The Best Asian Films of 2016
“Foreign films” aren’t a genre, more often than not this terms applies to movies that aren’t in the English language (if being a Hollywood production is the qualifier, does that make this year's Sing Street or Florence Foster Jenkins foreign?). While the notion of a “best foreign films” list was in the making, there were too many to cram into a simple top ten. In going over the year in film, it was evident that the most exciting films were coming from South Korea, Hong Kong/China, and Japan. I’m writing assuming that most of you out there have seen Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid, or Ip Man 3, so here are ten highlights from 2016 that might not be on your radar.
Going into a film, a little mantra I repeat back is “show me something new” and The Wailing delivers on that wish tenfold with a vengeance. There are almost too many standout scenes to list, with just as many twists as turns in the ingratiatingly convoluted story. Na Hong-jin packs a lot of the supernatural into a modern day Korean provincial town, where a malevolent “presence” , splinters from the presence of a Japanese immigrant. Meanwhile, villagers are brutally murdering each other the spell of possession or mysterious virus. The Wailing bears a likeness to many genres and films, and while it’s unbearably intense (with an exorcism scene to rival The Exorcist), it's more than a visceral, chilling horror tale. This is a remarkably funny film, likely overshadowed by the bloody terror, Na fashions his episodic rendition of folk horror with a sense of humor that recalls the dark tones of Bong Joon-Ho, with a touch of Hawksian tomfoolery. Sad, gross, scary, funny, intense and most importantly wholly original; The Wailing is readily available on Blu-Ray and should be in the hands of any self-respecting genre fan, or anyone with an eye and ear for the unusual.
Ever like a filmmaker so much that their work intimidates you? That’s how I’ve felt about Park Chan-wook since the jarring experience that was seeing Oldboy for the first time. Every outing from Park Chan-wook has been a series of invigorating, sometimes stomach-turning experiences; from the Vengeance Trilogy to his English language film, Stoker; his body of work is singular and impressive. Now that The Handmaiden has arrived, all that’s left to say is “how will he top himself?” The story is recognizable on the surface (a ménage à trois/double-cross scheme), but this is the work of a creative mind who doesn’t just reshuffle the deck, but rearranges the filmic card game in an unrecognizable, but tautly organized degree of formalism, that only makes sense in terms of the director's own stylistic dogma of carefully realized warped sexuality and violence. One of the director's most mature and detailed works yet, that shows he has more tricks up his sleeve than mere shocking visuals. The film is available on Blu-ray in Asia (and soon, Canada) and can be found online, but double check for subtitles - if you can speak Korean, more power to you.
The Boy and the Beast
After Summer Wars and Wolf Children, I was convinced that Mamoru Hosoda was a force to be reckoned with. This year's The Boy and the Beast confirmed my suspicions, in being a wholly fascinating and heartfelt treatise of loyalty, competition, growth, and friendship. There's a spiritual world inhabited by animal hybrid creatures, that abide by a classic warrior code (not unlike that of the bushido) where humans are shunned, and warriors duke it out in competition while on the road to immortality. If that doesn’t your interest than I don’t know what to say. Visually beautiful, highly original, with a lot of heart regarding identity, family, life, love and all that other stuff, The Boy and The Beast is an endearing fable of originally conceived fantasy that owes its diverse palette to a creative mind hitting all the right notes during it's crescendo. This is readily accessible on DVD and Blu-Ray, and fun for anyone with imagination and a sense of humor.
Our Little Sister
Our Little Sister is one of the two most recent films from Japanese heir to the Ozu throne Hirokazu Koreeda, which retains his trademark delicate style in a gorgeously rendered tale of three sisters informally adopting their adolescent half-sister. The freeform story that follows is a softly spoken (whispered at times) domestic melodrama of bonding and coming-of-age between four women learning about themselves and one another. What sounds like the DNA of a dreadful soaper is gold in the hands of Koreeda’s languid direction, gestures can be light as a feather but have profound effects, and with each turning point you’ll find yourself attached to the brilliantly measured, and achingly beautiful scenery. The film is readily on DVD/Blu-Ray.
Love & Peace
Sion Sono is a juggernaut of moviemaking, making a lot of films in which no two are alike. 2015 (2016 for us in the United States) brought us two indecipherable, but captivating Sono films; the farcical time and space bending sci-fi Tag and the even more bewilderingly offbeat Love & Peace. It follows a nebbish factory worker who makes musical instruments, who finds inspiration by a pet turtle who inspires him to become a glam punk star and win the girl of his dreams. However, after he flushes his beloved turtle (named Pikadon) down the toilet, it joins a crew of misfit toys who have come to life thanks to a derelict who lives among them with the powers to make them sentient beings. Love & Peace is a mind-bogglingly fun journey, brilliantly executed by bizarro par excellence Sion Sono, whose untameable imagination runs wild with rock ballads, giant singing turtles destroying buildings, and a little holiday magic to boot. Sono makes a lot of movies, and they’re all marching to their own beat, but Love & Peace is something else. If you liked Suicide Club and Noriko’s Dinner Table for their gore factor than Love & Peace might not be for you, having said that Sono is growing as a director; into what I don’t quite know but I like what he’s doing.
A dissonant saltwater-drenched fever dream turned pseudo-documentary turned lyrical meditation on the cultural significance of China’s Yangtze river, replete with poetic musings and a possible ghost story. Crosscurrent isn’t the easiest film to watch as it’s a philosophically driven tone poem, a story is secondary for a panorama of bewitching visuals along the way; presciently atavistic in parlaying the impact of the Yangtze River through the film's existential quandaries. While the film has been under fire for aimless visual emphasis over narrative cohesion, Yang Chao actually carries a great deal of filmic cohesion through the exploration of historical, and economic growth and debasement, by lensing the lengthy Chinese landscape as a self-sustained aesthetic device. In the process he lends a torrent of transfixing images both breathtaking in their beauty and in revealing the beauty that we see in such environments like the natural snow-capped Tibetan mountains, or enveloping towers of modern architecture such as the Three Gorges Dam - a monument to the displacement of hundreds of thousands in its construction. Some may “struggle” with the airy theoretical doldrums, especially if you have a taste for the likes of Joseph Conrad-inspired atmospheric fables. Imagine a darkly allegorical Chinese born Terrence Malick that trades elliptical cross cutting for sprawling.
Debut films can be problematic; some are self-assured masterpieces, others bear signs of greatness, while others don’t get any attention until the director's career peaks with a hit film sometimes years afterward. Kaili Blues is another matter in terms in the league of first features. The film has some frayed edges, however, the final product is a transfixing experience with technical prowess, solid performances, and narrative depth; so much so that I think it’s safe to say we can expect great things from Bi Gan in the future. The word “transportive” has a dual meaning in film language; a movie can be a travelogue-like narrative, or an informal documentary in which you are an observer, however in the case of Bi Gan, Kaili Blues, is an experiential journey that seduces its audience on a conscious level. Compared to Crosscurrent, another visually rapturous feature from China which could be interpreted as visually enriching but dissociative, Kaili Blues engages it’s audience with a story about a provincial doctor named Chen Seng, who's recently sprung from prison. His brother is involved in some shady criminal activities. Chen Seng (a weathered and hypnotic mournfully stern Yongzhong Chen) takes to the countryside to perform a series of sentimental errands for his elderly co-worker, while looking for his estranged nephew thanks to his unpredictable criminal brother who may have sold his kid. Gan’s film can be broken into two acts, "home" and "abroad". The first a delicately framed social drama, the later, mostly a forty minute uninterrupted run of the camera detailing a real time ‘day in the life” of a coastal Dang Mai town that is something of a marvel. Satisfying on an artistic and technical level (not solely impressive because it’s complicated, or “we did it because we could” or look what we can do!”) it’s a remarkably captured feat that elaborates a revelatory tonal shift and will have you marveling at the technique. Kaili Blues is an extraordinary film that demands to be seen by anyone who wants something new.
Train to Busan
In a few months, people are likely to lose their minds over this unexpectedly entertaining zombie flick from South Korea. The “unexpected” comes from the zombie genre being done to death, exhumed and killed again, in movies and the obligatory slew of shows. Leave it to South Korea’s bustling film business to rejuvenate this sub-genre. Train to Busan is fun because it rewrites the “rules” to zombie lore, and remember to have a bit of fun along the way, something it’s deathly serious syndicated predecessors could take a note on/from. Zombies on a train is the main selling point, and hearing those words together means Train to Busan is going to be fun, but it’s also a smart film than its appearance might suggest, a word that goes a long way in horror movies. What could have been campy in the mode of Snakes on a Plane is fast paced, exciting, and suspenseful. A zombie film that relies on fun characters and suspense instead of the same social allegory and reliance on head shots. Available on streaming networks (iTunes, etc.) and DVD/Blu-ray, but make sure they have good subtitles!
Johnnie To has this Herculean capacity for directing, and thank the stars for that because while they’re not all entirely perfect, each of his movies are engrossing on some level regardless of being a musical, comedic crime drama, deathly serious crime drama, or ghost story comedy - he's guaranteed to put something memorable in your head. Three is only a return to form for To completists, to some his blink and you’ll miss it filmography (averaging two films a year) went from a satirical musical in 2015 with Office back to guns, cops, and triads with his latest feature Three. This might be the closest thing to a “Chamber Triad” film, as a high-profile gangster interns himself in a hospital to bide time and assemble enough cronies to bust him out of police custody; meanwhile, the cops are amassing a similar scheme to keep him in place. Largely taking place in a hospital Three is a quick paced, fast moving action architecture that plays with every sense to full advantage to keep you guessing at the whipping fast carousel of identity persona and one of the best-choreographed shootouts of the year. Hong Kong action cinema took a hit after the 1997 handover, but Johnnie To has carried the torch like the offspring of John Woo and Michael Mann. Check out eBay for DVD’s and Blu-Rays, the film is restricted to those with region free players for now.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa is one of the most exciting directors because he predominantly works in the horror genre and maintains an original, emblematic vision visible in his voluminous output; long story short he makes good horror movies, and you can count on him to put out at least one title a year. As a new player in the old game of Lewton-esque horror, Kurosawa has excelled in tense atmospherics, changing the pitch and frequency as not to repeat himself layering classical supernatural tales in contemporary Japan. The bulk of his best-known work could be accurately summarized as sci-fi, neo-noir cyberpunk-infused ghost stories. Pulse, Seance, and Retribution remain supremely original and scary films the aptly titled Creepy might be the director's most ambitious regarding scope, tone, and scale, not to mention it’s also incredibly twisted and genuinely scary, not creepy, more unnerving. Kurosawa is a doctrine of the slow burning horror story, while Creepy plays out like a theatrical treatment of a True Detective script with more dread and subtlety in tandem with an unpredictable and jarring tale that cuts and weaves without rhyme or reason. Creepy has a mind of its own, equally tranquil as it is warped, a wet fuse movie that shocks in making the ordinariness of life into a palatable nightmare. Creepy will be released by The Masters of Cinema series on January 23rd, for those of you with a region free Blu-Ray player, you have a head start.
Honorable Mentions: The Age of Shadows, Port of Call, SORI; Voice of the Heart, Godzilla Resurgence, Your Name, The Tunnel