This is the second of a four-part series on some of the best foreign-language films—at least according to two of our critics, foreign-film buffs Agnieszka Tennant and Stefan Ulstein. This installment examines the best films from Asia. Part 1 looked at the best European films; part 3, coming next week, will examine the best films from the Middle East, while part 4, in two weeks, looks at the "best of the rest" of the world.

Early Asian films were difficult for Western audiences to understand. While North American films were rooted in the Enlightenment, The Reformation and democracy, Asian films built their characters and conflicts on Buddhism, the Tao, and the Analects of Confucius.

The most notable exceptions came from Japanese auteur Akira Kurasawa. His masterful Seven Samurai was remade in America as The Magnificent Seven, and George Lucas took premise and plot from The Hidden Fortress and made it into Star Wars (where the Imperial Storm Troopers wear a version of samurai armor and fight kendo-style with their light sabers). Japanese audiences consider Kurasawa more Western than Japanese, however.

The films in this list—most released within the last decade or so—are an introduction to trends in modern Asian cinema. They have been chosen for their artistic merit, and for their accessibility to non-Asian audiences. All of these films were critical and commercial successes in their home countries.

Joint Security Area

(South Korea, 2000)

Directed by Park Chan-Wook

South Korean draftees Sergeant Lee and Private Nam man a border post on the Demilitarized Zone that separates them from their North Korean enemies. The capitals of both Koreas are within artillery range of the DMZ, the most heavily fortified border in the world.

While on night patrol, Sergeant Lee gets lost and is helped by North Korean Sergeant Oh. Later, as the chronic boredom of night watch grinds on, Lee decides to start a tenuous, secret friendship with his Northern counterparts. This riveting military thriller examines the terrors of over-militarization and the longing of Koreans to unite with their countrymen and relatives on the other side of the border—and it might help explain why South Korea is more willing to deal with the North than the U.S. government is.

Content: An excellent film for thoughtful high school students and adults.

Chinese Ghost Story

(Hong Kong, 1987)

Directed by Ching Siu-Tung

This wildly funny sword opera concerns a wandering Taoist monk who falls in love with the ghost of a beautiful young woman—think Spielberg's Poltergeist, but with a much more humorous twist. While North American thriller/chillers are often based on pre-Christian superstitions like the walking dead, the witching hour, etc., Chinese supernatural films often draw on ancient beliefs that are not necessarily believed per se, but part of a general worldview. Chinese Ghost Story gives great, accessible insights into the Tao and traditional Chinese superstitions.

Article continues below

Teenagers will find it hilarious, and it serves as a great springboard for discussions about the universality of ghost stories and the way Christians and others often unwittingly adopt such beliefs.

Content: Brief sexual references. Lots of satirical violence. Suitable for high school and above.

My Sassy Girl

(South Korea, 2001)

Directed by Kwak Jae-Young

This is the all-time favorite movie of my high school film students. A hapless college slacker meets up with a self-destructive young woman and develops a chaste, and infuriating, relationship. The essential question is whether or not lovers can be destined for one another. The Greeks and Romans believed in Cupid's arrow. The person struck would fall in love with the next person they saw. Asian beliefs in karma and reincarnation also lend themselves to the idea that people are destined for one another. But can people who are destined for one another meet too early or too late?

Despite its broad humor, My Sassy Girl makes a profound statement about love and destiny. It's a great introduction to the similarities and differences between Asian samsara and Christian ideas of God's sovereignty and free will. Adults will appreciate it most if they see it in a room full of teenagers.

Content: Contains one comedic scene with rear male nudity. Suitable for teenagers and adults.

Not One Less

(China, 1999)

Directed by Zhang Yimou

The teacher in an impoverished rural village must leave for a month to tend to his ailing mother. Unable to find a substitute, the village chief hires an awkward thirteen-year-old girl to manage the unruly children, some of whom live in the one-room school house with her. The school has a high dropout rate because the poor villagers encourage their children to withdraw from school to work. Before the regular teacher leaves, he tells his young substitute that she will receive a bonus on his return—if there is not one less student.

The girl, nothing if not tenuous, goes to great lengths to earn that bonus. After his intense, highly regarded dramas (Ju-Dou, Raise the Red Lantern), Zhang chose to make this sweet, gentle comedy using non-professional child actors. The result is a delightful family film that also works very well with college students and adults.

Article continues below

Content: Suitable for all ages.

Eat Drink Man Woman

(Taiwan, 1994)

Directed by Ang Lee

Ang Lee, director of The Hulk and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, made his name with this riotously funny drama about a famous widowed chef, Mr. Chu, whose three unmarried daughters are both a joy and a burden. A teacher, an airline executive and a fast-food worker, they walk their own paths in a modern world dramatically different from the one in which their parents grew up.

Chu, who has lost his sense of taste, uses his best friend, Wen, to taste things for him. Chu can tell by Wen's face if a dish is too sweet or spicy. Emotionally reticent, he shows his love by creating fantastic Sunday dinners for his daughters, which they call "The Sunday Torture Session."

The title of the film refers to the Chinese philosophy of balance, or Yin and Yang. Food (hot and sour soup), marriage and life are meant to be in harmony. If not, everything becomes chaotic. All of the Chus are emotionally repressed, but they begin to find balance, harmony and fulfillment. High school students find the themes of parents and adult children compelling and funny. One of the great family comedies.

Content: Contains one very brief sexual scene which suggests but does not show nudity.

I Not Stupid

(Singapore, 2002)

Directed by Jack Neo

Singapore, with a land mass just three times the size of Washington D.C. and 4.5 million people, is one of the world's economic powers. It's more modern than most American cities and remarkably free of crime. The population is mostly Chinese but the main language is a dialect of English that Singaporeans jokingly call "Singlish." Singapore's rigorous educational system, and like many in Asia, is cruelly intolerant of under-achievers.

Which brings us to the film's three grade-school pals—Terry (who is chubby and rich), Boon-Hock (who helps at his mother's noodle stand mornings and afternoons), and Kok-Pin (a talented artist). All three have been placed into the low-status, low-achievers class. Enlightened teachers would see the boys as having specific, treatable learning difficulties, but in their school, they are dismissed as slackers. Their mothers drive them relentlessly toward a diploma in a quest for the 3 Cs—career, car and credit card.

Article continues below

Director Jack Neo has coaxed terrific performances out of his young actors, especially Terry, one of the most loveable comedic characters ever. The result is a film that is at once hysterically funny, deeply moving and painfully real. Through trials, the boys' friendship grows stronger and, in the end, they emerge hopeful and appreciated. A huge hit at the Seattle Film Festival, I Not Stupid plays well to children and adults.

Content: Suitable for all audiences.

King of Masks

(China, 1996)

Directed by Wu Tian-Ming

In the warlord period of the 1930s, an aging itinerant street performer wants a son to carry on his family name. (In traditional Chinese society, girls are of low value. Boys are nurtured to care for their parents in old age, but girls are married out of the family—or, in the case of starving peasants, they're even sold.)

The old man buys a boy from impoverished peasants whose homes and farms have been destroyed by floods. With an adopted son, he can pass down the family secrets that give him his livelihood. He dotes lovingly on the young lad until he finds out that he has been cheated: The boy is a girl. He tries to cast her off, but finally relents and grudgingly allows her to cook, clean his boat home and perform acrobatic tricks.

This visually stunning film addresses profound issues in Chinese history and culture, but its entertainment value and beautifully realized characters make it a true family film.

Content: Suitable for all ages.

Raise the Red Lantern

(China, 1991)

Directed by Zhang Yimou

In the 1920s, Songlian, a promising college student, is left without a benefactor and protector when her father dies. The status of women is such that without a father, she must have a husband. Struck by her beauty, a rich man takes her as his fourth wife. Each night the husband chooses a wife to sleep with. His servants place a red lantern at the courtyard door of the chosen one. The master's home is like a walled fortress and the women's whole universe is locked within. Thus, their lives center on manipulating the situation through gossip, accusation and subterfuge. Winning the red lantern is the only goal to which they can aspire.

Raise the Red Lantern is beautifully filmed, using costumes that were banned under Mao, and features one of the few remaining walled homes of the pre-revolution wealthy. Gong Li, who has been called the most beautiful woman in cinema, is an actress of tremendous force. The role of women in China has changed dramatically in one generation, but attitudes about women as chattel remain in some quarters.

Article continues below

We never see the master's face, although we hear his voice. He manipulates the four women for no discernable reason other than the fact that he can. The communist government banned Raise the Red Lantern, fearing that it was a subtle criticism of the old men ruling China. It has since been released there, however.

Content: Strong themes make this film suitable for thoughtful high school students and adults.

Close to Eden

(Mongolia/China/Russia, 1991)

Directed by Nikita Mikalkov

A traditional herdsman marries a sophisticated city woman who refuses, in the financial confines of China's One Child policy, to be intimate. This subplot is delicately and obliquely handled. Mongolia—located on the ancient Silk Road, and with the conquerors Genghis and Kublai Khan among its rulers—was once an economic and military powerhouse. Now it is a backwater of China and Russia. The herdsman and his modern wife are symbolic of the huge changes facing Mongolians.

A gregarious, alcoholic Russian truck driver crashes his truck into a river and spends time with the family. His broad antics and naive goodwill are wonderfully contrasted with the more reticent Mongolians.

Close to Eden is beautifully filmed on the vast grasslands of Mongolia. The characters are delightful, and the story is engaging.

Content: Suitable for all ages, although grade school students might find it slow.

Shall We Dance?

(Japan, 1996)

Directed by Misayuki Suo

A Japanese salary man is caught in an endless cycle of long train commutes to his soul-killing job and after-work drinking parties that leave him exhausted. He longs for emotional fulfillment. At a late night train stop, he glimpses a beautiful woman gazing wistfully from the upstairs window of a dance school. Braving the ridicule of a society where non-conformity is brutally repressed, he begins taking dance lessons.

His relationship with the dance instructor is chaste, but his wife worries when she smells perfume on his clothes. Although they care for one another, Mr. Sugiyama and his wife are emotionally cut off. She suspects adultery and hires a detective, who asks her why she doesn't just ask her husband.

Shall We Dance explores territory that helps explain why the birthrate in Japan is declining as young people—particularly women—are forgoing marriage and family, and why Japan is still trying to climb out of a long economic slump.

Content: The film earned a PG-13 rating for "mild language." Fine for older teens and adults.

Next week: The Top Ten Middle East films.