Jung Yu-mi in "Sleep."

7 Asian Genre Films to Watch Out For

Featuring the best in fantasy, horror, sci-fi, and cult filmmaking, this year's Fantastic Fest featured a plethora of films from Asia

Jung Yu-mi in "Sleep."

Courtesy of Magnet Releasing

Words by Andy Crump

For genre cinema aficionados, few festivals on this green Earth compare to Austin’s Fantastic Fest, a locus of all things horror, action, and sci-fi. Bizarro combinations of each exist, toomarriages between these classifications yield movies that don’t belong to any single genre, much less known ones. In short, the fest is a treat for those who appreciate ingenuity and embrace the weird, both from the United States and from further flung parts of the world, including international programming spanning the globe from Spain to Argentina to Qatar.

Included in that number is a large delegation of Asian countriesJapan, China, South Korea, India, Indonesia, Malaysiarepresenting their cultures with an array of genre films. The year’s list of award winners reflects a predominantly European bent, though a Brazilian movie (Dark Star’s Property) took the top prize (Best Picture, Main Competition), and Indonesia’s Sri Asih, based on the character developed by Indonesian comics author R.A. Kosasih in the 1950s, won Best Picture in the Next Wave Competition, the section reserved for screening projects by international filmmakers on the rise.

Whether or not the pony you gamble on wins a medal simply isn’t the point. Fantastic Fest is a visceral thing. You feel it, even participating remotely, though you’ll miss pre-buzzed titles (like Macon Blair’s The Toxic Avenger remake), not to mention all the barbecue. But the fact of Sri Asih’s recognition is nonetheless important, and should call to attention not only to the other Indonesian-adjacent film in the lineup, but films brought to the festival by artists across the Asian diaspora. Allow us to suggest several of them here, from horror chillers to action thrillers to gentle meditations to meta-text innovations:

Sleep

Country: South Korea
Language: Korean
Distribution: Magnet Releasing, 2024

Jason Yu picked a fitting title for his first feature, Sleepnodding off won’t come easily for most viewers once they watch it. The film takes special care developing terror, with emphasis placed on steady, deliberate camera movement and anticipatory pacing. Yu wants his audience to feel the same confident dread as his protagonists, Soo-jin (Jung Yu-mi) and Hyun-su (Lee Sun-kyun), a married couple expecting their first born, with all of the relentless paranoia that comes with parenthood. Soo-jin has reason for her anxiety, though. From the opening scene, Hyun-su is afflicted by a sudden case of somnambulism (the medical term for sleepwalking) that no remedy can abate, medical or otherwise, and provokes in him increasingly disturbing and uncharacteristic behavior. When you bring a newborn home, you cover your outlets and anchor your shelves, but neither of these is as great a child hazard as an unconsciously violent caregiver. Sleep lets fear for the baby’s safetyboth Soo-jin’s and our ownfill each scene like oxygen diffusing into capillaries. The film’s true hallmark, though, and the surest sign of mentor Bong Joon-ho’s influence, is Yu's talent for dovetailing jitters with lightheartedness.

One Percenter

Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Distribution: WellGoUSA, TBD

A Tak Sakaguchi vehicle needs, at minimum, to showcase the action legend’s lightning fast hands and his glorious ponytail. (At rest or in fight scenes, his hair gives the appearance of moving independently of his body. It’s an illusion, a trick of the camera. Or is it?) One Percenter gives a great deal more than that, and while more isn’t always actually more, and in this movie’s case specifically, disrupts what’s otherwise an exceptionally brutal, tightly constructed martial arts revenge plot, the unexpected “life imitates art imitates life” meta philosophizing commands attention. Sakaguchi’s character, action film star Toshiro, is credited with pioneering a fighting style much like Zero Range Combat; Sakaguchi is a ZRC practitioner, and made use of it in his 2016 film Re:Born (where, worth noting, he played a character named Toshiro). Whether One Percenter’s higher ambitions tickle your palate is a separate question, but watching Sakaguchi knock down scores of yakuza thugs in between ruminations on Toshiro’s pursuit of shooting “real action” is a suitable cleanser.

Door

Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Distribution: Digital & Screambox, Oct. 24, 2023

Gone are the days of door-to-door salesmen, but the folks at Cineverse have brought it back with a 1980s gem of Japanese genre cinema we’ve collectively lapsed on: Banmei Takahashi’s Door, recalling a time in Japan when the crime rates dwarfed today’s and an army of door-to-door salespeople patrolled its urban streets, eager to sell people on anything from automobiles to insurance. Few of those foot soldiers likely had as many behavioral problems as Yamakawa (Daijirô Tsutsumi), introduced as benign, until he sticks his hand in the wrong door and receives busted knuckles for his troubles. The injury and insult sends him spiraling on a campaign of sick vengeance against Yasuko (Keiko Takahashi), the housewife to whom the door belongs. Sleaze and anxiety ensue, with Yamakawa’s psychological warfare teetering on the edge separating menace from the erotic, culminating with a jaw-dropping confrontation in Yasuko’s apartment that’s daring in execution, gruesome in action, and perverse in undertones.

Tiger Stripes

Country: Malaysia
Language: Malay
Distribution: 2024, TBD

“Menstruation and pubescence as body horror” is a reasonably well-established horror niche: Blue My Mind, Teeth, Wildling. Incurious types might write off Amanda Nell Eu’s Tiger Stripes as nothing “new” on paperthey’d be missing out. Eu’s first feature pulls together the transformational feminine horror of John Fawcett’s Ginger Snaps with the anarchic fist-in-the-air rebellion of Lukas Moodysson’s We Are the Best!, a combination from out of left field that makes so much sense in practice that it’s a wonder nobody tried it sooner. Eleven-year-old Zaffan (Zafreen Zairizal) is a blithe spirit who spends her free time recording social media dance videos in the girls’ bathroom with her friends, and her home time avoiding her mother’s disapproval. Come the day Zaffan has her first period, everything, quite literally, everything changesshe starts to sprout hair above her lip, develop rashes on her skin that look suspiciously Panthera tigris in nature, sprout wicked-looking claws, and gain in aggression. Soaked as they are in superstitions and folklore, Zaffan’s friends (Deena Ezral, Piqa) reject her on the assumption that she’s got the devil in her, striking a profound metaphor for the way cultural mores, as well as expectations, ultimately encourage acrimony between young girls. Rather than reject old legends, though, in rebuke to the damage they do to Zaffan and her besties, Eu embraces them through creature design, pleasingly tactile FX, and an enormous amount of empathy for the monster.

River

Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Distribution: TBD

Living the same two minutes of your life over and over ad nauseam sounds like hell, and to degrees, in Junta Yamaguchi’s River, it is. On a winter’s day in Kyoto, at the tranquil riverside inn, Kibune Fujiya, the staff bustle about, performing their duties; collectively, they’re suddenly struck by a severe case of déjà vu that turns out to be a time loop. Yamaguchi and screenwriter Makoto Ueda defy categorization with River, merging joy with grief with helpless panicconsidering the basic conceit’s gravity, it’s surprisingly funny, aided by the giddy excitement Yamaguchi’s ensemble expresses with every one of the story’s parade of two-minute cycles. But the comedy belies River’s wisdom. If you had to stay in the same 120-second stretch for over an hour, what would you learn about yourself? What would you learn about the people around you, the job you work? River poses these questions and bumps against them without choking on pretense, while Yamaguchi pulls off the remarkable feat of keeping his intellectual and philosophical exercise light.            

Cobweb

Country: South Korea
Language: Korean
Distribution: 2024

If you’ve ever wanted to get inside the head of an ambitious filmmaker hellbent on proving and justifying themselves, get excited: Kim Jee-woon heard your plea and chose to oblige. Kim, somehow, remains one of the least recognized members of the Post Korean New Wave filmmakers, no matter how often I Saw the Devil is cited as a modern essential of South Korean cinema; his filmography runs deeper than that grisly masterpiece, not only in terms of how many movies he’s directed, but of how many different kinds. Cobweb has Kim working off of a movie-within-a-movie blueprint, a little bit Sullivan’s Travels and a little bit , where the dial is set to “screwball” for most of the film’s two-hour and 15-minute durationapart from occasional dips into black-and-white horror, surrealist ghost stories, and paranoiac thriller. Here, Director Kim (Song Kang-ho), a studio hack and erstwhile tutee of a legendary South Korean filmmaker, literally dreams of reshooting the ending to his most recent production, and schemes to make those dreams reality by bucking his bosses’ wishes. Cobweb, a movie about movies shot on sound stages that is itself shot on sound stages, is intricate, delicate, and resilient, in keeping with its namesake. It is, perhaps, a little messy, too. But great cinema rarely gets made without mess, and Cobweb’s ode to great cinema sums up to great cinema itself.

Kill

"Kill" follows a man who is violently tested in the name of true love.

Courtesy of TIFF

Country: India
Language: Hindi
Distribution: 2024, TBD

There is something to be said for truth in advertising and getting what you pay for. Praise Nikhil Nagesh Bhat for his honesty; Kill sets out to showcase exactly what the title promises, and for just shy of two hours treats the audience to shot after shot of bad guys getting killed courtesy of a veteran commando duo with years of experience in the fine art of brutality. Amrit (Lakshya) and Tulika (Tanya Maniktala) love each other, but they have a problem: She’s in an arranged marriage. Amrit has a plan to whisk her away from her would-be groom by following her aboard an express train to New Delhi, with Viresh (Abhishek Chauhan), his brother-in-arms. Problem solved! Then a second problem arises, being the gaggle of mobsters carrying tickets on the same train, who take Tulika hostage and thus compel Amrit and Viresh to butcher them all in the name of True Love. People will almost assuredly compare Kill to The Raid, and frankly, they’re right; Gareth Evans’ masterclass in the kinetic filming of bodily destruction is Bhat’s best antecedent. But Kill has pleasures and textures and inventions all its own, bolstered by the sheer audacity of Bhat’s filmmaking and his team’s fight choreography.

Published on October 25, 2023

Words by Andy Crump

Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers movies, beer, music, fatherhood, and way too many other subjects for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours: Paste Magazine, Inverse, The New York Times, Hop Culture, Polygon, and Men's Health, plus more. You can follow him on Bluesky and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65 percent craft beer.