Movie trilogies have emerged in world cinema during the last decade or so, as one of the most favorite medium of films, and probably, as a countermeasure to the growing popularity of TV series. Evidently, this does not mean that there have not been trilogies in the past (who can forget “The Godfather”, “Star Wars” and many more), but it seems like, at the moment, this is where the movie industry is heading.
In Asian cinema, though, trilogies have been a favorite medium since the 50’s, with their impact continuing to these days, although not in the same extend as in Hollywood. Filmmakers of the magnitutde of Satyajit Ray and Yasuhiro Ozu felt that a single movie could not contain their vision, and proceeded on shooting trilogies that include some of the all time, international masterpieces.
The tendency continues to later decades, with a number of the most acclaimed Asian directors presenting their own, either loose (Park Chan-wook and Wong Kar-wai) or as a single story presented in parts (Infernal Affairs)
Here are 10 of the greatest trilogies of Asian cinema, in a list that focuses on diversity in themes and aesthetics, although not so much on country of origin.
10. The Ring Trilogy (Hideo Nakata, Norio Tsuruta, Japan)
Ringu (Hideo Nakata, 1998), Ringu 2 (Hideo Nakata, 1999), Ringu 0: Birthday (Norio Tsuruta, 2000)
Based on the homonymous novel by Koji Suzuki, this film was the one that turned the global audience’s attention toward J-horror, creating a franchise that spawned two sequels, three spin-offs, a Korean and two American adaptations.
The script revolves around a videotape that causes anyone who watches it to die in seven days. Journalist Reiko Asakawa and her ex-husband investigate the case, only to stumble upon Sadako, a creature with a sad and mysterious story who still exists somewhere between nightmare and reality.
Hideo Nakata presented a social message regarding technophobia and a fear of the media, while building a great story using horror as the main ingredient. Sadako’s exit from the TV is a clear example of the two, and is one of the most iconic (and horrific) images of the genre.
In “Ringu 2,” Mai Takano, Ryuji Takayama’s university assistant, tries to find out the causes of his death, along with another colleague named Okazaki. Soon, they stumble upon the story of the videotape and Sadako. However, true terror engulfs them when they realize that Ryuji’s son has the same abilities Sadako had.
The film retains the horrific atmosphere of the original, as it benefits the most from the already elaborate stories of Sadako and the videotape. However, as the social messages are not present and the initial shock is toned down, “Ringu 2” definitely stands on a lower level than its predecessor.
“Ringu O” is the prequel of this story, and deals with Sadako’s story, as she tries to become a theater actress, after advice from her doctor who tries to find a cure for her constant nightmares. Due to her beauty and charisma, she soon becomes the star of the troupe, but strange occurrences start to happen as her powers are revealed.
Hideo Nakata had already abandoned the trilogy, disappointed by the sequel, leaving it to Norio Tsuruta. However, the film was even worse than the second one, filled with clichés and drawing excessively from the original story. The result was, once again, quite horrifying, but the movie lacked the depth and originality of the first one.
Evidently, in terms of quality as a whole, The Ring Trilogy is a level beyond the others in the list. However, its significance lies with its resonance with the J-horror genre, with the trilogy signifying both the pick and the demise of the category, which came with the plethora of unsuccessful sequels of the initial titles.
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9. Hate Trilogy (Sion Sono, Japan)
Love Exposure (2008) Cold Fish (2010) Guilty of Romance (2011)
In “Love Exposure”, Sono incorporates elements of adventure, comedy, drama, social satire, parody, romance and soft porn, while dealing with themes like religion, family, love, sex, adolescence, hedonism and guilt, in what came to be one of his most accomplished works.
Yu is a young Christian growing up with his father, Tetsu, who became a fanatical priest after the early death of his wife. Having to confess every single day, Yu has to invent supposed sins to appease his father, who believes it a sin to not have something to confess. When Tetsu finally discovers the truth, Yu decides to commit as many “serious” sins as he can, while searching for a woman to love that fits the Madonna archetype.
Sono’s biggest accomplishment in “Love Exposure” is that he manages to shoot a movie of this length without being boring or tedious. The film’s other virtues include in-depth analysis of the characters and the hilarious mockery of Hong Kong Kung Fu movies and the “Female Convict Scorpion” franchise, not to mention the concept of under-skirt photography.
“Cold Fish” is loosely based on the Saitama serial murders of dog lovers, a case of a married couple who owned a pet shop and murdered at least four people, “Cold Fish” gave Sono the opportunity to present his version of how a serial killer film ought to be like.
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 are equally visible throughout the film’s 146 minutes.
Syamoto’s character is quite a conception, since he is the absolute human puppet. Everyone in his life seems to take advantage of him, and his permanent response of inaction reaches new heights once Murata appears in it. Even when he has the chance to flee and take revenge, he decides instead to become a martyr, for the sake of his ungrateful daughter and his unfaithful wife.
Sono, per his words, “wants to depict a sense of total hopelessness”, thus presenting the fact that sometimes people, when faced with extreme situations, simply kowtow instead of reacting violently, as the circumstances dictate. Denden as Murata and Mitsuru Fukikoshi as Syamoto are excellent in the roles of the aggressor and the victim, respectively, while the female leads chiefly impersonate lust itself.
“Guilty of Romance” is another grotesque masterpiece and the movie that established Sono as the foremost representative of the genre, surpassing the previous master, Takashi Miike.
Everything changes once Izumi decides to seek employment and in the meantime meets Kaoru and Mitsuko, who eventually get her acquainted with the world of buying sex.
His usual tactic, of leaving little or nothing to the imagination, finds its peak in “Guilty of Romance”, both in the erotic and the violent scenes. The erotic scenes are the most exquisite, chiefly due to the physiognomic antithesis of the two main leads: Megumi Kagurazaka, a former gravure idol who plays Izumi is voluptuous, whereas Makoto Togashi, as Mitsuko, borders on anorexic.
Once more, Sono shows how adequately he can handle the extreme. His characters, although quite different in their conception, are all exquisite as much as they are distinctive. In particular, Hisako Ohkata, who plays Mitsuko’s mother, gives one of the most terrifying smiles ever witnessed, and one of the foremost unconventional family scenes, even for a Sono movie.
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8. Infernal Affairs Trilogy (Andrew Lau, Alan Mak, Hong Kong)
Infernal Affairs I (2002), Infernal Affairs II (2003) Infernal Affairs III (2003)
“Infernal Affairs” is one of the most successful films in Asia, and it became internationally known when Martin Scorsese adapted it to shoot “The Departed”. The success of the initial part led to two sequels, with both moving before and after the events of the initial one, with the movie concluding the story of Lau Kin Ming.
Chen Wing Yang is an undercover agent who has been chosen since his days in the police academy to infiltrate the crime world, particularly the gang of the notorious Sam. The sole individual who knows his actual identity is chief Wong. On the other hand, Sam has chosen Detective Lau Kin Ming to act accordingly inside the police force. While Sam prepares for a large operation, the two moles come face to face, realizing each other’s role. Unavoidably, one of them has to die.
The second part deals with the past of the major characters, while the third one a little before, and after the events of the “Infernal Affairs I”.
Lau directs a sublime urban noir thriller that retains the agony throughout its duration, due to the intense cat and mouse game it entails. Scenes such as the one involving Sam’s first meeting with the Thais are among the greatest ever shot in the genre, both technically and artistically, with every minute soaring with anguish.
Though the director may refer to the eternal battle between good and evil, he presents it in a unique fashion, mainly due to the nature of its protagonists, who have to constantly appear as something else than what they actually are, amongst terrifying pressure by their superiors to deliver. Furthermore, the action scenes are exquisite and the plot twists almost constant.
Evidently, the quality deteriorated in the sequels, but the trilogy remains one of the best Asian cinema has to offer, as it thoroughly concludes a very interesting story, analyzing the characters to their deeper depths, and doing it with gusto and artistry.
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7. Samurai Trilogy (Hiroshi Inagaki, Japan)
Samurai I Musashi Miyamoto (1954), Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1955), Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island (1956)
The trilogy is based on the novel “Musashi” by Eiji Yoshikawa, which follows the renowned Japanese swordsman’s growth from an immature youth to a wise samurai. The first part won the 1955 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and the trilogy is considered one of the most influential in world cinema.
Toshiro Mifune is astonishing as Musashi in all three films, in one of his works that established him as one of the biggest actors of the era in Japan. Koji Tsuruta, who plays his archrival, Sasaki Kojiro, is also great, with their duel at the end of the third part being the highlight of the trilogy.
The battles are all outstanding, in realistic fashion, as they benefit the most by Yoshio Sugino’s action choreography, but the trilogy is much more than an action feature. It deals with Musashi’s self-discovery, which eventually led him to become a philosopher, as he wrote “The Book of the Five Rings”.
Furthermore, the trilogy is a testament of both Japanese culture and psychology.
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6. Taiwan Trilogy (Hou Hsiao Hsen, Taiwan)
City of Sadness (1989), The Puppetmaster (1993), Good Men, Good Women (1995)
1989 was the starting point for the “Taiwanese History” trilogy for Hou Hsiao Hsen, with the first part, “City of Sadness”, considered as one of his best works. The film had political and historic tone, since it dealt with an incident that took place on 28 February 1947, when, during a demonstration of Taiwanese in Taipei, Kuomintang (KMT, Chinese Nationalist Party) soldiers violently crushed the demonstrators, killing thousands (the number varies from 10 to 30 thousand).
The incident, which remains in history as 228, signaled the beginning of Kuomintang’s “White Terror” in the country, during which thousands disappeared, arrested or killed. This period is regarded as one of the most important in the history of the country, and was one of the main reasons for the creation of the Taiwan independence movement. For Chinese on the other hand, it was considered taboo for decades, with “City of Sadness” being the first film ever dealing with the subject.
The film deals with the lack of communication in all its forms, an issue that would also engross Hou in his next works. In that fashion, the film portrays the gap in communication between the Taiwanese, who want their independence, and the Chinese, who consider them revolutionaries and arrest them. The cultural gap between those who live in islands and those in the mainland, which is engrossed by the difference in language. Lastly, the social gap between the deaf-mute and the girl he likes. In essence, “City of Sadness” is a social film, presented through the prism of the country’s history.
“The Puppetmaster” began a year after. The film deals with the life of Li Tienlu, Taiwan’s most famous puppeteer and one of the most renowned in the world. Hou’s fourth movie that included the elderly actor tells his story from his birth in 1909 up to 1945 when the Japanese occupation ended after 51 years.
The movie spotlights Li’s capabilities as a puppeteer but also shows his living conditions, which forced him to appear at times, like one of his puppets. Since his childhood, Li was always under the authority of a higher power. Initially, under his mother’s, who forced him to call her “aunt” due to an advice of an oracle, and to steal. In his adolescence, under his father’s, who forced him to give him all the money he earned. Finally, in his forties under the Japanese forces’ who forced him Japanese to propagandize in their favor. Additioanlly, his fate mirrors Taiwan’s, who was under occupation of the Dutch, the Chinese, the Japanase, and Chinese again, consequently.
In 1995 he directed the last segment of the trilogy, titled “Good Men, Good Women”, which was his first film to be chiefly produced by a Japanese production company, Team Okuyama, although some Taiwanese companies also contributed.
The film is based on the autobiography of Chiang Bi Yu and deals with the period of White Terror. The complex script unfolds in three intermingling axes. In today’s Taipei, Chiang Liang, a young woman receives some pages from her diary through her fax, from an unknown sender, who seems to have stolen it. Those pages refer to her past, when she was the mistress of a mobster while working in a bar. During the same period, she is rehearsing for a role in a historic drama regarding Chiang Bi You. Chiang was a member of the resistance against Japan in the 40’s; however, she ended up in prison for being a communist in the 50’s by the nationalistic Taiwanese government, even forced to give her child for adoption and her partner to the firing squad.
Hou once more presents a comparison between the after-war and contemporary Taiwan, through three stories that differ chronologically but coexist through Chiang Lang. He parallels her self-destructive behavior with the social crisis that tortures the country throughout its history. Moreover, through Chiang Bi Yu’s story he shows his country’s betrayal towards its own citizens during the White Terror period. In the end though, Liang, as much as Taiwan, must accept its past if she wants to find peace.