The Evolution of Asian Movies

Zeitgeist Films / Courtesy Everett Collection

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.


If Bong is the perfect expression of a South Korean culture confident enough to be self-critical, Hong Kong’s Johnnie To is a trickier figure, an old-school tough guy who’s more than a little ambivalent about where his society is heading. You may not see his chagrin at first because you’re so wowed by his manly cinematic brio. His is a world of gang wars, troubled cops and hoods arriving in Hong Kong from the Chinese mainland with dreams of conquering the world. To evokes all this with thrilling vividness, be it in the spectacular climax of Mad Detective (2007), which deploys a hall of mirrors more wittily than any movie since Orson Welles’s 1947 The Lady from Shanghai, or the jaw-dropping seven-minute shot that opens Breaking News—the camera starts in the sky, swoops down to the street, enters a third-story window, eyeballs a group of hoods, follows a falling newspaper back to the street…and that’s only the beginning. When it comes to action, To is one of the world’s great stylists.

A quintessential To movie is a morality play turning on questions of loyalty. In The Mission (1999), a Triad boss hires five killers to protect him, then orders four of them to kill the fifth, their comrade and friend. In Exiled, set in Macao, an honorable team of hit men is sent to knock off their childhood friend, only to square off with another team of hit men, a scenario that To treats with the ritual stylization of a Kabuki classic.

For all their dreaminess, To’s gangster pictures resonate because they are about more than gangsters. They’re fables about loyalty in a rapidly changing world. Steeped in values that he reveres, To’s heroes are bound by blood, friendship and honor in a Hong Kong (and China) where millennial bonds of loyalty are increasingly replaced by those of money, and where big shots will betray anyone, even their most devoted servants, if there’s a buck to be made from doing it.

Portraying what such changing values mean to ordinary people’s lives is the grand project of Jia Zhangke, the acclaimed Chinese director who’s doing perhaps the most important work of any living filmmaker. The 41-year-old has spent his life watching China transform itself from a wretched Maoist backwater to a capitalist juggernaut that’s equal parts police state and Las Vegas. No social transformation has ever been bigger or faster, and Jia’s films—which crossbreed fiction and documentary—crackle with the urgency of bulletins from modernity’s front lines.

For starters, Jia takes us inside places we’ve never seen. The World (2004) is set in a kitschy Beijing theme park whose young heroes work amid miniature versions of iconic tourist sites like Big Ben that they could never afford to visit. Still Life, which won the Golden Lion, the Venice Film Festival’s top award, in 2006, takes us to Fengjie, a town along the Yangtze River that’s about to be covered with water from the Three Gorges Dam, a Party-imposed project that has already displaced millions. Exquisitely shot, it shows us a centuries-old lifestyle being washed away by the quest for hydroelectric power.

Whether he’s spinning the story of a small-town thief or interviewing workers from a Mao-era factory that’s being replaced by luxury high-rises, Jia offers a compassionate portrait of ordinary men and women struggling not to drown in the rushing tidal wave of historical change. Just as valuable, he’s doing what he can to preserve cultural memory by recording the actual process of China tossing its past onto the ash heap of history.

To be honest, if you asked me whose movies I would rather watch on a Saturday night, I’d tell you those by To and Bong, two of the most sheerly pleasurable filmmakers on the planet. Then again, I can well imagine that 100 years from now, the world will have brand-new pleasures to delight in, while Jia’s work will remain what it already is, an inestimably valuable portrait of one of history’s great turning points—the birth of the Asian century.

All films in this piece are available on DVD.