
1. 6ixtynin9 (Thailand; 1999)
Stop sniggering about the title, you perverts! The film, available on DVD from Palm Pictures, has nothing to do with sexual positions and everything to do with social and economic standing. Lalita Panyopas stars as Tum, a young woman who loses her job due to factors beyond her control. Immediately contemplating suicide, salvation appears on her doorstep in the form of a cardboard box jammed with thousands of dollars. Of course, it's mob money, and dead bodies are soon filling every available space in Tum's tiny apartment (#6, marked with a nailed-on number which sometimes turns upside down, explaining the tile). Just the second feature by director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, 6ixtynin9 deftly manuevers around issues of morality and personal responsiblity before landing in an amoral quandry that can only be solved by resolving an emotional dilemma. It's funny, too, not to mention bloody and occasionally perverse. Ratanaruang went on to make the off-beat romance Monrak Transistor, Last Life in the Universe (also available on DVD from Palm), Invisible Waves, and the recent Ploy, which reunites him with actress Lalita Panyopas.
2. Blue Gate Crossing (Taiwan; 2002)
Too many films about high schoolers focus on the rush of sexual attraction to the exclusion of everything else meaningful about relationships -- how exactly do you "relate" to another person, as in try and comprehend how they think and feel? How can you ever hope to understand someone of another sex when you barely understand your own? And how on earth do you deal with an attraction to someone of the same sex? In Blue Gate Crossing, available on DVD from Wolfe Video, director Yee Chih-yen delicately examines a beautiful, shy babe with a crush on a swim team hunk. She gets her average-looking girl friend to talk to him on her behalf, and the hunk falls for Plain Jane instead of shy babe. Alas, Plain Jane has trouble expressing herself, not to mention a secret hankering for shy babe.
Some reviewers complained about the slow pace and lack of emotive communication by the characters. But that ignores the cultural barriers facing teenagers in Taiwan coming to grips with their romantic feelings, especially a same-sex attraction. Look a little deeper, allow the gentle rhythms and subtle expressions to work their magic, and you too may find yourself captivated by the wistful elusiveness of young love.
3. Freeze Me (Japan; 2000)
Just thinking about this movie makes me shiver. The cover of the Media Blasters DVD features a naked woman, apparently covered in ice, in a classic pose (so as not to reveal any private parts). The woman, actress Harumi Inoue, is uncovered many times throughout the movie, to the point of distraction. Believe it or not, director Takeshi Ishii has more on his mind than simple exploitation. (To be fair, one of the men gets naked too.) Five years ago, the woman was gang-raped. Right when her recovery from the ordeal appears complete, the gang shows up for an anniversary attack.
The attacks are unnerving and disturbing, as is the woman's reaction. I can't put it better than Japan Times film critic Mark Schilling, who wrote upon the film's release: "There is ... nothing childish about Ishii's vision of evil, which is at once universal and specific. His demons would be familiar to Thomas Aquinas, but their attitudes and actions reflect the realities of today's Japan, in which stalkers too often prey unhindered and unmentioned." Obviously Freeze Me is not a date movie, so choose your potential viewing companions very, very carefully.
4. J.S.A.: Joint Security Area (South Korea; 2000)
If you've only seen -- or heard of -- director Park Chan-wook's controversial, so-called "vengeance trilogy" (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Lady Vengeance), you owe it to yourself to check out this film, which has little violence but a lot of dramatic impact. Available on DVD from Universal-Music, the story begins with the discovery of two North Korean soldiers, dead in their guard post on the border with South Korea. Tensions are high as a UN officer investigates what happened. Flashbacks illustrate the testimony of witnesses from both the South and North.
What's most striking about the soldiers is their complexity. With swift strokes, director Park shows their fears, insecurities, hopes and dreams played out against a divisive political atmosphere. It winds up with one of the most haunting images in recent cinematic history. The film played extensively at festivals following its South Korean release in September 2000, but did not receive a Region 1 DVD release until about two years ago.
5. Koma (Hong Kong; 2004) / Memento Mori (South Korea; 1999)
I know, I'm cheating here, but I wanted to include an Asian horror flick with emotional depth and filmmaking panache, and I couldn't decide between these two. Both are available on DVD from Tartan Video. Koma has an opening sequence that jangled my nerves and kept my heart beating hard for far too long. Angelica Lee plays a wealthy young woman with a rare blood type in need of a kidney transplant. She is harassed by another young woman (Karena Lam) who had a one-night stand with her husband. Meanwhile, an organ thief is menacing everyone. Early in the script stage, director Law Chi-leung suggested changing Karena Lam's character from a man to a woman; he expertly draws out superb performances from both actresses and, in general, keeps the viewer off balance. The director's audio commentary on the DVD is very informative.
Memento Mori also does unexpected things for a horror thriller. For much of its running time, in fact, it's really more about what happens to ordinary teen girls facing the intense pressures of adolescent life. One of them finds a diary shared by two others, and as she delves into their secrets her relationship to them changes. After tragedy strikes, the girls react in markedly different ways and increasingly drift away from reality into nightmare territory. The horror elements, such as they are, are almost an afterthought, as though they were added only when the two first-time directors were reminded that they were supposed to be making a horror movie.
6. Suzhou River (China; 2000)
Lou Ye has become known recently as the director banned by the Chinese government from making films for five years because of Summer Palace, but he was banned by the government before -- for making Suzhou River without permission. Available on DVD from Strand Releasing, I once described it as "the heart of a fable wrapped in the skin of film noir; it doesn't seem very deep, but it leaves a pleasant and thoughtful aftertaste." The plot bears a superficial resemblance to Vertigo, and in the same way that the San Francisco environs played a key role in Hitchcock's classic, the warehouse district of Shanghai and the dirty, polluted Suzhou River seems to swallow up the main characters as they play out their melodrama. The film has a shifting point of view, which gets confusing at times, but it's fully in tune with the melancholy story.
7. Underworld Beauty (Japan; 1958)
Gorgeously shot in wide screen black and white, Seijun Suzuki's Underworld Beauty is so fresh and vital it's hard to believe it was made nearly half a century ago. While most critical attention has focused on his more radical work from the early to mid 1960s, this sharply-made crime story is immediately gripping and maintains its hypnotic hold throughout its all too brief running time.
The tale is routine. Straight out of prison, a diamond thief recovers his hidden booty but then must dodge potential assassins as he tries to sell the stones and start a new life. Suzuki's compositions are exquisite; you may find yourself grabbing for the remote control "pause" button to admire the beauty of an individual shot, but then start cursing because you won't want to interrupt the flow of the dynamic action sequences. It's available on DVD from Home Vision.