12 Asian Films To Get You Started

My earliest childhood memory (seriously) is watching Star Wars, and that started a lifelong love affair I’ve had with the movies. However, if you’re like me at all, most of the film you grew up watching was in English and the only real Asian film you were exposed to usually involved a big guy named Godzilla. But the truth is there is some great and innovative film coming out of Asia that unfortunately gets next to no attention from North American audiences. As a matter of fact, most people I talk to are still surprised when I tell them “The Ring” was originally an Asian film.

Now, the reality is that I am FAR from being an expert on Asian film. I’m just a film fan who has started to develop an appreciation for some Asian cinema. So I thought it would be a good idea, as a casual Asian film fan who is also just in the process of developing my understanding for the genre, to introduce some of you who are interested in expanding your horizons, to 15 movies to get your feet wet in Asian film. Some of you have seen lots of these films already, but I know a bunch of you haven’t.

So without any more delay, here are 15 benchmark Asian films to get you started. In no particular order:

Asian-Film-Ju-On-11) Ju-On (The Grudge)

Yes, the original version that the inferior North American Grudge (with Michelle Gellar) was based on. To this day maybe the scariest film I’ve ever seen apart from American Werewolf in London. The main difference between most North American horror and Asian horror, is that American horror tries to scare you with gross visuals and “startle scare” (when something jumps out at you), whereas a lot of Asian horror freaks the hell out of you with your own imagination… with concepts and atmosphere… with tension and mood. Ju-On makes you want to check yourself into a mental ward your nerves take such a beating. FROM THE IMDB: “An evil curse and vengeful spirits seem to linger upon a house where the horrific murder of a woman and child took place and anyone who sets foot inside the house is marked for a terrifying haunting which will not rest. One by one, those who have been tainted by the house begin to die, and nowhere is safe”

Asian-Film-Fist-12) Fist of Legend

Not the deepest, or the most artful, or the best… but hands down my favorite Jet Li film of all time. Set during the Japanese occupation in China, the political and cultural tensions are really just a backdrop to total non-stop ass kicking deliciousness. Everything you expect to find in a great old style kung-fu film and more. Revenging a slain master, settling even the most trivial dispute with to-the-death combat to be followed by more ass kicking. The action is amazing, funny at times, always pretty lighhearted. FROM THE ROTTENTOMATOES: “A martial arts protege (Li) leads his classmates in revolt after their teacher is poisoned by the invading Japanese. The final fight scene is arguably one of the best of all time. Fights choreographed by Yuen Wo Ping, action director of THE MATRIX”

Asian-Film-Vengeance3) Sympathy for Mr Vengeance

Have you ever had a day where nothing seems to be going right… so you try something to improve the situation by doing something a little drastic, but that only leads to the situation getting even worse, then you try to fix what you did wrong and it gets even worse still… and then a giant elephant shits on your face? Yeah well… that’s Sympathy for Mr Vengence. A heart breaking, brutal and viciously violent story that leaves you wondering if you should be cheering for the “hero” or not all the way through. FROM MSN MOVIES: “Korean director Park Chan-wook followed up his highly acclaimed Joint Security Area with this tale of a deaf mute named Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun) trying to help his sister (Lim Ji-Eun) get a kidney transplant. Because his blood type is incompatible and no donors are available, he turns to a group of black-market organ dealers who offer to find one in return for one of his and ten million won. The dealers rip him off, so Ryu conspires with his girlfriend, a political activist, to kidnap his former boss’ young daughter and ransom her for the ten million won. But a horrible complication ruins their plans and things begin to spiral out of control as the girl’s father (Song Kang-ho) decides to take matters into his own hands with the help of a sympathetic cop.”

Asian-Film-Hero4) Hero

One of the rare films that actually got a North American wide release so I probably shouldn’t even put it on this list… but I know ludicrous numbers of people who haven’t seen it, so here it is. Forget just Asian film… Hero is one of the most beautifully shot films in the history of cinema. Every single solitary frame of this movie is a pure work of art. The use of color is like nothing I have ever seen before. You could watch this film on mute and you’d still have a rich experience watching it. FROM TRIBUTE: “At the height of China’s Warring States period, the country was divided into seven kingdoms: Qin, Zhao, Han Wei, Yan, Chu and Qi. For years, the separate kingdoms fought ruthlessly for supremacy. The Qin King was obsessed with conquering all of China and becoming her first Emperor. He had long been the target of three legendary assassins. To anyone who defeated the assassins, the King promised great power, gold and a private audience with the King himself. For ten years no one came to claim the prize. So when the enigmatic county sheriff, Nameless (Jet Li), came to the palace bearing the legendary weapons of the slain assassins, the King was impatient to hear his story. Sitting in the palace, only ten paces from the King, Nameless told his extraordinary tale. But then something unexpected happened – the King had a different story to tell of how Nameless really came to sit there. In the center of the intrigue sits Nameless and the ruler of the Kingdom, with only ten steps between them. Within those ten steps holds an earth-shattering tale of love, honor and duty, a story that moves beyond the reaches of history.”

Asian-Film-Battle5) Battle Royale

This list is in no particular order… but if it was in order, and someone asked me “what is the one Asian film I should go out and grab” the words “Battle Royale” would come out of my lips before they even finished the question. An interesting mixture of social commentary, violence and dilemma tension (where you as an audience member think “what the hell would I do?”). We all always knew those asshole teachers wanted to see us dead! This movie just fucking RULES! There have long been rumors of a North American remake of this gem… I’m open to that… but it stands very little chance at being as good as the original. FROM SPOUT: “In a future where society is on the verge of collapse, the government takes drastic action against the problem of rebellious teenagers in this violent sci-fi opus from Japan. In the year 2002, Japan’s economy has taken a dramatic turn for the worse, and massive unemployment and inflation have thrown most adults into a state of chaos; the nation’s youth culture responds with unprecedented violence, delinquency, and truancy. Desperate to restore order, the Japanese parliament responds by creating the Millennial Reform School Act, in which groups of junior high students are selected at random, sent to an isolated island, and forced to play a rigorous war game, in which all but one of their number are killed. Kitano (Beat Takeshi) is an embittered school instructor who guides the 44 students of the Zentsuji Middle School’s Class B through the deadly game known as “Battle Royale,” as they struggle to survive against the elements and each other.”

Asian-Film-Eye6) The Eye

No, not the Jessica Alba remake coming out soon (which actually inspired this list to be made) but rather the Pang bros horror masterpiece (the fact that Hollywood is so keen on remaking these Asian horror flicks should tell you something about just how good the originals are). Imagine being blind… then getting new eyes… but you start seeing thing you should not see. CREEPY… AS… HELL! Just a terrific concept for a horror film and it’s pulled off beautifully. FROM THE IMDB: “A blind girl gets a cornea transplant so that she would be able to see again. However, she got more than what she bargained for when she realised she could even see ghosts. And some of these ghosts are down right unfriendly. So she embarks on a journey to find the origins of her cornea and to reveal the history of the previous dead owner”

Asian-Film-Sisters7) A Tale Of Two Sisters

A combination of erie mystery thriller and outright horror, the film is a little hard to follow at times, but if you can hang on for the ride you’ll love it immensely. The movie also does a terrific job of playing out the paralyzing family issues well beyond just the creepies and scares of many other films of this type. I think I liked this movie even before I saw it, since I think it’s one of my all time favorite movie posters. FROM KFC CINEMA: “Su-mi and Su-yeon have always been very close as sisters. Su-mi, being the elder of the two, is very protective over her young sister Su-yeon. Since the death of their mother, the stepmother has ruled the house with an iron fist. Su-mi has always managed to confront her stepmother, but Su-yeon, being a very calm and fragile girl, could not defend herself against the psychological and physical abuse of her evil stepmother. Su-mi has tried many times to explain the situation to her father, but his relationship with the stepmother and his disbelief has insured no result. Su-mi and Su-yeon are now back from a mysterious absence and being back home doesn’t seem to please the two sisters very much. Having to live under the same roof as the stepmother is a nightmare for them. However, during the following days, strange incidents will occur. Another presence can be feel within the house, is it the step mother trying to scare the girls, or a spirit trying to take revenge?”

Asian-Film-Infernal8) Infernal Affairs

Hands down my favorite cop film of all time, and it was the basis for the remake that won the Oscar for best picture “The Departed” (obviously they changed the name). One of the best concepts for a crime drama of all time. The cops and the mob each plant an agent in the other side and each side is on a race against time to try to figure out whole the mole in their ranks is. Brilliantly written, fantastic performances, superbly orchestrated conflict… man, there just aren’t enough great things I can say about this movie. I loved The Departed… but even that doesn’t stand up again Infernal Affairs. Loyalty, betrayal, intrigue, suspence… this movie has it all. FROM STARPLUS: “As Infernal Affairs opens, Ming (Andy Lau of Full-time Killer) is being initiated into the criminal underworld by triad boss Sam (Eric Tsang of The Accidental Spy), who ends his speech to his young charges by wishing them success in the police department. Ming enters the police academy, where he excels, but sees his classmate, Yan (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai of In the Mood for Love), expelled for “breaking the rules.” It turns out that Yan wasn’t actually drummed out of the force, but recruited by Superintendent Wong (Anthony Wong of Hard-Boiled) as an undercover operative. Just as Ming is achieving success in the police department while secretly working for Sam, Ming is gaining Sam’s trust as a triad member, while reporting to Wong. Ten years later, both men, still undercover, have grown confused about their true identities, while their bosses, Sam and Wong, wage a battle of wits against each other.”

Asian-Film-Ong-Bak9) Ong Bak

The only thing I can say about Ong Bak is that you’ve probably never seen anything like it before. World, meet Tony Jaa… he is not human. This film gained a lot of notoriety not only because of the CRAZY martial arts action… but also because 100% of everything you see in the film is real. There is no CGI, no special effects, no wires… it’s all Tony Jaa doing his thing. What you see him doing, is really what you see him doing, and your jaw will hit the floor multiple times during your viewing. Narrative wise, it’s one of the worst films ever made, but you won’t care, because Jaa oozes awesomeness. ROTTEN TOMATOES SAYS: “Jaa stars as Ting, a quiet young man who lives in the peaceful village of Nong Pradu. As the village’s special celebration approaches, a Bangkok villain named Don (Wannakit Siriput) steals the head of the Buddha statue Ong-Bak, which is said to protect the village from bad luck. Ting volunteers to go to the big city to bring back the head of Ong-Bak, but remembers what he was taught by sage monk Pra Cru (Woranard Tantipidok): he must not use his Muay Thai skills to harm people. However soon after arriving in Bangkok, Ting, a peaceful fish out of water, finds that the only way to recapture the village’s sacred treasure is by using his arms, his legs–and his head.”

Asian-Film-Ikiru10) Ikiru

Yes Dorothy, there is Asian film beyond action or horror, and probably the finest of them ever made is this masterpiece (an overused word that truly applies here) by director Akira Kurosawa, before he ever made The Seven Samurai. A touching yet powerful film about life, meaning, purpose… all with an unmistakable “It’s a Wonderful Life” feel to it (although in a very different sort of way). FROM AMAZON: “Shimura, who nobly led the Seven Samurai two years later, is sublimely perfect as a melancholy civil servant who, upon learning that he has terminal cancer, realizes he has nothing to show for his dreary, unsatisfying life. He seeks solace in nightlife and family, to no avail, until a simple inspiration leads him to a final, enduring act of public generosity. Expressing his own thoughts about death and the universal desire for a meaningful existence, Kurosawa infuses this drama with social conscience and deep, personal conviction, arriving at a conclusion that is emotionally overwhelming and simply unforgettable.”

Asian-Film-Shaolin11) Shaolin Vs. Lama

By all rights this film shouldn’t be on this list… but I figured I should put at least one really silly, yet immensely enjoyable popcorn Kung-Fu flick on here… and that’s GOTTA BE Shaolin Vs. Lama. The movie is almost 25 years old and I’ve still never seen another Kung-Fu film with as much pure personality and serious laughs. Where else are you going to find a druken Shaolin monk who kicks ass for chicken? Or a bad guy who kills himself at the end by slapping himself in the head while yelling “I must die to prove Buddha exists”! But the two best lines (that you have to see in context) were easily “If you beat me, you will be my master and you can beat me with this staff for my insolence”… or… “Master, let me be your student, and I’ll give you a chicken.” Fan-Freaking-Tastic. FROM WIKIPEDIA: “Alexander Lo Rei plays Yu Ting, a kung fu fanatic in search of a teacher. After five years of challenging masters but never being beaten he runs into Hsu Shi (William Yen), a young Shaolin monk who stole money from a gambling match in order to acquire meat and wine for his master, who later discovers Yu Ting inside the Buddhist temple. Although Hsu’s master defeats Yu with ease he refuses to take him on as a student. Yu then resorts to trickery to try and learn techniques from the aged monk. Eventually these antics come to the attention of the senior abbot who expels Yu Ting from the temple altogether. Yu is only allowed back into the temple after he rescues a girl escaping from the dreaded skyhawk clan. The head of the gang is a chief Lama and sworn enemy of Shaolin who, twelve years ago, stole one of temple’s most treasured martial arts manuals the e-ching manual. Hsu Shi’s master eventually agrees to take Yu Ting on as a student but lessons are cut short when the Lama turns up and kills the master (who was his ex-master). Yu now swears revenge but before he can leave Shaolin he has to learn the Buddhist Finger technique, the only style that can defeat the Lama Chief.”

Asian-Film-Ringu12) Ringu (The Ring)

Yet another film that sadly most people here in North America associate with the vastly inferior english version. In this original version, you crap your pants not because of jumping out at you and yelling “BOO!”, but rather because of sickeningly tense atmosphere. Far superior to the American version. FROM YAHOO MOVIES: “A strange video begins to circulate among high school teenagers. When you watch the tape, a ghostly figure appears, points her finger at you, and then the phone will ring, signalling your death in one week. When her niece is killed in a car accident, reporter Reiko Asakawa begins an investigation that leads to her own viewing of the tape. Knowing she has only a week left to live, Reiko enlists the aid of her ex-husband in tracking down the origin of the fatal videotape.”


– Infernal Affairs 2 (Some think it’s even better than the first one)
– Audition
– Old Boy
– Lady Vengeance
– Police Story
– Hard Boiled
– Expect the Unexpected

So there you go. If you’ve got a regular movie night, I suggest using your next one to grab a couple of these flicks, but be warned, you might get a bit addicted to them. And remember, I’m not some Asian Film guru or elitist, I’m a Hollywood film fan, and I love all the films listed above. Check them out.


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