2010 was a great year for Asian cinema with excellent efforts such as Takashi Miike’s old school samurai film 13 Assassins, Korean thrillers including I Saw the Devil and The Man From Nowhere, and the Palme d’Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.
There are also some more obscure films worthy of recognition such as the Korean thriller The Yellow Sea and IP Man 2. What marks 2010 in the world of Asian Cinema is one particular genre, the revenge picture. The year featured many revenge films showcasing realistic bloodshed, somber story lines, a sense of hope and bold emotions. This list contains the top 15 Asian films from the year of 2010.
1. 13 Assassins
This is one of the best remakes of all time with brilliant direction from Takashi Miike. The director mastered the world of action cinema, crafting an awe inspiring 50 minute battle sequence. Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira (Gorô Inagaki) is a man capable of the most extraordinary offences, the most wretched evil, and the most barbaric acts of savagery. He kills and tortures women and children out of boredom. He loves violence and wants to reinstate the age of war because, “with death comes gratitude for life”.
Since he has political clout, his world view could easily become reality. After witnessing one of Naritsugu’s victims crying in pain, begging for the death of the monster responsible, after her tongue was cut out and her limbs were amputated, samurai Shinzaemon Shimada (Kôji Yakusho) decides to take action. He forms a group of 12 fellow assassins with the ultimate goal of claiming the head of Lord Naritsugu. The group teams up with the thirteenth assassin Koyata Kiga (Yûsuke Iseya). Unlike the twelve, he is not a samurai but a wild man with a high threshold for pain and sex.
Takashi Miike can do almost anything, from creating films such as Ichi the Killer and Visitor Q, to this one where he produces 13 Assassins for an old school, traditionally shot samurai flick with mass-audience appeal. It is never boring, repetitive, confusing or superfluous. A key element of the film’s success is the fact that one actually cares for the characters and story.
Mija (Jeong-hie Yun) is a well dressed, fragile lady in her 60s, who one day stumbles across a dead body in the river. It’s the body of a girl who was raped by Mija’s grandson, a sullen, lazy and selfish boy without any discipline, and five of his friends. They took her dignity and she took her own life. The rapist’s father tries to make a deal with the victim’s mother, so as not to involve the police. Mija goes to her doctor and finds out that she is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. She will lose all her memories, but she seems unconcerned by the fact.
As she barely shows any emotion, the audience can only guess at her inner thoughts. Her life is getting more difficult by the day and as tragedy descends upon her she takes a poetry class. She wishes to put beauty into words. Her teacher is confident that one can learn writing poetry from attending class, but, despite his optimism, Mija struggles. Poetry doesn’t come easy, a fact her teacher forgot to mention.
The film is calm and realistic, with the actors being restrained by a director who is holding back from manipulative story devices. The pacing is great as Lee treats the various moments of the action respectfully instead of treating them as mere plot points. This is a realistic film exploring several stages of complex human emotions. There are no easy answers given.
3. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
This film is unique, interesting and well made. Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) resides in the countryside because his life is coming to an end due to kidney failure. His illness is something he believes has come about due to killing communists and insects. In a word, bad karma. He lives his final days quietly in the company of his family, including his long lost son, who now looks like a red-eyed Bigfoot, and his deceased wife, who has returned in the shape of a ghost.
The film is beautifully shot, with extended takes, illuminating the film’s thoughtful moments. The film is seductive, slow, meditative and artistic. Writer/Director Apichatpong Weerasethakul respects his audience’s intelligence, never pandering to the conventional, the mainstream, or the commercial. There is no need to believe in the possibility of ghosts, spirits, after life, karma and reincarnation as the film believes in them.
The film dedicates itself to making the audience feel pure cinema, such as settings, sounds, colors, and characters, examining their thoughts and actions without being distracted by craft or technique. This is art house cinema at its very finest and to understand or at least appreciate it one must be both curious and patient.
4. I Saw the Devil
This is one of the most violent films ever made. The talent collaborating on this picture is quite amazing. Director Jee-woon Kim (A Tale of Two Sisters, A Bittersweet Life), joined with brilliant actor Byung-hun Lee and the great Choi-min Sik. The film has fantastic production values, great cinematography, brilliant acting and a terrific script. However, many question the film’s content.
The action follows Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee) on a path of vengeance against monstrous Kyung-chul (Choi-min Sik). That man stalks, rapes and brutally kills women, using their flesh in a most beastly way. He killed Kim’s pregnant fiancee and since Kim is an expertly trained agent with special acquired skills, he is a worthy opponent. Kim beats Kyung-chel severely, puts a tracking device on him, and gives him time to recover only so he can be beaten again.
It is a cat and mouse game, but not repetitive or boring. It may not be as profound as some other great Korean revenge pictures but what it does have is grit. It’s a tough and demanding picture.
Made to rival Chan-wook Park’s vengeance trilogy (Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, Oldboy & Lady Vengeance), this is still a great film in its own right. The plot is complicated. Junior high school teacher Yuko Moriguchi (Takako Matsu) reveals to her class that two students (called student A & B) have killed her daughter Manami (Mana Ashida). She now proposes to claim vengeance upon the two students.
With no buildup or introduction to the characters, director Tetsuya Nakashima puts the audience in a trance-like state, waiting for the plot to unfold. He maintains this tension for 40 minutes, employing brilliant pacing and editing. Confessions blends its multi-layered original and poetic script with a beautiful soundtrack, courtesy of Radiohead. Some viewers will find the film emotionally impenetrable, empty and cold. This film is nothing of the sort, though.
Hae-won (Seong-won Ji) is an overworked, selfish and aggressive individual who, after finding herself a witnessing a pair of thugs beating a defenseless woman and goes on vacation to calm her nerves. She travels to the island of Moodo where she knew Bok-nam (Yeong-hie Seo) as a little girl. Bok-nam never stopped sending letters to Hae-won, who never took time to answer them.
The island is populated by many older ladies and a few men. They treat Bok-nam as a sexual slave and free labor, sometimes beating her. Bok-nam fears not only for her own life but for her daughter’s as well. If nobody is willing to aid her, she will have to take matters into her own hands. This is a sordid tale of revenge, accented with pitch black humour.
Director Chul-soo Jang doesn’t flinch from graphic sex scenes or moments of extreme violence. The natural qualities which define the island stand in contrast to the barren minds of the inhabitants. The film maintains that things may look good from the outside, but through closer inquiry shows there may be a truth too horrible for one to comprehend. Rarely has misogyny been depicted as harsh and unforgiving as it is in Bedevilled.
The message is the need for an outsider to have courage to stand up for what is right. The film slowly builds to an awesome climax. The picture has excellent story-telling, beautiful cinematography, great acting and manages to be both highly entertaining, dramatic and engaging while offering hard philosophical questions.
7. The Man From Nowhere
This is a brilliantly executed thriller. I Saw the Devil, Oldboy, A Bittersweet Life, The Chaser show that Korea produces some of the best modern film thrillers and 2010 saw the releasee of two of their finest yet. The first is the already mentioned film by Jee-won Kim and the second Jeong-beom Lee’s The Man From Nowhere (“ajeossi”, meaning “mister” in Korean).
Cha Tae-sik (Bin Won) is a former special agent who unknowingly helps a woman smuggle drugs. He befriends her daughter, Jeong So-mi (Sae-ron Kim), who gets kidnapped with her mother, who is later murdered. He will do everything in his power to bring the perpetrators to justice and ensure the safety of his newly found friend. The film is crafted with great skill and a clear vision.
It has everything that defines a great Korean thriller including a lead character with nothing to lose, excessive violence, a beautiful operatic score, a sympathetic drive for revenge, philosophical traits, amazing cinematography and a worthy story at the center. The film works well, managing to be brutal not only in its fight sequences, but also in its emotions.
8. Cold Fish
Nobuyuki Syamoto (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) is a husband and a father of a typically dysfunctional family in the director’s cannon. His daughter is caught stealing from an aquarium store and in order for her to make amends, she is forced to work for the store’s owner, Yukio Murata (Denden). Murata is extremely extroverted and overly loud and friendly. He lures the unsuspecting family into what they wrongly believe to be a goodhearted and fruitful companionship.
The film pays tribute to Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, having an identical poster style featuring a close up of the lead wearing a pair of broken glasses. Straw Dogs features a rape scene with the victim starting off struggling, getting turned on, and wanting more by the end. A similar scene features Syamoto’s wife Taeko Syamoto (Megumi Kagurazaka). Cold Fish is a long film but well paced.
There is also a B-quality to the picture with the absence of lightning, cheap sound effects, and bright coloring, giving the film the feeling of a horror documentary. It feels realistic but at the same time comically overdone.