The Evolution of Asian Movies
Three directors show how contemporary Asian movies have moved beyond martial arts to embody brilliant storytelling.
By now, everyone thinks of East Asia as an economic boomtown, a show reel of futuristic airports, neon-lashed high-rises and shopping centers so garish that they make Rodeo Drive look like a strip mall. But what’s less known is that it’s also booming culturally. Just consider the movies. Although most Westerners’ experience of Asian cinema is largely limited to Jackie Chan and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, those who follow the world of film—from sleepless Internet nerds to high-powered Hollywood execs—know that no place anywhere is producing more exciting movies than Asia. From Bangkok to Beijing, Seoul to Hong Kong, there’s an explosion of talent unrivaled since the 1960s heyday of Bergman and Fellini, Godard and Truffaut, Antonioni and Kurosawa.
You can get a feel for what’s happening in the work of three of my personal favorites: South Korea’s Bong Joon Ho, Hong Kong’s Johnnie To and China’s Jia Zhangke. Although they make very different kinds of movies, they share two key things. All three are prodigiously gifted, and all three tackle the great theme of modern Asian film—the way lickety-split modernization is changing the lives and identities of billions of people.
To almost everyone’s amazement, including its own, South Korea has gone from being an afterthought to Asia’s hottest culture, cranking out gold medal–winning figure skaters, Bieberesque pop stars and miniseries that are hits from China to Southeast Asia. (Last year, the former first lady of Japan, Miyuki Hatoyama, raved to me about how much she adored Korea’s actors.) It also has the deepest bench of terrific directors outside the United States.
The best of the bunch is Bong Joon Ho, the most versatile filmmaker to have emerged this millennium, who’s blessed with the enviable knack of making movies that critics adore and audiences flock to see. Something of a cross between Steven Spielberg and David Fincher, Bong is not only a brilliant storyteller, he also knows how to take a catchy pop idea and use it to get at something deeper. Even as he enthralls us, he reveals the fault lines of the Korean psyche.
His 2006 smash hit, The Host—probably the best monster movie since Jaws—isn’t merely an enjoyable tale of an enormous, wickedly tailed critter that emerges from the Han River and attacks Seoul. Bong turns it into a sly exploration of Korean family life today, the collapse of solidarity now that the country’s getting rich and the meaning of America’s ongoing military presence. Similarly, his riveting 2009 hit, Mother, is a Hitchcockean thriller that, behind its suspense, looks at how Korea’s present-day cult of the doting mother is actually a kind of madness. While both movies are superb, Bong’s masterpiece is Memories of Murder (2003), one of the best crime pictures I’ve ever seen. Set during the 1980s, it follows a group of detectives trying to catch a serial killer who’s terrorizing a small town. The film is funny, scary and quietly devastating in its depiction of how those in power are more obsessed with using their resources to crack down on dissent than to bother with anything so minor as murder.