Bigger is better. That’s been this year’s theme for Asian movies as budgets soared to new levels. Leading the pack was “The Flowers of War,” which, at nearly $100 million, can claim the crown as the most expensive movie ever produced in China. Director Zhang Yimou’s drama about Japan’s war-time occupation of Nanjing starring Christian Bale sets a new high mark for mainland Chinese films, but it remains to be seen whether the movie’s box office will match the price tag. “Flowers” opened around the same time as “Flying Swords of Dragon Gate,” China’s most expensive 3-D movie. Earlier this year, the tribal epic “Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale” claimed the title as Taiwan’s costliest movie ever with a budget of $25 million, while South Korea’s “My Way,” a World War II drama about a Korean man forced to serve in the Japanese military, set a record at 28 billion won ($24 million).
But the movies that made the deepest impression were marked by more than just outsize budgets — some, like “A Simple Life,” were small in scale but big in impact, while others, like “You Are the Apple of My Eye,” touched a nerve with moviegoers and became too massive to be ignored.
A Simple Life – (2011) Trailer
You are the apple of my eye – Trailer #1 (with English subtitles)
Here 10 of the year’s most notable:
Busong: This mythical story, about a young man in search of a cure for his ailing sister, opens a window to the spiritual world of the indigenous people on the Philippine island of Palawan. Wandering through a jungle, the man encounters a grief-stricken woman looking for her husband, a fisherman who’s lost his boat, and a city dweller returning to his home after a long absence. Director Auraeus Solito merges the mystical and the familiar in this culmination of a life-long exploration of his family’s tribal origins.
Flying Swords of Dragon Gate: Jet Li leaps into his first 3-D martial-arts spectacle, playing a general battling an evil eunuch and his henchmen at a burned-down desert outpost called Dragon Gate. Director Tsui Hark uses lavish set pieces — including a dilapidated inn booby-trapped with trip-wires, and the core of a desert tornado for the climactic sword fight — and pushes the martial-arts genre to new heights.
Inseparable: Kevin Spacey and Daniel Wu team up for one of the most offbeat movies in recent memory to emerge from China, about an overstressed Chinese man whose life is spiraling out of control — his marriage is shaky, he’s late on mortgage payments and his boss pressures him to lie to government officials during a company investigation — and his nosy American neighbor. Together they become an unlikely duo, complete with ragtag costumes, fighting injustice on the streets of Guangzhou. Director Dayyan Eng’s black comedy won’t suit everyone’s taste, but the two actors shine as the odd couple.
Life Without Principle: Over the backdrop of today’s volatile global markets, this film weaves together three stories about money-hungry Hong Kong people: a wife pressuring her policeman husband to buy an expensive home, a bank officer being forced to sell high-risk investments to unsuspecting customers, and a triad underling looking to raise quick cash to spring a fellow gangster from jail. Hong Kong director Johnnie To deserves credit for attempting to say something meaningful about how today’s economic insecurity is hitting society and the moral choices people face in an uncertain financial landscape.
A Reason to Live: This South Korean film combines a pair of stories about a young woman whose boyfriend is killed by a hit-and-run driver and a teenage girl who is battered by her father, and how the two struggle to forgive the men who have devastated their lives. In her decision to take on the heavy subjects of capital punishment and South Korea’s male-dominated culture, director Lee Jeong-hyang doesn’t so much as judge the status quo, as she looks for a path out.
A Simple Life: Hong Kong director Ann Hui reflects on old age in this story about an elderly amah, or servant, who’s spent her entire life working for one household, and the master who cares for her after she suffers a stroke. The understated performances from Deanie Ip and Andy Lau lend realism to this story, where not much in the way of conventional movie-drama happens. It is rich in detail when it comes to the master-servant relationship, and the poignant conclusion builds slowly.
Unbowed: This courtroom drama from South Korea is based on a recent real-life case, known as the “crossbow terror incident,” about a professor put on trial for allegedly using the weapon to assault a judge who he believed treated him unfairly in an earlier case. As the defiant professor (played by Ahn Sung-ki) battles judicial indifference, director Chung Ji-young makes a sharp critique of the country’s legal system.
Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale: Director Wei Te-sheng’s two-part, 4-1/2-hour epic is based on the true story of Taiwan’s Seediq tribes, who launched a bloody uprising in 1930 against Japanese colonial rule in order to preserve their traditional way of life in the island’s mountainous forests. But this isn’t “Avatar,” and history reminds us that the foreign occupiers will eventually crush the rebels, who are no match with their primitive weapons. This ambitious undertaking — nonprofessional actors were cast in major roles, speaking an obscure native dialect — represents a milestone in Taiwan cinema.
Wu Xia: Donnie Yen plays a repentant killer from a ruthless clan who’s changed his identity and found sanctuary with an unsuspecting wife (Tang Wei) in an early-20th-century Chinese village. But his past catches up with him as a detective (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and the gang’s leader track him down. Director Peter Chan assembled an all-star cast, including Shaw Brothers legends Jimmy Wang Yu and Wai Ying-hung, for his stylish interpretation of the kung-fu genre, vividly exploring the physics and technique of the martial art.
You Are the Apple of My Eye: In his directorial debut, Taiwanese writer Giddens Ko adapted his best-selling autobiographical novel about a puckish teenage boy and his slacker buddies as they conspire to avoid schoolwork, relish in sexual fantasies about their teacher and stumble through their romantic infatuation with a studious, no-nonsense classmate. This coming-of-age comedy — an often exaggerated look at the follies of adolescence — is set in Taiwan in the mid-1990s, but the theme of the march from juvenile indiscretion toward the responsibilities of adulthood is timeless.