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Best Asian Movies of 2015

Written by YumCha! Editorial Team Tell a Friend

Our editors' picks for the best Asian movies released on video in 2015!


SANWEI'S PICKS


The Assassin
Garnering plentiful accolades both at home and abroad, Hou Hsiao Hsien's first feature in eight years is also the first ever costume wuxia film of his 40-year career, but rest assured, it plays out very much like a Hou Hsiao Hsien film. Shu Qi stars as the titular stoic, conflicted assassin who is sent back to her homeland to kill the region's leader (Chang Chen), the man to whom she was once betrothed. Where other films of such material would typically emphasize the action, The Assassin is largely characterized by inaction. Martial arts bouts are brief and to-the-point, without fancy editing or camera angles to fabricate thrills. As lulling as it is mesmerizing, the stately masterpiece employs the Taiwan auteur's characteristic style of languid pacing, spare dialogue, long take shots, static camera and poetically captivating visuals that linger in the heart and mind – this may be Hou's most beautiful film yet.



Blind Massage
Based on Bi Feiyu's Mao Dun Literature Prize-winning novel, Blind Massage's naturalistic look into the lives of the blind took top prizes at the Berlin Film Festival, Golden Horse Awards and Asian Film Awards. After an impactful opening that disorients with third-person narration, blurry camera and a shocking suicide attempt, the film settles into an intimate portrait of a group of blind masseurs who live and work together. Lou Ye's most piercing work since Summer Palace, Blind Massage honestly delves into the hope, anguish, pride, pain, love and lust of the various troubled characters through their interactions with each other and the sighted, and performances from the ensemble cast are strong across the board. As common in Lou films, raw emotions run high and a restless handheld camera hovers uncomfortably close to its subjects, with images occasionally going dark and out of focus in order to convey the characters' perspectives.



Coming Home
Coming Home came and went in relatively under-the-radar manner considering it's a Zhang Yimou film, and starring Gong Li at that in one of the best performances of her career. Without the bells and whistles of his big-budget epics or even the pastoral romanticism of Under the Hawthorn Tree, Coming Home goes completely back to the basics to tell the subtle, aching story of a woman waiting for her husband (Chen Daoming) to return during the Cultural Revolution era. When he is finally released from labor camp years after his apprehension, he returns to a broken home and a traumatized wife who no longer recognizes him and insists on continuing to wait. Shot and told in handsome, austere and masterfully measured manner, Coming Home is arguably Zhang's best film of the past decade, making it all the more unfortunate that it is still without an English-subtitled video release.



The Continent
One of China's most iconic writers and voices of the post-80s generation, Han Han tried his hand at directing, and the result is a film that's very much like his novels. William Feng and Wilson Chen serve as the writer's prototype heroes: young sardonic drifters of polar personalities making a cross-country road trip filled with outrageous detours, quirky encounters and constant grousing, griping and pondering about themselves and the world at large. As a road film, The Continent assuredly checks all the right boxes to create a critically and commercially appealing genre effort that thoroughly entertains. As a Han Han film, it brings alive the vagabond characters, wild storytelling, wry humor and cultural references he's known for while also being a more accessible original story meant for the silver screen. Both film fans and Han Han fans will leave satisfied with this directorial debut.



Hill of Freedom
There's something to be said for Hong Sang Soo's ability to keep telling the same story over and over again in a way that makes you want to keep hearing it over and over again. For Hill of Freedom, the Korean indie extraordinaire pens a familiar relationship dramedy about a Japanese man coming to Korea to confess his feelings to a woman, except she's not around. While waiting for her, he does a lot of walking, whining, drinking and writing, and gradually takes up with another woman. Besides inducting Kase Ryo into the Hong Sang Soo universe, Hill is notable for being shot mostly in English, a language medium that has hampered many an Asian auteur's creativity, but in Hong's case, it actually adds to the film's charm – because the more awkward the interaction, the more farcical and fitting. Hong also plays around with the timeline by presenting the droll episodes out of order, a simple yet brilliant storytelling device that keeps the audience guessing about what comes next and before.



Kakekomi
During the Edo period, Tokei-ji, a Buddhist temple and nunnery in Kamakura, was known to be a refuge for abused wives. Women who unilaterally sought divorce could "kakekomi" ("run in") to Tokei-ji, and divorce would be granted after a two-year stay. Based on a novel by Inoue Hisashi, Harada Masato's Kakekomi revolves around the comings and goings of Tokei-ji in the early 19th century. The reliably earnest Oizumi Yo plays a doctor and aspiring writer who becomes acquainted with the women of Tokei-ji, in particular a hardy iron worker and a worldly mistress, wonderfully portrayed by Toda Erika and Mitsushima Hikari, respectively. Deftly mixing historical drama, romance, comedy and even action elements, Kakekomi creates a rich and fascinating world weaved with enough characters, themes, historical references and untold stories to spawn a whole other movie.



Our Little Sister
Following I Wish and Like Father, Like Son, Kore-eda Hirokazu continues to stir hearts with a gentle drama about the warmth and resentment, bonds and conflicts, that make a family. Ayase Haruka, Nagasawa Masami and Kaho play three sisters of different personalities who live together in a cozy old house in a seaside city. With their divorced parents long out of the picture, the girls have been on their own for a while, and eldest sister Sachi acts as the stern mother figure to her more free-spirited siblings. The family grows, adjusts and sometimes clashes after they take in a 14-year-old half-sister (Hirose Suzu) following their estranged father's death. Based on Yoshida Akimi's manga Umimachi Diary, Our Little Sister is perhaps the most episodic of Kore-eda's films, but the vignettes of the sisters' changing lives and relationships over a year's time come together seamlessly to form an affecting character study of four young women at crossroads.



PK
In 2009, Aamir Khan and director Rajkumar Hirani challenged India's higher educational system in 3 Idiots. In 2014, they took on an even thornier topic: religion. Khan plays a stranded alien visitor who observes and learns about the human world. Seeking God's assistance to return home, he takes a tour of countless rituals, gurus and superstitions, only to come up empty – and the realization that religion's middle men may be dialing the wrong number. The wacky satirical comedy stylings keep PK light and funny, but its message is controversial and incisive. The film even subtly touches on Indian-Pakistani relations by casting Anushka Sharma and Sushant Singh Rajput as lovers separated by cultures and misunderstandings. Though PK doesn't surpass 3 Idiots – the story is a bit meandering and the oddball character actually limits Khan's acting range – the filmmakers have undeniably succeeded in making another intelligent, moving and humorous blockbuster that encourages discussion about important social matters.



Revivre
Im Kwon Taek's 102nd film offers a melancholic, matter-of-fact examination of aging and mortality that quietly punches you in the gut with the inevitable without ever seeking tears or pity. As somber as the subject matter may be, it is nonetheless a joy to see Ahn Sung Ki in a leading role worthy of his presence. Speaking volumes with just his eyes, the legendary actor delivers a restrained and dignified performance as an outwardly impassive salaryman who strays emotionally through stolen glances and garish fantasies of a younger colleague, but stays dutiful to the very end as a caregiver for his wife while she fights a losing battle with brain cancer. Jumping between the day of her funeral and flashbacks to the tiring days before her death, Revivre unsentimentally balances the helpless pain and indignities of aging and dying with the continued responsibilities and unfulfilled longings of the living. That Revivre was made by a 79-year-old filmmaker makes it all the more acute.



The Taking of Tiger Mountain
If there's one thing you can count on from Tsui Hark, it's a good show. The Hong Kong master of spectacle applies his wily touch to the famous tale of a small PLA unit's ingenuous capturing of a mountain base from a powerful bandit clan during the Chinese Civil War period. Best known as a revolutionary opera, the classic story of brawn, brains and heroics is transformed by Tsui into a rousing action-adventure of precisely paced thrills that culminate in a deliriously entertaining final showdown at Tiger Mountain. Zhang Hanyu is in full-on man's man mode as the soldier who brazenly infiltrates the bandit gang by posing as someone else, while Tony Leung Ka Fai delights in an over-the-top, villainous turn as the wonderfully manic and near unrecognizable bandit king.



FROOD'S PICKS


20, Once Again
One of last year's best Korean movies becomes one of this year's best Chinese movies in 20, Once Again. Director Leste Chen brings the hilarious and touching tale of a cantankerous grandmother who magically reverts back to her 20-year-old self to China, tweaking the formula with just the right amount of China-specific cultural references to make it its own delightful experience. All eyes are, of course, on Lu Han as he makes his big screen debut, but it must be noted that leading lady Yang Zishan gives a terrific performance as Grandma the Younger, making the character her own by imbuing her version with slightly more maturity compared to predecessor Shim Eun Kyung.



Helios
Following their successful, award-winning debut Cold War, Sunny Luk and Longman Leung up the ante with an even bigger and brasher crime thriller in Helios. Featuring a ridiculously stacked cast that includes Jacky Cheung, Nick Cheung, Chang Chen, Ji Jin Hee, Choi Si Won, Wang Xueqi and more, the film deftly keeps you on the edge of your seat with heart-pumping action and unexpected twists. The international cast and settings give Helios an undeniable blockbuster allure, and the movie does well to live up to both with its taut tale of a countries-spanning group of law enforcement officers attempting to stop an infamous criminal from selling an extremely dangerous nuclear weapon in Hong Kong.



Monster Hunt
Known as the "Father of Shrek" for his work on the popular Hollywood animated franchise, Raman Hui breaks ground in more ways than one in his Chinese directorial debut Monster Hunt. Combining his visual effects prowess with a family-friendly tale of a hapless villager and a tough-as-nails monster hunter who inadvertently become parents to a monster prince, Hui hit upon a winning formula. So winning, in fact, that Monster Hunt has become the highest-grossing Chinese film of all time. Stars Jing Boran and Bai Baihe do entertaining work here, but the stars of the film are undoubtedly the CGI monsters, particularly the radish-like monster prince Wuba. With this film, Hui opens the door on a new chapter in Chinese filmmaking, and with a Monster Hunt sequel on the way, it can only get bigger and better.



Our Times
Producer-turned-director Chen Yu Shan hit a homerun this year with her directorial debut Our Times, a sweet, hilarious romantic comedy that delivers a lovely bout of nostalgia. The film's many winning elements came together to produce a massive box office hit, making it a commercial (and spiritual) peer to Giddens's 2011 continent-sweeping You Are The Apple Of My Eye. Like that movie, Our Times stars central actors little known by the general public; though, after the success of the film, Vivian Sung and Darren Wang can no longer be considered under-the-radar. Following Cafe. Waiting. Love, Vivian Sung gives another solid performance as heroine Lin Zhen Xin, but it's Darren Wang who's the breakout star of Our Times, delivering a very impressive performance full of heart and hilarity as the ruffian with a heart of gold.



PK
3 Idiots writer-director Rajkumar Hirani returns with another massive hit in the charming and vital PK. Once again working with superstar Aamir Khan, Hirani crafts a warm, funny story of an alien who lands on earth and immediately has his communicator stolen, prompting him to seek help from earthlings' various gods in finding it. Khan is in fine form as the innocent, inquisitive, quick-learning and logical PK, ably communicating some of the most human of emotions - happiness, love and sorrow - from underneath a facade of otherworldly quirks and ticks. Partnered with a great Anushka Sharma, Khan's PK raises important questions about faith and religion as it exists in today's world. In PK, Hirani triumphs in a rare cinematic feat: creating a movie with a message that is also deeply entertaining.



Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen
There's something inherently funny about old people brandishing weapons and acting like a bunch of gangsters. Kitano Takeshi, the multitalented genius entertainer he is, understands this perfectly, which is a large part of why Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen is such a delight. Starring a group of highly respected veterans, the film pits eight over-the-hill gangsters against a bunch of amoral upstarts. Leading the show is the legendary Fuji Tatsuya, who hilariously plays against his image as one of 20th-century Japanese cinema's most feared villains. Quietly humorous for the most part, the film steadily builds towards a last act that is as ridiculous as it is wonderful, featuring a shootout scene so morbidly hilarious that it'll have you gasping in between fits of laughter.



Saving Mr. Wu
A serious contender for one of the tensest films of the year, Saving Mr. Wu sees Police Story 2013 director Ding Cheng delivering one of his best efforts yet in a story of an actor who gets taken by a group of vicious kidnappers. Inspired by the real-life 2004 kidnapping of co-star Wu Ruofu, the film works like the most gripping episode ever of a police procedural, keeping its wheels spinning non-stop during its tight 100-minute duration. Confined to a drab room for most of the movie, Andy Lau gives a reliably superb performance as the titular film star, deftly relaying the layers and nuances of a man who's intelligent and resourceful, but also aware enough of his situation to be desperate. Playing opposite Lau is Wang Qianyuan, who is pitch-perfect as the calculating mastermind behind the kidnapping.



SPL 2: A Time For Consequences
Tony Jaa, Wu Jing and Zhang Jin in a punch-'em-up free-for-all? Action movies can hardly get better than this. Released a full decade after the original, SPL 2 tells a brand-new story of a Hong Kong cop who is stranded at a Thai prison with a target on his back when he disrupts the plans of a ruthless kingpin. The tightly packed, noir-ish story provides an appropriate and satisfying backdrop to the film's centerpiece - action. With three hugely skilled martial artists leading the charge, it's no surprise that the action is first-rate. Watching the central trio do fisticuffs with seemingly superhuman speed and power is positively glee-inducing, while the young Unda Kunteera Yhordchanng gives the film a welcome dose of heart as Tony Jaa's daughter.



Sunflower Occupation
Though it didn’t attract nearly as much international attention as Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement did, Taiwan's Sunflower Occupation was no less a watershed moment for the island's inhabitants. Nine directors delve into a few of the many, many stories of the Occupation in this crowdfunded documentary, and the result is a film that is as chaotic and exhilarating as the movement that forms its subject. Through telling stories as disparate as a broad one about the Occupation's relationship to the Wild Lily Movement of 1990, to a much more intimate one about the emotional toll on youngsters who are determined to participate despite parental disapproval, Sunflower Occupation captures a specific, important moment in time for Taiwan and its youth.



Twenty
Growing up is hard to do, no matter your age, but one of the more stress-inducing milestones in that never-ending journey is graduating from high school. The paths laid out in front of fresh graduates can seem dizzyingly limitless, but paradoxically, also highly limited. Such is the dilemma faced by a trio of high school friends played by the extremely telegenic Kang Ha Neul, Kim Woo Bin and 2PM's Lee Jun Ho. While one pursues the path of practicality, another pursues the path of dreams and the last pursues the path of a layabout, each undergoes a lesson in what it means to grow up. The chemistry between the hilariously dopey trio is through the roof, and the movie is never funnier than when all three are together, with all of it culminating in what is perhaps one of the best comedic fight scenes ever put on film.






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Published December 24, 2015


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