Asian Cinema Highlights of 2018
As another year winds down, it’s time for VCinema contributors to select their Asian cinema highlights from the past twelve months. In addition to picking their favorite films from this year’s bountiful crop of releases, some contributors have also taken this opportunity to reflect on related events or other media that stood out in 2018.
I love living in New York because it affords so many cultural opportunities that are harder to find in smaller cities. There is no shortage of film festivals and screenings, and I try to take advantage of these as often as I can. This year, I was fortunate to be able to attend a number of festivals, including the New York Asian Film Festival and JAPAN CUTS.
I always enjoy documentaries for the ways in which they illuminate underrepresented facets of society in thought-provoking ways. Two standout documentaries I saw this year were Counters and To Kill Alice; both really took the viewer inside the mind of people as they confront their politics. In Counters, which examines bias against ethnic Koreans (known as Zainichi) in Japan, much of the focus is on Makoto Sakurai, the leader of the anti-Zainichi group Zaitoku who is steadfast in his conviction that his group is a “civic organization” even as it calls for Koreans to be killed. Sakurai’s perspective is extremely skewed, but Korean filmmaker makes sure to give him space to voice his views. Nationalism and anti-Korean sentiment is nothing new for Japan, but it is interesting to place Sakurai in the context of rising right-wing extremism. Taking a page out of the Trump playbook, Sakurai founded the Japan First Party, demonstrating how misguided nationalistic ideas make their way around the world and wreak havoc beyond borders.
To Kill Alice examines the fallout that occurred when a South Korean-born singer (now living in the United States) went to North Korea and shared her positive perspective at a lecture in Seoul. She failed to condemn the Kim regime and a media circus ensued. The film followed her closely as she was faced with a criminal complaint for violating a national security law; it was often painful to watch her as her confidence in the South Korean government unraveled and her convictions strengthened, even as her family began to distance themselves from her. Both of the subjects of these documentaries go against the “party line” and face severe consequences for it. Both subjects’ viewpoints are considered morally reprehensible by many yet the documentarians treat each subject with respect in order to capture the full story.
Searching premiered at the New York Asian American International Film Festival. I wasn’t able to catch it there, but I did see it at my local movie theatre, and it did not disappoint. When his teenage daughter goes missing, a father (John Cho) must use her computer and social media accounts to track her down, realizing along the way just how much he doesn’t know about the secret life she leads online. It examines the generational rift that has developed in this age of technology, and focuses on a family that happens to be Korean-American. The core relationship between the father and daughter forms the heart of the movie, and this is really a universal story about the lengths a father is willing to go to in order to protect his daughter. Taking place entirely on computer screens, the film is so richly detailed that it definitely rewards repeat viewings.
I would be remiss not to mention BuyBust and 1987: When the Day Comes. BuyBust takes the viewer into the underworld of a Manila slum as a team of elite police officers (including a strong female character) embark on a mission to take down a drug lord. Beneath the violence, this is a story about how drugs and corruption can poison a society. It was thrilling to watch this action-packed movie on the big screen with many of the actors in attendance at the closing night screening of the New York Asian Film Festival. 1987: When the Day Comes is a historical drama about a critical moment in modern South Korean history, and it stripped back the headlines to focus on character and emotion, engaging at every turn.
My movie-watching year wasn’t all filled with political unrest and violence; I made time to fit in fun movies too. On a much lighter note, watching a group of down-on-their-luck telecommunications workers band together to form a dragon boat racing team in Men on the Dragon was highly entertaining and a fun insight into the culture of Hong Kong. An academic’s worst nightmare plays out in Looking for Lucky as a graduate student rushes through the streets of Shenyang, China, desperately trying to find his thesis advisor’s dog, who went missing while he was dog-sitting. Shot in 61 long takes, Looking for Lucky is innovative and engrossing—as were the rest of the exceptional Asian movies I had the pleasure to viewing this past year.
As is becoming my standard opening for this annual exercise, the cinema of Mainland China dominated my Asian cinema viewing in 2018. Fortunately, China’s cinematic output was as fascinating as ever, with the independent sector delivering innovative and individualistic films that interrogated a myriad of social issues.
Sixth Generation figurehead Jia Zhangke returned to form following the slight wobble that was Mountains Way Depart with Ash Is Purest White, a sweeping underworld saga that served as a summation of his career to date. Anchored by tremendous performances from Jia’s muse Zhao Tao as the fiercely loyal moll to Liao Fan’s soulful gangster, it charts China’s changing landscape from 2001 to the present with the subtle use of different generation DV cameras not only noting the relevant time frames but serving as a meta-commentary on how Jia’s pioneering filmography has, in part, been made possible by flexible technology.
More flagrant in its utilization of technology was Xu Bing’s audacious experimental feature Dragonfly Eyes, which was co-edited by Jia’s regular collaborator Matthieu Laclau and Zhang Wenchao. Taking 10,000 hours of legally accessible, cloud-based surveillance footage, these collaborators cut together a disorientating impression of a closely monitored society where any sense of self is being lost through a collective desire for stimulation and constant reinvention. One of the hot topics addressed in Dragonfly Eyes is the phenomenon of live streaming, which was also the subject of Wu Hao’s disquieting documentary People’s Republic of Desire. Focusing on two live-streamers as they strive to amass fans in the digital realm, it’s a depressing but nonetheless compelling investigation into why young Chinese citizens are so willing to swap real-life connection for vapid virtual relationships.
Away from such dystopian visions, Yang Yishu’s meditative character study Lush Reeds examined patriarchy and inequality from the perspective of an idealistic female journalist (a powerfully internalized performance from Huang Lu). Taking a surreal detour in its second half, the film adopts a phantasmagoric approach to the urban/rural divide within which the suppressed anxieties of its protagonist are unpacked. Pitched firmly within genre, but no less effective for it, Xin Yukun’s ruggedly confident crime thriller Wrath of Silence has a mute miner literally wrestling with local corruption as he strives to find his missing son. It not only features the most arresting opening ten minutes of 2018 but ends on a truly devastating parting shot.
With regards to China’s more commercial fare, Wen Muye’s true story Dying to Survive thoroughly deserved its smash hit status. Loosely based on the exploits of a cancer patient who smuggled unlicensed medication into China to help fellow sufferers who could not afford the extortionate local prices, it starts out as the kind of quick-witted romp one would expect from comedy star Xu Zheng. However, its rambunctious tone turns on a dime in the second half to become a stirring critique of corporate greed. Zhang Yimou crafted a towering visual achievement with Shadow, a tale of palace intrigue in the Three Kingdoms era presented as a striking cinematic ink brush painting. The inspired flutes-and-lutes score by Lao Zai (aka Loudboy) was one of this year’s best, perfectly complementing the film’s theme of yin and yang with minimalist precision.
Away from China, my most anticipated film of 2018 was Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, an adaptation of a short story by Haruki Murakami, and it did not disappoint. Expanding the haiku-like text into a gripping study of identity and the power of implication, it’s the kind of literary adaptation that proves that the best way to transfer fiction to the screen is to take the source as a jumping off point rather than treating it as gospel. Just as fascinating for admirers of Japan’s world-renowned author was Nitesh Anjaan’s documentary Dreaming Murakami, which follows his Danish translator Mette Holm. Merging her efforts to complete the Danish edition of Hear the Wind Sing with visualizations of his short story Super-Frog Saves Tokyo, Anjaan gets closer to the Murakami vibe than straightforward adaptation.
Singapore was thrust into the cinematic spotlight with the breakout success of Crazy Rich Asians, but there was so much off-putting wealth on display that it played like the romantic-comedy equivalent of the risible Fifty Shades series. However, infinitely more interesting representations of the city-state were to be found. Sandi Tan’s documentary Shirkers is a vivid record of its arts scene in the early 1990s when the teenage Tan and her friends rebelled against the conservative climate by making an indie road movie under the guidance of a dubious American mentor, only for him to abscond with the footage. The present day section blends an irresistibly knotty mystery with an eerie ghost story when the Tan rediscovers the ‘lost’ material. Moving from art to economics, Siew Hua Yeo’s dreamlike neo-noir A Land Imagined uses the disappearance of a migrant construction worker to facilitate a commentary on Singapore’s growth. I was lukewarm in my review, but it merits inclusion here for the hypnotic mid-section alone, which blurs time and space as the migrant finds ways to cross borders after developing insomnia.
One of the year’s most striking debut features was Ash Mayfair’s The Third Wife, an exquisite portrait of late-19th century rural Vietnam in which a young girl enters an arranged marriage with a landowner. What occurs in the suffocating confines of a sumptuous estate says as much about female agency in today’s society as it does about the forced compromises of the past. Finally, a street orphan and a hitwoman form a necessary partnership in Mikhail Red’s riveting thriller Neomanila. Erik Matti’s technically impeccable BuyBust delivered an operatic vision of the Philippine Drug War, but Red’s take has a seat-of-the-pants immediacy that makes for a propulsive, politically charged ride through Manila’s treacherous back streets. Phew!
As a lifelong gamer whose first console was the Atari 2600, the recent controversies in gaming over just who qualifies to speak for and about games belie the actual diversity in games and among gamers. Gaming has always been inclusive of men, women, boys and girls of all backgrounds, bridging the East and the West through sheer fun and sometimes earnest stories. In 2018, I most anticipated the release of SEGA’s Valkyria Chronicle 4 for PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and Steam. As with the first entry in the series, SEGA’s writers combine realism, social criticism, humor, and sentiment in their compelling story. It is an anime within a game. Mechanically, with its chess-like strategy and six soldier classes, VC4 achieves a near perfect balance between challenge and accessibility for all SRPG fans, and an easy mode makes a perfect onramp for newcomers to the series and genre.
The setting of the Valkyria Chronicles series is an alternative version of the geopolitical conflict of World War II on the European front, combined with some inspiration from Norse mythology. The fictional Darcsen race is a mash-up between the historic experiences of the Jewish people in Europe and the contemporary experiences of the Roma people. Backstories of characters who face discrimination play out within the main story lines and in side quests. In VC4, I felt deep sympathy for the travails of Squad E, especially as they trekked through snowy and difficult condition without proper gear and supplies and later in the game even sacrifice key members of the Squad. In a nod to players’ attachments, VC4 lets you resurrect fallen squad mates in the post-game.
In the tradition of Japanese realism, the writers portray a gentle resignation to the flaws of humanity, collective and individual. Claude, the main character of VC4 and commander of Squad E, grapples with his own guilt and the challenges of a young man in proving his worth and courage. Claude and his childhood friends comprise the leadership of his Squad E, taking their struggles on the home front into battle, and this realism of seeing the horrors of war through the microcosm of personal struggle is a relatable way for all gamers to empathize with difficult chapters in actual history. VC4 is inclusive of the experiences of the LGBTQ community and strong women who break gender stereotypes. A touching backstory in VC4 concerns the love between two women, Minerva, a determined but friendly rival to Claude, and her squad-mate Christel.
An equally powerful lesson, and a testament to the power of storytelling in games, concerns the state of war itself. One’s enemies may have motives as noble as your own. I took the time to reflect upon the historical sins of my own country: dropping weapons of mass destruction on civilians.
The main antagonists of VC4 fight under the Imperial flag and are led by the roguish Heinrich Belgar who, in the final battle, reveals that his true loyalty was with his friend more than with his country. The Valkyrias of the series, a combination between the magical girl archetype and traditional mythology play upon a few different tropes, the Faustian bargain and the symbolism of nuclear destruction personified in a human form. Fans of Japanese cinema will find parallels between this story and the role commonly played by monsters such as Godzilla in Ishiro Honda’s films.
Game critics speak highly of the Valkyria Chronicles series. The relative commercial success of this fourth entry, and its return to consoles for the first time since 2008 is an encouraging sign that its well-written storyline and smooth and intensively fun game mechanics are hooking a new generation of gamers beyond its original cult following.
I talked about self-reflexivity in last year’s round up. I expected to see a departure from that in the majority of the films I saw this year. While, a lot of these films may seem to be interesting, being self-reflexive, when it becomes the name of the game, is actually quite a bore as a convention.
People, please try to be more interesting. Veteran Filipino director Mike De Leon tried hard with Citizen Jake. De Leon’s comeback film tries to start this dialogue concerning truth and media. At some point, the film gets to its core and becomes quite an interesting take on the matter, especially with its suggestion to question the cinematic medium itself as an avenue of truth. But being too self-aware, to the point of uncomfortable personal imposition, makes Citizen Jake less a conversation than a rant. Citizen Jake is also part of the surge of what some commentators call “woke” films in the Philippines, which has been spurred on in limited distribution avenues. Woke films capture an attitude that is similar to a rant or hot-take; that is, more concerned with mere exposition and less with engagement. These rants include Lav Diaz’ Season of the Devil, Benedict Mique’s ML, Kip Oepanda’s Liway and Adolf Alix’s Madilim ang Gabi. Erik Matti’s BuyBust, while not on the limited distribution side, successfully placed itself as the grandest of these rants with its grandiose display of mishandled action sequences and vague political position.
Works that were actually interesting came from those who tried to reconfigure genre cinema. We can start off with talking about how Keith Deligero’s A Short History of a Few Bad Things tried to reconfigure revenge cinema by focusing its narrative not on the revenge plot, but on the receiving party: the perpetrators of the crime. Or with Richard Somes’ reframing of bakbakan (‘B’-grade Filipino Action) cinema aesthetics in We Will Not Die Tonight by carefully strategizing between narrative and spectacle. Or how Keith Sicat’s Alimuom is not just a science fiction revivalist, but also a historically sensitive piece of organic farming advocacy, which does not deny the conditions that make organic farming an unthinkable option in the present times, from the problems of land reform to privatization of the industries.
But perhaps, the most accomplished Filipino films of the year came from the non-fiction side. Jewel Maranan’s In the Claws of a Century Wanting and Victor Delotavo Tagaro and Toshihiko Uriu’s Yield may seem to be both merely expository at first look, largely due to their direct cinema approach. But brought together, they present quite a comprehensive look on the state of the Philippines: In the Claws of a Century Wanting focuses more on the urban poor, while Yield sets its eyes on the rural side. Unlike the rants mentioned earlier, these films do not expose just to expose. Being conscious of the limits of direct cinema’s form, which tends to rely heavily on being observational, both push the viewer further than merely seeing. These are films that actively provoke interrogation of their respective subjects.
Outside Philippine Cinema, reconfiguration after being self-conscious also seems to be the activity. Take for example, the interrogation of feudal wars in Shinya Tsukamoto’s Killing, which reflects more on the function of the act of killing. How does killing really work? The question resonates throughout the film while actively changing what it might mean.
Two layers of meta-cinema were presented humbly by independent filmmaker Isola Iwakiri in his first-person film The Sacrament. It is a film which tries to resolve a myth, knowing it is a myth, through a construction of another myth. The Sacrament reconfigures myth from its origin – from a reflection of the past, to a present haunting itself in eternity.
Forum Lanteng collective’s Golden Memories (Petite Histoire of Indonesian Cinema) attempts to create a historical tracing of home movies in Indonesia with the same temperament as a home movie. It is not easy to say whether the filmmakers are conscious of this temperament as they were mostly being shown being enthusiastic about their discoveries. The form is interesting, but it is not without its problems, especially with their lack of focus. Being a historical project, the film alternates between trying to get finished, and getting swayed away somewhere fun.
Following this consistency of self-consciousness is Ujicha’s Violence Voyager, which takes a lot from the modalities of pulp fiction. The film is mostly strict with itself – it knows its rules too much that it might lead towards boredom. Fortunately, its own stiffness helps Violence Voyager to develop in surreal directions. We probably know these directions well enough, but the film’s peculiar visuals nonetheless make us suspend every expectation, making old forms perform a seemingly new experience.
I had a lovely time watching two of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s films entering Czech distribution – Shoplifters and The Third Murder. I must admit I enjoyed the latter a bit more. I like when directors challenge themselves and The Third Murder was a brilliant formal experiment for a well-known Japanese auteur. His latest Palme d’Or winning film was wonderful as too, a well-thought compilation of the most important topics he has dealt with in last ten years.
My second favorite thing was the rise of local martial art films such as the continuation of Indonesian action in Timo Tjahjanto’s The Night Comes for Us and the international success of Cambodian production Jailbreak. Both refreshed the good old Hong Kong slapstick action genre well. Talking about action I had the time of my life walking down the memory lane with John Woo’s Manhunt and Shinya Tsukamoto’s masterful return to form with Killing.
There were also quite a few surprises this year. Let’s start with Hsiao Ya-chuan’s Father to Son, which reminded me of early Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Sung Hsin-yin’s touching animation On Happiness Road. Both represent Taiwanese cinema at its most exciting. I had a blast watching Men on the Dragon, which ended up being my favorite Cantonese film of 2018 – it’s such a wonderful reminded of the “good old times” in Hong Kong comedy.
Zhang Tao’s Last Laugh was probably the biggest surprise of the year. The story of old peasant woman who is slowly dying was not only touching but also a precise exercise in film style. With its fascinating patterns in style, I might go as far to call it an almost parametric film.
And there was also South Korea. No roundup should be without the filmic event of Burning. Lee Chang-dong deserves all the praise for his subversive crime story and social commentary. It’s a film that thematizes absence more than anything else. I do find Peppermint Candy and Poetry more aesthetically exciting but Burning was still such an experience. Still, I must admit that I enjoyed Hong Sang-soo’s Hotel by the River a bit more. After his recycling of topics in The Day After and Grass, his latest work felt refreshing and more coherent.
My year of cinematic highlights started in the UK at the Japan Foundation’s Touring Film Programme where I watched Yuzo Kawashima’s Room to Let (1959), an ensemble comedy with a set of sometimes sad, often-funny characters lodging together in an old mansion overlooking a rapidly expanding Osaka. It was a pleasure spending time with a collection of people with schemes to make money and love because each person showed an infectious desire to live even if their way of life was slightly wayward. By the end, I felt sad that I was leaving their company after seeing their fun misadventures.
Within a month of seeing Osaka on the screen I would be there in person for the Osaka Asian Film Festival (OAFF), an event which has become one of the best at catching the trends in Asian cinema first by often giving festival berths to female film-makers, political works and emerging talents. Whilst there I watched a diverse slate of stories from Filipino and Hong Kong-based filmmakers but my personal highlights were watching the Japanese indie titles and interviewing the filmmakers.
I became a big fan of Noriko Yuasa based on Ordinary Everyday, her psychological thriller which featured a seemingly normal Tokyo family turned menacing thanks to the machinations of a supernatural force. Kushina, what will you be by Moët Hayami took me from the city and into a mysterious community in a forest and I became enraptured in a wonder of the natural world Hayami weaved on screen through her strong vision.
I found myself profoundly moved by the humanism of two films. Yosuke Takeuchi’s The Sower was a harrowing experience as he took time to unfold a tapestry of repressed anger, guilt, and discrimination following a tragedy while Korean-American Koganada’s Columbus featured the unwinding of painfully tangled parent-child emotions takes place in the same-named town in America famous for its modernist architecture. Both had emotionally potent knockout endings, which left me in tears.
Overall, everything I wrote about showed directors with strong control of and inventiveness in narrative and mise-en-scene, which made their youth-oriented stories refreshing.
While in Japan I explored places I hadn’t when I lived there. There was Kawgoe, just north of Tokyo, and Onomichi, just south of Okayama. The latter two are locations used frequently in older films from the likes of Yoshitaro Nomura and Nobuhiko Obayashi and I found myself tracking down certain locations, but the real pleasure came in just enjoying being in another culture and experiencing new ways of thinking. These feelings spiked with days out at coffee shops, restaurants, shrines, and temples with friends as I savored human connections before my return to Europe.
Back in the UK, I continued to enjoy such indie films as Yoko Yamanaka’s Amiko and Hikaru Toda’s Of Love and Law, which played as part of JAPAN CUTS. While the first has a conventional story of first love gone awry it is refreshingly different because it features a protagonist who fizzes with energy and verve and Yamanaka’s direction matches the character’s subversive and idiosyncratic behavior by being off-kilter and adventurous. I found it breezy and charming. Toda’s film is a documentary following Japan’s first law firm run by an openly gay couple, Kazuyuki “Kazu” Minami and Masafumi “Fumi” Yoshida. They take the cases of anyone who does not conform to social norms. Through the central pair and their work, funny, warm-hearted and loving as they are, we get a wider look at Japanese society, its conservatism and growing nationalism. We see people committed to defending the rights of individuals and just showing kindness.
An aspect of Japanese cinema I have always loved is anime and so I worked for an anime festival in the autumn. Going into the event, I was aware that, after two years of stellar titles, 2018 saw anime studios falling back on producing entries for familiar series like Gundam. That said, female directors continued to make waves with critically acclaimed films. Naoko Yamada followed up her powerful drama A Silent Voice with the low-key but emotionally touching relationship drama Liz and the Blue Bird. Mari Okada, a prolific anime screenwriter made her directorial debut with Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms, a distinctive fantasy story about an elfin girl who adopts a human child. It was a visually and aurally moving experience set in a world reminiscent of Renaissance-era Venice of motherhood in many forms. The audience I saw it with left feeling very emotional.
2019 promises to be packed with more youth-oriented stories that show developing sensitivities towards people who are different and consideration of how newer generations are making their way in our tumultuous world. I am looking forward to seeing them. Let’s go!
Shoplifters not only continues Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Ozu-inspired theme of depicting contemporary Japanese families, but is also a statement on the economic situation of Japanese working-class people during Shinzo Abe’s austerity politics. No wonder the Prime Minister didn’t rush to congratulate Kore-eda when he arrived back from Cannes with his Palm d’Or. It features touching performances from its child actors, as well as Lily Franky and Sakura Ando. Special mention goes to Kiki Kirin, whose second-to-last film this was to be. Shoplifters also proves that you can make an artistic, serious film based on original script in Japan and get the audience into theaters. In this time of manga-derived and Fuji TV prompted box office hits, this might be even more difficult than before.
One Cut of the Dead proved to be an indie hit in Japan. It has so far made its production costs back 1000 times and I am sure remakes in other countries are already in the pipeline. The film has a clever premise of remaking the first part as seen from a different angle. Three films for the price of one; a zombie film parody and a hugely funny comedy about filmmaking; what more can you ask for? Best laughs of the year award goes to director Shinichiro Ueda.
Following his version of Fires on the Plane, Shinya Tsukamoto continues his anti-war theme in Killing. As always with Tsukamoto, things escalate into violence. In his first jidaigeki film, Tsukamoto takes the inheritance of the genre and turns it around for a contemporary vision. Within Japanese anime Matsuuki Yuusa, who created the crazy world of Mind Game, returned with not one, but two feature animations, of which The Night is Short Walk on Girl is a nightmarishly funny and clever tale of a young woman’s passage.
An Elephant Sitting Still premiered at Berlinale in February and I was able to re-watch it at Tokyo FilmEx. The film of course raised attention by being the very first and very last feature film by Hu Bo, who committed suicide after finishing his four-hour epic. The film highlights the social and mental conditions of present day China, as experienced by members of one family and those crossing their path. Breathtakingly composed long takes study both the characters and their environment in a close-knit connection.
Kaili Blues director Bi Gan created in Long Day’s Journey Into Night a remake of Vertigo that went into 3D for its final hour. The film cuts some new cinematic aesthetics with its use of the medium. Pema Tseden’s road movie Jinpa starts with a truck driver accidentally hitting a sheep. While performing the rites, he picks up a hitchhiker on his way to avenge a murder. The film was shot in the eccentric mountainous scenery of the rural Tibet.
Kamila Andini deserves my female filmmaker of the year award for her beautiful little gem The Seen and Unseen, a story of twin siblings. The sister tries to cure her brother, who is in a coma, by composing rituals based on Bali mythology. Andini moves fluently in between everyday realism and magic, between dreams, real-life and the space between those. And she visited Finland, for Helsinki Cine Asia festival!
A personal highlight of Asian cinema this year was attending the Taiwan Golden Horse Film Festival as a member of the Fipresci jury. Tasked with awarding a prize to the best Chinese language film by a first-time filmmaker, we selected Dong Yue’s intricate thriller The Looming Storm. Technically a 2017 release, it was still one of the very best Asian features I saw this year. Through a security guard’s dogged hunt for a serial killer, it presents a bleak and considered picture of economy and society in the late-1990s. Its narrative is well developed with wholly unexpected twists and turns, and some of the best imagery of the year. It was a pleasure to honor Dong’s outstanding work. It was also a pleasure to attend Golden Horse itself: this is one of the very best film festivals that I have attended, and Taipei is one of the most enjoyable cities I have visited.
Two other films that resonated at Golden Horse were Wen Muye’s comedy-drama Dying to Survive, and the late Hu Bo’s drama An Elephant Standing Still. The former saw comedy star Xu Zheng delivering a remarkable performance in a laugh-out-loud comedy that segues smoothly into a heartfelt and serious drama. The balance felt effortless, and the film came with a surprisingly critical message to the Chinese government – something that is understandably rare in that country’s cinema. The latter, An Elephant Standing Still, was a superb character drama that came soaked in cynicism and melancholy. As it has toured internationally, the film itself has been under constant risk of being overshadowed by the real-life tragedy of its writer-director’s suicide during post-production. Even when presented as a surprisingly watchable four-hour rough cut, the talent in writing and direction leaps off the screen. We have lost a tremendous talent in Hu, but the film he leaves behind is tremendous.
Two particularly strong 2017 pictures arrived in my native Australia this year. Indonesian Mouly Suyra directed Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts, an original feminist western, laced throughout with perfectly timed moments of tension, drama, comedy, and violence. I strongly feel it was overlooked during its festival run, which is a shame as it is a very inventive, wry, and satisfying work. Jang Joon-hwan’s 1987: When the Day Comes is a stirring and emotive historical drama, presenting South Korea’s mass civilian uprisings in the year of its title. The expected sentimentality and melodrama of Korean cinema does sneak in, but it is surprising just how bluntly matter-of-fact so much of the film is.
Also from South Korea, Little Forest was a small-scale delight, working both as intimate drama and traditional cooking demonstration. It instinctively feels like it should not work: scenes of cooking take an oddly long time, as if reading out a recipe. Against expectations these scenes ultimately make the film. They are not only charming, but they make you leave the film hungry for Korean food. Believer, on the hand, left me leaving the cinema with a profound sense of déjà vu. Director Lee Hae-young helms a Korean remake of Johnnie To’s 2012 crime film Drug War, taking the advantage of Korea’s less restricted film guidelines. I think I prefer the original, but enjoyed the hell out of this new version. Both are well worth the viewing.
If there was a single Asian feature to make an impact this year, however, it was Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters. Here in Australia, it is a rare theatrical release for a Japanese film and has been showered with critical attention and awards. I think it may be Kore-eda’s finest feature as it feels near-faultless, thanks to its screenplay, strong direction, and fine cast. The Asian film of the year? Very, very probably.