(Welcome to the NSS: Netflix Streaming Safari, a trip into the bowels of Netflix’s Watch Instantly streaming movies library. On this journey you will see things that will shock you. Things that will please you. And things that will haunt you forever.)
Today, I’m running through all the worthwhile Asian science fiction and fantasy movies that Netflix has hidden throughout their site (subtitles only, no dubbing). If you just want a simple list, here are the top 5 titles that are some of the best sci-fi and fantasy out there:
Fish Story - has a strong claim to being the best science fiction movie of the past decade.
Doomsday Book - an anthology film with a centerpiece, “Heavenly Creature,” that is the closest I’ve seen to one of Asimov’s robot stories put on film.
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame - China doesn’t really do sci-fi, but their fantasy is refined and comes in a dozen different flavor. This flavor is called “Medieval Steampunk Insanity.”
Battle Royale - Japan’s great genre filmmaker ended his career with this, one of the great science fiction films.
But if you need more, here’s details about those 5 and a ton of other sci-fi and fantasy titles besides.
Tsui Hark might just be one of the world’s most important living directors but he had a 15-year fallow period from about 1995 to 2010. This drought came to an end with the creative monsoon of DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME and the 3-D FLYING SWORDS OF DRAGON GATE. Full of killer marionettes, bizarre weapons, barbarian princesses, cannibalism, buried cities made of gold, talking kung fu deer, and spontaneous combustion they’re every Saturday afternoon matinee rolled up into two movies and shot into your eyes at warp speed. I write about DEE at length here and FLYING SWORDS over here, but the TL;DR is: DEE is the better all-around movie, FLYING SWORDS is the more entertaining hot mess.
If you’re jonesing for more wu xia movies, check out NEW LEGEND OF SHAOLIN, an OTT romp from Jet Li and his sometime ten-year-old co-star, Miu Tse. The transfer on Netflix stinks, but seeing Jet Li and Miu Tse do the Lone Wolf and Cub thing while they take on a man with impenetrable skin who rides around in a blade-studded car is more fun than it should be. It also features lots of ass-biting, and one really good underwear joke. Then take a swig of the rough stuff with BUTTERFLY AND SWORD which is a whirlwind tour of the fevered id of Taiwan’s top lunatic, director Chu Yen-ping. Marking the point at which the period kung fu movie transformed from the unreal into the surreal, bodies spray blood mist, human arrows are launched, and many, many people are gruesomely de-faced. Another cruddy transfer of an amazing movie is Jet Li’s SWORDSMAN 2 (no familiarity with SWORDSMAN 1 required) in which he takes on Asia the Invincible, a master martial artist who has achieved the ultimate power by castrating himself and turning into a woman. Things get complicated when she and Jet Li fall in L-O-V-E love.
China doesn’t do sci-fi so much and one of the best examples (THE HEROIC TRIO) is on Netflix in a terrible dub, so you’ll have to settle for your Sino-sci-fi in the form of the cinematic slug of malt liquor known as STORY OF RICKY, an adaptation of a Japanese manga that takes place in the future where prisons are privatized and run by wardens who transform into giant monsters and psychopaths who strangle you with their guts. Swimming in blood, I’m actually not sure anyone could be grossed out by the gleefully stylized grue on display in this el cheapo masterpiece because it’s sloshed across the screen with such joyous abandon. Also in this same mondo berserko category is the Shaw Brother’s King Kong knock-off MIGHTY PEKING MAN in which Evelyn Kraft and a giant monkey fall in love, elephants kill villagers, giant monkeys kill elephants, Danny Lee wears tight jeans, you forget to breathe you’re laughing so hard, and ultimately we learn why giant apes and big cities don’t get along.
Japan’s great genre director, Kinji Fukasaku, made one space opera, MESSAGE FROM SPACE, which contains enough creaky model work, fabulous costumes, and labyrinthine plotting to please any kid who grew up on flicks like BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS. Starring Vic Morrow, Tetsuro Tamba, Sonny Chiba, and Hiroyuki Sanada, it’s a sci-fi flick that’s got enough testosterone onscreen to make hair grow on your back. But it’s nowhere near as good as Fukasaku’s sci-fi masterpiece, BATTLE ROYALE.
Everyone has heard of this near-future dystopian flick by now, but it often gets unfairly dismissed as some kind of over-the-top gore film. Based on Fukasaku’s own experiences working in a bomb factory when he was 15, it’s the last film the 72-year-old director completed and it was, as he put it, his message to Japan’s 15-year-olds. The message: fear adults, because they don’t have your best interests at heart. Even though the movie climbs some gothic heights, and it definitely has a sense of humor, it’s hard to argue with its final message for kids facing the world adults have prepared for them: RUN!
Few people have seen its sequel, BATTLE ROYALE 2, and even fewer like it, which is probably as it should be. Fukasaku died early in its production and his son, Kenta, finished the movie and the results are mixed, to put it politely. Barely coherent and not very entertaining, it’s still worth watching because the politics are amazing. Released two years after 9/11, it’s a breathtakingly anti-American movie featuring some of the first footage shot in Afghanistan after the US bombing campaign and it’s one of the few movies that was willing to stand up to America’s saber-rattling after the World Trade Center attacks leading up to the invasion of Iraq. Too bad it’s not better. But containing lines like, “Your terrorist is my freedom fighter,” and “The greatest tool of democracy is the AK-47,” and featuring regular yakuza actor, Riki Takeuchi, wildly overacting as a crazed MC officiating a war crimes trial for the United States, it’s the motion picture equivalent of someone giving out fliers in Midtown and screaming in your face about the secret CIA plot to take over the world.
Technically more of a horror movie than a sci-fi film, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s beautifully bleak PULSE is the ultimate internet film and it’s made with such cold, clinical precision that it transcends genre, much in the way that David Cronenberg’s films do. A nation of dialed-in internet users become lonelier and lonelier until they touch off an epidemic of suicides when they log onto sites containing the ghosts of the dead. It sounds hokey, but it’s anything but as it grinds all human emotion into meaningless dust underneath the iron wheels of its intense, slow-burn build-up.
Far more traditional sci-fi, HELLEVATOR: BOTTLED FOOLS manages to have the best elevator-themed title of any movie, and it’s also a great high concept flick that tries hard not to be limited by its low budget. In the future, underground cities are segregated into massive stacks by class and occupation and enormous elevators crawl between them, dragging commuters to their homes and jobs like caged city buses. A telepathic teenager and a bunch of innocent bystanders (including a kid with a pet brain in a jar) wind up on an elevator hijacked by a sociopath and some well-developed thriller action results. Joining it in the “cheap and freaky but undeniably effective” category is MEATBALL MACHINE, a low budget fantasia about all the terrible permutations that can be inflicted on the human body by alien parasites.
On the fantasy side of things, one of Japan’s most pedal-to-the-metal movies is DORORO, based on a manga by the legendary Osamu Tezuka. Born without a face, limbs, or internal organs, the main character is a fantastic assemblage of Medieval prosthetics. His 48 organs and body parts have been stolen by 48 demons, and the movie follows he and a thief named Dororo as he tracks down and chops into stew each and every one of them. With action by Hong Kong’s Ching Siu-tung this flick is a loud, bloody, ultra-energetic kid’s movie that’s fast, funny, strange, and scary enough to entertain all by the most jaded teenager.
Speaking of frenetic, the Sushi Typhoon movies are not to everyone’s tastes, but they have a lot of them on Netflix. Probably the most representative of the bunch is MUTANT GIRL SQUAD which perfectly demonstrates the gleefully tasteless, relentlessly inventive, over-the-top gore these movies love. Set in the future when mutant girls have been forced to form a, well, squad, it’s more ambitious than YAKUZA WEAPON (sort of like a reverse ROBOCOP), and holds together more than the ultra-ambitious HELLDRIVER (a future Japan has been split in two by a totalitarian government after a zombie invasion). The best of the bunch is KARATE-ROBO ZABORGAR, a licensed feature film based on a real-life 70′s show about a kid who fights crime with his sidekick, a karate-unleashing robot who can transform into a motorcylce. Director Noboru Iguchi executes the concept for comedy but then, halfway through the film, things turn darker when we jump ahead decades to find our hero now a disappointed middle-aged man abandoned by his robot pal. It’s got the patented Sushi Typhoon madness, inventive gore, and go-for-broke filmmaking but it actually manages to generate some real emotion.
And that brings us to what is the best science fiction movie from Japan hands down: FISH STORY. Based on a novel by Kotaro Isaka, it possesses the kind of ambition, smarts, and powerful use of genre elements that Western science fiction could learn from. But it’s not good because it’s Japanese, it’s good because it is absolutely singular. Leaping backwards and forwards in time, it traces three completely separate characters over the course of three different plots, as it answers the mystery of how the only song released by a failed punk band in 1975 winds up saving the earth from a meteor strike in 2012. More than anything it’s a refreshingly positive take on the conspiracy theory film. While most conspiracy theory movies are all about evil forces that a single person can’t defeat which manipulate events for their own advantage, FISH STORY posits that maybe there’s a conspiracy of nerds, geeks, losers, and also-rans throughout history who are secretly inspiring one another to greatness.
Japan’s stylish and visually stunning director, Tetsuya Nakashima (whose bleakly ridiculous short superhero film “Rolling Bomber Special” is available on Youtube), helped write and produce LALA PIPO and it bears his distinctive visual flair. Not necessarily science fiction, this movie about people working in Japan’s sex industry features anti-woman superheroes fighting vagina-bearers from outer space, talking puppet penises, and some baroque plotting and it’s the kind of thing that might inspire sci-fi writers to kick up their game and take more risks.
Moving on to Korea, the first step is via an uneasy hybrid between Korea and Japan, Kim Ki-Duk’s DREAM, an eerie, unsettling film about two strangers who find themselves inhabiting each other’s dreams with increasingly painful results. Kim Ki-Duk is Korea’s grim provocateur, and his movies split audiences with their depictions of rape, depravity, and relations between men and women depicted as a nose-breaking fistfight, but here he goes for a more fantastical, free-floating kind of anxiety and it’s one of his most mature movies.
Korea doesn’t make so much pure science fiction that’s worth talking about (although there have been exceptions) but there’s a spec fiction tone to even their romantic comedies. Take the insanely popular CASTAWAY ON THE MOON, which won the Audience Award at the New York Asian Film Festival and has found thousands of fans on Netflix Instant. An office worker drowning in debt throws himself into the Han River (site of Korea’s unique giant monster movie, THE HOST) but instead of drowning he washes up on a mid-stream island. Unable to swim, he’s an urban Robinson Crusoe, and the only human being aware of his plight is an agoraphobe with a telescope two miles distant who believes he’s a crashed alien. What develops is probably the most surprisingly fresh romantic comedy to come along in years, always reaching for a sci-fi feel rather than cuteness whenever possible.
Korea’s other harsh romantic comedy with sci-fi overtones is I’M A CYBORG BUT THAT’S OKAY from Park Chan-Wook, the maker of OLDBOY. Set in a mental hospital, it tells the story of the growing attraction between a kleptomaniac and a girl who believes that she’s a combat cyborg. Her fantasies of killing the staff, and of her life as a silicon-based lifeform kick this one comfortably into the realm of sci fi.
But nothing comes across as hard sci fi more than DOOMSDAY BOOK. A three-part movie directed by Kim Jee-Woon (THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD) and Yim Pil-Sung (HANSEL AND GRETEL) the first story is a well-done “virus turns the planet into zombies” short, and the last segment is a funny, surreal short about a childhood wish that turns into an extinction level event. But the centerpiece is a jaw-dropping movie about a robot employed in the near future at a Buddhist monastery who develops a technical glitch: it claims to have achieved Enlightenment.
The kind of tough, hard sci-fi story with a philosophical core, this is like a chamber opera version of Duncan Jones’s MOON, and while its reach exceeds its grasp, this sequence alone makes DOOMSDAY BOOK one of the most challenging science fiction films to come out in a long time.