2016 was another great year for Asian cinema, although S. Korean films were the ones that, once more, stood at the epicenter of international interest, particularly due to Park Chan-wook’s comeback and the box office success of films like “The Wailing” and “Train to Busan.” Japan followed with a number of box office successes of its own, headed by “Your Name” and the new Godzilla film, although indie cinema had a very interesting year also.
Chinese language films also had a very interesting year, with “Ten Years” spawning enormous amount of controversy. Slowly though, filmmakers from other Asian countries, not as well known as the aforementioned, seem to present masterpieces of their own.
With a focus on diversity, here are the best Asian films of 2016, in random order. (Some of the films premiered in 2015, but I took the liberty to include them, since they mostly circulated in 2016).
- Inside Men
Inside Men was a big hit South Korea, taking in more than 9 million admissions, thus becoming the top grossing R-rated movie of all-time at the Korean Box office. Furthermore, it is a film that combines style with substance, in the best way possible. See the AMP review
Tibetan Pema Tseden presented a film regarding life in Tibet and the attractions of modernity in contrast to tradition. Shot in black-and-white and featuring many long shots, “Tharlo” is a definite art-house film, where artistry seems to derive from every aspect. Shide Nyima gives a great performance in the titular role, in perfect harmony with the film’s aesthetics.
- Asura: City of Madness
Being the fourth collaboration between Kim Sung-soo and Jung Woo-sung, after “Beat” (1997), “City of The Rising Sun” (1999) and “Musa The Warrior” (2001), and featuring an all star cast, “Asura: The City of Madness” was one of the most anticipated films of the year. However, and in contrast to the global rule that wants films that create much buzz to lack quality, this time, the hype was absolutely justified. “Asura: The City of Madness” is a true masterpiece, a film that delivers in all aspects, and one of the greatest entries in the crime thriller genre. See the AMP review
- The Handmaiden
Probably one of the most anticipated films of the year, not only for lovers of Asian cinema, but of cinema, in general, “The Handmaiden” proves that Park Chan-wook is one of the top filmmakers of the era, and that the knowledge he acquired from his time in Hollywood (Stoker) can be wonderfully implemented in Asian aesthetics. See the AMP review
Derek Tsang directed a very tender film that manages to combine elaborately elements of romance, drama, and coming-of-age, while exemplifying the fact that he seems to understand women. In that fashion, he managed to reinvigorate a preterit genre, and my faith to both the category and Chinese cinema
Although in the beginning, it may seem as another Japanese indie, “Hime-Anole features a second part filled with exploitation elements, which totally transform the film into a true shocker. The transition from the easy-going first part to the agonizing second, is the film’s most impressive aspect. See the AMP review
- Ten Years
Despite the fact that it was produced on a budget of merely HK$500,000 (US$64,000), with a cast and crew mainly comprised of volunteers, “Ten Years” was one of the most successful films of the last years, particularly due to the controversy it spawned. Being highly accusing of the mainland’s efforts to assimilate Hong Kong with the rest of China (currently, it is an autonomous territory), it was banned or censored continuously. However, this effort actually helped the film gain more exposure. “Ten Years” is not a cinematic masterpiece; it couldn’t be with such a shoestring budget. However, it is one of the most significant films of the last years, particularly because of the courage it showed in presenting the Hong Kongese’ deepest fears. See the AMP review
- The Road to Mandalay
Midi Z (a Myanmar-born Taiwanese film director) is ascending the stairs to stardom quickly, and this film is one of the best proofs. Filled with realism about the lives of immigrants in Thailand, it presents a low-key story, elaborately building a path to a truly shocking ending. See the AMP review
- The Bacchus Lady
The title refers to a rather sad aspect of South Korean society, the “Bacchus Ladies”, elderly Korean prostitutes who solicit in parks and plazas in Seoul for sex in nearby motels. Their name derives from the popular Bacchus energy drink that they sell in parks where elderly men gather. The women are in their 50s, 60s, even their 80s.Lee Jae-yong pens and directs a film, which, at least in the beginning, is very hard to watch, but in that fashion, presents the phenomenon with great accuracy. Yoon Yeo-jung is magnificent in the titular role.
- A Copy of my Mind
Shot in just 8 days in true guerrilla fashion, with Joko Anwar placing his actors in neighborhoods in Jakarta that neither police nor army would accompany them, “A Copy of my Mind” proves that talent, planning and expertise do not need time in order to achieve a great outcome. Financed by the S. Korean powerhouse CJ Entertainment, the film is the first part of a trilogy. See the AMP review
- The Wailing
“The Wailing” is already an international success, amassing more the $51 million in international revenue, while it has also won five Blue Dragon Awards (Director, Supporting Actor, Popularity Award, Editing, and Music).
Na Hong-jin manages to combine elements of supernatural thriller with a number of deep, but very pointy allegories regarding S. Korean politics and a a number of social issues, presenting, in that fashion a great mixture of entertainment and meaning. See the AMP review
- I am not Madame Bovary
The film presents a contemporary and fable look at the issue of “The Story of Qiu Zu”. In principle, it functions as most of the Chinese art-house films, which tend to be a bit “heavy.” However, due to the unusual imaging, intelligent humor and Fang Bingbing’s acting, it manages to become rather entertaining and to stand out from the plethora of similar productions. See the AMP review
- Train to Busan
Sequel to the animated film “Seoul Station”, also by Yeon Sang-ho, “Train to Busan” is the film with the most admissions in South Korea for 2016, with more than 11.5 million. This number places it in the 11th position of the all-time list with admissions in the country, despite the fact that it is one of the very few South Korean productions with zombies.
Yeon Sang-ho manages to present some of the best zombie action ever to appear on screen, and to combine it with a number of allegories regarding human nature. In that fashion, the movie is definitely a blockbuster, but its depth, artistry and acting place it on a higher level than most films of the category. See the AMP review
- Your Name
Makoto Shinkai took the common concept of “changing lives” and placed it on a completely new and much more meaningful level. Through this notion, he presents his thoughts on concepts like memory, time, family, the Fukushima disaster, human relations, and more than anything, love – a power that transcends everything.
Furthermore, he managed to portray all these in a very entertaining fashion, since the anime elaborately combines comedy with drama, very interesting characters, a sense of nostalgia, and agony, particularly at the end.
- Godzilla Resurgence
“Godzilla Resurgence”, is one of the best entries in the history of the franchise, since Toho decided to spend big money on it ($15 million) and made a great decision by giving the helm to Hideaki Anno, the creator of “Evangelion”. The film is the highest grossing live-action Japanese film of 2016 and the highest grossing Japanese-produced Godzilla film in the franchise.
Hideaki Anno directs a very different Godzilla movie, with the help of Shinji Higuchi, who is also responsible for the outstanding special effects. The film has a very fast pace and very sharp editing, as the setting changes constantly, and the presentation looks like a news forecast on TV. In that fashion, and by presenting the consequences first, Anno manages to build the tension before the spectacular monster appears.
- Lowlife Love
UK-based production company Third Window managed to produce in Japan the best no-budget film of the year, “Lowlife Love”, which even has the no-budget film industry as its main theme.
The overall depiction of the no-budget industry is gruesome, especially for actresses, who are presented as prey for the male filmmakers, particularly because they are intent on shagging their way into movies. The approach the director takes towards them borders on misogyny, although he stresses the fact that since the directors are not even slightly better humans than them, sex is actually their only way to make it.
In that fashion, Uchida presents another pessimistic message, that of total hopelessness in the industry for them all, a notion that becomes even more evident in the ending scene. However, somewhere in all of this, he managed to include some humor
Lee Seong-tae, in his first feature film, pens and directs a movie about the cruelty and despair caused by the megalopolis, an environment where “being nice means being stupid,” as it is stated in the beginning of the film. In these harsh circumstances, the four youths try to survive and take care of each other, but they cannot find any other way except becoming criminals. The film’s greatest aspect though, is its truly shocking finale.
- Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet
The film tells the tragic story of Yun Dong-ju and his best friend Song Mong-kyu. It starts in the 50s, where both of them were aspiring poets through the events that led to their arrest, during the Japanese occupation. Featuring great acting, masterful editing and attention to the actual facts, “Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet” is one of the greatest biopics of the year. See the AMP review
- After the Storm
Over the last two decades, Hirokazu Koreeda has emerged as the contemporary master of Japanese family drama and this film proves that he has become almost flawless in the particular genre. See the AMP review
- The Phantom Detective
Jo Sung-hee directs a film that looks and functions very much like “Sin City,” particularly in terms of its comic aesthetics. Humor, however, seems to play a bigger part in this S. Korean noir, which definitely deserves to be watched in theatres. See the AMP review