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September 10, 2015

Extreme Asia: The Rise of Cult Cinema from the Far East

extreme asia book.jpg

Daniel Martin - 2015
Edinburgh University Press

First, a little clarification is needed. Daniel Martin's book concentrates on the theatrical releases in the United Kingdom of Asian films released by Tartan. For that matter, the films primarily discussed are several well known titles, The Ring, Audition, Battle Royale, This Isle and Oldboy. What is of interest here is some of the how and why certain films were chosen, how the Asia Extreme label developed, and how the publicity department influenced critical discourse and vice versa.

My own observation, having seen a good number of films on the Tartan USA label, is one of mixed blessings. Park Chan-wook probably owes part of his successful career to Tartan. Shinya Tsukamoto's films were made available. Another very successful Korean filmmaker, Kim Jee-woon was introduced via Tartan. And just as giant monsters and samurai provided a gateway towards looking at a broader spectrum of Japanese films, some of the Tartan titles provided an introduction to films from other Asian countries and artists we might not have known of otherwise.

The Isle Korean poster

For some though, interest was primarily centered on the extreme. Some of Tartan's releases were not very good. What was also missed in the search for visceral thrills was some of the cultural context, such as in Kelvin Tong's The Maid which addresses the treatment of Filipinas employed as domestic help, or Perth, about a Singaporean taxi driver dreaming of Australia. Even without other factors that shuttered Tartan, the Asia Extreme label probably would have been killed off eventually due to market saturation and lessening interest.

What Martin discusses here is how some of these films were understood or misunderstood, either deliberately or by ignorance, citing British film critics from various print publications. For those with a longer view of world cinema, much of this will be of no surprise, with the past assumptions that a single filmmaker or a small group of directors represents a national cinema. Likewise, just as Donald Richie should not be considered the only word on Japanese cinema, I have to take issue with Tony Rayns acting as gatekeeper, even if he saw and wrote about many of these films first. Rayns is cited here for his criticism of Kim Ki-duk and Park Chan-wook. I've seen and liked Park's films from J.S.A on. I'm more ambivalent about Kim, preferring his earlier films, like The Isle, but my scorn is towards the alleged critics who failed to do research, and insist that Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring is the work of a Buddhist filmmaker. And the other Korean filmmakers Rayns mentioned are worth seeing as well.

Martin gives examples of how specific films were marketed to different audiences, or in some cases, one film marketed to two different kinds of viewers. The book is not so much about the films as it is about how a certain kind of film was sold, an audience nurtured, and the ways in which the critical community was used in the marketing campaigns.

While Martin makes note of how the Asia label has been used to overlook the differences between different countries, the very brief section on Thai cinema is misleading. As Martin does only write about those films that received a theatrical release in the United Kingdom, his essay on Thai cinema is primarily about Bangkok Dangerous, made in Thailand, in Thai, but by the Hong Kong Pang brothers. Two true Thai films, Iron Ladies and Tears of the Black Tiger are mentioned, though neither were distributed by Tartan. The Pangs probably deserve a decent chapter here for their pan-Asian films, and Martin has a few words on The Eye, the film that brought them international attention.

While there is no book on Thai cinema on the level of Donald Richie and Joseph Anderson's classic introduction to Japanese film, Martin is unaware that there are at least two books that provide some information exclusively about Thai film in English, the mostly pictorial A Century of Thai Cinema by Dome Sukwong and Sawasdi Suwannapak, and the French-English Thai Cinema, a collection of essays from Asiexpo.

Audition Japanese poster

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at September 10, 2015 09:12 AM