By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
2011 gave us a wide variety of Asian cinema, from sweeping historical epics to smaller, more human-scaled studies of life. Seek out the following films wherever you can. They are ranked in order of excellence.
10. “Vampire,” directed by Shuji Iawi, starring Kevin Zegers, Rachael Leigh Cook, and Kristin Kreuk
The director’s first film shot in the West, this is a grim, gory tale, not for the squeamish. The film lays out the ways and means of vampirism graphically. But it also shows the struggle of a young man against his darker impulses and the attraction of bloodletting and other extreme behaviors in a world too many young people dismiss as mundane.
9. “Kuroneko,” directed by Kaneto Shindō, starring Kichiemon Nakamura, Nobuko Otowa, and Kiwako Taichi
What if you were a proud samurai sent to kill demons praying on fellow samurai — only to discover that those demons were your own loved ones, killed and then horrifically reincarnated? Released in 1968, but brought to Seattle just this year, “Kuroneko” moves slowly, stately, and in beautiful black-and-white toward its terrible climax.
8. “Littlerock,” directed by Mike Ott, starring Atsuko Okatsuka, Rintaro Sawamoto, and Cory Zacharia
At the end of this small-scaled, perfectly detailed character study, the young Californian man calls out desperately to the Japanese woman that he’s fallen in love with. She doesn’t fully return his affections. In fact, she can just barely speak his language, and he can speak even less of hers.
But director Mike Ott uses their plight to make poignant points about the illusions we create for ourselves.
7. “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, starring Thanapat Saisaymar, Jenjira Pongpas, and Natthakarn Aphaiwong
In the most idiosyncratic and artistically bold film on this list, Weerasethakul blends the heartfelt and the fantastic in a tale of a man dying in the Thai countryside.
6. “We Don’t Care About Music Anyway,” directed by Cédric Dupire and Gaspard Kuentz, starring Yoshihide Ohtomo, Hiromichi Sakamoto, and Tomoko Shimazaki
A bracing glimpse into Japanese avant-garde music, featuring electronics, noise, feedback, and some beach romping.
The free-thinkers of this music seem grim discussing the oppression of mainstream Japanese society, but show a lot more exuberance in their artistic opposition to it.
5. “Poetry,” directed by Chang-Dong Lee, starring Jeong-hee Yoon, Hira Kim, and Meyong-sin Park
A woman with a horrible secret struggles to make sense of her shattered world. Few films this year had a keener sense of emotional shades, the finer transitions between one feeling and another.
4. “13 Assassins,” directed by Takashi Miike, starring Koji Kakusho, Takayuki Yamada, and Yūsuke Iseya
The controversial director returns with a narrative that’s low on gore (for once!) and long on samurai psychology.
The epic battle dominating the film’s last half-hour encompasses everything that the ancient swordsmen believed in, fought for, and in many cases, died for.
3. “Enemies of the People,” directed by Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath, starring Nuon Che
A documentary born of an actual genocide — a Cambodian one inflicted by the Khmer Rouge. Nuon Chea, the second-in-command of the Khmer Rouge, still lives.
This is the story of one young man who, scarred by losing family to the genocide, embarks on a mission: getting Nuan Chea to admit the truth about what happened, no matter what it takes.
2. “City of Life And Death,” directed by Chuan Lu, starring Ye Liu, Yuanyuan Gao, and Wei Fa
Another history-based tale, this one sticking closer to established facts, detailing the fall of Nanking to the Japanese Army in 1937, the horrors that followed, and the brave — sometimes doomed — resistance to those horrors.
War is always hell, but to the people of Nanking, it becomes a specialized variety of hell, with a few souls struggling to quell the inferno.
1. “Amigo,” directed by John Sayles, starring Joel Torre, Chris Cooper, and Rio Locsin
The U.S. Army’s presence in the Philippines during the early 20th century is an often-forgotten episode in history, among Americans anyway.
Writer and director John Sayles assembles a remarkable ensemble cast for this tale of imperialism, resistance, missed chances, bloodshed, and tragedy. (end)
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at email@example.com.