With 2014 coming to a close, it’s nice to look back and remember those moments that, especially for genre fans like ourselves, for every movie that made us bang our head against the nearest wall and accept that 2 hours of our lives have just been wasted, there’s also those movies that made us go, “Wow! What took me so long to watch this!?”, or if the movie is starring Shu Qi, perhaps just stare at the screen and smile.
For myself, there’s still a bunch of movies I want to watch that were made in 2014, and a seemingly endless list of ones from earlier, but I’m thankful to say I can end the year confidently declaring that I watched more good than bad. So, without further ado, below you can check out – listed in order of release – my top 15 watched movies of 2014.
Man on High Heels (2014, South Korea)
Every year we can be guaranteed a slice of superlative gangster violence from Korea, and 2014 was no exception. Both Man on High Heels and No Tears for the Dead were worthy additions to the much loved genre, however for me the former just pips the director of the Man from Nowhere’s latest to the post, thanks to a winning mix of transgender drama, liberal doses of OTT violence, and most of all a character whom the audience really cares about. For all of the blood that’s spilt over the course of its run time, and believe me there’s a lot of it, at its heart Man on High Heels is the story of a confused soul trying to find their way in a world which is all too easy to get lost.
Kung Fu Jungle (2014, Hong Kong)
A lot of criticism was heaped on Donnie Yen during 2014. Special ID was teeth gratingly annoying, The Monkey King was too childish, and Iceman 3D was too full of CGI and like a comic book. Thankfully, Yen’s final flick of the year saw him teaming up with the always reliable Teddy Chan, and Kung Fu Jungle saw him ending the year on a high note. Noticeably taking a step back from the action, Yen delivers a top notch performance in the tale of a kung-fu fighting serial killer wading his way through martial artists who are each proficient in a certain style. Wang Baoqiang takes center stage as the killer in question, and the final throwdown is a notable addition to Hong Kong cinemas great onscreen fights.
Street Fighter: Assassin’s Fist (2014, USA/UK)
Originally a web series, in 2014 the 12 episodes were brought together to make an epic 146 minute feature film, and somehow, everything worked. Focusing on the story of Ken, Ryu, Gouken and Akuma, Street Fighter: Assassin’s Fist went were no live adaption of the video game had gone before, and created a compelling tale of rivalry and obsession based around the mastering of the Hadouken. Rather than treating the Hadouken as a hokey video game invention, the decision to make its effect on the characters similar to what the ring has on Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies was a winning one. Matched with some well choreographed fight scenes and special effects, the final version resulted in my biggest surprise of 2014.
The Raid 2 (2014, Indonesia)
The Raid crew returned with a vengeance in 2014, unleashing a 150 minute epic that not only matches the original, but in many ways surpasses it. Thrusting Iko Uwais’s character of Rama from the confines of a single building into the sprawling gangster underworld of Jakarta, the sequel is far from just being a flight flick, tipping its hat at influences as broad as The Godfather to Japan’s Nikkatsu noir movies of the 60s. With the inclusion of such characters like Hammer Girl and Baseball Bat Boy, The Raid 2 cranks up the violence to deliciously bloody proportions, all wrapped up in some of the most impressively choreographed fights that have been seen for a long time.
Soul (2013, Taiwan)
The one and only One Armed Boxer, Jimmy Wang Yu, takes centre stage as a father living in remote countryside Taiwan, whose son is brought to him with no memories of who he is or what he’s doing there. This quietly unsettling psychological horror movie flew under most people’s radar, save for the few who caught it at the NYAFF were it played, but is well worth a look. Blending surreal images of nature with sudden bursts of violence, the audience is constantly asked to question if what we’re seeing onscreen is actually happening, or is it the product of a broken mind? Soul gives no clear answers, and is all the more powerful for it.
Snowpiercer (2013, South Korea)
Bong Joon-ho was last out of the gates with his English language debut compared to his peers Park Chan-wook and Kim Ji-woon, but the wait proved to be well worth it, as his adaptation of the French comic book was the most well received out of their efforts by some distance. Once watched, it’s easy to see why, as the post-apocalyptic tale of people living on a train which never stops in a frozen over Earth comes to the screen with all of Joon-ho’s visual flourishes and trademark style. Having the backing of the major Korean studio CJ Entertainment behind him, along with the ever reliable Song Kang-ho, turned out to be a major advantage for the director of The Host, and the result is a great sci-fi movie in a landscape in which they’re few and far between.
Moebius (2013, South Korea)
Auteur director Kim Ki-duk had plenty of controversy bringing his 2013 production Moebius to the screen. The tale of a mother who finds her husband cheating on her, when her husband wakes up just in time to foil her attempt to castrate him, she goes into her son’s bedroom and castrates him instead. What plays out is an entirely wordless tour de force of skilled film making – often touching, frequently laced with blacker than black humor, and never anything less than gripping, Ki-duk’s battle to bring the movie to the screen against a barrage of censorship issues was ultimately a worthy one.
Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon (2013, Hong Kong)
Tsui Hark has been dabbling with the wuxia genre for the last few years, beginning with Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, which was followed up with Detective Dee & the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, his latest is by far the most polished and entertaining of the three. A movie which seems to make peace with CGI, it successfully captures the crazy energy of the wire filled wuxia’s of the 90’s. Focusing on a younger version of the character Andy Lau played in Hark’s previous movie, Taiwanese actor Mark Chao does an amiable job of stepping into the HK megastars shoes, in a tale which thankfully doesn’t shy away from giving us exactly what it says in the title.
Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (2013, Hong Kong)
Stephen Chow decided to go 100% behind the camera for the first time with Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, in his revisit to the tale that inspired his own Chinese Odyssey movies made almost a whole decade before. Here Wen Zhang takes the lead role as the meek demon hunter out to pacify the evils of the world with a book of nursery rhymes, who forms an uneasy friendship with a much more aggressive demon hunter played by Shu Qi. What follows is plenty of Chow’s trademark laughs, proving he doesn’t need to be in front of the camera to maintain his unique style of comedy, and a healthy dose of action to top everything off.
Treasure Hunt (1994, Hong Kong)
Middling reviews kept me away from Treasure Hunt for a long time, however after finally getting around to giving it a watch, I can safely say it was my loss. Chow Yun Fat anchors proceedings, as he always does, in a movie which wades through genres like they’re going out of fashion. From heroic bloodshed to children’s fantasy to romantic drama, it’s all here in completely uneven doses, but somehow it adds up to a charming whole. Oh, and bang in the middle there’s a pole fight between Shaw Brothers legends Gordon Liu and Philip Kwok, what more do you need!?
21 Red List (1994, Taiwan)
A movie that’s been on my ‘have to watch’ list for several years after seeing a clip on YouTube, 2014 was the year I finally got to see it. A Taiwanese effort starring Alexander Lo Rei as one of a group of siblings fighting the Japanese, while the plot may be nothing we haven’t heard of before, the fight scenes ensure it’s worthy of a watch. Aided by some creative use of wirework, every character is given superhuman like strength, a prime example of which has a couple of characters throwing down in the living room of a house, during which the pillars that are holding up the whole structure end up being wielded as weapons. Throw in some Matrix style gravity defying antics, and the absurdly over the top action makes 21 Red List a highly entertaining watch.
Sonatine (1993, Japan)
I have no idea why 2014 was the only the first time I got around to watching Sonatine, but whatever the reason, I’m glad I did. Takeshi ‘Beat’ Kitano crafts a deceptively calm tale of a group of yakuza that are sent to cool down in Okinawa, while a turf war has the potential to blow up in Tokyo. The characters spend most of the movie chilling out and larking around at a house on the beach, before it’s revealed there’s more going on than meets the eye. There’s barely any action in Sonatine at all, but Kitano creates an atmosphere which makes it impossible to take your eyes off the screen, as we witness his gangster slowly reveal himself through little more than facial expressions, showing someone who longs to be anywhere except where he is. A masterpiece of cinema.
The Bride with White Hair (1993, Hong Kong)
Another movie which makes me question why it took me so long to get around to watching it, Ronny Yu’s The Bride with White Hair is considered to be one of the quintessential movies of Hong Kong cinema, and once watched it’s easy to see why. Brigitte Lin and Leslie Cheung play the star crossed lovers whose fate dictates they can’t be together. Still, like any good romance, that doesn’t stop them from trying, and the result is one of the best wuxia tales that Hong Kong has produced thanks to a combination of fantastic cinematography, a haunting soundtrack, and standout performances from Lin and Cheung.
On the Run (1988, Hong Kong)
Described as a Hong Kong film noir, On the Run is exactly that, but instead of having the likes of Humphrey Bogart roam around the city in a trench coat, we have Yuen Biao, a legend of the kung-fu cinema screen. It might be disappointing to some that Biao would be in a movie that involves barely throwing a punch, but he does a fantastic job as the dishevelled and bearded cop forced to team up with his wife’s killer to go on the run from a bigger conspiracy. Director Alfred Chung maintains a high level of tension throughout, and the final scrappy fight predates the type of rough and tumble scraps that would become a trademark of Korean gangster movies by more than a decade.
Kung Fu Zombie (1981, Hong Kong)
Kung Fu Zombie provided me with my first taste of Billy Chong, whose movies up until that point had somehow escaped my viewing, and what an introduction it was. The movie is pure fun from start to finish, and Chong has a physical dexterity and level of power that should have seen him stay in Hong Kong for much longer than he did. Here he’s pitted against an evil vampire, and who better to play an evil vampire than Korean bad ass Kwan Yung-moon. Yung-moon has always looked like he could kick someone’s head off, and in Kung Fu Zombie, he does just that. Whenever the two of them square off, it’s a flurry of fists and feet that’s a joy to behold, with some highly entertaining over the top violence dished out throughout.
That wraps up my list for this year, here’s to a 2015 full of equally entertaining Asian movie goodness, and rest assured, that goodness will be covered by cityonfire. Have a happy and healthy year ahead, cheers!