Recent Noir Films from Asia
What is noir? It’s legendarily hard to define but you know it when you see it: Dark streets slick with rain. Seedy hotel rooms lit by a reddish neon glare. A wisp of smoke curling up from a cigarette in a shadowy corner. Desperate men and women with obscure motives and shifting loyalties.
In Asia, Japan was an early pioneer of noir cinema with post-WWII classics such as Stray Dog, The Bad Sleep Well and Tokyo Drifter. What do you get when you take a society unmoored from its traditional foundations, add a measure of war-induced shame, misery, and destruction, and infuse with a healthy dose of fatalism? A recipe for morally ambiguous tales of crime and punishment, double and triple crosses, compromised cops, and hardboiled gangsters.
In the 1980s, Hong Kong filmmakers found the nighttime urban landscape of their tiny but teeming island fertile ground for stories that drew heavily on notions such as loyalty, brotherhood, and rebellion popularized by the wuxia (knight errant) novels that had long been part of China’s popular literature. Some Hong Kong directors, such as Wong Kar Wai, created arthouse masterpieces that were more concerned with visual style and mood than plot. Others, like John Woo, converted extreme violence into poetic imagery and elevated gangsters into icons of righteous vengeance.
Korean filmmakers have traditionally been no slouch in the noir department either. Witness—if you have the stomach for them–blood-splattered pulp operas such as Oldboy and I Saw the Devil.
But the situation has traditionally been a bit more complicated in China, where the government is eager to present a wholesome view of life under one-party rule. Mainland filmmakers have often been forced to submit to heavy censorship or run the risk of having their work banned. Recently, however, some excellent noir films have begun to slip through the cracks.
Below, I present a few noir nuggets from across the region, most of which have recently made their way to a streaming site near you. Some of these films are low-key and contemplative, others are spectacularly kinetic, but all share a respect and affection for characters who exist on the outer margins of polite society.
A riveting crime thriller about a rice farmer, Oscar, who moves his family to Manila in search of a better standard of living and ends up embroiled in a plot to steal a security box full of money. The tension slowly rachets up, and you can’t help but root for Oscar as he desperately attempts to provide for his wife and children, regardless of personal cost.
A darkly comic Taiwanese film about two down-their-luck men who find themselves on a road trip from hell. Na Dow is a low-level drug courier tasked with making a delivery to the southern part of the island. Xu is a transplanted Hong Konger who drives Taiwan’s crappiest cab and, ignorant of Na Dow’s cargo and in desperate need of some business, offers to drive him. At times meandering and slow, and others tense and brutal, the story is enlivened by the oddball pairing of Na Dow and Xu and a cast of menacing supporting characters. This is a movie Bing Crosby and Bob Hope might have made as part of their famous Road To series–had they been Chinese ne’er-do-wells with a penchant for getting mixed up in drug-trafficking gang violence.
Have a Nice Day
An animated feature about a low-level gangster who steals a bag of cash from his boss to pay for his girlfriend’s plastic surgery. This instigates a series of violent maneuvers and double-crosses as a quirky set of morally deficient characters circle the money like sharks after a chunk of bloody tuna. Minimalist artwork and sound provide an uncluttered background to the proceedings, but despite the simple visual depiction, characters are fully rendered. In the process of telling an entertaining story, Have a Nice Day also does a credible job of portraying the dark side of China’s rapid development, including economic inequality, rampant corruption, and plain old greed.
Angels Wear White
This one is a slow-moving downer about a teenager who witnesses a possible sexual assault and then finds herself caught between self-interest and the pursuit of justice. 15-year-old Mia belongs to that category of second-class Chinese citizen left in the dust by China’s economic miracle. Lacking the proper identity papers, she works illegally in a seedy seaside resort hotel. One night, a middle-aged man arrives with two young schoolgirls in tow and rents two rooms–only later to force himself into the girls’ room as Mia watches on the security camera. Given her vulnerable status, she is understandably reluctant to go to the cops. The narrative follows Mia, one of the young girls and a crusading female lawyer to a bitter but inevitable resolution, exploring along the way themes of corruption, sexual exploitation, economic and social inequality, victim-blaming, and toxic patriarchy.
Ash is the Purest White
This film got a lot of attention on the international scene, and rightly so. It’s beautifully shot and acted and has a lot to say about the shifting tides of Chinese society over the past 20 years. Fair warning, though–the slow pace and lugubrious nature can sometimes make it seem like you are watching those 20 years unfold in real-time. While it centers on the relationship between a gangster and his moll, it’s not a crime film, or a romance for that matter–it’s more a mediation on the ephemeral nature of life. The moll in question, Qiao, is a tough, resourceful woman from a depressed mining town and a worthy partner in love and business to a local gangster named Bin. The death of Bin’s boss sets off a power struggle during which Qiao saves Bin’s life, but in the process, is arrested and sent to jail for several years. By the time she’s released, Bin has disappeared, as has the world she knows. She goes looking for both, but eventually arrives back at a place that, while but a pale shadow of her glory days, at least feels something akin to home.
The Wild Goose Lake
This tale of a gangster on the run after shooting a police officer in Wuhan is at turns slow and pensive, then sumptuously violent. In keeping with arthouse conventions, there are plenty of halogen-lit night scenes punctuated by falling rain, cigarettes smoked, confusion regarding who’s doing what and why, and a woman who, even if she doesn’t fit the classical definition of a femme fatale, may in the end still prove fatal to our male lead. The setting makes the most of its grungy setting and cast of determined cops, petty criminals, pimps, prostitutes, and innocent working poor bystanders. The film has been lauded as China’s most self-assured and accomplished example of noir filmmaking to date, and it’s hard to argue with that assessment. Director Diao Yinan’s earlier work, Black Coal, Thin Ice, is also well worth checking out.
About Thief of Souls by Brian Klingborg:
Lu Fei is a graduate of China’s top police college but he’s been assigned to a sleepy backwater town in northern China, where almost nothing happens and the theft of a few chickens represents a major crime wave. That is until a young woman is found dead, her organs removed, and joss paper stuffed in her mouth. The CID in Beijing—headed by a rising political star—is on the case but in an increasingly authoritarian China, prosperity and political stability are far more important than solving the murder of an insignificant village girl. As such, the CID head is interested in pinning the crime on the first available suspect rather than wading into uncomfortable truths, leaving Lu Fei on his own.
As Lu digs deeper into the gruesome murder, he finds himself facing old enemies and creating new ones in the form of local Communist Party bosses and corrupt business interests. Despite these rising obstacles, Lu remains determined to find the real killer, especially after he links the murder to other unsolved homicides. But the closer he gets to the heart of the mystery, the more he puts himself and his loved ones in danger.