Responsible for last year’s Tsui Hark and Korean-movie meteor showers, the Subway Cinema collective once again vents the glorious force of unmarketable Asian pop cinema upon us. If the films in Subway’s new series have anything in common—they’re pulled from Thailand, India, Japan, and Korea—it’s a gun-your-engines yen for the uttermost. Typically, the heroic Siamese war epic Bang Rajan (2001) is all scorched earth, depicting the legendary courage and stamina of a single village battling the invading Burmese army in 1765. As hokey as Braveheart and yet much more apocalyptic, Thanit Jitnukul’s muscular jungle bloodbath outdoes Hollywood’s recent efforts at combat ultra-realism, if only because its chaotic landscape is so naturally shot and its machete-thwack conflict so unambiguous. The climactic free-for-all is a dismayingly ferocious portrait of pre-technological warfare. (The Thai movie industry doesn’t seem to suffer the foolishness of liability insurance.) Unlike the only other Thai films on the local radar (last year’s Mysterious Object at Noon and the Miramax dust-gatherer Tears of the Black Tiger), Bang Rajan was a record-setting smash at home. Are American viewers too lily-livered for it?
We might not be quite ready for several of the series’ Japanese entries, like Ishii Takashi’s Freeze Me (2000), a suffocating rape-revenge fantasy that hinges on the subgenre’s most enabling victim (the perhaps inappropriately voluptuous Inoue Harumi), and an ebullient affection for industrial meat freezers. It’s a black pearl for anyone who likes a little existential psychosis and man-hate with their semi-softcore exploitation, but for social norms peeled, boiled, and ground into pulp, Takashi Miike’s Visitor Q reigns. A shabby home-video visit with a ridiculously monstrous family unit, Miike’s movie pushes our faces into compulsive incest, lactation fetish (manga artist Shungiku Uchida, as the mom, soaks the walls in breast milk, and suckles half the cast), videotaped anal rape, necrophilia (accented with Miike’s trademark, the loosened bowels), corpse disposal, and so on. If Herschell Gordon Lewis had adapted O’Neill, it still wouldn’t out-thicken the muck of Miike’s anti-achievement.
No less extreme in their own way, the two new Gamera sequels—ostensibly their moribund genre’s grim jolt of lifeblood—aren’t all that different from their progenitors, a certain blood-green tincture of brooding lyricism notwithstanding. Seventy-eight-year-old renegade Seijun Suzuki’s return to moviemaking, Pistol Opera (2001), is more like it: an arch, sleepwalking, all-girl remake of his 1967 classic Branded to Kill, in which assassin-guild members jockey for dominance while languishing on butoh sets decorated by Man Ray. Obsessively self-involved, Suzuki’s pageant is 120-proof voguing nonsense that virtually implodes with florid visual ideas. The Bollywood musical-romance Dil Se (1998) is no boggling-image slouch (a dance number atop a speeding refugee train takes the cake), but the pop-ness grows thin as the narrative grows grave.
Again, it’s the Koreans that steal home. Although Kim Sang-Jin’s torrential post-high-school comedy Kick the Moon (2001) is just as outrageous and metaphorically armed as the same cast and crew’s Attack the Gas Station, it’s overshadowed by Kwak Jae-Yong’s My Sassy Girl (2001), a continental blockbuster that began life as an online diary. At face value Kwak’s movie is a low comedy of humiliation, with a whiplash romance gradually developing between a baby-faced schlub (Cha Tae-Hyun) and a maddeningly sadistic waif (Jeon Ji-Hyun). The Sandlerian yocks eventually boomerang toward an investigation of grief—and the suffering beneath the surface of all screwball. The turnabout can be devastating enough to make you dread the upcoming DreamWorks remake.
Still, it is Hur Jin-Ho’s One Fine Spring Day (2001) that emerges from the ballpit as flat-out great—I’m already anticipating it being the best film I’ll see this year, just as Hur’s Christmas in August was the best I saw last year. With only two melancholy movies, Hur has cornered the market on refined, Renoir-Ozu love-me-tender melodrama, and One Fine Spring Day tracks the arc of an unsuccessful love affair between two sound technicians with all the sympathy and wisdom of a helpless guardian angel. Formally modest, subtextually heartbreaking, Hur’s movie infantilizes the competition. Hollywood could just as soon remake it as repaint a Vermeer.