'The Handmaiden' Joins A Long, Winding History of Gory, Asian New Wave Thrillers

The Asian New Wave has invaded the Cannes Film Festival this year, so catch up on some critically beloved favorites.

What typically defines the Asian New Wave is that the films are usually hyper-violent. You can’t walk into an Asian contemporary film class and not be asked to rewatch the brutal hammer/hallway fight scene in Oldboy. But with Park Chan-Wook’s latest film The Handmaiden premiering in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, it’s clear that this kind of extreme cinema has been folded into the critical discussion of great filmmaking.

We need to understand why the lurid violence and graphic sensuality of Asian New Wave has been so thoroughly embraced by critical circles, who are often characterized by valuing more subdued, and high-brow storytelling. Asian cinema, by contrast, is more unafraid to tackle taboo subjects and weave them into surprising stories.

One reason for this critical appreciation for violence is because East Asian auteurs dish out their bloody messes with almost-surgical precision. Unlike some western directors who relish in the red stuff without much context, the following films build tension, construct complicated revenge scenarios, then let the ensuing conflict boil over into a climactic, often brutal, finale. Here are ten films that best get at t an understanding on what exactly makes the Asian New Wave tic.

Infernal Affairs (Dir. Andrew Lau, Alan Mak; Hong Kong)

Infernal Affairs (2002)

Martin Scorsese did a fantastic job adapting Infernal Affairs into his own crime thriller, The Departed. While the story is pretty much identical to anyone who’s seen Scorsese’s remake, Infernal Affairs is far more operatic than its American counterpart, opting to follow in the tradition of great Hong Kong crime films. The final showdown is less grit, and more a soaring confrontation between single combatants representing the police and Triad. Fun fact: the film has a different ending for mainland China with the original Hong Kong ending where the Triad mole gets away is replaced with his arrest by the police.

Battle Royale (Dir. Kinji Fukasaku; Japan)

Battle Royale (200)

Probably a title you hear whenever The Hunger Games comes up, Battle Royale is a 2000 Japanese film which follows a class of high school students left on an island with the sole mission of killing each other. While comparing the two films based on this premise alone is a little silly, Battle Royale’s more graphic violence is attributed it’s lack of a Hunger Games high-concept sci-fi setting. Battle Royale might as well take place on an actual island with real students. Only these students are supposed to murder each other with makeshift weapons and tools, lest they be summarily executed by the government organization running the battle.

New World (Dir. Park Hoon-jung; South Korea)

New World (2013)

When the boss of a Korean criminal organization is assassinated, a War of Five Kings style conflict erupts between the syndicate’s lieutenants. To add fuel to the fire, the police use this opportunity to attempt gaining control of the syndicate by placing one of their moles in the running to assume leadership. This twisty crime thriller is full of betrayals and alliances, but the finale is an amazing twist that blows nearly every contemporary crime thriller out of the water. New World marries the gangster politics of The Godfather but doesn’t forget to throw in bloody gangster fights to liven up the mood.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance & Lady Vengeance (Dir. Park Chan-wook; South Korea)

Lady Vengeance (2005)

While Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy remains the most popular of the appropriately titled, “Vengeance Trilogy”, the two films that bookend the trio shouldn’t be overlooked. Each telling an unrelated story centered on wrongs being righted through violent revenge, the two films are also an interesting study in contrast. The eponymous vengeance in both of these films take completely different forms, and by the end are rewarded in two completely different ways. Park takes an interesting approach to detail how revenge is plotted, and whether or not it is justified in the end.

Memories of Murder (Dir. Bong Joon-ho; South Korea)

Memories of Murder (2003)

A detective story in the classic Hollywood mold, only all of the tropes and narrative beats are altered as a result of moving the mystery from an American noir setting, to the Korean countryside. When a dead body is found in a storm drain, the country police force calls in a detective in the city to help assist in the investigation. With a mounting body count, fears begin that there is a serial killer in the sleepy mining village. The inventive thriller proves that the New Wave can create dramatic and brutal stories without resorting to explicit violence. Instead, the story builds on the hard detective work done by the films three leads that ultimately leads them to encounter a devastating ending

A Hard Day (Dir. Kim Seong-hun, South Korea)

A Hard Day (2014)

Ko is a corrupt cop on his way to his mother’s funeral when he accidentally hits a homeless man. Fearing for his job, he hides the body in his mother’s coffin before discovering that he could be investigated by internal affairs for unrelated reasons. This film is true to its name having detective Ko stumble and fight his way out of one mess into a series of escalating conflicts. The twisty fun of the film is watching as Ko’s attempts to dislodge suspicion on himself for his bribe-taking and accidental manslaughter simply leads to bigger and badder conflicts, snowballing to a huge payoff by the end of the film.

Mad Detective (Dir. Johnnie To, Wai Ka-Fai; Hong Kong)

Mad Detective (2007)

Mad Detective is a supernatural crime film from Hong Kong that’s a little too strange to explain, and even stranger to watch. The main character, Chan Kwai-Bun, is a brilliant detective with the supernatural ability to see a person’s inner personality, or true self. After being dismissed from the force for cutting off his year and presenting it to a senior official, Chan is brought back into service to track down two missing police officers. What follows is an almost Burton-esque path to crimes committed by ghosts and other surreal mysteries surrounding the central case. It’s a genuinely weird film that requires the viewer to let go of some previous notions of Asian crime films as serious and gritty.

Audition (Dir. Takashi Miike; Japan)

Audition (1999)

If ever there was a high point for extreme cinema, it would be Audition. Directed by legendary Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike, Audition has been written about and discussed as part of the Asian film canon since its release in 1999. Torture porn before such a thing existed, the difference between Audition and movies like Saw is that Audition manages to generate serious conversations about sexism in Japan, and how it can manifest itself into a premise for an intense horror film. While the film may have never even been conceived to create discussion about the battle of the sexes, it’s a testament to the Asian New Wave that it draws its stories from very real and grounded concepts.

A Tale of Two Sisters (Dir. Kim Jee-woon; South Korea)

A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)

A Tale of Two Sisters is a film that looks like a ghost story, sounds like a ghost story, and plays out like a ghost story, only to not really be a ghost story. It’s inclusion on this list is due to the fact that A Tale of Two Sisters subverts and inverts itself to hell and back before revealing its true self to the audience. The inventiveness on display, as well as confounding the audience’s expectations is exactly why Asian cinema is often remarked for their puzzle like construction. These films aren’t afraid of turning off their viewers or leaving them behind for the sake of storytelling, and that makes this film, and many of its compatriots so satisfying to watch.

Media via Media Asia Distribution, Toei Company, Next Entertainment World, CJ Entertainment, Showbox, China Star Entertainment Group, Omega Project, Cineclick Asia, Big Blue Film