Asian Cinema Highlights of 2019
Wow, that was fast! With a turbulent 2019 almost in the rearview mirror, it’s time for VCinema contributors to discuss their Asian cinema highlights from the past twelve months.
In my estimation, 2019 was an excellent year for Asian cinema. As has been the case for a while now, streaming made up the majority of my Asian movie consumption this year, with services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Mubi, and Kanopy providing a bountiful resource for new quality movies.
I was happy to see that the trend of increasing accessibility through streaming services continues strongly, churning out films like Sion Sono The Forest of Love, Hong Sang-soo’s Hotel by the River, and Hu Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still, films that would otherwise receive little to no exposure in the US. Asian cinema has never been more accessible to the American viewer than it is now. Beyond distribution, the increased understanding of the niche market appeal has led US companies to fund Asian filmmakers, as it was the case with Netflix and Sono’s The Forest of Love.
When it comes to picking my favorite Asian film of the year, it seems that all roads lead to Parasite, although other strong candidates include Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, and Shinichiro Ueda’s One Cut of the Dead. The last one is a 2017 film but didn’t see a US release until September of this year. I continue to be impressed by Parasite, not only because of its continuing accolades or box office success, but by how much it has managed to appeal to the casual moviegoer. This might be the first time in my life that I am able to discuss a film like Parasite with people that are not necessarily fans of Asian or foreign cinema. It’s been exciting, to say the least. One Cut of the Dead, on the other hand, was a rollercoaster of an experience, one that I look the most forward to revisiting. Regardless of factual accuracy, no film has ever made me feel quite as privy to the creative process of a filmmaker and everything that can – and will – go wrong in the making of a movie. In a cinematic world where meta-narratives have become painfully overused, One Cut of the Dead managed to offer something fresh and insightful without infringing on worn out tropes.
For better or for worse, I must mention China’s first science fiction blockbuster, The Wandering Earth, also released on Netflix after a successful worldwide theatrical run. The film is your typical Michael Bay/Roland Emmerich Armageddon spectacle (with even more explosions, believe it or not), except the action is transposed to China. As my review attests, I didn’t have many kind words to say for the film, although it’s now over half-a year later and I am still thinking about it. While the film itself is your average popcorn sci-fi blockbuster, it raises ample concern about the direction that Chinese cinema, or Asian cinema in general, may be heading.
That’s why I love my guilty pleasures, and Makoto Nagahisa’s debut feature, We Are Little Zombies, filled that role for me this year. The film tells the story of four recently orphaned children and tackles some dark issues such as death, neglectful parenting, and sexual abuse of minors. While that sounds somber and grim, the film was anything but. The filmmakers manage to find levity and humor in the darkest corners of the human condition, without sidestepping the seriousness of their message. Moreover, We Are Little Zombies truly pushes the limit of how much a film can experiment with format and style while remaining accessible to a relatively wide audience. I look forward to revisiting this one as well.
With a plethora of tantalizing cinematic offerings, it’s debatable as to whether one could fully appreciate Asian cinema in 2019 or merely try to keep up. At the end of the year, there are still copious titles on my ‘must see’ list, some of which actually made their festival debuts back in 2018, but I’m confident that the following films would have made a strong impression even if gifted with unlimited viewing time.
A true discovery was Aniket Dutta and Roshni Sen’s debut feature Ghost of the Golden Groves. A fantastical diptych set in a remote Indian forest but actually occurring across multiple dimensions, it acknowledges the influence of Japanese New Wave masters while cultivating its own unique atmosphere. Although the film occasionally foregrounds disquieting folk horror imagery, it’s very much a philosophical rumination on the nature of existence and perceptions of space that playfully defies categorization. On the surface, Ping Lumpraploeng’s single location thriller The Pool is a comparatively straight forward exercise in genre with a film production prop man left stranded in an empty, abandoned 6-meter deep pool with a hungry crocodile for company. Lumpraploeng certainly delivers absolutely everything you could possibly want from a creature feature. However, he also engages with Thailand’s pro-life debate as the threat posed by the reptile serves as a metaphor for the protagonist’s mounting anxiety about his girlfriend’s pregnancy and the hurdles of fatherhood. In terms of sheer entertainment, I must mention Lee Won-tae’s crime thriller The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil, which didn’t do anything new, but was extremely well done. Casting the hulking Ma Dong-seok as a crime boss who becomes an unlikely police ally in the hunt for a serial killer was a masterstroke as his burly charisma injects this propulsive genre piece with a sense of pulpy gravitas.
The most interesting screen representations of China in 2019 ranged from the abstract to the unflinchingly real. Bathed in a neon heavy, nocturnal aesthetic, Diao Yinan’s breathless thriller The Wild Goose Lake was inevitably compared to works by Wong Kar-wai and Bi Gan, but this was very much a companion piece, or B-side, to the director’s Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014). With the previous feature’s noir romanticism stripped away, it’s paradoxically minimalist yet dense, with a desperate fugitive serving as perpetually bleeding avatar for navigating a landscape of rampant corruption. Out on Tibet’s Kekexili Plateau Tibetan, Pema Tseden conjured up Jinpa, a meditation on karma in Academy ratio that becomes increasingly dreamlike after a truck driver literally hits a fork in the road. Local censors have conspired to limit Tseden’s scope, but he continues to grow as a filmmaker while working in miniature. One of the year’s most invigorating debut features was Bai Xu’s youth drama The Crossing in which a high school student in need of quick cash is lured into smuggling cellphones from Hong Kong to Shenzhen. Socially incisive and commercial savvy in equal measure, it’s a dynamic coming-of-age tale with a breakout performance from lead actress Huang Yao. On the documentary front, Nanfu Wang bravely provided an engrossing investigation of China’s notorious one child policy with One Child Nation. Taking her own family history as a starting point, Wang deftly blends personal testimony, journalistic rigor, and a veritable kaleidoscope of state propaganda materials to heart-wrenching effect.
Of course, no round-up of 2019 would be complete without mention of Bong Joon-ho’s global phenomenon Parasite which has been inspiring think pieces ever since it became the first South Korean film to win the Palme d’Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. Much was made of Bong returning home to scale down after his international productions Snowpiercer and Okja, but while the darkly humorous social commentary of Parasite is specific to South Korea it also has a universal resonance. Indeed, as a study of class divide that builds insidiously before unleashing a torrent of rage, it has parallels with one of my favorite American films of 2019, Jordan Peele’s Us. Given that the film is something of a perfect storm, its box office success ($127 million worldwide to date with $22.3 million in the US and an Oscar bump likely) will be tricky to replicate. Nonetheless, distributors in the West will hopefully be sufficiently encouraged to take Asian cinema acquisitions with crossover appeal beyond the art-house.
If I were to generalize what Asian cinema has brought this year, it may be the conscious effort of a lot of works to resonate with its current milieu. We obviously can’t start a year-ender without mentioning the South Korean film, Parasite, directed by Bong Joon-ho. If anything, Parasite has brought quite a challenge both in the consumption and production in the region. Its demands from its audience a certain kind of reflexivity in the way that it receives its form of class politics. For producers, it will be a challenge to develop future productions that can achieve the same level of of acclaim and audience reach in a form that is still within the realms of popular cinema.
In another area of popular Asian cinema is the Chinese space epic, The Wandering Earth. This sci-fi wonder bears the same discursive energy but leans toward a slightly different approach away from Parasite’s demands for reflexivity and critique. But nonetheless, The Wandering Earth provides us with a glimpse of a possible future that is quite fresh and rather optimistic as opposed to the barrage of dystopia found in Western culture.
At the other end of the cinematic spectrum, personal films made their mark this year but not necessarily as their filmmakers initially intended. Although they still reflect their respective current milieu, their significance is often due to the problem they present in the form. Nakorn Sawan by Puangsoi Aksornsawang reflected on the interplay with reality and fiction with the filmmakers’ intervention with archival footage of her own mother. Filipino-Canadian filmmaker and video artist Miko Revereza chronicled his first inter-state trip from Los Angeles to New York via Amtrak with No Data Plan, risking being captured for living for 20 years as an undocumented immigrant. The significance of these two films relies not on the merit of their courage to be abstract, but in the way they present themselves to the audience, which is a case of whether they actually provide good practice in audiovisual communication. While these are attempts to establish a connection, their forms are often alienating, not in a manner of which aesthetic experimentation is done, but often through extreme individuation. At the very least, Akornsawang provided her audience with a way to see her film. Revereza, on the other hand, seems to want to keep things for himself while actually letting us see the danger that he’s in.
Still on the topic of personal films, is a charmer from the Northern regions of the Philippines, Cleaners. Filmmaker Glenn Barit may have managed something similar to the achievements of Bong’s Parasite with this film: incorporating of a formal experiment with a strong social message within the realm of the popular. The personal note is very pronounced but is presented in a relatively generalized manner: a film made entirely out of scanned photo-copied freeze frames played in 8 frames per second. The result is a quite familiar but visually compelling film, which resonates through its story of high school students whose generation depended on photo-copied books and lecture notes.
While Cleaners may have been the only consistently good feature film from the Philippines this year, exciting things were happening in short films. They come from very diverse productions: from Alejo Barbaza and Mervine Aquino’s sci-fi-thriller SPID which drove us out of sync, to Joanne Cesario’s Here, Here’s chronicle of violence enacted against the body and nature, to Carla Ocampo’s Tokwifi’s seemingly unproblematic romance between a television set and an indigenous tribesman, to Ralph Pineda and Dyan Sagenes’ Juan Diablo Pablo which provided a spectacular costumed nightmare. Jay Rosas and Mark Limbaga’s documentary Budots: The Craze traces for the first time the source of the emergent music genre which can be rightly claimed as actually original Filipino pop music. And lastly, Noli Manaig’s biting critique of contemporary Filipino urban life, Michel De Certeau’s Metaphors for Everyday Life.
What I consider this year’s best work comes from veteran documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan. His extensively researched and chronicled Reason brought journalistic temperaments and practices toward a way of conceptual thinking. But the thought which the film processes from real-life struggles demands the thought to be converted into action. A rare instance of filmmaking that maintains both journalistic credibility and a call for political commitment, it is not content to merely describe when it is deemed necessary to prescribe.
Oh boy, 2019 was a good year for Asian cinema. So good, I must mention eight different and captivating films.
Let’s begin in Indonesia where the imaginative director Angga Dwimas Sasongko adapted the cult story of Wiro Sableng in 212 Warrior. This big-budget co-production between Hollywood studio 20th Century Fox and local company LifeLike Pictures reminded me of early Stephen Chow. It’s a film where slapstick humor meets emotional consequences in Raid-like action scenes. Vietnam followed with Furie, a revenge narrative about Hai Phuong whose daughter is taken. Veronica Ngo makes an impressive comeback in this full-contact martial art film with remarkable use of long takes and playful choreography. Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy was a worthy heir to the Ip Man saga. Yuen Woo-Ping utilized the skill and charms of Max Zhang with a fair help of Michelle Yeoh. Another Cantonese superstar returned to the form with an innovative film – Stephen Chow’s The New King of Comedy was a bold experiment with his own poetics and the possibilities of film style.
Taiwanese director Hung Tzu-Hsuan debuted with the enthralling anti-buddy drama The Scoundrels. The first half reminded me of the silly slapstick and physical comedy of Jackie Chan, however, the second pulls the plug on the fun and switches to heartbreaking tragedy. There is a lot of potential in Hung and his debuts tonal shift makes me think of Chung Mong-Hong’s Godspeed (2016) and Chen Yu-Hsun’s The Village of No Return (2017), both incredible films. There was even a new documentary by a cinematic magician of temporality – Tsai Ming-Liang. Your Face takes you on a meditation, a journey, deconstructing the usual talking heads in documentary films. His peaceful journey gave me one of the most inspiring 80 minutes of cinema. Also, if you haven’t seen Nepali Manakamana by the creative duo of Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez, please do. It has similar intimate energy as Your Face.
Let me end my round-up with two three-hour long Chinese. The Fading Village by Liu Feifang takes us to his hometown where one entire generation is slowly fading away. There are no young people here, modern China seduced them. Only the elderly and dilapidated houses stay in this bittersweet portrait of a disappearing community. Another crushing experience was brought by So Long, My Son. Wang Xiaoshuai crafted this unlikely narrative experiment which is sometimes hard to follow but, eventually, everything is where it’s supposed to be. Following his precise trilogy consisting of Shanghai Dreams (2005), 11 Flowers (2011) and Red Amnesia (2014), Wang has made his masterpiece.
As far as series go, three in particular should be mentioned. There is a new anime adaptation of Ultraman on Netflix and it’s a charming transformation of tokusatsu story by way of the American superhero myth. The second season of One-Punch Man was not as good as the first, yet still a fun anti-shonen to watch. Finally, Kingdom brought together zombies and history in one of the most energetic six episode runs of the year.
Two of the most memorable films I have seen this year are the documentaries: Nettie Wild’s A Rustling of Leaves: Inside the Philippine Revolution (1988) and Joris Iven’s How Yukong Moved the Mountains (1976). The former was a riveting documentary on the Philippine revolution’s struggle against the anti-communism of the Cory Aquino regime; the latter was a larger-than-life film of about Maoist China. Both placed the proletarian struggle at its heart, a thing we rarely see in Asian cinemas these days.
Another notable Asian documentary this year was Danielle Madrid’s Pagkatapos ng Tigkiwiri. It is notable for its frank depiction of Filipino farmers in the Negros Island and their struggle for genuine land reform. In a semi-feudal, a semi-colonial country like the Philippines, films like Madrid’s have become necessary in making sense of the people’s struggle. Without such films from the ground, the people’s struggle is in dire risk of being reduced into obscurity by propagandists of the ruling class. The same goes with Anand Patwardhan’s documentary Reason, which puts the dialectical frictions between the rationalists and the fundamentalists in Indian society into the spotlight. The almost four-hour-long documentary can be considered as a cornerstone film in making sense of the long-standing struggle between reason and faith.
With his latest film Parasite, Bong Joon-ho found a way to re-express the class contradiction of South Korean society in ways that could also be truly menacing and, at the same time, comedic. It is a film that perfectly balances social critique and comedy. Also memorable is Ben Rivers and Anocha Suwichakornpong’s Krabi, 2562. While Anocha’s previous film By the Time it Gets Dark (2016) used extensively postmodern narrative devices to circle around the historical trauma of Thailand, in Krabi, 2562, Anocha has tamed her postmodern flare, first, through her collaboration with Rivers, and second, by going for a simpler route on the narrative, one that experiments on the boundary between documentary and narrative. Krabi, 2562 is about psychogeography, about places in thought, about people, about myths that bind everything.
The major miss for me this year would be Lav Diaz’s Ang Hupa. It is a missed opportunity in terms of its contradictory and ambiguous treatment of its subject matter, in particular, its humanization of its fascist characters; its placement of the film’s moral and political compass to a class traitor; its lack of dialectical understanding of class struggle; and the full-on insistence of rejectionist politics. Overall, the film reeks of moral and political relativism and has failed to create a critique of the current political situation in the Philippines.
As 2019 comes to close, we are reminded always that cinema is not at all only about the films per se, but also, and more importantly, about the industry and the people behind it. One of the notable highlights of my year is the launching of our website STRIKE II, a research and education platform dedicated to the critical and political-economic study of the Philippine Film Industry. Jointly created with VCinema writer-colleague Epoy Deyto and other young Filipino scholars, STRIKE II strives to provide a critical platform for Filipino film workers, students, and other interested parties where they can learn more about their present condition as film laborers. With this platform, we hope to shed some light on the current issues and problems that Filipino film workers continue to face every day: from lack of job security to unpaid labor practices.
South Korea rules. Lee Chang-dong’s Burning came out technically in 2018, but premiered in my country, Finland, in 2019. Literature, mystery, love triangle, class differences, North Korea – everything gets a subtle treatment in this film, which raises up new thoughts on every viewing. Bong Jong-ho’s Parasite is another film dealing with the widening class divide, but with a very different style and a mix of genres. Is this a comedy, a family drama, a horror film…? My favorite Korean actor Song Kang-ho shines, as he always does.
In re-release: I saw Bong’s Memories of Murder (2003) at the Busan film festival. Still my number one Korean film ever, with one of the most memorable endings of any film. A new twist is that the real serial killer was caught this year. Busan also screened a beautiful restauration of Im Kwon-taek’s Sopyonje (1993), a masterpiece about tradition and the break of tradition.
Japan’s strongest films of this year were animations. Top of the list is Shinkai Makoto’s Weathering With You, wherein Shinkai’s overly romantic style fits perfectly with the rain soaked images of Tokyo. Children and youth in connection with nature is the definite theme of anime this year: Yuusa Masaaki’s Ride Your Wave is about a girl and a boy and the sea, while Watanabe Ayumu’s Children of the Sea concerns the mysterious connection between three teenagers and the marine life.
Top this off with Hiroyuki Imaishi’s tongue-in-cheek sci-fi Promare, which has become a cult hit in Japan, and the restoration of the Toei Doga classic Legend of the White Serpent (1956), the film that made Miyazaki Hayao join Toei Doga and decide to become an animator, and the year was surely fruitful for anime.
On the festival scene, one of the most fruitful developments for me personally was the work of Network of Asian Film Festivals in Europe (NAFFE), and the European Union funded project we are doing in cooperation with four film festivals, Udine Far East Film Festival, Nippon Connection, Camera Japan, and Helsinki Cine Asia. More about that later!