10 Asian action films to keep that RRR fever raging
How do we celebrating a history-making Oscars win? With more OTT spectacle, of course
I’ll admit that I was late to the global RRR party. The Telugu-language extravaganza has won hearts around the world, with the film’s peppy dance track ‘Naatu Naatu’ making history by winning the Oscar for Best Original Song this morning. It’s a first for an Indian movie — AR Rehman’s ‘Jai Ho’ from Slumdog Millionaire was technically a British production.
The action-packed epic by SS Rajamouli has blown viewers away with its OTT production, and the absence of a dull moment despite its three-hour runtime (do you need to improve your attention span?). Along with other mega-hits like the KGF and Baahubali franchises, RRR marks a new wave of South cinema gaining ground over Bollywood, which in recent years has been dining out on remakes of popular South Indian film.
But the reason it took me a minute to finally watch RRR is that, judging by the standard of South films, it didn’t seem as groundbreaking as when it was catapulted into Hollywood and Bollywood. Here, the frenetic dance numbers and larger-than-life heroes stand out. There’s none of the winking and nudging that characterises Western action movies — particularly the Marvel universe — with every scene in RRR committing to dead sincerity. And unlike Bollywood’s penchant for high-flying, jetsetting thrillers (here’s a dozen movies to watch if you liked Pathaan), RRR remains rooted in a specific vision of Indian tradition and culture.
These traits aren’t exclusive to RRR. Although the historically dominant industries are finally sitting up and taking notes from Rajamouli, over-the-top action films from the Tamil, Telugu, and Kannada industries have long been beloved by South audiences, as well as the rest of Asia. The patron saint of this genre is Rajinikanth, whose cult Japanese following dates back to 1998; Muthu was the highest grossing Indian film in Japan until RRR came along.
Just like ‘Naatu Naatu’ feels familiar to Indian audiences, the smashing popularity of RRR is a culmination of a distinctive aesthetic that’s been bouncing between South India and East Asia for decades. Think intense slow-motion fight scenes, physics-defying martial arts stunts, inspiring monologues, and universal allegories that don’t require you to know the language to understand the story.
The connection between Tamil and Japanese cinema is the most notable. Perhaps because the improbable, highly entertaining stunts — Rajinikanth lighting a match with nothing more than a burning gaze, or catching a knife spinning towards him between his teeth — are reminiscent of Manga comics brought to life. There’s even a controversial claim that Japanese and Tamil have linguistic connections.
Regardless of how high or low the language barrier is, it has never stopped East Asians from embracing the unapologetic South action sensibility, often more openly than fellow Indians. Diehard fans even fly to Rajinikanth’s home city, Chennai, in hopes of catching a glimpse of the ultimate superstar. With 150,000 fan clubs just in India, Rajinikanth’s fame stretches far beyond, from Malaysia and China to Sri Lanka.
So while we celebrate RRR’s Oscar, let’s enjoy the movies that Rajamouli has paid homage to in his biggest blockbuster yet. This round-up features the action movies that aren’t part of Hollywood or Bollywood, but have made a splash all over Asia. Whether you’re craving more guts and gore after RRR, or you want fight choreography that will have you cheering from your couch, there’s a movie for you.
The film that kicked off an enduring love affair with Tamil cinema in East Asia, this soapy period drama stars Rajinikanth as a humble charioteer who falls for a dancer. Unfortunately, the village chief is also in pursuit, leading to a dramatic love triangle that symbolises the moral tensions between the working-class protagonist and the corrupt leader.
In retrospect, Muthu is an uncomplicated film full of heart and humour — a winning combination that makes it a true original in its genre.
Watch it on Netflix.
Kung Fu Hustle (2004)
Director Stephen Chow is the embodiment of Hong Kong’s mo lei tau style of slapstick that literally translates to ‘nonsense’, and there’s no better introduction than Kung Fu Hustle. Campy elements include an out-of-the-blue choreographed dance with axes that will feel recogniseable yet unique to Indian film buffs.
A group of thugs who want to join the brutal Axe Gang try to get noticed by attacking a lower-income residential building. When the Axe Gang shows up at the building, they’re stunned to be routed by three residents who are secret kung fu masters. Just like in RRR, it’s the ordinary people you have to watch out for in this colourful comedy.
Rent it on Amazon Prime.
Ip Man (2008)
The two main characters in RRR are loosely inspired by freedom fighters, Alluri Sitarama Raju and Komaram Bheem. Similarly, Ip Man was a real wing chun grandmaster who trained Bruce Lee himself. This biographical martial arts film is set in 1930s China, and has equally patriotic overtones.
Ip is just trying to keep his head down and win martial arts competitions, but the Sino-Japanese war drives his family from their hometown. Although Ip is impoverished, he is determined to take on the cruel Japanese occupiers with his extraordinary skills. While the story might not be totally accurate, Ip’s brave resistance is more important than the details.
Watch it on MX Player.
Shaolin Soccer (2001)
One Stephen Chow movie isn’t enough for a list of over-the-top action hits. Shaolin Soccer is a pastiche of kung fu movie tropes that is incapable of taking itself too seriously. It’s a sports comedy peppered with flying kicks and slow-motion backflips, not to mention Chow’s signature visual gags that translate in any industry.
A soccer team takes their skills to the next level when a group of estranged Shaolin monks come together and combine their martial arts powers for a tournament. Their success will spread the message of kung fu to the world, as long as they can overcome some dirty tactics to win. It might be ridiculous and self-referential, but there is a heartwarming feel-good factor in the performances that mirrors RRR.
Watch it on Amazon Prime.
Sivaji: The Boss (2007)
This one is loud, long, and filled with wild stunts that will thrill action lovers down to their toes. Does our titular hero Sivaji kill a slew of baddies with a single bullet? Does he at one point spit out a lit firecracker from his mouth? Is Rajinikanth bald in this avatar, and wearing blue contact lenses? Yes to all of the above.
Like most Rajinikanth characters, Sivaji also displays a degree of social awareness and responsibility. Initially, Sivaji wants to start a trust for schools and hospitals, but is sabotaged by a wily local politician. He falls in love with a girl whose horoscope is deemed very unlucky. Yet Sivaji never gives up on either of his dreams, and — spoiler alert — emerges triumphant over the naysayers. As with RRR, the heart of the film tides us over a few bumpy plot holes.
Watch it on Zee5.
Battle Royale (2000)
Satisfyingly stuffed with bloodthirsty violence, this film is a good reminder that teenagers in any era or place can be terrifying creatures. It’s a Japanese thriller that pre-dates The Hunger Games, revolving around a cruel and dictatorial government who have turned the country into an economic disaster. Without enough jobs or resources to go around, the government decides to force junior high students to fight to the death, so only one emerges into this overburdened society.
Despite the campy gore, Battle Royale doesn’t shy away from its pitch-black themes, nor does it strive for a neat, happy ending. It’s a predecessor to the hit Korean series Squid Game, and the action is fierce and unrelenting.
Watch it on Mubi.
Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022)
The Oscar-winning behemoth, Everything Everywhere All At Once, has all the ingredients of a great Asian masala (ajinomoto?) movie. From kung fu queen Michelle Yeoh ripping her way through the multiverse, to the surreal worldbuilding, directors The Daniels have clearly taken inspiration from over-the-top action movies.
A Chinese immigrant couple running a laundromat are forced to contend with their family issues when wife Evelyn is visited by an alternate version of her husband from a parallel universe. Thus begins a mad journey through the multiverse. With a strong emotional thread at its core and eye-popping action that eschews reality altogether, the unprecedented success of this Oscars favourite has a lot in common with RRR.
Watch it in theatres, or check out this link.
Kantara: A Legend (2022)
If your favourite part of RRR was the mythological narrative unfolding between Ram and Bheem, don’t miss out on this Kannada blockbuster. Kantara is set in the lush green splendour of coastal Karnataka forests, and is packed with references to the state’s rich cultural heritage.
A Bhoota Kola performer is possessed by a forest spirit, when a king tries to force him to make the forest’s inhabitants hand over their land. This is the basis for a cursed, decades-long dispute over the villagers’ forest. The conflict is carried forward by the performer’s son, who takes part in Kambala, or the local sport of bullock racing. Combining an authentic setting with the perennially relevant story of regular folks standing up to the rich, greedy, and powerful, director and star Rishabh Shetty skilfully brings heroics into a supernatural horror.
Watch it on Amazon Prime.
What makes this Korean martial arts flick universally relatable is an action movie trope that can always be made fresh again: the everyday person who comes into his own as a force. Not only is it nice to dream that this could happen in our own lives, but it reminds us that even us normal, superpower-free people have more to offer than we think.
A petty thief snatches a purse, and an idealistic and unassuming policeman tries to chase him down. His efforts are in vain when a martial arts master beats him to the punch, thereby introducing this supposedly average Joe to the Masters of Tao. Unbeknownst to him, the bumbling cop is capable of extraordinary powers too, and is thrown into training for a much bigger mission than he’s ever faced.
Watch it on MX Player.
It doesn’t get more visually entertaining than Kamal Haasan playing a trained kathak dancer, and then transitioning to a spy who kicks ass and takes names. When his wife grows suspicious of what she sees as her husband’s effeminate behaviour, she hires an investigator — and finds out more about this dark past than she bargained for. Hopping from New York City to the mountains of Afghanistan, the sweeping camerawork and dramatic fight scenes still hold up to a watch ten years later.
It’s widely considered one of the best movies in Haasan’s massive oeuvre, both as an actor and a director. This is one masala movie that will leave you craving for more – and yes, there is a Vishwaroopam 2.
Watch it on Disney Hotstar.