East Asian Cinema to Brighten Dull January Days

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January is a time of new beginnings and, in this part of the world, grey winter days. Why not beat the January blues by watching some of the most thought provoking East Asian films ever made? From the heart warming to the haunting, here’s a selection of the best.

Afterlife (Japan, 1998, directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda)

Known in Japan as ‘Wonderful Life’, Kore-eda’s beautiful film takes place in a halfway house located between life and death, where the recently deceased meet counsellors who try to help them find their favourite memory. Once found, each person’s memory is recreated and can be savoured for all eternity. A touching film about ordinary people and the nature of happiness.

Spring, summer, fall, winter… and spring (South Korea, 2003, directed by Ki-duk Kim)

On an isolated lake an old monk and a young boy live in a floating temple. The boy learns about cruelty, love and lust and he eventually leaves the temple to join the secular world. When he returns years later after a dramatic turn of events, the master helps him to regain his serenity. From the red leaves of autumn to the frozen lake and waterfalls in winter, the beauty of this film is almost beyond words.

Onibaba (Japan, 1964, Kaneto Shindo)

In the Muromachi period of Japanese history, when the civil war had ruined many lives, two impoverished women struggle to survive. Living in a windswept hut surrounded by towering, swaying reeds, they make their living by murdering passing Samurai and selling their belongings. When a neighbour joins them, eroticism, jealousy and finally the supernatural take over. Black and white cinematography and a unique musical score create a sinister atmosphere.

In the mood for love (Hong Kong, 2000, directed by Wong Kar-Wai)

In 1960s Hong Kong, two neighbours left alone by their hard working spouses are seen eating alone, or meeting by chance on their way to the noodle stall. As they spend more time together an attraction develops, but they struggle with guilt and shame in the conservative atmosphere of the time. Subtle body language, exquisite colours, and hypnotic music reveal the intensity of their unrequited feelings.

Nobody knows (Japan, 2004, directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda)

Based on a real event that took place in Tokyo in 1988, this film tells the story of four children left to fend for themselves in a tiny apartment. After the mother’s departure, 12-year-old Akira, is responsible for the family’s survival, which involves washing in public toilets and borrowing money. A heart breaking film, bursting with humanity and sympathy.

Yi Yi: a one and a two (Taiwan, 2000, directed by Edward Yang)

Life in Taipei seen through the eyes of a father, his eight-year-old son, and his teenage daughter. While the mother is at a Buddhist retreat, the father contemplates a reunion with his lost love and he hardly notices his daughter’s romantic struggle or how his son is being bullied at school.  An honest film that delights in the tiny details of people’s lives and balances humour, sensitivity and emotion.

Ikiru (Japan, 1952, directed by Akira Kurosawa)

When a middle-aged bureaucrat is diagnosed with terminal cancer, he realises that he has wasted his life. The routine of thirty years in the same job has deadened his humanity, but during his final days, he redeems himself by overseeing a scheme to build a playground for underprivileged children. Ikiru, which means ‘to live’, is a simple but moving story about the shortness of life, the tragedy of meaningless existence and one man’s awakening.

Raise the Red Lantern (China, 1991, directed by Zhang Yimou)

Set in the 1920s, Raise the Red Lantern tells the story of a young, educated woman who becomes a concubine to a wealthy man. The master has three other concubines competing for his attention and the chosen one receives a variety of privileges. Trapped within these rituals, tensions develop which lead to conflict and betrayal. The intensity of the colour red in this film is unforgettable.

Grave of the fireflies (Japan, 1988, directed by Isao Takahata)

A tragic animation set in Japan during World War II about a young boy who has to take care of his younger sister after their mother is killed in a firebombing. The lives of these two characters, their innocence and the pain that they have to endure make this one of the most moving animations you will ever see.

Sway (Japan, 2006, directed by Miwa Nishikawa)

A young photographer returns from Tokyo to his family home, where his older brother has stayed to help run the family business. When the two brothers go for a hike in the country with the photographer’s ex-girlfriend, tragedy strikes. Not for those who like clear endings, this sensitively portrayed film forces us to consider universal themes like the nature of guilt and responsibility, memory and perception.

by Sarah Macdonald


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