Armchair CinephileHead east, young film buff

Asian titles "now playing" in your living room

Lately we've been hearing from folks who've read about some Asian film opening in a nearby city - be it the kung-fu thrillfest Ong-Bak or any of the South Korean flicks shown by Austin's Alamo Drafthouse - and want to know why their local theaters aren't showing the movies. So call this an exhibition-envy installment of this column, in which we explore some Asian titles "now playing" in your living room, if not in your neighborhood multiplex.

The samurai film is, of course, well represented in video stores. Recent releases come from the familiar sources: Criterion, offering Sword of Doom, which co-stars Toshiro Mifune, and Kagemusha, one of Akira Kurosawa's few color films to focus on Japan's feudal era (Kagemusha comes in a documentary-packed, two-disc edition). Boutique label AnimEigo steps away from their ongoing series for two one-shots starring the prolific Mifune, Samurai Assassin and Incident at Blood Pass (the latter co-stars Zatoichi himself, Katsu Shintaro). A different take on warrior mythology comes from arthouse distributor Empire Pictures: The Twilight Samurai is less an action film than a character study, and won 12 of Japan's Oscar-equivalent awards.

Not all Japanese films are about swordslingers, of course. Various labels are exploring the back catalogs of two of today's hottest auteurs: "Beat" Takeshi Kitano wanders from his usual crime-saga turf for Dolls (Palm); Takashi Miike, who releases a new movie more often than most people go out for dinner, has Yakuza Demon and the befuddling, hyper-icky Gozu out on Pathfinder.

Sticking on the weird side of things, Kiyoshi Kurosawa (known mainly for horror films) brings us Bright Future (Palm), about a guy obsessed with helping jellyfish evolve into freshwater creatures. Kaiju Big Battel (Koch) is a kooky riff on old Godzilla-like monster movies, pitting guys in costumes and surrounded by miniature cities against each other. Shinya Tsukamoto, director of the cult-favorite Tetsuo films, is back with A Snake of June (Tartan), a sex-and-voyeurism tale in which an apparently middle-class couple gets an unwelcome visitor.

Tartan Video isn't stopping with Japan. Two of its latest releases are from South Korea, world cinema's current "it" spot, and both are horror stories involving young girls: Whispering Corridors chronicles a series of killings at a private girls' school; A Tale of Two Sisters (currently showing at Austin's Alamo Drafthouse), is an atmospheric ghost story set at a remote lakeside home. Rounding out the geography of Tartan's "Asia Extreme" series is Koma, a Hong Kong thriller inspired by that beloved urban legend, the internal-organ thief.

Moving away from the ghost stories and bloodbaths, up-and-coming filmmaker Pen-ek Ratanaruang teams up with superstar cinematographer Christopher Doyle for the Thailand-set Last Life in the Universe (Palm), about a lonely librarian who finds a reason to live in the form of a girl who, wouldn't you know it, is planning to move to Osaka in a couple of days. Tsai Ming-Liang's Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Wellspring) wound up on a lot of Ten Best lists last year, despite the fact that most Americans never even heard of it. Set in a movie theater that's about to close, Dragon Inn is one of those films that appeals most to those of us who love to see our obsession with cinema echoed by the movies we watch.

Finally, a disc that satisfies two needs: the urge to see movies set in Asia and the curiosity about all those Academy Award nominees whose names don't ring a bell. The Story of the Weeping Camel (New Line), nominated for Best Documentary, is about a nomadic clan in the Gobi Desert who go on a long journey to help a troubled camel. Camel was beaten by Born Into Brothels, a doc about children in a Calcutta red-light district - but that's an Asia-set film that isn't yet available for home viewing.

Postscript: This column usually turns up its nose at celebrity trials, pretending it doesn't know what people mean when they speak of Martha, Kobe, and Jacko. But the recent "not guilty" verdict for Robert Blake is a fine excuse to point out the actor's second (after Baretta) most important contribution to '70s culture: Electra Glide in Blue (MGM) is a little-known film in which the diminutive actor plays a guy who spends all his time dreaming of being a detective, only to find that the world of law enforcement isn't all it's cracked up to be. No wisecracks, please.

By John DeFore

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