As the year that was 2015 fades into the distance, it’s that time once more to reflect on the cinematic highs that were enjoyed during the last 12 months. Just like last year, this will be a collection of movies that I watched for the first time during 2015, not movies that were necessarily released in 2015.
There’ll be some movies on this list that don’t have reviews on the site, such is the nature of occasionally watching a movie that you enjoy so much. While it’s easy to review 90 minutes of trash that can be easily torn to shreds, sometimes the best movies are the most difficult to review, and I confess to bailing out on having a crack at some of them. Thankfully, they can be included in this feature!
2015 was also a year in which I watched an inordinate amount of old school kung fu. So much so that I’ve decided to (almost) completely skip over including any here, short of saying ‘Every movie Dragon Lee has ever made’, which frankly, would be misrepresentative. Though if I did watch an old school kung fu movie and enjoyed it, chances are I definitely reviewed it, so feel free to scroll through by clicking on my name under the feature header.
Just like last time, the movies will be listed in order of release, so without further ado, let’s begin.
Wild City (2015, Hong Kong) – The news that Hong Kong auteur Ringo Lam would be returning to the director’s chair, for the first time in 12 years, was greeted by equal amounts of excitement and trepidation from his long-time fans. The man behind such classics as City on Fire and Full Contact, there’s no doubt that the Hong Kong cinematic landscape had changed a lot since he was last active in the industry. Thankfully, while not perfect, Wild City proved that he hasn’t lost a step, proving to be a gritty crime thriller in which the streets and alleys of Hong Kong are just as much of a character as the leads, played by Louis Koo, Shawn Yue, and Tong Liya.
Full Strike (2015, Hong Kong) – Directors Derek Kwok and Henri Wong teamed up for this tale of a former badminton champion fallen on hard times, and a group of physically impaired ex-cons, teaming up to try and win a badminton championship. While on paper it may not seem like the most exciting prospect for a movie, onscreen Full Strike harks back to the insanely paced HK comedies of old. With aliens, drunken masters, steel-capped shuttlecocks, and some of the most hilariously foul language you’re likely to come across in a movie about badminton, Full Strike proved to be one of the most entertaining HK movies of 2015.
SPL II: A Time for Consequences (2015, Hong Kong) – Arriving a whole decade after the original SPL, this time minus Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung, the thematic sequel delivered the goods thanks in no small part due to the assured direction of Soi Cheang. The man behind the likes of Dog Bite Dog and Accident, Cheang not only made sure he brought the action, but also extracted a pair of career best acting performances from Wu Jing and Tony Jaa. Taking on the dark subject of organ trafficking, as the corrupt prison warden behind a trafficking ring, Max Zhang almost stole the show in a high impact physical performance.
From Vegas to Macau II (2015, Hong Kong) – Following the original which was ultimately more miss than hit, it didn’t stop Wong Jing from bringing back Chow Yun Fat and Carina Lau for a second installment of From Vegas to Macau, a hark back to the popular gambling movies of yesteryear. Thankfully, the sequel makes amends for its predecessor by delivering an almost non-stop barrage of action and wacky comedy. From Vegas to Macau II wisely does away with Nicholas Tse and Chapman To, and replaces them with the likes of Nick Cheung, Shawn Yue, and Shaw Brothers legend David Chiang, all of whom are game to indulge in the silliness of it all.
Scarlet Innocence (2014, South Korea) – What starts off as a seemingly sedate melodrama, which sees Jeong Woo-seong taking a job as a community teacher in the countryside following a scandal in Seoul, takes an unexpectedly dark turn when he embarks on a passionate affair with a girl several years his junior, played by Esom (here appearing for a second time in the Top 15 list, after last years Man on High Heels). As the story skips several years forward, Esom’s return into Woo-seong’s life, who now has failing eyesight, becomes a psychological nightmare of excessive sex and violence. A modern re-telling of a Korean folk tale, director Lim Pil-seong delivers a movie which stays with you long after it’s finished.
A Hard Day (2014, South Korea) – Director and screenwriter Kim Seong-hoon’s sophomore feature came a whole 8 years after his 2006 debut, however it was definitely worth the wait. The tale of a cop who accidentally hits and kills a man while driving to his mother’s funeral at night, his ensuing attempts to hide the body result in one of the most entertaining thrillers to come out of Korea in recent years. A big factor of its success is thanks to Seong-hoon’s tightly paced script, which weaves in plenty of laugh out loud dark comedy moments, and an energetically frantic performance from Lee Seong-gyoon, who plays the cop in question.
A Girl at My Door (2014, South Korea) – One of the most impressive debuts by anyone, director and screenwriter Jeong Joo-ri shows many of the trademarks of her teacher, Lee Chang-dong, with the auteur himself coming on-board as producer. Featuring a pair of powerhouse performances by Bae Doona and Kim Sae-ron (here grown up considerably from her role in The Man from Nowhere), the tale focuses on the friendship between the pair, as Doona’s new-in-town police captain takes Sae-ron under her wing. However when the past begins to catch up with them both, proceedings take a surprisingly dark direction, but one which is both empowering and morally ambiguous.
The World of Kanako (2014, Japan) – Any movie by Tetsuya Nakashima is worth paying attention to, the director behind the likes of Memories of Matsuko and Confessions, and The World of Kanako proves to be no different. Featuring a scenery chewing performance by Koji Yakusho, as we follow his journey to try and locate his missing daughter Kanako, it’s very much a case of being dragged into a rabbit hole of psychosis, violence, and insanity. Relentless in its pace, by the end of the 2 hours you’ll likely be as exhausted and dishevelled as he is, however you’ll also be left with little doubt that what you’ve just witnessed is an impressively powerful piece of cinema.
Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014, China) – Mainland Chinese crime cinema was one of my favourite discoveries of 2015. Independent movies aren’t screened in China, however thankfully that doesn’t stop them from being made, and many have gained recognition at film festivals around the world. Black Coal, Thin Ice is one such example, and walked away with a couple of awards at the Berlin International Film Festival. It’s easy to see why, as director Diao Yinan crafts an atmospherically told tale of a serial killer, who likes to leave his victims body parts strewn across a snow covered province in North East China. Following a disgraced former detectives attempts to track the killer down with the widow of one of the victims, it’s a movie which will keep you guessing until the end.
End of Animal (2010, South Korea) – While director Jo Sung-hee has gone onto bigger budget productions recently, his 2010 debut, funded by a grant from the Korean Academy of Film Arts, still packs a weighty punch. Undeniably low budget, Sung-hee defies the financial limitations by focusing on a pregnant girl riding a taxi to her hometown in remote Korean countryside. Featuring a darkly foreboding and creepy atmosphere, when an unexplained event leaves both the taxi and everyone’s mobile phones without power, the sense of isolation and omnipresent sound of an unknown beast growling in the far distance make for an effectively unsettling experience. The answers to what exactly is going on are never spoon fed, and End of Animal is all the more rewarding for it.
Adrift in Tokyo (2007, Japan) – Miki Satoshi has made a career out of making slice-of-life movies focusing on a variety of odd and eccentric characters, but in my opinion Adrift in Tokyo is his masterpiece. Featuring Joe Odagiri (who also has a role in The World of Kanako) as a heavily in debt student with no particular ambitions, when a burly yakuza played by Tomokazu Miura bursts into his apartment and gives him 72 hours to pay, he all but gives up on life. However after running into Miura a second time, the yakuza offers him a different deal – he’ll give Odagiri a million yen, and all he has to do in return is accompany him for a walk around Tokyo. What follows is a subtly charming and warm road trip, only on foot, around Tokyo, as the pair quietly grow fond of each other in the face of an inevitable ending.
Takeshis’ (2005, Japan) – Without doubt Takeshi Kitano’s most unique movie, Takeshis’ plays like a surreal deconstruction of his own image, that which was developed through his filmography. Taking on 2 roles – one a version of his real-life actor persona ‘Beat’ Takeshi, and one a mild-mannered convenience store clerk who dreams of being an actor, proceedings increasingly become a series of dreams and hallucinations, often involving both characters’ lives overlapping into the other. Impossible to fully grasp on first watch, Takeshis’ is a movie which becomes increasingly rewarding on repeat viewings.
Hypnotized (2004, South Korea) – A movie which frequently defies categorization, equal parts psychological horror, sexual thriller, and mystery, Hypnotized is anchored by a fantastic performance by Kim Hye-soo as a mentally unstable woman being treated by a therapist, played by Kim Tae-woo. Director Kim In-sik blends fantasy and reality throughout to create a variety of visually stunning imagery, reflecting the disturbed nature of the protagonist’s fractured mind. As Tae-woo becomes increasingly obsessed with Hye-soo, despite her unstable state, he also finds his mind starting to fray at the seams, which leads to a memorably horrific finale.
Rendezvous of Japanese Kanto (1993, Taiwan/South Korea) – When you’ve been watching kung fu movies for 16 years, it’s easy to feel like you’ve seen everything that’s worth seeing. Thankfully, hidden gems like Rendezvous of Japanese Kanto come along to remind us that there are always movies out there worth watching, they’re just not as obvious as when you’ve just gotten into the genre. A Taiwan and South Korean co-production which is equal parts Korean Taekwondo action and Girls With Guns (thanks to the presence of Sibelle Hu), the fights come thick and fast, topped off with a fantastic 15 minute finale. Throw in cameos from the likes of Baby Venom Ricky Cheng and Chang Shan, and you have a perfect slice of kung fu cinema goodness.
Monk’s Fight (1979, Hong Kong) – An obscure title from 1979 which features an unlikely collection of kung fu cinema luminaries all thrown together in the same movie, from Korean superkicker Casanova Wong, to Taiwan femme fatale Pearl Cheung, to Shaw Brothers regulars such as Ling Yun, Tien Feng, and Choi Wang. The actual main actor of Monk’s Fight, Lee Wing, would only make this movie and disappear. It’s a shame, as the production has one of the most unique feels to it of any kung fu flick I’ve seen, almost like a chambara influenced wuxia style spaghetti western, with quick and brutal one blow fights eschewing the usual fantastical nature most wuxia’s lend themselves too. For a change from the usual, Monk’s Fight is well worth checking out.
That wraps up my list for this year, and 2016 is already shaping up to be a hotly anticipated 12 months of cinematic goodness. Feel free to weigh in with your own movie highlights of 2015 in the comments section below, and in the meantime, wishing you all a happy and healthy 2016 on fire.