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2004 was a watershed year for Asian cinema. To pick only 10 would've somehow seemed blasphemous -- so we picked 12 and let those other publications fret about logistical poppycock.
1. Goodbye, Dragon Inn
Silence envelops an aging movie theater -- the first line of dialogue comes 45 minutes into the film, but a Tsai Ming-liang fan would hardly notice -- and odd characters show up for the classic theater’s final presentation. A gay Japanese tourist is more interested in cruising for action than watching the film (which interestingly enough, is King Hu’s Dragon Inn), while others lurk around or munch obnoxiously on loud snacks. It’s a fitting elegy for the death of cinema-going in the age of multiplexes, although clearly not for the death of cinema as Tsai again reasserts his place as one of the world’s most exciting filmmakers.
-- Brian Hu
2. Infernal Affairs I
Hong Kong went and played itself following the mad cop and glory days of John Woo and Chow Yun Fat. But while those two keep pummeling themselves into further obscurity, a former art-house phenom and prince-of-pop have changed the game -- and stakes -- for good. Hollywood, meet Tony Leung and Andy Lau -- the good cop/bad cop brigade behind Infernal Affairs I --and Andrew Lau -- the puppetmaster behind this volcanic cat-and-mouse exercise in grit, wit and moral topsy-turviness. The action is gangbusters, the tension airtight, but in the end, it’s still about Leung and Lau walking that tightrope between bad and badder.
-- Chi Tung
3a. Hero (tie)
Though the film was released in China in 2002, Zhang Yimou’s Hero finally hit mainstream American audiences under the moniker of “Tarantino presents.” To be fair, Quentin Tarantino helped lobby Miramax to release the film in its entirety. And it blew away the competition at the box office, earning the number one spot its first week of release. Hero’s gorgeous cinematography and choreography were only part of the reason it was so highly regarded; the clever storytelling, extensive use of color, and character development all helped complete Zhang’s masterpiece. At its heart was a plot and character-driven drama that just so happened to deal with assassins and epic battles -- not the other way around.
-- Larry Kao
And a second opinion: http://www.asiaarts.ucla.edu/article.asp?parentid=14271
3b. House of Flying Daggers (tie)
While Zhang Yimou has never been known for restraint, nobody seemed prepared for the pink and green pastels, awesome sound design, and jaw-dropping action set pieces that propelled House of Flying Daggers when the plot could not. Zhang is now so comfortable within wuxia that he quotes at will, Kill-Bill style, playfully delighting us with his own glossy vision of the genre. While there’s little in his methods -- be that of structure, editing, cinematography, dialogue -- that recall the classics of Tsui Hark or King Hu, they all share a spirit of craftiness and technological innovation which has kept the genre so enduring.
-- Brian Hu
After much delay and anticipation, Wong Kar-Wai's latest film finally opened this year, featuring stellar performances from an impressively high-caliber cast, including Tony Leung, Zhang Ziyi, Faye Wong and many more. 2046 is the room number of the hotel where the womanizing protagonist, Chow (Leung), entertains his leading ladies, inspiring him to write in his novel about a mysterious train that leaves for 2046 -- where people go to recapture their lost memories and rarely return. The film certainly boasts enough abstract pretentiousness to give those silly intellectuals something to endlessly philosophize about, but the real reason to see the film is to be seduced and mesmerized by the one-two punch of Wong Kar-Wai's intoxicating style and Christopher Doyle's stunning cinematography.
-- Ada Tseng
5. Blind Shaft
Li Yang’s mine-shaft exposé debuted at Berlin in 2003 and was released stateside last February, yet its resonance seemed to multiply throughout 2004 with each news report from the depths of China’s mines that unfit conditions and corrupt management had resulted in the deaths and cover-ups of rural workers. Director Li Yang makes use of the small-format 16mm camera to bring us footage inaccessible to mainstream filmmakers and journalists. The result is a virulent condemnation of the attitudes prevalent in post-socialist China that have given rise to gross human rights abuses.
-- Brian Hu
6. Kill Bill 2
Kill Bill 2 was a pleasant surprise. Instead of focusing on extremely graphic scenes of mutilated human bodies -- as in the first movie -- it explored deeper themes such as different types of love, forgiveness, and destiny. It was rich in dialogue and its characters were much more developed than in the first, while still gripping the viewer with a highly entertaining story line. The acting was very raw and portrayed how complex human relationships can become -- how love and hate sometimes go hand in hand. And did I mention the uniquely beautiful cinematography?
-- Eyvette Min
7. Last Life in the Universe
Masterful acting. Incredibly cinematography. A unique story that tugs at the most innermost strings of your heart. Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s Last Life in the Universe deserves its spot in APA’s hallowed domains for being all this and more. A surprise 2004 blockbuster hit at Thailand’s box office, the collision between the lives of Kenji (Tadanobu Asano), a suicidal librarian’s assistant, and Noi (Sinitta Boonyasak), a flighty and afflicted Thai woman, results in a beautiful piece of filmic work. Definitely expanding the boundaries of Thai cinema -- who knows what Ratanaruang will bring next to the silver screen?
-- Jackie Lam
8a. Nobody Knows (tie)
Of all the minimalist, neo-realist productions to come out of the independent circuit this year, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows is perhaps the most likely to spawn knee-jerk empathy. Of course, that might have something to do with the heartbreaking premise: four children abandoned by their mother, forced to painstakingly balance precociousness, naiveté and the will to survive. But Kore-eda is less concerned about plucking at our heartstrings and more in tune with the natural, steadying impulses of kids who can sense they’re in a bind. The result is an impassioned, unflinching look at the disconnect between grown-up passivity and youthful yearning.
-- Chi Tung
8b. Old Boy (tie)
A violent and visceral cat-and-mouse game is the focus of this edgy, intense film about a man who is inexplicably kidnapped and held captive for 15 years with only a TV for company and dumplings to eat. On his release, he becomes involved in a hunt to find the man who imprisoned him and fathom the reason behind it. Old Boy was not only among the most critically acclaimed films of the year, but embraced by a public thrilled by its intensity. Based on a Japanese comic book, the director, along with screenwriter Pak Chan-wook, continues his streak of commercial and artistic successes, a list which includes JSA and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.
-- Jennifer Flinn
9. Tae Guk Gi: Brotherhood of War
Taegukgi was a dramatic portrayal of the bond between two brothers during the Korean War. It made a strong statement about the horrific effects of war by depicting brutal, bloody, non-glamorized scenes of broken families and ghastly deaths. The film showed how in the midst of such extreme circumstances, the only way to cope is to drastically change one's character. It brought entire audiences to tears, especially striking a chord in the hearts of Koreans because the civil conflicts that caused this war are unresolved to this day. Although many were only able to understand the movie’s dialogue through subtitles, the human emotions that came out were universal, allowing Taegukgi to cross cultural barriers to become a success around the world.
-- Eyvette Min
10. Harod and Kumar go to White Castle
There is only one genre of film that can present a random burger joint in New Jersey, Neil Patrick Harris (a.k.a. Doogie Howser M.D.), and a cheetah without becoming a box-office disaster. Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle is a stoner-movie classic, with all the randomness and ridiculousness that should be expected, plus a little more (i.e. Doogie Howser) for good measure. The film has all the elements of a Hollywood sure-shot: a heterosexual love theme, an underdog, a happy ending, and lovable protagonists. But wait -- the two lovable protagonists happen to be Asians cast in non-stereotypical roles (John Cho as Harold and Kal Penn as Kumar). A must-see, if only for the witty one-liners and laugh-aloud stoner humor.
-- Victoria Chin
We also liked: Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman, Ong Bak: Thai Warrior, Tropical Malady, Seoul Train, Robot Stories, Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall...and Spring, What Remains Of Us, In the Realms of the Unreal.
Date Posted: 1/14/2005