From Asia's Film Factories, 10 Golden Greats
The Killer. Media Asia
By RICHARD CORLISS
By 1920, Hollywood had established the rules of the movie game. Directors in Europe showed how films could be art: visual literature. It took a while for Asian countries to catch up. But by the mid-'20s, bustling Shanghai was known as the Hollywood of the East, and two Japanese masters, Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi, had made their first important works. For most of this century, Asia has claimed two of the world's three top film centers (India and Hong Kong). These cinemas have it all--radiant stars, gifted auteurs, a visual style both popular and eloquent. Not until the '50s did the West begin to appreciate these riches. U.S. and European filmmakers have been filching ever since from Akira Kurosawa's samurai machismo, from Satyajit Ray's serene simplicity, from the physical élan of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan (and Godzilla). Here are 10 examples of Asia's worldwide film influence. And since the most influential pictures are not always the most accomplished, we have listed some of the "best" along with the "most." Who says best? An American movie critic, who loves Asian films from half a world away.
NEW WOMAN (China, 1934)
Silent cinema was its own art form: poetic, intense, aflame with a tragic glamour. No actress personified Shanghai silents more poignantly, on screen and off, than Ruan Lingyu, "the Chinese Garbo." Her bold turn in Cai Chusheng's New Woman stoked a popular sensation--and a savage outcry in the press, to which Ruan responded by swallowing an overdose of sleeping pills. Here was a star gesture worthy of Marilyn Monroe, only 27 years earlier. Ruan's suicide note said, "Nothing matters," but she mattered to thousands who clogged the streets at her funeral; three women killed themselves in homage. (In a lovelier tribute, Maggie Cheung played Ruan in Stanley Kwan's 1992 The Actress.) Shanghai cinema in its prime offered a dizzying range of genres. For ornate histrionics, our nod goes to the 1935 Song at Midnight, a take on The Phantom of the Opera directed by that laureate of the lurid, Ma-Xu Weibang.
RASHOMON (Japan, 1950)
When Rashomon was shown at the 1951 Venice Film Festival, Japan--and Japanese movies--came bounding out of nowhere with the feral ferocity of a Toshiro Mifune leap from the bushes. If Kurosawa's parable said that life had many meanings (or maybe none at all), the film's impact was clear: it announced a towering directorial talent, one whose dark vigor other filmmakers would spend 40 years imitating. Kurosawa was cinema's grand samurai, Mifune the ideal exponent of all that intelligent energy. But Kurosawa could play in many keys; his most beautiful film may be Ikiru, the 1952 story of a modern-day, "unheroic" Tokyo bureaucrat (Takashi Shimura, in a brave performance) who achieves a small, dogged act of goodness before his death.
GOJIRA/GODZILLA (Japan, 1954)
While Japanese industry was miniaturizing electronics, Japanese moviemakers were gigantizing monsters. Gojira, called Godzilla in the West, stomped all over Tokyo, only to be defeated by a wily scientist (Shimura again). Ishiro Honda, a frequent collaborator of Kurosawa's, directed the original film. It spawned 22 sequels in which Gojira grew cuddly and fought off ever goofier monsters. The 1998 Hollywood remake proved that America has more trouble photocopying Asian genres than vice versa. Gojira, born in a nuclear blast, could be seen as Japan's pulp-fantasy counterattack on the nation that bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But Japan also produced critiques of its own blood-lust, most profoundly in Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu (1953), about two couples who endure every degradation of war, beyond pain, beyond death. It is a ghost story, a horror story and a haunting masterpiece.
PATHER PANCHALI (India, 1954)
Satyajit Ray's first film was amateur in the best sense: this story of a poor Bengali family was a labor of love that Ray, then working at an ad agency, shot with a non-pro cast and crew on weekends. Displaying the ease and precision of his inspiration, Jean Renoir, Ray created an epic of everyday life in Pather Panchali, Aparajito and The World of Apu--the Apu trilogy. But he was not a mere ethnographer of exotic poverty. In Charulata (1964), Ray drew a delicate, passionate portrait of a woman stranded between two unworthy men and, perhaps, on the verge of a nervous breakthrough. The film is modern and classic, a brain-teaser and a heartbreaker.
FIST OF FURY (Hong Kong, 1972)
In this story of a student who returns to Hong Kong to avenge his dead teacher, Bruce Lee proved that a lithe, intense young Asian could kick the world's butt. Lo Wei's kung-fu quickie made Lee an international sensation; the star's death the following year only deepened the cult. But for the best of '70s martial arts, look to the 1979 Dirty Ho. It is conceived (by director Liu Chia-liang) and acted (by Gordon Liu and Lo Lieh) with a buoyant virility and pinwheeling panache.
POLICE STORY (Hong Kong, 1985)
After Lee's death, the territory's filmmakers were desperate to come up with a successor. They found him in a colorful, tightly wrapped package called Jackie Chan. Lee had exuded blinding rage; Chan was all smiles, a joker as well as a fighter. And a brilliant choreographer of his own unkillable body and those of his daredevil stunt team. Police Story, which took Chan to the New York Film Festival, boasts some terrific stunts: Jackie on the bus, Jackie in the department store. The real surprise, though, is the 1989 Miracles (Mr. Canton and Lady Rose), where Chan the director shows as much muscular elegance behind the camera as Chan the actor does in front of it. Whaddya know? The little guy with the big nose is a world-class auteur.
NAYAKAN/HERO (India, 1987)
In art houses around the world, Satyajit Ray was Indian film. Ray, though, was cinematic caviar. For curry, an everyday dish with lots of spice, local audiences flock to the epic, ecstatic musical dramas from "Bollywood"--Hollywood in Bombay--and other Indian film capitals. Nayakan, made by the Tamil director Mani Ratnam, is a delirious (of course) fable about a boy who sees his father shot by a policeman and takes up the felonious life, until he is killed by the son of a policeman he shot. When Kamal Hassan, as the "hero," is not swaggering to the top of organized crime, he is literally singin' in the rain. For a no-singing, no-dancing, no-Satyajit Ray film from today's India, see Bandit Queen (1994), Shekhar Kapur's stark, adroit bio-pic about Phoolan Devi, the Hindu untouchable who led a slaughter of 22 upper caste villagers, was cheered as a heroine during her prison stay and was asked to run for office when she got out. Enough Westerners saw the film to get Kapur the job directing last year's Oscar nominee Elizabeth.
AKIRA (Japan, 1988)
Each year, anime--Japanese animation--is released by the hundreds as features and direct-to-video cartoons. Its Gone With the Wind is Katsuhiro Otomo's startling epic about a bunch of antihero kids in the post-nuclear future. A lot of anime is violent; some is porno. But not all, as the sweetly sublime films of Hayao Miyazaki show. His Princess Mononoke (1997), Japan's all-time home-made box-office champ proves that Disney has no monopoly on kid-friendly animation, and that nice is not a four-letter word.
THE KILLER (Hong Kong, 1989)
In the five films Chow Yun-fat made for John Woo, action movies found their coolest actor-director team since John Wayne and John Ford. A Better Tomorrow brought Chow and Woo together; The Killer brought them to the world's rapt attention. Suddenly, young men from Paris to Pasadena were strutting in long coats and chewing a mean toothpick. The first three Chow-Woo films were produced by Tsui Hark, the dominant force in Hong Kong's pop-movie renaissance. His Peking Opera Blues (1986) is the most entertaining congestion of politics, stunts and willful women that Hong Kong has ever produced.
FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE (China, 1993)
In the mid-'80s the People's Republic strode out of the dark and into the projector light with bold, voluptuously beautiful films from such "Fifth Generation" directors as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige. Zhang told tales of strong women ground down by the system --any system that oppresses them. Chen's typical topic was the wise child, taught or corrupted by his elders. Both themes had dangerous political resonance in the PRC, and both directors saw their films banned at home. But the world got to see these works and found not despair but cheer in Zhang's Raise the Red Lantern (with his muse, Gong Li) and Chen's Concubine (with Gong Li and Hong Kong's great male diva Leslie Cheung). Cheer that a huge nation has produced fine filmmakers for this century and the next.
Senior writer Richard Corliss is TIME's chief cinema critic