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YumCha! Picks: Best Asian Movies of 2012

Written by YumCha! Editorial Team Tell a Friend

With 2012 ending in a few days and the world still around, we're looking back and counting down our favorite releases of the year. Out of all the Asian movies that were released this year on video, here's what our editors have picked as the Best Movies of 2012!


Ending Note (Japan)
It takes a special kind of dedication to film to have the ability to commemorate your father's last days with a feature-length documentary, and Sunada Mami has that dedication in spades. In order to capture as much of her father's last days as possible, Sunada not only resorts to secretly leaving the camera on during her parents' tearful farewell, she also fills in the gaps with narration written from her late father's point of view. Filmmaking ethics aside, Ending Note is a moving film laced with humor, hope and love.

Ghost of a Chance (Japan)
Mitani Koki's films have always been criticized for staying too closely to the writer-director's theatrical roots, but Mitani finally makes his most cinematic film yet with Ghost of a Chance, a strange but expertly crafted blend of Capra-esque underdog drama and supernatural comedy. Mitani's script is a textbook example of how to make a commercial comedy, masterfully balancing laughs with just the right amount of really effective tearjerker moments. The great comic performances by a spunky Fukatsu Eri and Nishida Toshiyuki (as the spirit of a dead samurai) are just icing on the cake.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi (US/Japan)
David Gelb offers a fascinating look into the world of Ono Jiro, one of the greatest sushi chefs in the world. Moving effortlessly between food porn and an observational documentary, Gelb effectively gets the appeal of Jiro's sushi across with awe-inspiring close-ups of his masterpieces while also showing us the price of running a world-renowned restaurant (namely, his relationship with his sons). Be warned: After seeing the delectable shots of sushi in Jiro Dreams of Sushi, you may never want to go to your local sushi joint again.

Lethal Hostage (China)
Director Ning Hao's highlight of the year isn't his latest directorial effort Guns and Roses, but rather putting his name as the producer of Cheng Er's Lethal Hostage. This quiet and gripping crime drama about the drug trade around the China-Burma border shows the strength of visual storytelling. The plot has as many knots as a pretzel, but a little patience will be duly rewarded with a strong and surprisingly emotionally effective conclusion.

Life Without Principle (Hong Kong/China)
With Life Without Principle, Johnnie To doesn't offer any easy answers about Hong Kong's obsession with money, but he does offer a gripping ensemble drama showing its consequences. To practically points a mirror at his home audiences, showing how greed and quick fortune have consumed Hong Kongers of all social classes. Johnnie To says the films of Jia Zhangke have influenced him into a new self-proclaimed phase of his career, and it's clear that he is transforming that influence into something even better.

Love Strikes (Japan)
Romantic comedies have rarely been as hip as Love Strikes, the film continuation of the manga-based television drama. While it doesn't deliver on the "moteki" ("magnetic period") premise as well as its television predecessor, writer-director One Hitoshi once again cleverly sweetens his tough look at the difficulties of modern dating with nerd fantasy fulfillment and an explosion of pop culture references. The four women are equally attractive, but Nagasawa Masami leads the pack as the hero's unattainable goddess, reminding her male fans why they fell in love with her in the first place back in 2004.

Pieta (Korea)
Pieta isn't Kim Ki Duk's best film, nor does it reach the maddening heights of Arirang (a darkly hilarious portrayal of a tortured genius if there ever was one), but it is definitely a return to form for Korean cinema's enfant terrible. What begins as a disturbingly violent tale of a debt collector who is a little too good at crippling debtors becomes an emotional tale of redemption and maternal love. Kim hasn't lost his edge in terms of screen violence, but it's amazing to discover so much humanity buried within what appears to be such an unflinching film.

Silenced (Korea)
It's no hyperbole when I say that Silenced is one of the most disturbing, unsettling films of the year, especially when you realize that the film is based on a true story (with dramatic licenses taken, of course). However, I've been able to take comfort in the fact that Korean audiences were so outraged by the film that laws were changed to make sure such injustices will never happen again. Silenced has its share of filmmaking flaws, but director Hwang Dong Hyuk has made a film so effective at evoking emotions that the end ultimately justifies the means.

A Simple Life (Hong Kong)
Based on a true story, Ann Hui's drama could've been an easy tug on the heartstrings with shots of sickly old people and heavy piano music. Instead, the script by Roger Lee (the real-life protagonist of the story) and Sunny Chan keeps the proceedings light with surprising humor, while Hui takes a down-to-earth approach to the material that unsparingly shows the state of elderly care in Hong Kong. In the end, A Simple Life isn't just the story of one man and his elderly maid – it's the story of a generation forgotten by modernity.

Unbowed (Korea)
Silenced and Unbowed have taken Korean cinema to a new place where even commercial cinema can induce social change. Like Silenced, Unbowed is largely successful in evoking outrage against the flaws of the legal system. However, dealing with a less disturbing subject matter (a professor defending his use of a crossbow on a biased judge), Unbowed is also the more enjoyable film of the two. Nevertheless, director Chung Ji Young's approach doesn't undermine the severity of the subject matter, creating a film that encourages everyone to stand up for themselves in the face of injustice.


Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (Hong Kong/China)
No one delivers a better martial arts spectacle than Tsui Hark at the top of his game, and kudos to the wily director for actually using 3D effects well to integrate new-school tricks into old-school wuxia. Tsui returns to Dragon Inn with an entertaining and convoluted adventure about fugitive swordsmen and bandits forming a coalition at a desert inn hiding vast treasures, while bad guys, shifting loyalties and an incoming sandstorm threaten to crash the party. Jet Li headlines with dignified swordplay action but it's Aloys Chen who steals the show in dual roles as a crafty swindler and an evil eunuch.

Himizu (Japan)
Just when you think a Sono Sion film couldn't get any grimmer, the auteur set his adaptation of Minoru Furuya's Himizu in the disaster-afflicted region of Japan, adding a jarringly bleak and muddy backdrop to the already bleak story of a disaffected youth driven to the edge. His hopes for normalcy dashed by violent parents, the teen protagonist descends into darkness, while an equally abused classmate tries her disturbingly enthusiastic best to pull him back. Unsettling violence abounds with characters beating and slapping each other seemingly every other scene, but Himizu doesn't have the extreme bloodshed or institutional malaise of Sono's previous films, offering up an odd beacon of hope and humanity amid the brutality.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi (US/Japan)
Jiro Dreams of Sushi and so did I after watching David Gelb's wonderful documentary about the octogenarian sushi chef who runs a ten-seat Michelin three-star restaurant in Tokyo. Seriously, that sushi looks good. Despite all the beauty shots of sushi, the film is less about the food and more about the chef, Ono Jiro. The enigmatic elder and the discipline he embodies – the serious, single-minded pursuance of perfection in one's trade – make for an interesting and inspiring character study and offer glimpses into the long, lonely road to becoming a master chef. Also, that sushi looks good.

Love is Not Blind (China)
After two hit TV dramas, director Teng Huatao and star Wen Zhang took their partnership to the big screen for a different spin on contemporary urban life and love. Following a young woman's 33-day post-breakup journey to emotional closure, the story belongs to Bai Baihe as the everywoman heroine, but the more outstanding role goes to Wen Zhang as the sharp-tongued, soft-hearted, metrosexual co-worker who becomes her voice of reason and antidote to heartbreak. From their light, warm friendship stems a new beginning and a new kind of relationship drama that reflects the lifestyles and worldviews of today's young urbanites.

Punch (Korea)
Punch could have been an inspiring film about an eccentric teacher reforming a rebellious student. Or a troubled youth finding purpose in boxing. Or a reticent son reconciling with his mother. Or even a social drama about the minority experience. All of these movies would be easier to explain, because while Punch has the aforementioned story threads, it doesn't fall into the familiar formula of conflict and resolution. Instead, Punch starts with Kim Yoon Seok and Yoo Ah In's stock teacher and outcast characters and then leads the audience into a small world filled with different people, places and problems that neither stay nor go away, but rather grow and change a little, day by day. That this subtle process could be so warm, realistic and enjoyable makes Punch more than worthy of the accolades and box office it received.

Silenced (Korea)
Silenced is not an easy film to watch. For lack of a better word, it's an important film, one that elicits feelings of shock, disgust, grief, rage and dreadful helplessness. Inspired by a true story of sexual abuse at a school for hearing-impaired children, Silenced never lets audiences off for even a moment from the terrible truth. It lingers a few horrifying seconds longer than expected before cutting away from scenes of implied abuse and gets you in the gut over and over again with the failure of the judicial system to punish the perpetrators. The film sparked so much public outrage about the real case, it led to the passing of a revised bill concerning sex offenders. As harrowing as it is, Silenced is a testament to how powerful cinema can be.

A Simple Life (Hong Kong)
One of Hong Kong's most beloved onscreen mother-son pairings, Deanie Ip and Andy Lau quietly reunite in this human drama about family and aging, and the awards naturally followed. Deanie and Andy don't play mother and son in A Simple Life, but their relationship is just as close and uniquely Hong Kong: a domestic helper who has served multiple generations of a family and the employer who takes care of her like a son in her final days. Just like Ann Hui's The Way We Are a few years ago, the bittersweet film excels in its honestly humdrum yet heartrending depiction of the way we live and the way we age, the bonds we build and the choices we make.

Starry Starry Night (Taiwan)
The magic of Jimmy Liao's illustrated books lies not in the plot but the sentiments and imagery, the way he captures adult heartbreak and misgivings through childhood innocence and imagination. This is not something that can be readily translated into a commercial film, but Tom Lin gets it right with his gentle, fanciful adaptation of Starry Starry Night. From the whimsical CG animation and art direction to the simple, integral decision of entrusting the film to the child leads, Lin's Starry Starry Night stays true to the heart and aesthetics of Liao's precocious story of two introverted kids who take flight into the woods, escaping the reality of loss through fantasy and friendship.

Tatsumi (Singapore)
Eric Khoo's animated biopic of manga artist Tatsumi Yoshihiro quietly defies traditional presentations of animation and biopics. The Singapore director combines the dark short stories and somber life story of Tatsumi into a handsome feature celebrating the man who pioneered Japan's adult gekiga genre. Tatsumi's gruesome tales come alive onscreen contrasted against his own comparatively reserved life, creating a wonderful dichotomy of changing times in a changing Japan. What the film achieves visually is impressive, using sharp and simple animation that recreates Tatsumi's bold artwork and lyrical despair into moving comic strips. An unexpected film from Khoo, but arguably his most watchable.

You are the Apple of My Eye (Taiwan)
At this point, it's probably tempting to dismiss Apple for being too popular and overrated rather than to give it further praise, but the record-breaking, coming-of-age film simply strikes a chord with movie-goers. As a youth film, Apple's greatest strength is that it comes with no agenda or baggage, other than perhaps writer-director Giddens' jokester self-indulgence. The movie is about high school friends who fall hesitantly in love, make wholehearted fools of themselves and live to tell the story years later. Giddens doesn't try to make Apple any bigger than that common, sincere experience of first love, first loss and buoyant school days filled with fond memories of goofing off and jerking off – and that turned it into one of Taiwan's biggest films of all time.


The Bullet Vanishes (Hong Kong/China)
Lo Chi Leung's period thriller proved to be a well-crafted detective story rarely seen in Chinese cinema. Powered by an intricately plotted script, the film succeeds in constructing a clever and compelling case of the "perfect crime" that sounds logical and plausible, with one plot twist after another where layers of hidden details keep viewers guessing until the last minute (and possibly beyond). It also benefits from the endearing pairing of Lau Ching Wan and Nicholas Tse, who elevate the film above the generic buddy-cop formula, as well as the impressive technical package, in particular the sophisticated production art and camerawork.

The Flowers of War (China)
War is always atrocious and ugly, but it occasionally reflects a shining side of humanity that makes for great cinema. Mainland's top director Zhang Yimou tackles the Nanjing Massacre with his big-budget, mainstream retelling of the legend of the heroic prostitutes. Frankly, it doesn't pack quite the same level of visceral punch like Lu Chuan's similarly themed City of Life and Death, but it features stunning battle scenes and manages to tell a compelling human drama with a technically sound, world-class production. Acting is ace across the board, with some goosebump-inducing moments courtesy of Christian Bale and newcomers Ni Ni and Huang Tianyuan (the church boy).

Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (Hong Kong/China)
Easily the most entertaining epic of the year, Tsui Hark's follow-up to Detective Dee lets loose his imaginative martial arts mayhem and visual effects spectacle. New 3D technology has given him more toys to play with, and Flying Swords of Dragon Gate is by far the landmark achievement among stereoscopic Chinese films. A tribute to the 1967 King Hu classic and a quasi-sequel to Tsui's 1992 remake, the zealous wuxia costumer comfortably holds viewers' attention throughout with exhilarating fights, engaging drama and Aloys Chen in scene-stealing dual roles.

Let's Go! (Hong Kong)
After the dark and melancholic Revenge: A Love Story, director Wong Ching Po and star Juno Mak teamed up again on the more accessible and easier-to-like Let's Go!. Unfortunately, this genre mishmash is still much underrated and overlooked. But there sure is plenty to enjoy in this fun little superhero fantasy – the heavily nostalgic flavor (primarily as a loving homage to 80s Japanese mecha anime), the hot-blooded and quite violent good-versus-evil narrative, the superb supporting cast, and the explosive climax that gleefully spirals out of control.

Life Without Principle (Hong Kong/China)
With Life Without Principle, Johnnie To demonstrates why he is a flagbearer of Hong Kong cinema, turning in one of the highlights of his career (that's saying something) with this darkly comic critique of the human condition in the money-mad world. Treading somewhat similar grounds to the recent Overheard series, To's crime drama hits closer to home with a bigger impact. Never before had a film depicted an everyday conversation (the scene in the bank) so matter-of-factly yet so quietly disturbing. Lau Ching Wan unsurprisingly stands out from the brilliant ensemble cast, owning the film with his uncanny portrayal of a goofy gangster whose altruistic loyalty gets duly rewarded.

LOVE (Taiwan)
Doze Niu established his cinematic credibility with Monga, and then cemented his standing with LOVE. The ensemble romantic drama is the quintessential Valentine's movie and a remarkable triumph of Taiwan commercial cinema. The film distributes screentime evenly among its three interesting and interconnected storylines, giving the eight charismatic stars an even field to wrestle with each other. The rich characterization is one of the film's major merits, and the showy long take in the beginning deserves some extra points.

Love in the Buff (Hong Kong/China)
2012 marks the year that Pang Ho Cheung made the leap from a critics' darling to a crowd-favorite director. His first truly popular movie (and deservedly so), Love in the Buff shows that Pang has hit top creative form, taking a new spin of what worked in the original to make it feel fresh and still very delightful – no easy task mind you. Made mostly with the Mainland market in mind, the rom-com sequel displays a diplomatic finesse in addressing the cultural difference issues, pleasing everybody everywhere without losing its Hong Kong personality and integrity.

Love Is Not Blind (China)
It was a close call between two similar films, but after some arbitrary consideration on this editor's part, Teng Huatao's Love Is Not Blind claimed the spot ahead of Giddens' You Are the Apple of My Eye, albeit just narrowly. Both were inspired rom-com novel adaptations and surprise box-office megahits featuring charming actors in the lead. Perhaps it's the outrageously awesome Wen Zhang that made the difference. He just nails it as the broken-hearted heroine's catty colleague, perfect best friend and potential new beau all rolled into one.

The Pork of Music (Hong Kong/China)
The fourth McDull animated feature thankfully retains its witty charm and unique Hong Kong grassroots sensibility. Incorporating the stylistic influence of comic artist Yeung Hok Tak in the world of McDull may seem rather jarringly disconcerting initially, but once you get past that, it's still the big old buddy you know and love. Once again, the urban fable makes a humorous yet poignant representation of the typical life of the average people in this gritty world. Being the heart and soul of this latest chapter, the fan-favorite Headmaster (voiced by Anthony Wong) will effortlessly tug at your heartstrings, whereas the amazing musical numbers will give you an urge to poo-poo, too.

Vulgaria (Hong Kong)
Just when Pang Ho Cheung seemed to have jumped on the China-bound bandwagon, the maverick filmmaker served up an antithesis of the co-production flick in Vulgaria. Candidly crude with its appreciation of the fine art of Cantonese cuss words, this quickie (it was reportedly made in just a couple of weeks) tells of the bizarre people and phenomena in the filmmaking community, and is in general more satisfying than Pang's 2005 film AV. Hilarious and outright over-the-top, the showbiz satire has many memorable scenes, a notable example being the hysterical feast with Chapman To, Simon Lui and Ronald Cheng.

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Published December 27, 2012

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