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Best Asian Movies of 2016

Written by YumCha! Editorial Team Tell a Friend

Our editors' picks for the best Asian movies released on video in 2016!


After the Storm
It seems like every time Kore-eda Hirokazu directs a film, it makes my year-end top ten, but he's simply that masterful at telling small human stories. Like the auteur's last few films, After the Storm gently examines the dynamics of a normal strained family. Kore-eda regular Abe Hiroshi occupies an all too realistic character: the feckless middle-aged straggler who's not bad at heart, but has disappointed his family enough times for them to know that he won't easily change for the better. Behind on child support, Ryota heads to his mother's (Kiki Kirin) and looks for something to pawn. His ex-wife (Maki Yoko), who has clearly moved on, comes by with their son for the day but a typhoon forces them to stay the night. As the storm moves in, the four quietly clear the air, sharing memories and experiences that affirm the good, acknowledge the bad and offer moments of rare clarity and low-key reconciliation.

Being Good
The Light Shines Only There director Oh Mipo and screenwriter Takada Ryo's follow-up Being Good is as astute and assured as their previous effort, with the added benefit of being more diverse in theme and less relentlessly grim in tone. Based on a novel by Nakawaki Hatsue, the drama patiently intertwines multiple threads about a disengaged greenhorn teacher who is unsure of whether to intervene in the family matters of an abused student, a lonely elderly woman who befriends an autistic boy, and an agitated mother who regularly lashes out at her daughter in outbursts of anger. The thread with Ono Machiko as the abusive mother is the most impactful, but all the stories together serve to reflect on the difficult struggle between good and bad within everyday people in daily life.

The Boy and the Beast
Like Wolf Children, Hosoda Mamoru's latest fantasy is about youth coming of age between the worlds of humans and beasts, but The Boy and the Beast takes the conflict and creativity one step further into action-adventure territory with the tale of a young runaway who finds a home in an alternate realm of monsters. Under the tough love and training of boorish bear warrior Kumatetsu, Ren learns swordplay and grows from an angry boy into a pensive teen who begins to rethink his place and identity, much to the worry of his mentor. It's up to Ren to save the day when Kumatetsu's duel with a rival unleashes a debilitating force that threatens both the beast and human worlds. As he is apt to do, Hosoda employs fanciful animation and imaginative stories to magnificently manifest the anxieties of growing up and knowing oneself, and to reinforce the bonds of family. The Boy and the Beast may not surpass the high standard set by Wolf Children, but lateral movement is already more than enough to ensure the visionary animator's brand.

Brother Bajrani
Salman Khan barely uses his fists in Brother Bajrani, but that's alright because the movie eschews fighting for a far more powerful message of tolerance and compassion. The action superstar takes a peaceful stance as an earnest Brahmin of Forrest Gump-like honesty and persistence who takes in a lost mute girl. Brother Bajrangi assumes the adorable girl is of the same caste as him, but eventually learns through telltale signs like dietary preference and sports affiliation that she's a Muslim Pakistani. He embarks on an epic journey to bring her home, despite not knowing where home is besides a country he cannot legally enter. After crossing the border into Pakistan, the two encounter both hardheaded police and helpful strangers who, like Bajrani, set aside differences in religion and nationality for the common goal of reuniting the girl with her family. Brother Bajrani may be neither original nor challenging but it is immensely big-hearted. Within the wholesome designs of an uplifting cinema-filling crowd-pleaser, the film directly broaches highly sensitive issues and everyday parochialism, and appeals to the best of its audience with heart, humor and goodness.

Stephen Chow doesn't appear onscreen himself, but other than that, Mermaid embodies everything one loves about Stephen Chow films. The fantasy romance blockbuster draws looney-tunes physical comedy, nonsensical verbal comedy, over-the-top characters and delightful visual gags from the adventures of a young mermaid who is sent out to kill the cocky businessman destroying the merpeople's ocean home, but instead falls in love with him. As the bumbling underdog and the rich loser, respectively, breakout newcomer Jelly Lin and Deng Chao are fine conduits for Chow's signature humor and archetypes while Show Luo steals the show as an angry octopus merman subjected to some hilariously unfortunate indignities. As often in Chow films, the seriously silly antics serve to tell an ultimately sincere and heartfelt story of transcendent love with strong environmental themes thrown in for good measure.

Mr. Six
Feng Xiaogang – one of China's greatest filmmakers of all time – may actually be a better actor than director. That's how good he is as the eponymous hero of Mr. Six, an aged hoodlum upholding a bygone way of life. Feng delicately balances the rough act of a stubborn old fogey who can't recognize that his time has passed and a gruff man's man who lives by a code of honor and respect that the younger generation sorely lacks. When pushed up against the wall by his son's run-in with a wealthy and privileged street racer, Feng's Mr. Six espouses reason, bravado and honor in a calm Beijing drawl that would make even young'uns romanticize the old days. Guan Hu takes all the hallmarks of populist commercial cinema – Huayi Brothers money, the buzz casting of Li Yifeng and Kris Wu, even a TFBoys cameo – and uses them towards an uncompromising, genre-subverting gangster drama that's perfectly in line with his history of idiosyncratic characters and uncommon storytelling.

Port of Call
From the sensational premise of a gruesome ripped-from-headlines murder case emerges a subtle, engrossing character study about two lonely disaffected individuals who forge a fatal connection. Writer-director Philip Yung shocks early on with the gory details of a teen prostitute's dismemberment and the killer's matter-of-fact confession. With the "who" and "how" out of the way, Port of Call then spends most of its time exploring the "why," gradually reconstructing the disparate yet similarly restless and marginalized lives of the killer and the victim before they eventually cross paths. Aaron Kwok gives one of his best performances as a grizzled detective, but the revelations are newcomers Michael Ning and Jessie Li who create believable individuals out of an incomprehensible crime.

Right Now Wrong Then
Setting aside the tabloid scandal born from this production, Right Now, Wrong Then is a shining testament to Hong Sang Soo's extraordinary ability to keep telling the same story in a new way, this time back to back within one film. Hong has portrayed multiple similar yet different scenarios (Oki's Movie) and same encounters from different perspectives (Hahaha) before, but Right Now, Wrong Then employs another simple yet radical storytelling framework: directly telling the same story twice with different trajectories and outcomes based on small but significant variations in the way the protagonist, a married arthouse director (of course), talks and carries himself around the painter he becomes immediately smitten with. The result is a wickedly wry and painfully perceptive behavioral study on interactions, conversations and the follies of man.

The Throne
Lee Joon Ik has directed many great films in his two-decade career, and I consider The Throne to be his best to date. Based on one of the most curious and notorious stories of Joseon royal history, the handsome, harrowing historical drama gradually and precisely unfurls the fallout between the strict, calculating King Yeongjo and the son he executed in shocking manner, the tragic, manic Crown Prince Sado. Song Kang Ho and Yoo Ah In both deliver tremendous performances as the stern father and temperamental son whose personal differences in interests and demeanor balloon into irreconcilable estrangement in ideology and governance within the unforgiving confines of political power struggle and arcane court law. Stripping the father-son conflict to its raw emotional core, Lee begins the film with Sado being condemned to death and reveals through flashback the events that pushed the prince, step by step, into a self-destructive spiral of desperation and madness.

Three new directors on one crime film may sound like a potential recipe for disaster, but Trivisa has emerged as one of the strongest Milkyway Image titles of recent years. Frank Hui, Jevons Au and Vicky Wong each helm a thread about three notorious criminals who take different paths ahead of Hong Kong's Handover back to China in 1997: Richie Jen's guns-a-blazing robber switches to cross-border smuggling, Gordon Lam's meticulous thief maintains a low profile with small-scale jobs, and Jordan Chan's flashy mobster doubles down with boldly blatant abductions and blackmailing. The three operate independently but their names keep getting linked together in the underworld rumor mill, stoking the possibility for a team-up. On the outset, Trivisa is a deliberately paced crime drama whose lead-up matters more than the pay-off, but the film has deeper, more provocative subtext. The protagonists' reckless restlessness, frustrated concessions, career anxiety and burning desire to do something – anything – in reaction to transformative forces beyond their control all form a compelling allegory about the feelings of Hong Kongers before the Handover.


Alice in Earnestland
Adventures are not limited to fantasy tales. Life in reality can be as dramatic as that of imaginary worlds. While Alice falls into a rabbit hole that takes her to a wonderland in Lewis Carroll's famous fairy tale, Soo Nam (Lee Jung Hyun) is trapped in a cruel reality in first-time director Ahn Gooc Jin's bloody yet realistic comedy Alice in Earnestland. Though she just wants a simple and happy family life, she ends up working in a factory despite her many academic qualifications, living a difficult life with a deaf and disabled husband, and being tortured by opponents of an urban renewal program that would ease her debt. Through Soo Nam's unfortunate story, the film expresses the frustrations of those who suffer from the consequences of stagnant education and skyrocketing housing prices. In spite of its low budget, Alice in Wonderland stands out from the blockbusters thanks to its dark, thought-provoking yet humorous plot.

Coin Locker Girl
Noir crime movies are typically dominated by men but The Gifted Hands screenwriter Han Jung Hee's directorial debut presents a stylish female-centric crime action story that shows life in its hardest form. In order to stay alive, Il Young (Kim Go Eun) carries out her adoptive Mother's (Kim Hye Su) horrible commands. However, she realizes that no one can be trusted in this dog-eat-dog world. She eventually betrays Mother to protect her love (Park Bo Gum) who is saddled with his runaway father's debt. Coin Locker Girl is not just a crime story but also a cruel coming-of-age tale about Il Young's tough journey of growth. The intense onscreen chemistry between Kim Hye Su and Kim Go Eun, who exhibit the complicated love-hate relationship between mothers and daughters, is a major highlight of the film.

Flying Colors
Delinquent students are often thought to be hopeless but cram school teacher Tsubota Nobutaka doesn't think so. He devoted himself to helping rebellious student Kobayashi Sayaka pass the entrance exam of the famous Keio University and shared the story in his 2013 best-selling novel. Though Flying Colors doesn't bring any surprises due to its predictable ending, director Doi Nobuhiro skillfully adapts the inspirational youth tale about how Sayaka achieves her success into a lighthearted story shedding light on the meaning of education and family communication. A comedic tone is also added to the film thanks to the stark personality differences and nonsensical conversations between Arimura Kasumi's high school girl and Ito Atsushi's passionate teacher.

Lazy Hazy Crazy
Lazy Hazy Crazy is an unconventional Hong Kong youth film about sexuality, love and friendship. First-time helmer Jody Luk, a screenwriter on Love in the Buff and Vulgaria, largely focuses on the unbreakable friendship of high school friends Chloe (Koyi Mak), Tracy (Ashina Kwok) and Alice (Fish Liew) through many intimate scenes. However, the most important theme is modern attitude towards sex and love. Tracy reflects the social value that love and sex are independent of each other, while her love interest Andrew betrays a common double standard regarding male and female sexuality. Adopting a different approach to a coming-of-age story, Luk doesn't only talk about friendship and high school love, but also gives voice to girls involved in compensating dating and takes audiences into their inner worlds.

Love, Lies
The 1940s was a dark period for a Korea under the shadow of Japanese occupation but it was also the golden age of early Korean pop music, later known as trot. In this time of clash between traditional and modern music, a fierce conflict breaks out between two top gisaeng entertainers aspiring to be famous singers in director Park Heung Sik’s period romance Love, Lies. After losing both her songwriter boyfriend (Yoo Yeon Seok) and the chance of debuting as a singer to her best friend Yeon Hee (Chun Woo Hee), So Yul (Han Hyo Ju) takes revenge on her betrayers, leading to tragic consequences all around. So Yul is a complex character but Han Hyo Ju succeeds in conveying the character’s inner struggle between friendship and anger. Her convincing portrayal of the character wins the audience's sympathy despite So Yul’s malicious behavior. Besides featuring trendy fashion and music concepts of the era, Love, Lies delicately depicts raw emotions of jealousy, love, anger, sorrow and loneliness.

She Remembers, He Forgets
Many people forget their dreams as they grow older but She Remembers, He Forgets reminds us of the importance of having dreams. While many youth romances like You Are the Apple of My Eye and Our Times focus on bittersweet first love, The Way We Dance director Adam Wong and producer Saville Chan present an encouraging dream-chasing tale for their second collaboration. In their younger days, Gigi (Miriam Yeung) dreamed of traveling around the world while her husband Shing Wah (Jan Lam) wanted to study design abroad. Though neither have succeeded in fulfilling those dreams yet as adults, the film gives hope that their dreams will come true someday. The happiness of having dreams is skillfully created through the contrasting moods of the protagonists' teenage salad days and the gloomy present day.

The Silenced
Missing people in a boarding school may be a familiar theme for suspense mysteries, but Lee Hae Young's The Silenced differentiates itself with surprising plot development, supernatural elements and the dark history of the Japanese occupation. The offbeat suspense mystery empowers young victims of the time to fight against one of the darkest legacies of the Japanese invasion. Though the plot is unrealistic and dramatic, Park Bo Young successfully expands her acting range through her heroic role of Joo Ran, who eventually takes revenge for the girls who go missing. Besides the spooky plot, Lee also pays fine attention to the lighting and composition, as well as costumes and sound effects, to create a creepy mood for the film.

The Tag-Along
"Don't look back when you hear someone call your name, or you'll be possessed by the spirit mosien." The popular urban legend about a forest-dwelling spirit that appears in the form of a child or monkey is not something new to Taiwan audiences. Rather than just aiming to scare audiences, director Cheng Wei Hao breaks horror movie convention and reinterprets the spooky story into a meaningful supernatural tale about love, family and the environment in his feature debut. Depicted as an inner demon, the mosien plays an important role in helping Yi Chun (Tiffany Hsu) and her boyfriend Wei (River Huang), whose beloved grandmother mysteriously went missing, confront their guilt and fears. It's hard to act with CGI characters but Tiffany Hsu does a great job of fully expressing the fear, confusion and inner struggle of Yi Chun, who ventures into the forest to save Wei.

You Call It Passion
Passion for work is the key to success but many unscrupulous employers use it as an excuse to exploit workers. Directed by Jeong Gi Hoon, the workplace comedy You Call It Passion criticizes this social problem in a lighthearted manner and offers encouragement to victims. Park Bo Young stars as rookie entertainment reporter Do Ra Hee, who is constantly rebuked by bad-tempered desk editor Ha Jae Kwan (Jung Jae Young) for her lack of passion. It's a bit awkward when the comedy suddenly turns into a suspense in the second half, but the change of mood perfectly coincides with Ra Hee's transformation from an obedient yet. troublemaking intern into a serious and passionate reporter. With its unrealistic yet optimistic story about the newbie reporter who miraculously saves the company, You Call It Passion gives hope to those struggling with career problems that their passion will soon be valued.

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Published December 22, 2016

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