Sunday, March 11, 2007

Asia Shock - A Book Review


Asia Shock – Horror and Dark Cinema from Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and Thailand

By Patrick Galloway
201 pages
Soft Cover
$20
2006

One of my personal irks over the past few years is the manner in which Asian cinema is often portrayed in the West as one of harsh fantastic extremes. Year’s back the image of Asian film in the west was primarily action based – kung fu and samurai films – but now it is slowly becoming one of eye-slicing horror, graphic violence, flying swordsmen and sadistic glee. This is primarily due to the fact that U.S. film distributors focus on these types of films while generally ignoring anything else coming out of Asia (Tartan’s Asian Extreme series being the best example). Like all film industries the ones in Asia are extremely diverse with nearly every genre being covered and yet how many comedies, dramas and romances have made it to distributor shores in the West? Not many. I suppose there is a commercial reason for this, but it is rather a shame that films like “My Sassy Girl”, "Hana and Alice" and “Please Teach Me English” can’t find an audience because no distributor is willing to take a chance*. They seem to be willing to produce remakes of some of these – “Il Mare” to “Lake House” – but reluctant to show the originals. Somehow I can’t help but wonder if there is a racial subtext here – can they see Asians killing each other but not loving one another? How far is this from Fu Manchu?

So I was immediately put off by the title of this new book from Patrick Galloway (who previously wrote the splendid “Stray Dogs and Lone Wolves: The Samurai Film Handbook”) as yet another instance of ghettoizing Asian cinema. This feeling wasn’t alleviated much in his introduction where he tries to make the case that because of their culture, religion, belief in the supernatural and violent history, Asians are much more receptive to the dark violent side of film than Westerners. Perhaps – I am not knowledgeable enough on these subjects to concur or reject his argument – but certainly if you look at the box office results in Asia the types of films that do well are generally not ones of extremes. In fact, I would guess that many of the more extreme films reviewed in the book did very badly at the box office – so in truth how receptive are most Asians to this type of fare? The one thing I would agree on is that Asian films often do not feel the need to have happy endings as Hollywood almost mandates and it is almost inconceivable to think of a film like “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” being a hit in the U.S. as it was in Korea. I would be interested in reading more on this subject of culture and film in Asia if anyone has any recommendations.

Putting these reservations aside though, the reviews are terrifically written - enthusiastic, informative, engaging, entertaining and just fun to read. There are 41 lengthy reviews – 3 to 4 pages each – and 17 capsule reviews. What was surprising to me was how many of these films I had seen (41 of 58) since I don’t consider myself a fan of extreme/shock films at all. Part of the reason for this is that many of these films don’t really strike me as extreme – I was expecting all “Guinea Pig”/”Men Behind the Sun” type titles – but in fact many of the films felt very mainstream – i.e. “A Tale of Two Sisters”, “Inner Senses”, “Nang Nak”, “Tell Me Something”, “The Eye”, “The Ring” and so forth. I also generally agree with his choices – Galloway states in his introduction that his criteria was just not the shock value but also one of quality – and I think nearly all the films he reviews positively (only some of the capsule reviews are negative) deserve it. And as he says “Wild Zero” is a boring film! God was it ever. Galloway has a real flair for making the films sound interesting and a must see – there were a number of films I have already seen that his review made me want to see again. So as politically uneasy as I am with the concept, it is certainly a legitimate one (and likely a very marketable one!) to write about and he does a great job with the individual films. I just wish someone would write a great book on Asian comedies!
* - recenlty Viz a small US distributor with ties back to Japan has picked up and released some of my favorite Japanese films - Ping Pong, Linda Linda Linda and Taste of Tea - so hopefully some of these great films will make it to a store near you.

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