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Past Article

Guides for the Perplexed: Asian Cinema
By David Chute
December 10, 2003 - 6:11 AM PST

Reading up on Bollywood, Hong Kong, Korean cinema and more.

Book publishers have been almost as slow as American theatrical film distributors to understand the sweeping changes in viewing habits that have been initiated by the DVD format, along with related phenomena such as the $50 all-region player. As usual, those crafty foreigners are way ahead of us. New DVD releases ostensibly intended for distribution only in Hong Kong, India or South Korea now routinely come equipped with English subtitles. This is done partly because subtitles are a status symbol, adorning only the snazziest releases. But it is also a one-size-fits-all response to the fact that a big chunk of the Asian movie audience now lives in a global diaspora, and its second generation is often more comfortable in what is technically its second language.

For English speakers in the US and elsewhere, the DVD boom is opening up a storehouse of treasures. Movies we have dreamed of seeing for decades (Shaw Brothers martial arts pictures, Indian masala musicals) are now only a mouse-click away. So many movies have become available so quickly that we're in danger of getting snowed under.

What we really need is a Rough Guide of sorts to the still mostly uncharted terrain of much of the world's movies and as yet there is no one volume that fills this need. It is possible, however, to put together a relatively small library that will answer most of your initial questions and supply a decent working list (or several lists) of essential titles.

Of all the major Asian cinemas, India's commercial movie industry, affectionately known as Bollywood (that's Bombay + Hollywood), has the highest profile by far on DVD. A burgeoning field, especially in Britain, where South Asians now comprise 30 percent of the population, a percentage comparable to that of Latinos in the US. You might have to click your mouse toward the UK or a good used bookstore to obtain Nasreen Munni Kabir's Bollywood: The Indian Cinema Story, a book that is by several orders of magnitude the best general introduction to the world's largest movie industry - an industry that is also, in effect, a single mind-blowing catch-all mega-genre.

If you're already a committed Bolly-fan, or if you dote upon such a person and are looking for a truly impressive gift, it might be time to consider investing in the massive Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema, which is well worth owning even though it's now at least eight years out of date.

The commercial cinema that deserves the prize for Most Improved over the last five years has got be South Korea's, which has gone from being a filmic backwater, of interest only to natives, to its current standing as a pan-Asian powerhouse, whose latest releases are almost as eagerly awaited in Singapore and Tokyo as they are in Seoul.

This dramatic shift of status is reflected in the very title of Anthony Leong's self-published Korean Cinema: The New Hong Kong, which covers the somewhat impersonal industrial productions of the so-called Korean Renaissance like a blanket. (Anything made prior to about 1993 gets short shrift, from the majestic, world-class art movies of Im Kwan-taek to the "transgressive" B-movies of the director known as "Mr. Monster," Kim Ki-young.)

Leong's title also suggests, alas correctly, that the once mighty cinema of Hong Kong is currently a shadow of its former self, both creatively and commercially. In fact, the big news in Hong Kong DVDs nowadays is a blast from the past: the on-going flood of releases from the long-sealed library of the fabled Shaw Brothers Studios, most of which have not been commercially available for three decades. The book that comes closest to hitting the target in this case is Bey Logan's Hong Kong Action Cinema, still the best book available about martial arts movies.

With Hong Kong, in fact, the difficulty is that there are so many books to choose from. The only volume that qualifies as an overall guide, John Charles's The Hong Kong Filmography, 1977-1997: A Complete Reference to 1,100 Films Produced by British Hong Kong Studios, is still priced way out of reach for most of us at $75 a pop. Its coverage also ironically begins just after the key period of the Shaw's output in the mid-70s.

Hong Kong fans who wish to delve deeper need look no further than David Bordwell's Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment for its close first-hand descriptions of the HK production process, and Stephen Teo's Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions, an engagingly readable historical overview.

Obviously we have only scratched the surface here. We have not so much as cracked open the best-selling guidebook in the entire field, Video hound's Dragon: Asian Action & Cult Flicks, which, for all we know, could be a great read. And there are many fine books available on individual films and artists, from Sholay (The Making of a Classic) to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (A Portrait of Ang Lee's Epic Film) and from Jackie Chan (I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action) to Guru Dutt (A Life in Cinema).

What's next? Well, there are no books at all yet in English on what many regard as the force of the future in Asia, the fast-rising cinema of Thailand, and I personally would pay good money for a coffee table book on the rollicking dangdut musicals of Indonesia. So fear not: there are still a few good subjects lying around, waiting to be colonized by the conquistadors of Film Studies. The only open question is where the flag of academic hegemony will be planted next.

Previously: 3 books on American independent cinema.

Discuss this and any other articles that spark your interest in our forum on GreenCine articles.

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Reading up on Bollywood, Hong Kong, Korean cinema and more.

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David Chute
For many cinephiles, David Chute is known as the Guest Editor of two landmark special sections of Film Comment, one on Hong Kong in 1998, the other on Bollywood in 2002. He's also written frequently for the LA Weekly and the Village Voice, Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone, Manga Mania and many other publications.

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