Subscribe to the APA Newsletter
APA critics weigh in on the best of Asian cinema, 2007.
As always, our writers were free to define "best," "Asian," "film," and "2007" however they wished. Here's what they decided.
To skip to individual entries:
Best Film Experiences of 2007 (in no particular order)
When you realize that five out of ten of your top films address trauma, (always good for yuletide spirit), it may be time to expand film viewing choices as a new year's resolution. Actually, in consideration of the last choice listed, make that six.
The Cats of Mirikitani (2006)
I missed it at the VC Film Festival screening back in March, but was able to catch The Cats of Mirikitani at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo later in October, with director and documentary co-subject Linda Hattendorf in attendance for a Q/A. It was a moving, lively reception and viewing experience quite a propos to the venue, as Hattendorf herself admitted. The Cats of Mirikitani challenges the basic talking-heads approach in order to contain a life filled with traumas. Instead, different histories and events are made to intersect through Jimmy Mirikitani's multi-territorial experiences -- his art, the development of his connection to Hattendorf, 9/11, the memories of the Japanese internment camps, and the Hiroshima/Nagasaki atomic bombings.
The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On (1988)
This documentary kicked off the Los Angeles Film Forum Hara Kazuo retrospective back in March. Hara is known for his iconoclastic documentary work beginning in 1972, tackling subjects considered taboo in Japan, such as the disabled/diseased, the nakedness and intimacy of "private" lives (namely, his own love life), and memory and war guilt. The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On tackles the latter subjects, and is arguably his most famous and controversial work. It still manages to shock, move, irritate, and fascinate through its literal tour-de-force of a protagonist, Pacific War veteran Okuzaki Kenzo -- the man who proudly claims to have fired pachinko balls at Emperor Hirohito -- as he aggressively investigates a case of execution at the end of the war. By turns tragic and comical, The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On is an unrelenting look at processes of encountering history. For those not fortunate enough to catch Okuzaki in theatres, Facets also released the documentary on DVD in February.
Three Films by Hiroshi Teshigahara: Pitfall (1962), Woman in the Dunes (1964), The Face of Another (1966), Criterion DVD boxed set (summer 2007)
Woman in the Dunes' international reputation firmly affirmed the presence of a younger set of filmmakers after the 1950s "golden age." Woman in the Dunes was as important as Kurosawa's Rashomon in introducing postwar Japanese cinema to the world. Teshigahara's first three films, however uneven, trace the development of an entomological eye worthy of a Buñuel comparison -- although with less humor -- and takes us through uneven, post-(fill in the blank) worlds where identity is constantly constructed, reconstructed, and deconstructed.
Secret Sunshine (2007)
This is the first Lee Chang-dong film I've seen and it's superbly acted, narrated, and shot. Actress Jeon Do-yeon is the film's emotional anchor, but it's not as simple as it sounds. The tumultuous cycle of mourning both emotional and terrifyingly physical into which she is thrown hearkens back to the corrosiveness and naked drama of Hara's Emperor's Naked Army Marches On in the way it sustains such a heightened sense of human fragility and violence.
Big Bang Love, Juvenile A (2006)
This is a real visual treat for both Miike and non-Miike fans alike -- though "treat" is still too playful a term to be appropriate. The kind of detached yet smoldering and carnivalesque cinematography and subject that Takashi Miike unveiled to us in Izo and Box becomes distilled here in this world of shadows and muted colors, expressing masculine rites of passage and attraction. To see that Miike can come up with something like this among the plethora of genre and straight-to-video assignments he gets every year further establishes the elasticity and genius -- yes, genius -- of his cinematic vision.
A quiet but superb filmmaking debut, pure and simple.
Sad Vacation (2007)
Aoyama Shinji's latest is the third in a trilogy of films that take place in the city of Kitakyushu in Fukuoka prefecture, where Aoyama grew up (the first two films are Helpless and Eureka). Sad Vacation is nowhere near the epic greatness of intimate lives of Eureka, but keeps intact Aoyama's status as a filmmaker with a truly particular approach to relationships centering on abandonment, reconciliation, mis/understanding and marginalization. Plus, you get to hear Johnny Thunders' "Sad Vacation."
Mizoguchi Kenji retrospective in Ikebukuro, Tokyo, Japan (September 2007)
A Mizoguchi retrospective is a significant event by itself, but the one held at a cinema in Ikebukuro this year offered the great privilege of two of Mizoguchi's silent films that I had never seen before with benshi: The Downfall of Osen (1935) and White Threads of the Waterfall (1933).
Syndromes and a Century (2006)
Common descriptions of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's cinema include radical, enigmatic, and surrealist, but his films also treads on the impressionist bent for variations of hue, light, and mood. He continues to experiment with narrative repetition in this film about memories of, and for, his parents and his childhood. You may find the corners of your mouth forming a Cheshire cat smile as you encounter a monk who wants to be a DJ, a dentist who longs to be a singer, and an alternative meaning of DDT. And these are just the peripheral. But terms like center, periphery, and narrative cease to be relevant when it comes to Apichatpong's films because they make you feel like you're watching cinema for the first time.
Philippine prisoners' remake of "Thriller" on YouTube
I suppose I had to include this one, since even Newsweek had a blurb about it. Seeing a sea of orange-clad Philippine prisoners moving in zombie unison to Michael Jackson's "Thriller": what else could provoke such surging nationalist pride? But, really, you have to give them credit for the musical creativity and sense of collaboration that you would never have seen, sadly, on the HBO series Oz.
1. Memories of Matsuko (Tetsuya Nakashima)
2. Mad Detective (Johnnie To)
3. Tazza: The High Rollers (Dong-hun Choi)
4. Flash Point (Wilson Yip)
5. Ghosts (Nick Broomfield)
6. I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK (Park Chan-Wook)
7. Paprika (Satoshi Kon)
8. Big Bang Love, Juvenile (Takashi Miike)
9. Triangle (Ringo Lam, Johnnie To, Tsui Hark)
10. Blind Mountain (Li Yang)
Sakuran (Ninagawa Mika), Ploy (Pen-Ek Ratanaruang), After This Our Exile (Patrick Tam)
The best Japanese films I saw released this year, in chronological order based on my faulty memory:
I Just Didn't Do It (Sore demo bok wa yattenai) (Masayuki Suo)
5 Centimeters Per Second (Byosoku go centimeters) (Shinkai Makato)
Bubble Fiction: Boom or Bust (Baburu e go!) (Baba Yasuo)
Sakuran (Ninagawa Mika)
The Mourning Forest (Mogari no mori) (Naomi Kawase)
Big Man Japan (Dainipponjin) (Matsumoto Hitoshi)
Honorable mentions: Who's Camus Anyway? (Kamyu nante shiranai), the astonishing comeback film from Mitsuo Yanagimachi, which I neglected to see last year and is probably the best film I saw in 2007; and the supremely entertaining Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion anime TV series, which ends its first season on the most irritatingly brilliant cliffhanger I've ever seen in an anime series.
Hate to sound like a broken record, but the state of Japanese national cinema is not a hell of a lot different from last year -- the studio system is mirroring Japanese television more and more, catering exclusively to the teeny bopper crowd with film after film of bad writing designed to showcase the latest Johnny's Jimusho or HoriPro idol/singer/actor. Thankfully, there are still seasoned pros like Masayuki Suo, the director of Shall We Dance?, making socially relevant and massively entertaining films like I Just Didn't Do It, a film about a young man caught in the Kafka-esque gears of the Japanese justice system; new talent like Sakuran director Mika Ninagawa; and the debut feature of comic genius Hitoshi Matsumoto, whose Big Man Japan will go down in cult circles as a masterpiece of satire and mockumentary. And with Matsumoto's comic talent agency Yoshimoto Kogyo promising to fund its comedians for future film projects, we might be wishfully looking at a revival of Japanese film satire unseen since the 1980s when Yoshimitsu Morita and Juuzo Itami were cranking out scathing hilarities.
5 Centimeters Per Second -- This is the latest anime from director Makato Shinkai (Voices of a Distant Star, The Place Promised in Our Distant Days), who's known for making sentimental, melancholic films centered on relationships. It's a pretty, sad film about unrequited love and people drifting apart. Hence the title: the speed at which cherry petal falls. By far, it has the most painstakingly detailed animation I've ever seen. Music is gorgeous, too.
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time -- This is the anime sequel to a live action movie from the 1980s, The Girl Who Conquered Time. It's a high-energy movie with great, expressive characters. The last third of the movie starts to drag, but nevertheless it's a solid movie with a good blend of comedy and drama.
Paprika -- This is the latest animated film from the renowned Satoshi Kon, who directed the sublime Millennium Actress and Tokyo Godfathers. Paprikia is a wildly imaginative film with the most fluid and surreal animation I've seen so far. The plot isn't as deep as Kon's other works, but I watched in theaters twice just for the visuals.
Death Note: The Last Name -- This is the second part to the first live action Death Note movie, both based on the hit manga about a high school student who can kill people by writing their names down in a special notebook. The movie superbly captures the cat-and-mouse tension between the student and the detective trying to catch him. The manga is a personal favorite of mine (heck, I even cosplayed as the main character...), so I had high expectations...and the movies didn't let me down.
Favorite Asian films made in or about 2007:
1. Lust, Caution (Ang Lee)
2. Summer Palace (Lou Ye)
3. Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
4. Om Shanti Om (Farah Khan)
5. Secret Sunshine (Lee Chang-dong)
6. Battle of Wits (Jacob Cheung)
7. Hooked on You (Law Wing-Cheong) / Our Ten Years (Jia Zhang-ke)
8. Mad Detective (Johnnie To)
9. After This Our Exile (Patrick Tam)
10. The Sun Also Rises (Jiang Wen)
Also liked very much: Exiled (Johnnie To), Traces of Love (Kim Dae-seung), Paprika (Satoshi Kon), Chak De! India (Shimit Amin), Eternal Summer (Leste Chen), Blind Mountain (Li Yang)
Biggest duds: Confession of Pain (Andrew Lau and Alan Mak) and The Assembly (Feng Xiaogang)
Most regretful of having not yet seen: Exodus and Trivial Matters (both by Edmond Pang), Useless (Jia Zhang-ke), The Most Distant Course (Lin Jing-jie), and basically all of Japanese cinema
Best of 2007:
Date Posted: 1/4/2008