2017 was a strange year for Asian cinema, after the impressive 2016, where “Godzilla”, “Your Name”, Nikkatsu’s new Roman films and the latest films by Park Chan-wook, Na Hong-jin and “Train to Busan” turned the interest of the international audience towards SE Asia, once more.
2017 has been a much more low-key year for Asian films however, giving the opportunity for productions from other Asian countries to shine, in contrast to 2016, when S.Korean and Japanese films dominated this list. So, without further ado, here are the 20 Best Asian Films of 2017, always with a focus on diversity, in random order.
(Some of the films premiered in 2015, but I took the liberty to include them, since they circulated, mostly, in 2017).
Blade of the Immortal (Takashi Miike, Japan)
“Blade of the Immortal”, like “13 Assassins”, belongs to the collection of Miike’s calmer and more well-mannered movies, far for the wacky surreal ones. At the same time, don’t expect a traditional chanbara. The plot is spiced up and enriched by touches of supernatural and frequent comedy shots and the parade of challengers on our heroes’ path is a gaudy bunch of punks, totally oblivious of any historical consistency.
Satan’s Slaves (Joko Anwar, Indonesia)
Joko Anwar directs a film where every cliché of the genre seems to be included. The unnaturally sick mother, the messages on the records if played backwards, the well, the cult, the haunted house, the forest, the eccentric man who knows much but is reluctant to reveal, the extreme facial expressions, the dangerous secrets, the priest, Satan and his children, and almost every “trick” in the book are present and depicted in retro, but rather impressive fashion. This sense seems to derive from every frame of the film, including the on-screen appearance of the title.
Youth (Feng Xiaogang, China)
The true value of the film and particularly of Feng’s direction lies not directly on the image, but more in what lies underneath. In that fashion, the movie may seem that exemplifies the Mao era, but a number of episodes undermine this sense, like the one with Liu Feng for example, which also serves as a dark twist in the whole concept of the romance between youths. Likewise, although the production seems to abide with the Chinese guidelines about movies, Feng has managed to include an underlying sense of sensualism that presents itself briefly but rather frequently, in locker rooms and dark alleys.
Noise (Yusaku Matsumoto, Japan)
The most impressive part of the film derives from the narrative Matsumoto implements, with the flashbacks and the change of the perspective according to the protagonist on screen. His tactics keep the film flowing in a fashion that holds the attention of the spectator from wavering even for a moment, as the story flows smoothly, through the elaborate editing. Kentaro Kishi does a great job in portraying a world that seems fun and happy on the outside, through intense lights and colors, but bleak and hopeless on the inside, as the shadows and the lack of light that dominate the interiors in the film.
Bad Genius (Nattawut Poonpiriya, Thailand)
Nattawut Poonpiriya, along Tanida Hantaweewatana and Vasudhorn Piyaromna wrote a film that manages to elevate academic cheating into a heist of international level, through an extremely intricate and intelligent script. In that fashion, they manage to transform a coming-of-age film into an agonizing but also meaningful thriller, with the second element deriving from the many social comments incorporated in the script. These remarks focus on the corruption of the Thai academic system, the huge differences between the rich and the poor in the country, the borders of friendship, and the impact money and success can have on people. At the same time, there is a permeating, though underlined, pessimistic tone in the film, as we watch Lynn using her genius only to make money, jeopardizing at the same time, her academic career, and her relationship with her father. The only flaw in the script, although minor, is the concept of the security during the STIC, with the man in charge being excessive in the way he acts and its overall role
Tokyo Vampire Hotel (Sion Sono, Japan)
Sono, once more, did the thing that made him a legend among all fans of cult: he let his imagination run wild and depicted it on screen in the most absurd way, to the point that the film occasionally function as a collage of extreme concepts. At the same time, he also included themes from his previous movies. The gangs fighting each other from “Tokyo Tribe” have become the two opposing vampire clans. The chase that frequently appeared on “Tag,” this time involves Manami, and has a repeating music theme to go with it. The permeating sexuality and the intense colors of “Anti-Porno” are also present, this time combined with great dosages of violence and an unprecedented amount of blood, which frequently floods the screen, “Guilty of Romance” style. The change of genres of “Love Exposure” is also here, although in a much more finite level.
Broken Sword Hero (Bin Bunluerit, Thailand)
“Broken Sword Hero” is a genuine martial arts film, with the action starting from the first frame and continuing for the whole of the movie, while it finds its apogee when Joi has become Thongdee. In that fashion, it follows the well known paths of the HK films of the category, that include a man who thinks he is a great fighter, his humiliating loss, and the subsequent training that makes him worth of facing the man who bested him. This path however, is rather impressive through the presentation of the different techniques Thongdee learns, which even include kung fu from a Chinese theatre expert. Through these sequences, the film function as a true martial arts odyssey.
Junk Head (Takahide Hori, Japan)
The first thing one notices in the film is the impressive creations of the characters and creatures, who seem to be a combination of the fantasies of HR Giger, Hieronymus Bosch, and the kind of creatures usually found in survival horror video games, with the movie occasionally functioning like one. What is even more impressive, as revealed in the ending credits, is that both the characters and the setting are actual built models, and not the product of CGI, in a trait that highlights the amazing craftsmanship and imagination of Takahide Hori and his crew. The same applies to the setting, a combination of dystopian and cyberpunk elements. All of the above are presented in a fashion that occasionally function as an animated version of “Tetsuo”, as God is running frantically through corridors, hunted by monsters, while rapid electronic, industrial and noise tracks are playing in the background, and the film transforms into an extreme music video, filled with gore and blood. These scenes feature some frantic camera movement and very fast cuts, in a tendency that highlight Takahide Hori and Tetsu Kawamura’s editing.
Jailbreak (Jimmy Henderson, Cambodia)
Jimmy Henderson presents a distinct combination of exploitation, martial arts, and b-movie aesthetics, which, finally, is stripped of any kind of drama, romance, or any effort to give depth to a genre that thrives through the lack of it. In that fashion, Henderson does exactly what the category demands. He introduces a number of interesting-looking characters, and lets them kill themselves through continuous action scenes. The four “ultimate” villains represent this trait quite eloquently: Cannibal, whose name implies his human-eating nature, Suicide, a black master of martial arts, Bolo, a street fighter of enormous strength and finally, Madame Butterfly, a katana expert. The duels of the four with the policemen, who use the Cambodian martial art, Bokator, are the most impressive in the film, along with the ones where the four of them fight scores of prisoners, most of which seem to know martial arts, in another distinct, b-movie element.
Truth Beneath (Lee Kyoung-mi, S. Korea)
Lee Kyoung-mi weaves an intricate web around the disappearance of Min-jin, which, gradually, reveals that everyone around the family is involved, including a friend from school, whose existence the parents ignored, a teacher, and even a member of Jong-chan’s staff. These revelations are accompanied by a number of plot twists that retain the agony, which Lee builds in a truly elaborate way, for the whole duration of the film.