Sunday, September 30, 2012

East Asian Movies

American movies have westerns.  English movies have feudal kings and knights.  The Japanese have samurai.  And the Chinese have their Warring States period.

I am very interested in East Asian culture and movies.  The large, epic, Chinese stories are, particularly, my sort of movie.

I'm no movie critic, and my writing needs a lot of improvement.  But I can at least tell you which movies to look out for.

Seven Samurai

Why not start with one of the all-time classic movies?  

Directed by Akira Kurosawa, this movie has inspired many other movies, including The Magnificent Seven.  Its about a village that is often attacked by bandits.  They decide to hire samurai to defend them from the bandits.  There isn't a large amount of action, it is the strategy, and some drama, that make this movie interesting.

Its rightfully called a great movie, and its worth a viewing.  (It is over two hours long, and it should be.)


A Fistful of Dollars is one of the three movies from Sergio Leone's man with no name trilogy.  (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, The Band, and The Ugly)  It was based on Yojimbo.  The story is about a samurai who wanders into a town that is having problems with two rival gangs.  The samurai decides, "In this town I'll get paid for killing.  And this town is full of men who are better off dead."

Another good Akira Kurosawa movie that's well worth watching.  I would argue that its better than A Fistful of Dollars; I always prefer the original.


Another movie starring Toshiro Mfune, and directed by Akira Kurosawa. 

This movie is a sequel to Yojimbo (unless its the other way 'round).  The wandering samurai shows a bunch of kids that its better to side with the ugly, but good guy, rather than the attractive and ambitiously corrupt guy.  The samurai repeatedly shows the kids how they should act and they don't learn until the end.

Very similar to Yojimbo and just as good.


Many people, not me, count this as the best ever Japanese movie.

Another from Akira Kurosawa. This one is based on the story of King Lear.  The daimyo has a falling out with his sons who want to fight each other to take control of their father's territory.

Its a movie that is very highly regarded by many movie critics.  I do not care for it as much as most of the other movies listed here.  I think that its the story and characters that I don't particularly care for.  Its not bad but I'd look elsewhere first.


A classic Japanese movie.

If you've read Taiko, one of my favorite books, then you'd be somewhat familiar with the story of Takeda Shingen.  He was a great general and lord, who died while Oda Nobunaga was beginning to conquer Japan.  His last request was to hide his death from the outside world for three years to give his son time to strengthen his army.  This story is sort of like the one about the prince and the pauper.  Instead of two guys switching places, however, it is about one guy to tries to take the place of his lord.

Also by Akira Kurosawa, also very good, and also well regarded by western movie critics.  But I would prefer to watch any of the first three movies that I've listed here, before this one.

13 Assassins 

This movie is something else.

Its very much like The Wild Bunch as a movie.  Although with a very different plot.  The Wild Bunch was long called, "the bloodiest movie of all time."  13 Assassins is the same way, but with swords and not guns.

Its about a terrible and vicious brother to the shogun.  (I didn't really need to see the armless, legless, toungeless girl.  How did they find the actress? She was nude, and I almost doubt that they used CGI for her appearance.)  Japanese culture prevented this lord's vassels from stopping his viciousness, but all agreed that the country should not have this man in power.  So one samurai volunteered to kill this lord.  He gathered 12 others and used his strategy to corner and attempt to kill him.

The violence is incredible.  And the movie is very striking.  I'm not one for gore or gruesome violence in movies, but this one is very much worth watching.

Three Kingdoms

From Amazon's product description: "In 228 AD, a time when China was plagued by constant war and divided among three kingdoms, a hero arose. Zhao Zilong was a common man who ascended from humble roots to become commander of the army charged with liberating the land from an evil warlord. He led numerous battles of strength and wit, but now he must fight against the impossible to defy the fate of his nation."

Its not bad.  I'd watch it only if you are interested in watching all epic styled ancient Chinese movies. There are better movies if you only have a limited time for them.

Little Big Solider

One of my new favorite movies.  This one stars Jackie Chan.  And like his other movies it is a martial arts comedy.  Before you stop reading here and forget about this movie, let me tell you that this one is good.  The action is good, the story is good.  And while its not laugh out loud funny, it is amusing and you'll guffaw repeatedly.

The story is of a solider, who is good at playing dead, who captures the wounded enemy's general.  He wants to take him to his country for his reward of 5 acres of land and an exemption from all future military service.  The movie follows their travels.

The, more serious, ending is very good.  The whole movie is "marvelous."

The Warlords

A movie starring Jet Li.  He is one of three men who lead a group of bandits in sacking several cities and attempt to become successful generals.  But trouble comes when they become powerful and mix with national politics.

A movie starring Jet Li is always good, but I'd skip this one unless you have a lot of movie watching that you want to do.


A movie about a man who insults and disrespects the Shaolin temple.  But his second in command turns on him and becomes more ruthless than he was.  So the man stays in the temple, and finds himself, or some such baloney.  Then he confronts his former number two.

Its a good movie.  And I wouldn't mind seeing it again.  But there are better movies to watch.

Red Cliff

This movie is pretty interesting.  One army attempts to conquer another.  And there is much debate about strategy and there is quite a large set (or CGI).  The strategy, tactics, and internal struggles are all very interesting.  Just the scale of the movie, and some of the settings, make it well worth watching.

I'd quite like to see it again.

The Warring States

If you've read a modern translation of Sun Tzu's The Art of War, then you may have heard of Sun Pin.  His story is that he is, at least the intellectual, descendant of Sun Tzu.  He also had a great grasp of military strategy.  And this movie is about him.

Its a good movie.  The one sided animosity of Sun Pin's enemy is interesting to watch.  It has a few big battles, but it is otherwise a drama about Sun Pin's life.

I'd recommend it, although rereading the description of Sun Pin in the translated version of The Art of War may be helpful for understanding a big part of the story: the simpleness is all there is.

Jet Li's Fearless

Its one of those "kung fu" movies that is about when to fight.  It is full of fighting scenes and the the hero's evolution of character are both good.

Its a movie like many other "kung fu" movies but this one was made recently and perhaps better due to its higher budget.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

This is one of those movies that always seemed to me to be over-hyped and too well liked by the general public.  I saw it a while ago but don't remember it well.  (Not a good sign.  Although, I often reject the things that suddenly become popular with the public, for just that reason.)


I first watched it in college while drinking about half of a bottle of vodka.  And now I don't want to see it without also drinking too much.  Especially while you drink, the bold colors in each of the scenes are great things to behold.  In one scene everyone wears red with a background of autumnal leaves.  In another scene everything is green inside a forest. etc..

The story is about a man who wants to assassinate a general who is trying to become emperor of all of China.

The movie is pretty good; it stars Jet Li.  But it was directed by Quentin Tarantino, who is hardly an easterner.

Its reasonably good.

Ip Man

About the master of master fighter in a city, known for its martial arts schools, in southern China.  The main issue comes when the Japanese invade prior to WWII.

Based on a real guy, who is most famous for being the teacher of Bruce Lee.  It stars Donnie Yen, who is a common leading martial arts actor.  He does not seem as heroic as Bruce Lee or Jet Li, but he is a capable lead.

The movie is pretty good, and has a sequel.

Ip Man II: Legend of the Grandmaster

After the Japanese destroy the city where Ip Man lived in China, he moved to Hong Kong.  And he has to establish himself in a new city.  The climax of the movie is very similar to Rocky IV.  A foreign fighter, this one is British, kills another Chinese fighter during an exhibition fight and Ip Man fights him at the end.

They make a big point about Ip Man being Bruce Lee's teacher in real life.

Both movies are good.

Bodyguards and Assassins

This movie just missed the cut for my highest recommendations at the bottom of this post.

Dr. Sun Yat sen is going to visit Hong Kong to see his mother.  A bunch of pro-democracy activists need to protect him from the anti-democracy assassins.  The loyalty and dedication to their cause makes the movie very watchable.

An excellently entertaining movie.



This movie is really cool.  The opening scene starts with five guys shooting it out inside of an apartment.  And ends with them all patching the bullet holes and helping the one guy and his family move in.  They're a group of friends who now serve different bosses.  Four of them are split between triads (mafia).  They have conflicting orders and go instead out on a job together. 

It was directed by Johnnie To.  I'd rank his movies with those of Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone as my favorites.  Although I enjoy watching Mr. To's movies the most, and more sort of appreciate the movies from the other two.

At the end of this post, when I recommend a few of these movies that stick out above the others this one will be featured prominently.


A Hong Kong triad (mafia) has an election every few years for the position of leadership.  The two leading candidates try to sway the influential members to their side.   Action and drama ensues.  I'm not a big Godfather fan, its too well liked by everyone else, so if I want to see a movie about a mob, I'll watch this.

Its really, really good.  Also directed by Johnnie To.

Triad Election

A sequel to Election, this movie is about the next election for this triad.  Almost everyone wants the one guy to become the next boss but he doesn't want to run the illegal operation.  He has to decide if he is going to run this triad.

Its probably as good, maybe even better, than the first one.  But there is one scene that is just too gruesome for my taste.  Think dogs + people in hamburger grinders.  Its not as graphic as a horror movie would be, but it is more graphic than I care to see.

It could very well be better than Election, which I liked a lot, but that one scene is appalling; even though it really adds to the story. 


An old French assassin travels to Macau where his daughter and her husband and son were attacked in their home.  He goes to get revenge against those who attacked his daughter and her family.  But he does not know Macau, and has memory problems, so he hires some locals with their own problems.  His memory problems are so bad that he takes a Polaroid of  everyone who is important so that he can remember who they are and what their names are. 

The story has interesting twists.  And is very different from any other revenge story that I've seen.  I recommend it.  It was also directed by Mr. To.

Mad Detective

An ex-detective with a weird mental issue helps a young detective solve a crime.  The ex-detective sees people as they really are.  He sees cowardly men as boys, and gluttonous thin men as fat, etc.

Also directed by Johnnie To, this movie is quite a bit different to any other detective movie that I've ever seen.   I recommend this movie too.


This movie is about a few guys who steal, I'm not sure what, and many problems follow  them.  It was divided into three parts, each directed by a different famous Hong Kong director.

It was a bit weird.  I watched it only as background while I was doing something else, and I did not understand what or why the things were going on as they were.  I'd like to see it again, if only to figure out what was going on.  Once wasn't enough.

There's a reason one director is used for one movie and not three directors, even of one is Johnnie To.

The Good, The Bad, and The Weird

Weird is right.

In some places its similar to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, but not really.  It reminds me a bit of Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, even though this isn't as good.

Its weird, in a sort-of good way.

Those South Koreans may be odd.


Since I would be remiss not to mention Bruce Lee's movies:

watch: Enter the Dragon
watch: Fist of Fury
skip: The Big Boss
maybe: Way of the Dragon


These are the east Asian movies that stick out to me.  I recently saw a long epic movie (two movies, both over two hours) that took place in feudal Siam.  But I don't recollect it well.  For whatever reason, I don't seem to find the east Asian movies from outside China or Japan to be all that appealing.

Jet Li made a lot of reasonably good action movies during the '80s and '90s.  All of Jet Li's movies are at least reasonably good.  I'd be happy to see any of them again.

But of the movies based in east Asia, that I have seen, I'd have to say that the best are:
  • Seven Samurai
  • 13 Assassins
  • Little Big Solider
  • Exiled*
  • Election
*Watch it.  Its very good, even if its trailer does not do it justice:


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