Well, not exactly the elderly, but the mature would be more accurate (over 45 if you prefer), since I felt that some performances could not be missing, despite the initial rule I have considered, of over 50. Furthermore, films like “Ikiru” and “An Autumn Afternoon” could definitely be included in this list, but I chose to list more contemporary films, with the oldest one being produced in the 80’s.
The reason for this list is the fact that I felt that the directors from SE Asia always had the ability to make the most out of actors of later age, in contrast to other regions, where the roles are mostly assigned to the young and “beautiful”, with Hollywood, evidently, holding the lion’s share. The reason behind this tendency may well be that countries like Japan and S. Korea have an aging population, but the fact remains, that quite frequently, impressive performances from older actors do appear in the films in the region. Here are 15 of them, in chronological (ha!) order.
1. The Ballad of Narayama (Shohei Imamura, 1983, Japan)
Imamura directs a film that borders on being a documentary, due to the realistic depiction of life in the mountain villages of the country, a century before. However, he retains his distinct style, as he includes many sex scenes, unexpected moments of humor, and a number of shots that could only be characterized as horrendously realistic.
Sumiko Sakamoto (born November 26, 1936) gives an astonishing performance as Orin, a very difficult character that can feel and show love and at the same time act in an utterly cruel fashion.
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2. Madadayo (Akira Kurosawa, 1993, Japan)
“Madadayo” is not an epic film as the ones that made Kurosawa one of the most prominent filmmakers of all time. However, man is once more the epicenter, as Uchida proves to be a force that can shape everyone around him for the better. Furthermore, Kurosawa seems to identify with the protagonist, as he shouts “Madadayo” (not yet), since he also was present and shooting films, in spite of his age (83 at the time).
Tatsuo Matsumura (born December 18, 1914) as Professor Uchida is impressive in a very demanding role that has him depicting a number of psychological statuses and behaviours, with the dominant one being his will to live.
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3. A Family (Lee Jeong-cheol, 2004, S. Korea)
The main axis of the film is the relationship between father and daughter, which is analyzed to the fullest and in very dramatic, but realistic fashion. He ignores her, considering her stubborn and immature as a child, and she considers his behavior cruel and egoistical. Both of them want to get away from each other, but the circumstances do not allow them to and they end up living in a situation filled with misery and lack of understanding. She desperately asks for support from her family and her father constantly misunderstands her behavior.
Joo Hyun (born March 1, 1941) is very good as a bitter, sick father, while his chemistry with Soo-ae, who plays Jeong-hwan, is one of the film’s biggest assets.
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4. Dear Doctor (Miwa Nishikawa, 2009, Japan)
Miwa Nishikawa does a great job on both script and direction, with her prowess finding its highlight in the conception of Dr Ino, who is the one that makes the movie stand apart from the majority of similar films coming out of Japan.
Tsurube Shofukutei (born December 23, 1951) does a great job in one of the few protagonist roles of his career, which has started in the 80’s, proving that this is an “honour” that should be bestowed upon him more frequently. The depiction of a variety of feelings and psychological statuses is outstanding, and is even stripped by the regular hyperbole so frequent among Japanese actors.
5. Mother (Bong Joon-ho, 2009, S. Korea)
Bong Joon-ho directs a crime thriller that moves on a very different direction that the norms of the genre suggest and in that fashion, did a great job on both the script and the direction, as he focuses on the mother of the accused. The film thrives n terms of characters’ analysis and plot development, while, at times, through Bong’s use of humor, it appears a balck comedy.
Kim Hye-ja (born September 14, 1941)is spectacular in a very demanding role as “Mother”, proving in her 70s that talent and competence know no age.
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6. Grandmother (Brillante Mendoza, 2009, Philippines)
Mendoza uses the case to portray life in a poor district in Manila, where the majority of the wooden houses hang barely above overflowing canals and the rain is constant. Using a hand-held camera, he shoots his scenes in an utmost realistic fashion, thus resulting in the film appearing similar to a documentary regarding the lives of the poor elderly women in the country. Furthermore, he stresses the significance of women in local society, a fact emphasized by the almost complete insignificance of men in the story.
Both of his protagonists, the 85-year-old Anita Linda as Sepa and 79-year-old Rustica Carpio as Puring, are impressive in their respective parts.
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7. Poetry (Lee Chang-dong, 2009. S. Korea)
Lee Chang-dong uses the real-life case as a base but strays much away from it in order to focus on the life of the elderly in the country, and particularly the ones who live in the borders of society mainly because they have not secured a significant pension. In that fashion, we watch Mi-ja trying to survive on her own, almost without any help from the state or relatives for that matter, with the case of her grandson making her life even more difficult.
Mi-ja, played with gusto and an almost constant cheerfulness by Yoon Jung-hee (born July 30, 1944), is a woman who manages to retain her cheerfulness and smile despite her dire circumstances, in a measured but at the same time impressive performance. The scenes where she seems unable to cope with the reality of her grandson and the shocking acts that prove the exact opposite are the highlights of her performance, along with the scene when she finally erupts and confronts Jong Wook. Lee based the film almost completely upon her, as she seems to be present in every scene, and she delivered in outstanding fashion.
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8. Cold Fish (Sion Sono, 2010, Japan)
Sion Sono’s style (at least the one that made him an international cult sensation, before he started dealing with Fukushima) finds its apogee in this film. Borderline violence, extreme gore and sick sex make “Cold Fish” one of the darkest studies on the human psyche, while elements of black comedy and the ironic, social commentary about consumerism are equally visible throughout the film’s 146 minutes.
Murata is the exact opposite: Loudmouth, successful, sadistic, and willing to do everything to achieve his goals, either gaining money or having sex with women, or simply to satisfy his bloodlust, in an extreme presentation of the dark side of capitalism. (The girls that work in his shop and the way they are dressed and act is a distinct sample) Furthermore, a rather blasphemous comment about Christianity (in a tactic Sono started in “Love Exposure.”) is also presented through Murata, who seems to have a knack for using Christian symbols when he is maiming his victims. Denden (born January 23, 1950) is impervious in the role, and Sono actually anchors the film on him, with the rest of the cast reacting to his performance, for the most part.
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9. Sweet Bean (Naomi Kawase, 2015, Japan)
Kawase focuses on realism and retains a slow pace, which, along with the “mellow” interactions among the characters and the subtle music, makes for a very low-key film. The issue, though, is with the narration, which does not seem to examine the aforementioned subjects in depth, but keeps a somewhat detached approach to them, while focusing on the beauty of the images depicted in the film. The same applies to the subplots, that include the sad story of a female student named Sakana, and Sentaro’s back-story, which are only epidermically examined.
Kawase centered the majority of the film on Kirin Kiki (born January 15, 1943), who gives another sublime performance as Tokue, presenting a quite lovable character and proving, once more, the prowess of older Japanese actors and the skill the country’s filmmakers have in directing them. Masatoshi Nagase as Sentaro and Kyra Uchida as Wakana present their characters on par with the general aesthetics of the film, but are definitively on a lower level than Kirin Kiki.
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10. Mr Six (Guan Hu, 2015, China)
Hu Guan could easily shoot an action film that focuses on the battles between the old and new criminals; however, he decided to direct the film toward Mr. Six’s character and focus on realism, particular through two axes: His relationship with his estranged son, and the realization that the world has changed significantly, outside of his microcosm. At the same time, some secondary social comments deal with male friendship, the difference of values between the previous and the current generation, and the place of women in society.
Feng Xiaogang (born March 18, 1958) is sublime in the titular role, as he presents a multi-leveled character, whose opposing characteristics make him contradictory, at least until his real self is revealed. In that fashion, Mr Six is hard on his son but loves him deeply, he appears fearless in front of any kind and size of enemy but is scared of hospitals, he is dignified but could also be characterized as a righteous ass. Xiaogang manages to portray all these characteristics impressively, in a wonderful performance that netted him the Best Leading Actor Award from the Golden Horse Film Festival.
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11. The Bacchus Lady (Lee Jae-yong, 2016. S. Korea)
Lee Jae-yong pens and directs a film, which, at least in the beginning, is very hard to watch. Apart from the whole concept of the elderly prostitute, which is not very easy to witness (at least to my eyes), there are also some sex scenes between elderly, which, although feature almost no nudity, are rather graphic, with the realistic sound making them quite difficult to stand. However, as the story progresses, the film becomes more subtle, after having presented realistically, the actual work conditions of these women. After that point, Lee retains a somewhat relaxed rhythm, although the utterly sad ending sets things straight, regarding the reality of So-yeong’s life.
Yoon Yeo-jong (born June 19, 1947) is the definite star of the film as So-yeong, to the point that I do not think there is even a scene in the film, where she is not present. Her portrayal of a feisty woman who retains her dignity and pride, despite her profession, but due to the fact that she manages to make a living by herself, is the film’s biggest asset. The scene where she exclaims “Don’t call me Granny, my vagina is still young” and the one where she fights with another Bacchus Lady are the most entertaining in the film.
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12. What A Wonderful Family (Yoji Yamada, 2016, Japan)
Yamada directs a film in the distinct style of the contemporary social Japanese film, which includes slow pace, realism, little to none action, and great attention to the development of characters and to the various details. In that fashion, the film is much reminiscent of Hirokazu Koreeda’s “Still Walking,” although “What a Wonderful Family” is much more comedic. The main focus of the film may be on the concept of family in general, but the obvious protagonist of the film is Shuzo, as Yamada examines the concept of love and marriage in the elderly, and the effect they can have on the rest of the family members. Through them, he presents a message that love never actually fades with the years, but just transforms into something less exciting, but necessary for both parts, nevertheless.
Probably the film’s biggest asset is its cast, with Isao Hashizume (born September 17, 1941) giving a wonderful performance as Shuzo, Shozo Hayashiza and Tomoko Nakajima being highly entertaining as the opposite couple of Taizo and Shigeko, and Satoshi Tsumabuki as Shota and beautiful as ever Yu Aoi forming a very fitting couple. The comic part is largely presented by veterans Takashi Sasano, Katsumi Kiba and Tsurube Sakatai, who are hilarious in their small parts, as is the case with Yoki Tokunaga, who plays a deliverer. The cast, which mostly consists of elderly actors, proves once more the prowess of Japanese actors of the third age, as much as the directors’ prowess in directing them.
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13. Mrs K (Ho Yuhang, 2016, Malaysia)
Directing a martial arts film with a 57-year-old woman as the protagonist is not an easy task, but Yuhang Ho managed to turn it to his advantage, by highlighting the vulnerability of his main character. In that fashion, Mrs K is beaten unconscious a number of times, and seems to hurt and get more tired by every move she takes in her fights. This tactic induces the film with a reinvigorating sense of realism, rarely seen in this kind of films, although in the end, the HK style of action takes over.
The acting is on a very high level for the genre. Ho Yuhang had already revived Kara Hui’s (born February 2, 1960) career with the 2009 film “At the End of Daybreak” and seems to capitalize on his chemistry with her in this film. She is great in all the roles she has to play in this film, highlighting an amplitude she rarely had to show before. Not to mention that she looks fit and quite beautiful, still. Simon Yam is also great in the role of the sociopathic villain, and Faizal Hussein plays the role of the silent master of martial arts to perfection, being quite impressive in the action scenes. Wu Bai cannot help acting like a rock star, even in the role of an almost helpless father.
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14. Ajji (Devasish Makhija, 2017, India)
The narrative of the movie is impressive (although the script takes some creative freedoms), as it parallels with Ajji’s preparations for revenge, with only a few breaks where Makhija reveals Dhavle’s character, and some flashbacks of the relationship the girl had with her grandmother before the incident. In this, (almost completely) linear progress, Makhija has included a number of scenes that will definitely stay in the memory of the spectator. The visit of the policeman in the house in the beginning, the scene with the plastic doll, the ones where Ajji is cutting meat, the one where the girl talks about blood, the one where Dhavle and Mastur meet, and the finale, are as shocking as they are artful, strengthening the impact of the film even more. Mangesh Dhakde’s music also finds its apogee in these sequences, as it highlights the sense the director wants to give to each one, with the track included in the scene where Dhavle and Mastur meet being the most memorable, filling the scene with a sense of danger emitting from the latter.
The acting is also on a very high level. Sushama Deshpande (born August 18, 1955) as Ajji gives a magnificent performance that demands from her to appear silent and extremely tired, but also extremely resolved and dedicated to her purpose. Abhishek Banerjee as Dhavle plays the archetype of the despicable villain with a very fitting notoriety, while Vikas Kumar as Dastur is very convincing as the corrupt “servant” of the rich, with his behaviour being radically different when dealing with each. Lastly, Sudhir Pandey as the red-bearded butcher is a truly cult figure in the film, that fits the exploitation elements to perfection.
15. The Great Buddha+ (Huang Hsing Yao, 2017, Taiwan)
Strictly speaking, “The Great Buddha +” can be placed in the Thriller box (Find-Footage sub-box) but there are many more layers and keys to read it as the movie flies above the genres and lightly mixes black comedy, noir, social commentary and exposé of society corruption. But its peeping game is also a sour metaphor of the airtight bubbles and cliques that constitute our life and in specific of the impermeability of social classes.
Our main characters might not like any people we’ve encountered in other classic films featuring marginalized characters. Unlike Travis Bickle, there is no expressive “Are you talking to me” moment in their lives. Unlike the maid in De Sica’s “Umberto D”, there is no transcendental moment of beauty for Belly Button and Pickle. However, there is depth to these characters. We see Pickle beg everyone who can help throughout the film, the nurse in a local hospital and his uncle, to make his mother have a better life. We see Pickle troubled and tormented by the atrocity he witnessed. Their humanities are shown through these fleeting moments, and in that fashion, Cres Huang (born in 1966), gives a great performance in perfect harmony with the film’s “detached aesthetics.