Asian cinema basically refers to films produced in the continent of Asia. East Asian cinema, Southeast Asian cinema and South Asian cinema consists of what is called Asian cinema. Nowadays, Asian cinema continues to thrive because of the so-called globalization of Asian cinema. The globalization of Asian cinema allows people from all around the world to view and experience Asian films. Hollywood is even making remakes of films from Asia, some of which include Eight Below, The Lake House, The Grudge and Dark Water. Furthermore, Asia has been producing films that are slowly catching the attention of viewers as well as scholars from all around the globe.
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Everywhere in the world, Asian films are being shown on an almost regular basis in film screenings, festivals and the like. But this was not always so. Most Asian countries spent the first five decades of the 20th century producing films that are largely focused on national audiences. These were the times when there were no international film festivals, the only prominent film festival prior to World War II being the Venice International Film Festival. It was in1938 when the film Five Scouts from Japan won a special prize at the said festival, paving the way for Asian cinema representation in other festivals around the globe. In 1951, Asian cinema was brought into world focus when the film Rashoman from Japan bagged the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival and the best foreign language film at the Oscars (Nandgaonkar). And the rest was history.
Asia is said to be the largest producer of films worldwide in terms of volume (Ciecko 1). Because of the enormity of the continent, Asian films vary in content and topic. Asian films contain universal themes such as love, life, revenge, death and poverty. They also contain slices of Asian culture, and the stamp of each Asian micro-culture can be found in each group’s respective films.
The micro-cultures of Asia are varied and diverse, so diverse that each is of different character and quality. This can be seen in the films made by each country.
Korean cinema has been historically invisible to the rest of the world, and to some extent, to its own people. Today, the spotlight is on the country whose cinema is the heart and soul of its nation’s culture (Rist).
In its early stages, Japanese cinema produced many documentary films or news reels including scenes of the city, dancing geishas, Sumo, royal or celebrity funerals and the Russia-Japan war (Tadao). Today, the Japanese film industry is one of the largest in the world.
The films of Hongkong are popular for being action-packed and filled with martial arts stylings. The cinema form’s survival depended on several factors. Martial arts films are artistically unique and are influenced by artifacts of kung fu culture as well as superstitious beliefs. In a sense, martial arts cinema can be considered as escapist, but it satisfies a more tangible cultural need which is the desire to link with tradition no matter how tenuous or imaginary (Garcia). This explains the phenomenon behind martial arts cinema.
Taiwanese cinema examines the various problems that Taiwanese people have to cope up with in a modernized society. In order to create films with a more realistic relationship with history and memory, most new films are shot on location. Minor and non-professional actors are also cast to evoke a more true-to-life atmosphere. The filmmakers draw deeply on their life experiences to make their films. Today, almost every new film tries to reconstruct history to some extent (“Taiwanese Cinema”).
The independent films of the Philippines, on the other hand, are socially relevant and contain touches of realism. There has been a recent blossoming of independent filmmaking in the Philippines, and these films have earned the Philippines international recognition and prestige.
Asian Films are sorted according to genre. The genres of Asian cinema include action, animation, comedy, crime, gay films, historical epics, horror and romance.
Action – Action films in Asia are films centered on high physical activity and include martial arts for the most part. An example is Internal Affairs form Hongkong and most of the movies of both Jackie Chan and Jet Li.
Animation – Animation in Asia includes the anime industry in Japan and is directly influenced by manga or comics in Japan so that the characters have big eyes, small faces and long limbs. Example of Asian animation is Pokemon.
Comedy – Comedy in Asia can be found in any genre of film. There usually has some element of comedy in any Asian film. Examples of Asian comedy films are Ngem Ngem Ngem and Luang Phii Theng from Thailand.
Crime – Crime films in Asia are common and usually star high-profile actors such as Jackie Chan. Example of an Asian crime film is Gunman from Thailand.
Gay films – Asian gay films are usually comic in style and gay characters are often comic relief or villain in Asian films. Gay films such as Beautiful Boxer, however, are less comic and focus on issues of gender and identity.
Historical Epics – One of the staples of Asian films. Example is the Ramayana from India.
Horror – Recently, there was a boom in the horror film genre as films like The Grudge and The Ring were remade in Hollywood. This goes to show that Asians are very creative and that their films have spawned numbers of like films because of their originality and uniqueness.
Romance – One of the Asian audience’s favorite genre. Example is White Valentine from Korea.
When one talks about Asian cinema, one talks about the Asian culture, tradition and beliefs embedded in the films. As it is, there is no doubt that Asian culture is prominent in Asian cinema. This is why Asian cinema is a great source for understanding Asian culture. Asians incorporate Asian culture into their films by showing viewers the Asian culture, tradition and way of life. This way, viewers are able to know about the micro-cultures of the continent. For example, in the culturally significant film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon which is a China-Hongkong-Taiwan-US co-production, the customs, beliefs and traits of the Chinese during the Qing Dynasty in China were flawlessly depicted.
The characteristics of Asian cinema vary as well. Vital, diverse and changing – these characterize contemporary films from East Asia which reflect the times of the region today. Meanwhile, Southeast Asia is home to a blossoming industry of independent films. South Asia, on the other hand, is home to the largest film industry in the world which is India (iFilm Connections: Asia and Pacific).
Generally, strong themes characterize the films made in the continent of Asia. One of these is nationalism, a theme that can be found in almost all Asian films. Nationalism in Asian films is shown by the use of national language in Asian films. This shows the pride Asian have concerning their mother tongue. Moreover, ethnicity is shown in each film by the language used. The films are then enjoyed by foreigners through subtitles.
The incorporation of Asian values and traits into their films also characterize Asian cinema. For example, family is extremely important in Asian culture (Becquet-Rasmussen). This is why in the film Tokyo Story from Japan, audiences are made to realize that family is important and to show affection to the parents while they are still alive is of grave importance.
Asians are extremely friendly and helpful, as depicted in the film Seven Samurai from Japan when the samurai himself agrees to help the mountain villagers fight their oppressors in exchange of nothing but three meals a day.
Asians also have respect for authority. They also have respect for their ancestors and the elderly. They are patriarchal, and in olden times females are valued less than males. These are Asian qualities seen depicted in most Asian movies, because of which foreigners are able to know Asians even more. These depictions also prove the nationalism Asians have when it comes to making films.
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Spirituality would also characterize Asian cinema. This is the case in point in the film Sister Stella L from the Philippines where faith and spirituality is shown by the protagonist who is a nun. Other Asian films with implicit spirituality include The Road Home from China, Departures and Throne of Blood from Japan, Apu Trilogy from India, The Cave of the Yellow Dog from Mongolia, Phorpa from Bhutan and Ghani from Bangladesh (“Film and Faith 4 Seminar Explores Spirituality in Asian Films”).
The martial arts film emerged as a characteristically Hong Kong medium of artistic expression in the 1950s (“iFilm Connections: Asia and Pacific”). Asian martial arts movies, despite the recent advances in special effects technology, have two secrets – great camera work and well-planned choreography (Parish).
Asian cinema has a highly developed star system. Films of superstars like Jackie Chan and Jet Li dominate the industry and, in turn, earn a lot of money. This is because people flock to the theatres to see their favorite stars whom they trust to give them quality viewing experience. In these times of environmental and political uncertainty, people are looking for assurance in their lives, something that they find in the public figures that they trust.
In terms of technology, Asian cinema, particularly Japanese cinema, has created a new cinematic environment that is most apparent in film production and distribution. In place of 35mm film, high definition digital video is often used to bring down production cost and is then blown up to 35mm for theatrical release. Lightweight cameras, less equipment and smaller crews are also used (Wada-Marciano).
When it comes to marketing, Asian filmmakers tend to allocate less to marketing as compared to Hollywood. In Hollywood, 40% of a film’s total budget is allocated to marketing whereas in Asia, only 10% of a film’s total budget is allocated to marketing (“Q&A Asian Films and Product Placements”).
Most Asian films are also marketed by first targeting the audiences in Asia’s three biggest most self-contained film markets – China, Japan and South Korea (Frater). This has become even more so with the blossoming of Asian cinema and the fact that Asian films are being launched in film festivals around the world. Nowadays, marketing Asian films is done by using Hollywood marketing machinery to penetrate Asian territory (Frater).
Today, the list of acclaimed Asian films is growing longer as more and more Asian films are being shown in festivals around the world. Foreigners get to appreciate and understand Asian culture and tradition by watching these films. According to the 1992 Sight and Sound Critic Poll, some of the greatest Asian films Asia has ever produced are:
Tokyo Story from Japan – This is the story of a couple who came to the city to visit their children and grandchildren. The children, however, are too busy to for their parents. After the parents return home, the grandmother dies. It is now the turn of the children to take the journey and visit their parents (Ebert).
Pather Panchali from India – The first film of the Apu Trilogy, the film depicts the childhood of the protagonist in the rural countryside of Bengal in the 1920s (“Pather Panchali”).
Seven Samurai from Japan – This is the story of a samurai who was hired by poor mountain villagers to fight a gang of bandits in exchange for three meals a day. He then recruits six more samurais to complete the seven needed to defend the village. Ultimately, the battle is won for the villagers and singing and rejoicing is heard while the remaining samurais watch the villagers planting the next rice crop (“Synopsis for Shichinin No Samurai”).
Ugetsu from Japan – This is the story of two ambitious peasants who want to make their fortunes. A potter intends to sell all his wares in the city in exchange for profit while his brother-in-law wishes to become a samurai (“Plot Summary for Ugetsu Monogatari”).
The Music Room from India – This tells the story of a middle-aged aristocrat in India whose estate is suffering financially but continues to engage in indulgences (“Synopsis for Jalsaghar”).
Charulata from India – The film tells the story of a lonely housewife who falls for her husband’s cousin after her busy husband asks his cousin to keep her company (“Charulata”).
Ikiru from Japan – This film is about a minor Tokyo bureaucrat and his final quest for meaning (“Ikiru”).
Sansho the Bailiff from Japan – This tells the story of two aristocrat children sold into slavery (“Sansho Dayu”).
Yellow Earth from China – The film is about a Communist soldier who is sent to the countryside to collect folk songs for the Communist Revolution (“Huang Tu Di”).
The Life of Oharu from Japan – This film is about the life of a seventeenth century samurai’s daughter (“Saikaku Ichidai Onna”).
Indeed, Asian cinema is slowly capturing the world’s imagination. Consider the continent of Australia. Australia is neighbor to some Asian countries like Indonesia and East Timor. Because of the geographical location and because Asian films are slowly gaining the notice they deserve, Australian filmgoers will get a dose of Asian films through the Sydney Asia Pacific Film Festival, the Hongkong Film Festival in Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney and the Chinese Film Festival in Melbourne where several Asian films are being shown. As a result, Australians can get to enjoy and appreciate Asian cinema in all its majestic glory.
Cinema is where people go to in order to relax and enjoy. This may be viewed by some as being escapist, but there is more to be benefited from cinema than mere escapism. Because of cinema, a micro-culture is revealed to unsuspecting viewers and filmgoers. Watching a film from Japan, they discover the samurai and geisha cultures. Watching a film from the Philippines, they discover that there is more to the country than Manny Pacquiao. Cinema is magical and can transport viewers to places unimaginable to him or her. Asian cinema is even more magical because the culture of an entire continent is represented in these films.
Asian cinema is rich in culture and tradition, the reason why Asian films are a good media in conveying to the world a particular country’s voice. After years of being in the dark, the time of Asian cinema has come. Asian films are slowly coming out of their shells to be viewed and experienced by the whole world. This is an important key to globalization as people throughout the world are able to understand and accept cultures other than their own. The era has come when the micro-cultures of Asia will be seen by the world through a magnifying lens with no less than the use of a camera.
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