We've been watching SFist's coverage of the Spring Asian Film Series with growing jealousy until we realised that we could put on our own best of Asia line-up on by simply harvesting the shops in Chinatown. Sometimes you just get tired of waiting for distributors to get their act together (Hero was finally released by Miramax in the States and the UK years after its completion) and simply have to take matters into your own hands. This is where multicultural London come into its own – as long as you have the right kit.
To pick up and enjoy some of the movies that follow you'll need a multi-regional DVD player, but if you can find one that plays VCDs too then that's even better. Don't bother with Dixons and the like – wander along Tottenham Court Road and you'll be spoiled for choice in chipped players under £100 that bypass the pesky regional nonsense that enslaves your regular high street machine. A little spare cash and the ability to work out the occasionally tricky DVD menu is the only other thing you'll need.
Price-wise the newer DVDs in Chinatown start off around the £25 mark, but you can get some great older stuff for a tenner and usually find three VCDs for about £15 which is fantastic if you don't mind a slight loss in quality and maybe having to flip or switch a disc halfway through a movie.
We had a wander around the stores this weekend to see what was new and after the jump we'll give you the low down on some of the best new Asian movies that we've seen recently.
KUNG FU HUSTLE (Gong fu)
If you were lucky enough to see Shaolin Soccer last year then you already know what Stephen Chow can do when it comes to the reinvention of martial arts movies. Kung Fu Hustle is much more of a traditional affair, but with imagery pulled from comic books and cartoons it adds up to a deeply satisfying jawdropper of a movie. Simple plot - small village hassled by gangsters (the Tarantinoesque Axe Gang) in 1940's Shanghai. The twist here is that the village is home to a group of retired Kung fu masters who put paid to the gang's attempts to save face no matter how many times they up the ante. Wandering around while all this is going on is wannabe Axe Gang member Sing and his equally inept buddy who find themselves in the midst of a face off that results in an unlikely hero finally finding his true calling. Highlights include just about every fight sequence, riddled as they are with traditional moves, wire work and a lot of cheeky CGI that makes this more fun than a Jackie Chan flick, but still respectful of the genre. Filled with great gags like the way one character uses the knife embedded into his shoulder as a rear view mirror to keep an eye on the landlady from hell that is chasing him. Comedy is first and foremost and while this can sometimes miss the mark in much Eastern cinema watched from a Western perspective the slapstick and sight gags here are universal. It'd be a crime if this doesn't get a decent cinema release, but if you want to be ahead of the curve you know where to go. (IMDB details)
This is the one that had Londonist blubbing out loud by the end. Normally it wouldn't be a big deal, but we happened to be at 30,000 feet at the time and the noise we made trying to contain our hacking sobs made the flight crew worried we were either attempting to join the mile high club or set light to shoe fuses. Seriously, this film goes straight for the heart strings and tears them to pieces without remorse, but despite that we feel a NEED to let others share the heartache. It's the (true) life story of a guide-dog named Quill who we follow from puppyhood to retirement getting to see the mark he leaves behind on those he helps along the way. Sure, it sounds sappy and it is, but we double dare even the strongest cynical film fan to watch this without falling to pieces at the end. Those last ten minutes are BRUTAL. We would hate to see Quill get lost in favour of the usual Disney crap that gets shuffled out as family fare and have been pushing this movie on anyone who would listen for a few months now. The Japanese loved this so much that the whole thing has recently been extended into a TV series that will undoubtedly bring the whole nation to its knees. As soon as that version gets released we'll be back in Chinatown like a shot to track it down. (IMDB details)
THE UNINVITED (4 Inyong shiktak)
A strange Korean piece of creepiness. Not the fright fest of the Ju-on movies (The Grudge originals) but rather a psychological thriller with a hint of horror. Shin-yang Park plays a successful young architect who one night falls asleep on the train and awakes alone with two dead children. The children begin to haunt him and overnight his perfect life begins to fall apart. Through a series of coincidences he meets a young woman who also has the ability to see the children and much more. Park sets out to unravel why he is seeing the ghosts, but soon finds a deeper mystery about his own childhood and the tragedy that has befallen his new friend. Filled with disturbing imagery and reveling in fixing the camera on scenes that other films for years have pulled away from, this is a first class ghost story although we felt in places that perhaps a little something was lost in the translation. (IMDB details)
CUTIE HONEY (Kyûtî Hanî)
Think Power Rangers crossed with the 60's Batman TV show and you have Cutie Honey. We'll simply link to the SFist review as Eve always knows what she's talking about. All we can add is that we were easily distracted by the lack of coherence in the plot by the fanboy fantasy costumes and cotton candy special effects. And it was much more watchable than the Charlie's Angels flicks.
If you haven't seen Cashern, House of Flying Daggers or 2046 yet then all are readily available in beautiful looking editions in Chinatown, but are all going to hit the HMV shelves pretty soon. You may wish to wait as the extra features will undoubtedly be more accessible. In the mean time if you want to go back further then check out the Kung fu classic Fong Sai-Yuk movies with Jet Li or the very un-Buffy like Mr. Vampire series as occasionally rolled out in the early hours by Channel Four. These (along with Jackie Chan's entire back catalogue) are cheap and remarkably rewatchable.
Alongside the Chinese, Japanese and Korean titles in Chinatown you'll also find a wealth of American movies in unfamiliar packaging. Sometimes this stuff is far better than the regular region two releases and in the case of Kill Bill actually has a slightly different cut. Well worth looking into, especially for the serious movie buffs.
So don't disregard Chinatown as simply a tourist trap or a good place to eat your weight in dumplings. You can easily keep abreast of the latest Asian releases by checking out websites such as Asian DB or HK Flix, make a few notes and head out to Gerrard Street to make with the plundering.
The image at the top of this post is taken from Kung Fu Hustle.