10 Best Asian Thrillers

Tuesday, March 15 by William Gish

The 10 best Asian thrillers funnel thousands of years of popular story telling culture, myth, religion and spiritual perceptions through Western genre convention and come up trumps with skewed takes on the familiar. Hailing from Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korean, Thailand and Japan, thee movies are violent, funny, unexpected and, as is expected, thrilling.

  1. “Drunken Angel” This vintage Japanese film is a thrilling noir set in the aftermath of WW2. A young criminal stalking the black markets of Tokyo befriends a drunken backdoor doctor as tension between criminal factions and double-dealing leads to a brutal finale. Along with “Stray Dog,” this 1948 film set the gold standard for Asian crime thrillers and is one of 10 best genre films.
  2. “Vengeance Trilogy” Chan Wook-Park’s “Vengeance Trilogy” is one of the great story arcs of contemporary cinema. Though the movies have nothing to do with one another on the surface, this triumvirate of Asian thrillers approaches complex topics like circumstance, fate, cruelty, benevolence and choice while finding the humor, horror, humanity and apathy in each of them. 
  3. “Memories of Murder” “Memories of Murder” traces the history of South Korea’s first serial killer in modern times by following the detectives who attempted to solve the case. One of the 10 best Asian thrillers, the movie is entertaining on the surface while addressing deeper existential concerns such as meaning and purpose.
  4. “Audition” Japan’s “Audition” does screw around with existential concerns and it goes straight for the gut. After screening a number of women through an audition process, a widower elects one of them and takes her on a date. We don’t want to spoil anything, but it’s a bit mental, and one of the 10 best Asian thrillers. 
  5. “Mad Detective” This Asian thriller is something of a departure for Hong Kong action virtuoso Johnnie To. Rather than the taut, sparse plots and operatic action scenes we expect, “Mad Detective” is a surreal mind bender with some very strange scenes of a detective recreating crimes at the crime scene in an effort to penetrate the mind of the killer.  
  6. “Tell Me Something” “Tell Me Something,” a Korean film that is surely one of the 10 best Asian thrillers, was one of the first Korean Wave films to find success in the west. The movie follows a detective on the trail of a serial killer who dismembers the bodies of his victims. It’s an extremely dark affair, but also mesmerizing.
  7. “Bangkok Dangerous" British film magazine Uncut very aptly described “Bangkok Dangerous” as “John Woo morphed with Wong Kar-Wai.” One of the 10 best Asian thrillers, the film combines the surreal visuals and quirky characterization of a Kar-Wai film, a deaf/mute hit man, for instance, with the orchestral violence of Woo.
  8. “Chaser” There’s a lot of chasing in “Chaser.” The film follows a broke pimp whose prostitutes are disappearing without paying him. As a last ditch effort to recoup his money he decides to look for one his missing girls using skills from his previous line of employment – police detective. 
  9. “Island of Greed” The lone Taiwanese film to make this list, “Island of Greed” is a film about warring Triad factions that’s a very far cry from its Hong Kong brethren films. This thriller is brutal, violent and pessimistic to the point of being nihilistic its portrait of gang violence and human greed. It’s also a hypnotic film.
  10. “Fireworks” What’s a list of the 10 best Asian thrillers without a Kitano film? “Fireworks” is Beat Takeshi’s crowning achievement in the yakuza genre, a film that makes gangsters into credibly empathetic characters by soaking their stories in human tragedy like leukemia in the family and depression.
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