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Asian Cinema (Part One): Thailand, Japan, India, Philippines

At first glance there’s nothing in common between Godzilla, that monstrous lizard terrorizing Tokyo, and the delicate artistry displayed in every Bollywood extravaganza. Yet, those startling creations come from one and same place, Asia, the vast land that keeps giving the world some of the most stirring and inventive moving images ever shown on the big screen.

Take Thailand as one example of Asian cinematic greatness. Even though its movie production has a somewhat discreet presence in theaters worldwide, the country has always fostered diverse visual narratives. Sometimes they come in the shape of big epics featuring gigantic battles – against the neighboring Burmese army or just a rival gang down the street – and other times they offer a more nuanced portrait of race relations, religious belief, love, or revenge. Martial arts might be added here and there, always to spectacular effect. There is also horror, comedy, teenage angst and a broad assortment of ghost mysteries.

In Black Silk, a thrilling noir from 1961, deception comes with a Buddhist subtext when a widow falls head over heels for a shady individual working the nightclub scene. The story includes carnal intimacy, violence and identity theft, themes that seem more prevalent than ever in today’s cinematic landscape. Directed with fierce energy and shot in deeply saturated colors by R.D.Pestonji, the movie was exhibited at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival. It’s now part of the Cannes Classics collection and can be watched on Netflix.

These days, moviegoers can access the soul of Thailand through the eyes and sensibility of prominent film master Apichatpong Weerasethakul. His Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives took home the Palme d’Or at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. This year, his film Memoria stars Golden Globe winner Tilda Swinton. Once again, audiences are invited to feel the connection between past and present, reality and fantasy, ghosts and people, as the director puts forth a banquet of meta-storytelling that continues to influence young filmmakers in the director’s native country and abroad.


Japan is, to all intents and purposes, an exceptional case when it comes to cinema. Not because it’s the only country that owns a large slice of industrial Hollywood, via Sony Studios, nor due to the fact that maverick director and Golden Globe winner James Cameron insisted on using Panasonic lenses and cameras to shoot his most technically complex movie, the Golden Globe winner Avatar. In the past five years alone, Japan has twice swept the most awards on the international circuit.

With Golden Globe Nominee Shoplifters, a devastating contemporary portrait of what makes a family in times of social erosion, director Hirokazu Koreeda has proved once again that the country’s movie industry is mostly interested in telling relatable human stories full of surprise and emotional depth. It’s the characters’ inner worlds that nudge the action forward, not some special effect or muscle vehicle transformed into a superhero.


This year, with the mesmerizing Drive My Car, director Ryusuke Hamaguchi surprised moviegoers with his message that we must all continue to live, love, and try to understand our own heart if we want to find a way forward. Offering images that are at the same time straightforward and poetic, Hamaguchi told us that art matters, art will stay forever, and art will make sense of who we are. His film won the Cannes Film Festival, the Golden Globe for best non-English Language film, the Oscar, the New York Film Critics award, and basically every other movie award statuette to be had in 2022.

Japan has won the Cannes Palme d’Or in 1954, with Gate of Hell, directed by Tinosuke Kinugasa; in 1980, with Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha, a Golden Globe nominee; in 1983 and in 1997 with two masterworks by Shohei Imamura, The Ballad of Narayama and The Eel. The Golden Globe nomination for Shoplifters in 2018, and the win for Drive My Car in 2022, show how the Japanese movie industry continues to capture the admiration and applause of those who trust the immense capabilities of cinema to show us the truth about ourselves in the world.

Japanese films have had a ripple effect not only on world audiences willing to discover a new sensibility and frame of mind but on industry professionals as well, such as set and costume designers, cinematographers and directors. From the works of Golden Globe winners, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola to the world of miniature brought to life in the “little big adventures” directed by Golden Globe nominee Wes Anderson, Japanese elegance, energy and inventiveness have infiltrated our cinemas and souls.

It’s hard to imagine the universe of animation without the luminous and lyrical contributions of Hayao Miyazaki. It’s even harder to imagine the history of Asian film without the contributions of Akira Kurosawa, master responsible for the 1950 samurai story Rashomon, a Golden Lion winner at the Venice Film Festival.

In the course of that same decade, Kurosawa brought us the classic Seven Samurai, arguably the most influential film of all time (and template for the 1960 John Sturges film The Magnificent Seven). With Hidden Fortress, released in 1958 before its success at the 1959 Berlin Film Festival, Kurosawa solidified his premier status. Golden Globe nominee George Lucas, a fan of Hidden Fortress, could not remain immune to a narrative told from the point of view of the minor characters – in Star Wars, Lucas used the same device and trusted that the conduit between screen and audience should be left in the hands of clunky but resourceful androids C-3PO and R2-D2.

Then there is the movie that is considered by many the most perfect of them all, Tokyo Story, directed by Yasujiro Ozu and released in 1953. It tells the story of an elderly couple who decide to venture into the big city to visit their restless, almost petulant children. But the country and most family emotional connections are not the same as they once were. World War II has ended a mere eight years previously. The adult kids, now part of fast-paced modern Japan, abandon their parents at a small hotel by the sea. Ozu is clear in what he wants to say: an eternal sense of balance is gone forever. A character says, “Even strangers would have been more considerate.” It’s true. We all become something else, in spite of ourselves. The camera is set at a low level as if it were someone observing what goes on while sitting on a tatami. Life, relentless in sadness and joy, is presented gloriously and with not a hint of melodrama. Everything changes. We just have to face it.


Where does one start when India enters our conversation about movies? Maybe the name should be enough. India, a country of more than a billion people, is the kaleidoscopic giant that produces more movies than any other country, where the many languages and stories have a scope of their own.

Of course, there is Bollywood, a term used to refer to a sort of Hollywood-type industry based in Bombay. Still, the name reduces everything to the barest simplicity. Besides, Bombay is gone: the name of the city is now Mumbai. Indian cinema has always been about more than exquisite dance choreography capable of illustrating our collective spirit.

If the viewer is trying to go beyond the traditional Indian musical – the genre that captured the fervor of audiences everywhere, from Africa to Suriname and beyond – many names come to the fore. There is, for instance, the work of Mira Nair and her tender touch when telling us stories of family turmoil and perseverance. There is the highly formal and shocking filmography of Tarsem Singh.

And, reminding us that Indian cinema has been a beacon of light to masters everywhere, there is the work of Satyajit Ray. François Truffaut and Golden Globe nominee James Ivory became fans and disciples.

In Ray’s Apu Trilogy – filmed in five years and comprising Pather Panchali, released in 1955; Aparajito, from 1956; and Apur Sansar, shown in 1959 – what we see is a whole civilization changing in front of us. The tone is a perfect blend of humanism, naturalism, and documentary.

At the core of the story we find one little boy, Apu, born in a modest Bengali village. His father is a dreamer who cannot carry his many family burdens. His mother is already overwhelmed with societal pressures and exhausting family obligations. The boy relies on his older sister, his mother, and his riotous aunt. Women, as well as the natural environment, shape him. Pather Panchali was awarded Best Human Document at the Cannes Film Festival.

In the second film, the boy is now a curious teenager living away from his community of birth. He has been engulfed by the many treacheries presented by the sprawling city of Benares, now Varanasi, and later by the sophisticated metropolis of Kolkata. An academic education, as well as a moral compass, are acquired progressively. The heart-wrenching film, shot in black and white on a shoestring budget, won three of the biggest awards at the Venice Film Festival, including the coveted Golden Lion.

The third film is devastating in the way that it shows the unstoppable power of life. The boy is now an adult in his early twenties who dreams of becoming an author – that is, a unique human being carving his vision onto the world around him. He falls in love and, in doing so, must make difficult choices and face the sharp edges of anger, disappointment, injustice, and regret. Achingly stunning in the way we follow the boy, the forest, the river, and the songs along the road, the trilogy raises the art of cinema to levels of which we can only dream.

In the Philippines, everything feels a tad more intense. That goes for film as well. Filipinos have been in love with cinema for a long, long time. They flock to movie theaters in droves. The country’s industry is one of the oldest in the world, with fine features being produced from as far back as 1910.

All genres have been tackled by a vast array of talented directors, screenwriters, producers, and intense actors. During the silent era, Sine Filipino tended to mimic what was produced in the United States, although with local themes that were fast embraced by eager audiences.

Spain, a colonial power for too long, left its mark. Spanish-inspired zarzuelas – or, as they were called in the Philippines, sarswelas – were musicals peppered with steamy dance and romance notes. They became extremely popular. The first talkie was released in 1933. By that time, the local industry was going through a resounding boom.

The country, occupied in 1942 by the Japanese imperial army, was still enthralled by anything American but, at the movie hall, local audiences preferred regional dramas and comedies spoken in the national idiom, Tagalog. No subtitles are needed for a round of grand old family fun.

Once World War II ended, in 1945, the country went crazy for cinema again. Indeed, intense. Modeled after the American studio system, four big organizations produced more than 200 movies per year. Audiences increased, profits followed. Musicals, comedies, melodrama, war sagas and even superhero fare were produced at amazing speed by an industry packed with verve, skill and creativity.

Unfortunately, given a relentless Hollywood dominance, things seemed to die down a bit in the 1960s. Not to worry. The national spirit was about to be reborn and, from 1971 to 1983 – just when martial law was crippling the intellectual and creative strata of Filipino society – a new age of great cinema emerged. Directors like Kidlat Tahimik and Lino Brocka, who saw cinema as much more than just a way of keeping the masses entertained, were able to reintroduce Filipino cinema to worldwide audiences.

In the past 25 years, thanks in part to government subsidies that protect movie investments from potential disaster at the box office, local cinema has seen a substantial resurgence. Directors like Lav Diaz, Mike de León, Brillante Mendoza, Pepe Diokno and Raya Martin are now household names respected by the most refined moviegoers everywhere.

For the initiated, a few titles are a must. If you want to see a superb industry in motion and an amazing level of technical finesse, check out Genghis Khan, directed by Lou Salvador / Manuel Conde and first exhibited in 1950. From Kidlat Tahimik, give your attention and surrender to the power of Mababangong Bagungot, released during the dangerous days of 1977.

From director Ishmael Bernal, who made more than 40 films of exquisite vigor and sharp social commentary, watch Himala, which played at the Berlin Film Festival. It’s the story of a young girl who experiences the presence of the Virgin Mary during a solar eclipse. Soon, her heavenly vision gives way to a wave of deception. From the miracle to lying and on to betrayal and pain, we are shown a tragedy in three acts that is masterfully orchestrated.

When you can, make time for storyteller Lino Brocka. Allow yourself to be enveloped by the nocturnal lights of moody Manila, vibrant and hypnotic in his 1975 film Maynila Sa Mga Kuko Ng Liwanag. Or you can just let yourself stare at the neorealism of Insiang, released in 1976. It’s the story of a very beautiful daughter, a jealous mother and her young boyfriend, as they all navigate that dark abyss we call life in the slums of Manila. You stand warned. Actresses Mona Lisa and Hilda Koronel, in historical virtuoso performances, might steal your heart while elevating everything into melodrama bliss.