James Mudge chooses his favourite films of the last twelve months from around Asia…
There are no two ways about it – 2020 has been a total nae-user of a year.
At the same time though, it has at least thrown up a surprisingly long list of great films and TV series from around Asia, perhaps even more so than in other recent years. Despite the lack of traditional festival screenings and cinema releases, an increasing number of films have been more accessible than they otherwise might have been, thanks to Netflix, Amazon and more boutique streaming platforms expanding their horizons – inspired no doubt in part by the global phenomenon that was Bong Joon-ho’s Academy Award-winning Parasite. While this hasn’t quite resulted in the one-inch barrier of subtitles being clambered over by general audiences, it’s been great to see Asian cinema becoming more easily available, and at least some of the films I’ve chosen are at time of writing streaming quite widely – some of these films are technically 2019 productions, but were released or screened in 2020.
In descending order, I raise my glass to the following:
10) Better Days
China/Hong Kong, 2019
Directed by Derek Tsang
One of the rare occasions when a commercial Chinese blockbuster also turns out to be an amazing film, Hong Kong director Derek Tsang’s second Mainland production after the romantic hit Soul Mate is a surprisingly tough and searching look at bullying and exam pressure. Bolstered by fantastic performances from lead duo Zhou Dongyu and Jackson Yee, the film manages to avoid being preachy or to feel compromised despite having to work around the notoriously strict Chinese censors, and is a biting, moving mix of social criticism and bad boy-good girl love in classic Moment of Romance style. Though a little overlong, the film grips throughout, and sees Tsang maturing impressively as a director, working in some atmospheric visuals alongside the well-timed dramatic and emotional beats.
9) Only You Alone
Directed by Zhou Zhou
The second feature from up and coming Chinese director Zhou Zhou sees him following his award-winning queer revenge drama Meili with another tale of marginalised women in China. This time, his muse and co-writer Chi Yun stars as a young woman whose epilepsy has forced her to give up her dreams of being a dancer, and who doesn’t seem to have many prospects of finding a relationship, until she hesitantly starts dating a colleague. While the setup might sound like traditional romantic drama material, Zhou Zhou takes an unconventional approach to the story, and instead has his protagonist gradually taking control of her life on her own terms. As with Meili, he goes for a naturalistic, almost documentary-like style that’s reminiscent of New Wave European arthouse, and this makes Only You Alone believable and grounded despite its ambiguities and more experimental moments, and Chi Yun is on superb form, appearing in pretty much every scene of the film as the camera follows her around at an observational distance. The winner of the FIPRESCI Prize at Rotterdam and Best Cinematic Script at FIRST International Film Festival Xining, the film is one of the strongest Chinese indies of the year, and another step forward for the talented Zhou Zhou.
8) The Call
South Korea, 2020
Directed by Lee Chung-hyun
Arriving at the tail end of the year on Netflix, The Call is a fun high-concept Korean horror thriller that follows two women living in the same house twenty years apart who find themselves mysteriously connected by a phone call. Unsurprisingly, one of the women turns out to be more than a little unhinged, and though the film doesn’t make much sense, Lee Chung-hyun does a great job of turning the screws, and there’s a great deal of fun to be had watching things get more and more out of hand without the usual distraction of last act melodrama. The film’s success is in no small part thanks to great work from leads Park Shin-hye (recently excellent in Lee Chang-dong’s Burning) and Jeon Jong-seo (also in the enjoyable Korean Netflix zombie flick #Alive), who make the intensifying time fractured battle between them a gripping and strangely believable one.
7) The Closet
South Korea, 2020
Directed by Kim Kwang-bin
Another quality Korean horror, writer director Kim Kwang-bin’s debut shocker The Closet deals with Shamanism, ghosts and exorcism, tied together by the story of a man in mourning for the death of his wife, whose daughter appears to have been snatched by an evil spirit lurking in the titular cupboard. While the film is atmospheric and frightening in all the right ways, what really makes it stand out is the human story at its core, with its horror elements basically acting as a framework for a dark psychological drama focusing on a damaged father daughter relationship. Popular actor Ha Jung-woo (fantastic in The Chaser and The Yellow Sea) turns in a powerful performance that makes the film emotionally devastating without ever getting overwrought, and Kim does a great job of marrying the supernatural with hard-hitting domestic drama.
6) Love Poem
China/Hong Kong, 2020
Directed by Wang Xiaozhen
2020 really was a great year for Chinese indie films, and Wang Xiaozhen’s Love Poem was one of the best and most innovative – the film was another winner at FIRST, taking home Best Film and Best Performer, and would surely have gone on to play a long list of international festivals in more normal times. His second film, Love Poem is another deeply personal work, with Wang also starring along with his real life partner Zhou Qing in the tale of a couple whose relationship seems to be on the verge of falling apart. Playing out through a series of long takes, mostly in a car, the film is split into three sections, and without giving too much away, sees Wang playing around with shifting perspectives and the notion of film vs reality in a way which recalls Hong Sang-soo at his most arthouse. Although a little on the long side, the film is both engaging and innovative, and Wang gives it the feel of a particularly tense confessional, and makes great use of its limited locations to up the drama and to make the viewer feel like an eye witness to a genuine domestic disaster as it painfully unfolds.
5) The Forest of Love
Directed by Sion Sono
Kudos to Netflix for giving unpredictable Japanese auteur Sion Sono the support to make this crazed, sprawling tale of serial murder, suicide, filmmaking and lesbian high school girls – there’s certainly nothing about The Forest of Love, either in its film version or the full limited series, which suggests that he was given anything but free rein to pursue his usual obsessions. While a big fan of his early work, some of Sono’s recent films have left me a bit cold, though Forest is very much a return to the likes of Love Exposure and Cold Fish, with psychological trauma and damaged/damaging relationships driving the gripping narrative as much as its murder mystery, while giving him the chance to work in plenty of perversity, torture and nastiness. Like Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, it’s also a film about the filmmaking process, and Sono again proves that few other directors are as able to combine the self-reflexive with the surreal with such entertainingly cavalier abandon.
4) The Cloud in her Room
Directed by Xinyuan Zheng Lu
Young female Chinese writer director Xinyuan Zheng Lu’s debut feature is a mix of the personal and the abstract, following a young woman who returns to her home in Hangzhou for New Year, meeting up with friends and friends and family and wandering the city revisiting her past. Xinyuan manages to make her character’s experiences engaging while keeping the film experimental and almost formless, shooting in black and white and combining a variety of filmmaking techniques, including documentary, phone footage and video art. Though this might sound on the pretentious side, Cloud rings true throughout, and its many enigmas are thoughtful rather than frustrating, making for an evocative and challenging look at China’s changing urban landscape and society. The deserved winner of awards at Rotterdam and other key arthouse-embracing festivals, the film marks Xinyuan as an exciting talent to keep an eye on.
Perempuan Tanah Jahanam
Directed by Joko Anwar
I’ve always got a soft spot for a bit of black magic horror, and Indonesian director Joko Anwar’s follow up to his 2017 hit Satan’s Slaves is a fantastically old school slice of Gong Tau genre fun. Recalling the very best of the Shaw Brothers’ black magic films of the 1970s and early 1980s, the film follows a young woman who returns to the rural village where she grew up, only to uncover sinister secrets and a deadly family curse. A fantastic mix of sinister atmosphere and gory frights, Impetigore benefits from a real sense of backwoods menace and has the feel of an eerie, nasty folktale, and its presence on the streaming service Shudder will hopefully introduce more horror fans around the world to the talented Anwar.
2) Striding into the Wind
Directed by Wei Shujun
The debut feature by Chinese writer, director, entrepreneur, actor and rapper Wei Shujun is an absolute pleasure, the semi-autobiographical, meandering tale of a blundering but likeable film sound recordist who hangs around Beijing with his friends while dreaming of visiting Mongolia. Equal parts road movie, coming of age drama, existential character study and a meditation on life in the film industry, Striding into the Wind is a fantastic first full length offering from Wei Shujun (who previously won at Cannes with his 2018 short On the Border), and is arguably one of the very best Chinese indies of recent years.
1) Mimicry Freaks
Directed by Shugo Fujii
My favourite of the year is the latest film from Shugo Fujii (A Living Hell), one of the most interesting and risk-taking indie horror directors working in Japan at the moment – Mimicry Freaks is a wild, hallucinogenic ride that nods towards The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Evil Dead while blazing its own trail of berserk depravity. Bizarre, unpredictable and narratively closer to a waking nightmare than a traditional horror film, it explores the theme of child abuse in modern Japanese society through what might be the tale of a group of unfortunates being stalked by a demon in the woods, or which might well be a journey through the tormented mind of its protagonist. Visually impressive despite being shot on a low budget, beneath its gruesome carnage there’s a genuinely impressive and inventive piece of genre cinema, that’s somehow familiar while breaking all the rules – definitely the year’s most determinedly demented horror, and one which will hopefully result in Fujii’s name being more widely known.