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15th Asian Film Awards Preview: The Nominated Films

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The 15th Asian Film Awards are upon us! Held annually since 2007, the Asian Film Awards (AFA) celebrate the best in cinema from across Asia. Like last year's edition, the 15th AFA will be held in conjunction with the Busan International Film Festival. Korean auteur Lee Chang Dong, who received the Lifetime Achievement at the 13th AFA, serves as this year's Jury President, and Lee Byung Hun has been announced as the recipient of the Excellence in Asian Cinema Award.

Winners of the 15th Asian Film Awards will be announced on October 8, 2021. This year, 36 works from nine regions are in the running for awards in 16 categories. Read on for a primer on all the nominated films!

One Second

One Second (Mainland China)

Nominations: Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Newcomer, Best Original Music

Zhang Yimou released two films in the past year, and both are duly recognized in the AFA shortlist. Set during the Cultural Revolution, One Second is an unexpected ode to the simple yet powerful magic of film. Zhang Yi stars as a fugitive who escapes labor camp in order to track down a film reel that briefly captures his daughter. Newcomer Liu Haocun is his foil, an orphan girl who runs off with the film strip. In what may come as a surprise, this is actually only the second time Zhang Yimou has been nominated for Best Director and Best Film following The Flowers of War in 2012. However, he was honored with the Outstanding Contribution to Asian Cinema Award in 2010.

The Book of Fish

The Book of Fish (South Korea)

Nominations: Best Film, Best Director, Best Costume Design, Best Production Design

Trying his hand at another B&W historical biopic after Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet, Lee Joon Ik goes back to the early 19th century and the life of Joseon era scholar Jeong Yak Jeon, portrayed by Sol Kyung Gu. Exiled to remote Heuksando Island during the Catholic Persecution of 1801, he wrote a book called Jasaneobo about the fish and marine life of the island's waters. Byun Yo Han plays an ambitious young fisherman he befriends. The Book of Fish won the Grand Prize at the 57th Baeksang Arts Awards.

Wife of a Spy

Wife of a Spy (Japan)

Nominations: Best Film, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Costume Design, Best Production Design

First developed as a television film that aired on NHK in June 2020, Kurosawa Kiyoshi's Wife of a Spy later got a theatrical version that won the Silver Lion at the 77th Venice International Film Festival. Aoi Yu receives her fifth ever AFA nomination – second for Best Actress – for her role as the eponymous wife of a spy in the historical drama set in early 1940s Kobe before the breakout of WWII. She seeks to understand her reticent husband, played by Takahashi Issey, a merchant whose trips to Manchuria uncover horrendous secrets about the Japanese military – secrets that will put both their lives in danger.

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Japan)

Nominations: Best Film, Best Director

After making fest splashes with Happy Hour and Asako I & II, Hamaguchi Ryusuke has further raised his domestic and international profile this year with the Murakami Haruki adaptation Drive My Car and the romantic anthology Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, which premiered in competition at the 71st Berlin International Film Festival and won the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy stars actresses Furukawa Kotone, Shibukawa Kiyohiko and Urabe Fusako as the protagonists of three short stories that lightly explore relationships and identity through a series of encounters and conversations.

The Disciple

The Disciple (India)

Nominations: Best Film, Best Screenplay

Court writer-director Chaitanya Tamhane's sophomore feature The Disciple delves into the world of Indian classical music and the bittersweet pursuit of artistry. Executive produced by Alfonso Cuarón, the Marathi-language drama was selected for competition in the 77th Venice International Film Festival and won Best Screenplay and the FIPRESCI International Critics Prize. Indian classical singer Aditya Modak plays an aspiring classical music vocalist who begins to have doubts about himself after devoting years to following the traditions and discipline of the masters.

Yellow Cat

Yellow Cat (Kazakhstan, France)

Nominations: Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design

Kermek, an ex-convict who loves the films of Alain Delon, wants to leave his Bonnie and Clyde days behind and build a cinema on the Kazakh steppes. However, his unconventional dreams are hard to realize in this remote region, especially with his crime connections still clinging to him. With its whimsical beats and unabashed love for cinema, Kazahak filmmaker Adilkhan Yerzhanov's quirky comedy-drama lovingly wears its many influences on its sleeves, from Le Samourai to Badlands. Yellow Cat premiered in the Horizons sidebar of the 2020 Venice Film Festival, and traveled to other esteemed fests like Busan and San Sebastian.


Limbo (Hong Kong)

Nominations: Best Actor, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, Best Sound

Soi Cheang's grisly and gritty psychological action thriller, which premiered at the 71st Berlin International Film Festival, is based on the story Wisdom Teeth by mystery writer and criminal psychology expert Lei Mi, who is known for the Criminal Minds series. Gordon Lam takes the leading role as a troubled cop who partners with Mason Lee's police academy graduate to investigate a serial murder case. The two are not only unable to crack the case; they also trigger a series of escalating events.

Voice of Silence

Voice of Silence (South Korea)

Nominations: Best Actor, Best New Director, Best Screenplay

Yoo Ah In and first-time director Hong Eui Jeong look to follow up their wins at the 41st Blue Dragon Film Awards and 57th Baeksang Arts Awards at the AFA. In this offbeat, slow-burning crime drama, Yoo Ah In plays the non-speaking protagonist who helps clean up murder scenes for the mob along with his partner (Yoo Jae Myung). They're asked to temporarily watch over a kidnapped girl by their boss who soon gets killed, leaving them with a child to figure out – and many ways for things to go terribly wrong.


Sister (Mainland China)

Nominations: Best Actress, Best New Director, Best Screenplay

A young woman, who has suffered for years due to her parents' gender bias, is suddenly faced with the responsibility and social expectation of caring for her much younger brother after their parents' death. She must make a difficult decision between giving up her life plans to raise her brother, or pursuing independence on her own terms. Long one of China's best child stars, 20-year-old actress Wendy Zhang comes into her own with her first AFA nomination for her eponymous role as an older sister in Yin Ruoxin's coming-of-age drama, her second collaboration with the director.

Little Big Women

Little Big Women (Taiwan)

Nominations: Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress

Women are ever tenacious in Joseph Hsu's multigenerational family drama about how a mother and her daughters deal with the many challenges, disappointments and losses of life. Veteran Chen Shu Fang, who won Best Actress at the 57th Golden Horse Awards, heads the family as a restaurant owner who worked hard to raise her three daughters on her own. On her 70th birthday, the matriarch receives news of the death of her long-estranged philandering husband, whose funeral she must arrange. Hsieh Ying Xuan plays her eldest daughter, a dancer with health issues.

Dear Tenant

Dear Tenant (Taiwan)

Nominations: Best Actor

In a Golden Horse-winning performance, Morning Mo is a "tenant" who devotedly takes care of his late partner's young son and ill mother. However, his good intentions are called into question by relatives and authorities that suspect foul play. Director Cheng Yu Chieh's understated yet emotional drama is a heartrending examination of love, family and loss, as well as the doubts and discrimination faced by the gay community.

Under the Open Sky

Under the Open Sky (Japan)

Nominations: Best Actor

Based on a Naoki Prize-winning novel by Saki Ryuzo, Nishikawa Miwa's human drama features an enormous performance by Yakusho Koji as an ex-yakuza and former convict struggling to readjust back into a world that's not wired for people like him. Under the Open Sky offers a nuanced and empathetic study of both the protagonist and Japanese society. Yakusho previously won Best Actor for The Blood of Wolves at the 13th Asian Film Awards, as well as the Excellence In Asian Cinema Award.

The Call

The Call (South Korea)

Nominations: Best Actress

Following her breakout debut in Lee Chang Dong's Burning for which she received a Best Newcomer nomination in 2018, Jeon Jong Seo garners a Best Actress nod for her second acting role in Lee Chung Hyun's thriller The Call. Based on the Puerto Rican supernatural horror The Caller, the film depicts how two women's fates change after they connect across time through a phone. Jeon Jong Seo gives a chilling performance as a resentful woman who becomes a serial killer.


Ulbolsyn (Kazakhstan, France)

Nominations: Best Actress

Assel Sadvakassova is the eponymous heroine and producer of Adilkhan Yerzhanov's Ulbolsyn, which approaches the village of Karatas, the setting of his earlier film The Plague at the Karatas Village, from a new perspective. The strong-willed Ulbolsyn makes her own way in the city while saving money for her younger sister Azhar to go to university overseas. However, Azhar gets kidnapped by a respected village healer who intends to make her his wife. Ulbolsyn furiously arrives at Karatas to save her sister and challenge the patriarchal system.

Cliff Walkers

Cliff Walkers (Mainland China)

Nominations: Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Original Music, Best Costume Design

Zhang Yimou takes on period espionage in his other recent film, Cliff Walkers, which garnered a leading six nominations. The beautifully lensed spy thriller unfurls a twisty cat-and-mouse game in the icy environs of 1930s Manchukuo, the puppet state controlled by Japan in northeastern China. One Second's Zhang Yi and Liu Haocun also star in this film as Chinese operatives sent into enemy territory, but Amanda Qin and Yu Ailei earn the acting nominations this time.

Deliver Us From Evil

Deliver Us From Evil (South Korea)

Nominations: Best Supporting Actor, Best Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Original Music

The conflict between a hitman (Hwang Jung Min) who wants out and a gangster (Lee Jung Jae) who wants revenge come to a head in Thailand in Hong Won Chan's punishing crime action blockbuster. Featuring cinematography by Hong Kyung Pyo (Snowpiercer) and music by Mowg, the thriller never relents as events spiral ruthlessly out of control. Park Jung Min, who has already won Best Supporting Actor at the 41st Blue Dragon Film Awards, plays Hwang Jung Min's contact in Thailand.

My Missing Valentine

My Missing Valentine (Taiwan)

Nominations: Best Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Visual Effects

Chen Yu Hsun's fantasy romance swept five prizes including Best Film, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay at the 57th Golden Horse Film Awards. The whimsical romantic comedy stars Patty Lee as an impatient post office worker who moves a step faster than everyone, and Liu Kuan Ting as a bus driver who's always a beat slower. A magical yet grounded tale emerges when the heroine wakes up one morning, having skipped over Valentine's Day entirely, and tries to find out what happened to her missing day.

Drifting (Hong Kong)
Nominations: Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress

In 2012, the police suddenly cleared out the belongings of a homeless community without notice. The affected – including individuals played by Tse Kwan Ho and Loletta Lee – band together to sue the Hong Kong government in Jun Li's social drama.

The Silent Forest
The Silent Forest (Taiwan)
Nominations: Best Supporting Actor, Best Newcomer

Inspired by true events, Ko Chen Nian's harrowing drama about sexual assault at a hearing-impaired school garnered nominations for two of its young stars: rising actress Chen Yan Fei who plays a victim, and teenaged Korean actor Kim Hyun Bin who plays the leader of the abusers.

True Mothers
True Mothers (Japan)
Nominations: Best Supporting Actress, Best Editing

Kawase Naomi's Cannes Film Festival entry explores what makes a true mother through the stories of two women: Nagasaku Hiromi plays a woman who adopts to become a mother, while Makita Aju is a teen mother who must give up her child.

The Voice of Sin
The Voice of Sin (Japan)
Nominations: Best Supporting Actor

Doi Nobuhiro's human suspense unravels a painful crime mystery inspired by true events that occurred over three decades ago. Best Supporting Actor nominee Uno Shohei plays a former officer's son whose voice was used for a threatening ransom recording when he was a child.

Three Sisters
Three Sisters (South Korea)
Nominations: Best Supporting Actress

Three troubled sisters, each struggling with personal issues of her own, gather for their father's birthday in Lee Seung Won's family drama. Jang Yoon Ju plays the youngest sister, an off-kilter playwright who married a divorced man with a son.

A Balance
A Balance (Japan)
Nominations: Best New Director

Harumoto Yujiro's thoughtful drama, which won the New Currents Award at the Busan Film Festival, is about a documentary filmmaker who tries to cover the truth behind a tragic bullying incident. However, she unearths something that hits too close to home at her father's cram school.

Pebbles (India)
Nominations: Best New Director

The recipient of the Tiger Award at the 50th International Film Festival Rotterdam, P.S. Vinothraj's Tamil-language debut feature traces the barefooted journey of a boy and his alcoholic father as they make the arduous trek to his mother's village to bring her back home.

Summer Blur
Summer Blur (Mainland China)
Nominations: Best New Director

A 13-year-old schoolgirl, who was left in her aunt's reluctant care by her remarried mother, struggles to cope with her lonely fractured life in Han Shuai's sensitive debut feature, which won the Grand Prix in the Berlinale's Generation Kplus sidebar.

The Wasteland
The Wasteland (Iran)
Nominations: Best New Director, Best Cinematography

Selected for the Horizons sidebar of the Venice Film Festival, writer-director Ahmad Bahrami's allegorical debut feature is about a brick factory supervisor who is tasked by the boss to tell workers about the factory's impending shutdown.

Aloners (South Korea)
Nominations: Best Newcomer

Popular TV actress Gong Seung Yeon makes her feature debut in Hong Sung Eun's drama about the solitary life and emotional turmoil of a woman who lives and works alone, and has little interaction with other people.

Midnight Swan
Midnight Swan (Japan)
Nominations: Best Newcomer

Uchida Eiji's Japan Academy Prize-winning film details the struggles and sacrifices of a transgender woman who gives her all to support the ballet dreams of the adolescent girl (newcomer Hattori Misaki) whom she takes in.

Sun Children
Sun Children (Iran)
Nominations: Best Newcomer, Best Editing

Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi's stirring Venice Film Festival entry follows a group of street kids who engage in petty crime to survive. Child actor Rouhollah Zamani won the Marcello Mastroianni Award for his performance as a 12-year-old who enrolls in a charitable school to look for an underground treasure.

Any Crybabies Around
Any Crybabies Around? (Japan)
Nominations: Best Cinematography, Best Sound

A young father runs off in shame after a drunken incident during his village's traditional festival. Two years later, he returns seeking forgiveness and a second chance in writer-director Sato Takuma's first commercial film, which was developed with the support of Kore-eda Hirokazu

The Way We Keep Dancing
The Way We Keep Dancing (Hong Kong)
Nominations: Best Original Music

Day Tai, a three-time Best Original Film Song winner at the Hong Kong Film Awards including his 2014 win for The Way We Dance, again created the music for Adam Wong's energetic, message-driven sequel to the youth film.

Space Sweepers
Space Sweepers (South Korea)
Nominations: Best Costume Design, Best Visual Effects, Best Sound

Jo Sung Hee's blockbuster space opera, a first in Korean cinema, unfurls the exploits of a space debris-collecting group of misfits who come upon a child of mysterious origins.

A Writer's Odyssey
A Writer's Odyssey (Mainland China)
Nominations: Best Production Design, Best Visual Effects

Set in parallel worlds, Lu Yang's fantasy action-adventure intertwines the fates of a novelist who creates a fantastic realm and a desperate father on a mission to assassinate the novelist.

Labyrinth (India)
Nominations: Best Production Design, Best Sound

Also known as Churuli, Lijo Jose Pellissery's Malayalam-language sci-fi mystery follows two police officers who get caught in a time loop in an eerie village while searching for a criminal.

 Ora, Ora Be Goin' Alone
Ora, Ora Be Goin' Alone (Japan)
Nominations: Best Visual Effects

An elderly widow discovers an imaginative new world beyond loneliness in Okita Shuichi's gently fanciful drama starring Tanaka Yuko and Aoi Yu as the same woman at different ages.

The Eight Hundred
The Eight Hundred (Mainland China)
Nominations: Best Visual Effects, Best Sound

Spectacularly recreating the glamor and rubble of Old Shanghai during the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War, Guan Hu's historical war drama depicts a National Revolutionary Army regiment's last stand at Sihang Warehouse against a Japanese army that vastly outnumbers them.

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Published October 4, 2021

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