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YumCha! Picks: Best Asian Movies of 2013

Written by YumCha! Editorial Team Tell a Friend

Another year, another list! We start off our year-end countdown with our picks for the best Asian movies released on video in 2013.


Back to 1942 (China)
Arguably China's most successful filmmaker, Feng Xiaogang took a big risk by depicting a dark chapter in contemporary Chinese history as a dark comedy. The result is a cynical, pessimistic and very darkly funny film about the 1942 Henan famine, which killed millions of people. From the very beginning, when a careless servant's slip of the tongue sets off a deadly riot, to the very end when we're left with a lone survivor, Feng never goes for the easy tearjerker moment. Mother Nature may have caused the famine, but writer Liu Zhenyun implies that the power of greed and desperation on all sides did the killing. A disappointment at the box office, Back to 1942 may become Feng's most misunderstood film.

Cold Eyes (Korea)
The basic narrative of the Korean remake of Hong Kong's Eye in the Sky adheres pretty closely to the story of the original film, but it's also an improvement in most aspects. There's one new character, a more complicated back story for the villain (played here by a menacing Jung Woo Sung) and a new ending, but the biggest change is mainly directors Jo Eui Seok and Kim Byung Seo's decision to amp up the suspense. The story moves at a breakneck pace without ignoring its characters, and the result is a slick, highly entertaining thriller that grips its audience until the very end.

Flashback Memories (Japan)
A traffic accident took away didgeridoo performer GOMA's old memories, as well as his ability to make new memories. Director Matsue Tetsuaki's concert film/documentary puts GOMA in the spotlight, showing snapshots of GOMA's past life (with intertitles to fill out the gaps) as GOMA and his band perform their brilliantly funky jungle-style pieces in the foreground. Originally shot in 3D (though I saw it in 2D), Flashback Memories looks as if it is the process of GOMA piecing his lost memories back together, even though he probably doesn't even remember recording his performance for this film. Fortunately, the magic of cinema will preserve that memory for GOMA forever. Did I mention that the music is great, too?

Garden of Words (Japan)
With Five Centimeters per Second and Garden of Words, Shinkai Makoto has proven himself to be a filmmaker who understands urban isolation. His latest film – running just 45 minutes – is a simple but genuinely moving story about two lonely souls bonding in a Tokyo park on rainy days, but their friendship is complicated when they return to the real world. Tokyo, especially Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, has never looked more vivid, and Shinkai's characters are as emotionally complex as ever.

The Grandmaster (Hong Kong/China)
Wong Kar Wai's tribute to the martial arts world is not an Ip Man biography. It starts and ends with the famous Wing Chun master, but he's only a part of Wong's portrait of a fading world bound by long-standing traditions. Tony Leung Chiu Wai is strong as expected as Ip Man, but Zhang Ziyi steals the show with her performance as Gong Er, the tragic character who spends her life paying the price for putting revenge and family honor ahead of personal happiness. Anyone who doesn't see how The Grandmaster is a true martial arts film should take another look and see the content beyond Yuen Woo Ping's fight scenes.

The Great Passage (Japan)
Everyone has used a dictionary at some point, but no one thinks about how long it takes to create one. Thanks to Ishii Yuya and writer Watanabe Kensaku, editors finally have a film to call their own with The Great Passage. A warm, gentle dramedy about a publishing firm's decade-long quest to create a new dictionary, The Great Passage highlights the work of people who make things that we need but often take for granted. The film – based on the novel by Miura Shiwon - may not reach the manic highs of Ishii's previous comedies, but it is still very funny and has plenty of heart.

Key of Life (Japan)
Uchida Kenji's latest comedy is far less complex than the disjointed narratives of Stranger of Mine and After School, but it still has a fun, twist-filled narrative that will keep audiences on their toes. The story – about a professional assassin who loses his memory and the slacker who switches places with him – doesn't break any ground in the genre, but Uchida's expert execution and sly humor make this award-winning comedy the most enjoyable film in the writer-director's career.

Return Ticket (China)
The annual Lunar New Year migration may be a unique Chinese phenomenon, but it's not difficult to relate to the women in Return Ticket. Director Deng Yongxing paints a heartfelt portrait of several women struggling to survive in the big city, including an out-of-work factory worker whose latest scheme involves organizing a bus trip to transport people home for the holiday. For all the talk in the media about Chinese economic and political situations, very few seem to care about the lives of ordinary people trying to not get left behind in a rapidly changing society. Return Ticket helps to fill that void.

A Story of Yonosuke (Japan)
160 minutes sound like a long time for the simple story about a year in the life of a naïve country boy in Tokyo, but A Story of Yonosuke is worth every second. Okita Shuichi's intimate saga, starring Kora Kengo as the titular hero, is charming, bittersweet, romantic and also strangely life affirming. Not everyone has a friend as eccentric as Yokomichi Yonosuke in their lives, but anyone can relate to that feeling of longing for lost friends. A Story of Yonosuke may inspire you to reconnect with those friends.

Wolf Children (Japan)
This melancholic story of a single mother and her two half-wolf children may lack the energetic flair of Summer Wars, but it marks an evolution of director Hosoda Mamoru as a storyteller. Instead of packaging it as a fantasy, Hosoda rarely strays from real world issues like peer pressure, a teenager's growing pains and learning when to let your children go live their own lives. Wolf Children is simply one of the best parenthood films of 2013, animated or otherwise.


Back to 1942 (China)
A disaster drama about China's famine of 1942 seems like an unlikely medium for Feng Xiaogang to return to his satirical black comedy roots, and yet that's what he accomplishes with Back to 1942. The grim account of a refugee family fleeing drought-ravaged, wartime Henan reflects the starvation and dislocation of millions and the egregious corruption and apathy of a government that abandoned its own. But there's a hardy, humorous bite to the story as people make difficult choices and find ways to live on against absurd adversity. The matter-of-fact way in which lives are lost one by one offers perhaps the most shockingly realistic portrayal of the senseless tragedy that engulfed a generation who experienced loss and devastation in tides. After all, it's hard not be reminded while watching 1942 that this famine would be followed by an even worse man-made famine 15 years later.

Go Grandriders (Taiwan)
A group of elderly dreamers go on the trip of their (long) lives in this inspiring Taiwan documentary. The 13-day, round-island motorbike journey would not be easy for even a young person, let alone "grandriders" in their 70s and 80s. Far from being superhuman seniors, the grandriders are all normal old folks driven by heart, determination and stubbornness to complete such a trip in their twilight years despite the risks and pains. The documentary follows their amazing trip in straightforward manner, highlighting their struggles and tough spirit, and telling the stories - like the friendship of two riders who once fought on opposite sides of the war - that lie behind wrinkled eyes.

The Grandmaster (Hong Kong/China)
Wong Kar Wai's long-awaited martial arts epic finally arrived this year, and it's as visually and emotionally beguiling as anything he's ever done – mesmerizingly beautiful bouts, lingering looks between words, smoldering emotions never expressed and wistful longing for a bygone era. Though nominally anchored around Tony Leung's inscrutable, mild-mannered Ip Man, the film offers a much broader look at the form and meaning of martial arts by bringing in different schools and different grandmaster arcs that parallel, and in the case of Zhang Ziyi's Gong Er, even overshadow Ip Man's. In one of WKW's most memorable characters ever, Zhang personifies pure awesomeness as a proud and defiant woman who takes what's hers in a man's world.

The Great Passage (Japan)
As an editor, I can't help being fond of this mundanely epic story of a small publishing team's creation of a new dictionary. This small unexciting necessity requires a decade-long undertaking that involves lots of filing words on index cards and discussions on the relevancy of obscure words and emerging terms. To drive in the nerd quotient further, the film's hero is an awkward, inemotive type, though he nonetheless manages to charm the audience (and Miyazaki Aoi) thanks to an idiosyncratic portrayal by Matsuda Ryuhei, whose blank face, measured delivery and eccentric mannerisms fit the role perfectly. Setting aside the hyperactive tone of his previous works, director Ishii Yuya opts for a quietly stirring story that patiently, precisely and deservedly earns its every moment of everyday triumph and tribulation.

Juvenile Offender (Korea)
A simple human drama that goes a long way, Juvenile Offender portrays the achingly realistic circumstances of a delinquent teen's reunion with the young mother who abandoned him. Living together for the first time after his release from youth detention, mother and son take hopeful steps towards a normal family, but old habits die hard in a society that offers little recourse for those who once strayed. Kang Yi Kwan's script doesn't ever resort to overt judgment, sympathy or heart tugging in the depiction of the troubled protagonists, both flawed but basically decent people who can't quite find their ways. Lee Jung Hyun is captivating as the deceptively immature mother, while Seo Young Joo, only 14 years old at the time, is compelling beyond his years.

The Kirishima Thing (Japan)
Rumors spread quickly when popular student Kirishima suddenly quits the volleyball team. His unexplained absence sends ripples through the school as his peers try to make sense of the news in intertwined episodes told from the perspectives of various students – from the jocks to the popular girls down to the film club geeks led by Kamiki Ryunosuke, whose efforts to shoot a zombie movie keep getting hilariously disrupted. The nonlinear narrative gradually reveals different sides of the same interactions and the ever fragile, ever awkward social dynamics of high school. Yoshida Daihachi's disarming school drama has no shocking secrets or transgressions to report, but rather serves as a cleverly staged microcosm of high school hierarchy and the common insecurities that underlie adolescent relationships.

The Last Supper (China)
Lu Chuan joined the long line of acclaimed Mainland directors making luscious costume epics with The Last Supper but despite the big names and big budget, his was no commercially friendly feature. Different in tone, visuals and storytelling than other recent productions on the period, Lu's eerie and elliptical depiction of the Chu-Han Contention opens with Liu Ye as the maddened Han King Liu Bang in his later years, haunted by recollections of the Feast at Hong Gate and his battle with Xiang Yu (Daniel Wu). His hard won palace permeates with the air of coldness and alienation, amplified by the echoing sound of shuffling attendants amid empty vastness. The famous Feast at Hong Gate is considered the turning point of the Chu-Han Contention, but Lu's disorienting retelling redefines what that turning point means.

Masquerade (Korea)
What's better than Lee Byung Hun? TWO Lee Byung Huns! For his first ever costume outing, the handsome star takes on meaty dual roles as the imposing King Gwanghae and the wily lookalike jester who becomes his stand-in. The usually cool and unflappable actor surprises as the crude and comedic commoner forced to sit on the throne, though eventually the peasant learns to play the part of king a bit too well. Highlighting curious palace rituals, court politics and historical intrigue unique to the time and place, Masquerade effectively transplants The Prince and the Pauper setup to Joseon Korea with a tight screenplay and charismatic leading performance.

Unbeatable (Hong Kong/China)
Unbeatable's main talking point is the MMA, which indeed delivers with an abundance of intense, wince-inducing, bone-crunching, head-locking fights and training sequences. What puts Unbeatable an uppercut above the rest though is actually the human drama and brotherhood melodrama, something that Dante Lam is often hit or miss on. This time it's an emphatic hit, with Eddie Peng and particularly Nick Cheung putting in impressive physical and affecting dramatic performances as the inexperienced rookie upstart and the troubled over-the-hill veteran, both underdogs searching for purpose and redemption in the ring. Arguably, Dante Lam's best film of the past decade.

Wolf Children (Japan)
Be it as a star-crossed romance between a university girl and a wolfman, a delightful family drama about raising two rambunctious children in the countryside or a coming-of-age tale about half-wolf siblings struggling with their identities, Wolf Children really gets you in the heart in every stage of its story. Hosoda Mamoru's wonderful animated fantasy is whimsical and magical in so many ways, but the sentiments of a family growing together through good and hard times, of a mother watching in apprehension as her children find their own ways, are universal and heartbreaking. A near perfect film that leaves only one question: How much better can Hosoda Mamoru get?


American Dreams in China (Hong Kong/China)
Peter Chan tactfully blends his own life story into this highly dramatic and marketable comedy. Chan sorts out longtime regrets in his filmmaking career with this rags-to-riches story about three ambitious Chinese intellects who realize their dreams in their motherland. While the theme may lose some of its appeal outside China, it is by all means remarkable how Chan transforms his life journey into a dramatic story while happily embracing the Chinese spirit.

Blind Detective (Hong Kong/China)
Johnnie To and Wai Ka Fai have done it again! Tackling their favorite genre of crime, the directors bring back Hong Kong's most beloved screen couple – Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng of Needing You, Yesterday Once More and Love On A Diet – in the detective comedy Blind Detective. Lau plays a bizarre, mysterious and paranoid blind detective who pairs up with a rookie officer to solve cases around town. Cleverly downplaying scenes of cannibalism and mutilation, the film sustains an uncanny atmosphere while keeping the humor intact. Of course, the chemistry between the couple and Lau's eccentricity make the film all the more amusing.

Drug War (Hong Kong/China)
Crime thrillers don't get better than this. Drug War is another dynamic, nerve-wrecking cops-and-robbers movie at Johnnie To's best. Louis Koo excels as a cunning drug dealer who works with the police to bust China's drug trade business. Ending the movie in surprising bloodshed, To gives an indefinite answer to law and justice, defying expectations of a China production. Tying the audience to a high-speed train and pulling us along through an engaging storytelling approach, he has definitely left us longing for more.

Lost in Thailand (China)
I don't think anyone can get more annoying than Wang Baoqiang in Lost in Thailand. Annoying, but annoyingly amusing! Wang plays a first-time traveler who encounters two business rivals in Thailand as they compete to get authorization for a new magical fuel booster. A surprise at the local box office, the movie also exceeds my rigid expectations of a Chinese comedy. With Wang's ridiculously colorful costume (and yellow wig!) and endless appearances on Xu Zheng's tail, the light and harmless humor kept me on my seat from beginning to end. If you're lucky, you may get a glimpse of the stunning Fan Bingbing as well!

Miracle in Cell No.7 (Korea)
Aren't movies supposed to touch people's hearts? Korea's comedy drama Miracle in Cell No.7 did its job and had me laughing and crying at the same time. I'm not entirely into tearjerkers but the adorable six-year-old Gal So Won is really hard to resist – especially with those watery eyes! Acclaimed actor Ryu Seung Ryong plays a mentally disabled but kindhearted father who goes to prison for false accusations of rape and murder of a child, and tries to reunite with his daughter by all means possible. With most of the movie's time spent in the cell, director Lee Hwan Kyung manages to make criminals so humane and the prison so approachable such that it starkly contrasts with the dark side of Korea's judicial system.

So Young (China)
Actress-turned-director Vicki Zhao's turned Zin Yiwu's novel of the same title into a Chinese phenomenon in her directorial debut So Young. The nostalgic youth drama dedicated to college life, first love and rites of passage is as charismatic as the genre can get. After filling the first half of the movie with energy, passion and budding love, the second half fast forwards to the protagonists' adult lives and drives audiences into an alley of frustrations and disappointments where the innocence of youth is gone. Vowing to make a quintessential Chinese youth film, Zhao succeeds in bringing the little-known campus life and ideologies of a still conservative 90s China onto the big screen.

Touch of the Light (Taiwan)
Having featured blind piano prodigy Huang Yu Hsiang in his shorts, Taiwanese director Chang Jung Chi presents his most complete and acclaimed movie yet in Touch of the Light. Huang plays himself in this inspirational story about two young people who encourage and inspire each other to go after their own dreams. Huang demonstrates every single detail of the difficult life, mother-child relationship, social struggles and psychological pain of the visually impaired – all of which are painstakingly captured by Chang. Chang also skillfully traces Huang's steps at his own pace with the camera, bringing audiences as close as possible to understanding the experience of being blind.

Unbeatable (Hong Kong/China)
As intense as the movie poster may look, Unbeatable is one of Dante Lam's most gentle pieces in which the brutality of fights is toned down by an abundance of love and warmth. Despite a predictable plot, the actors' performances, especially Nick Cheung and Eddie Peng's, outdo the story itself and add much to the film's success. The young Crystal Lee also delivers more wit and energy to the movie than any girl her age should have. Giving probably the most devoted work of his career, Cheung masters a good balance between drama and humor underneath his (flawless) six-pack, which he achieved thanks to nine months of tireless training! With Lam's perfect control over violence and humanity, Unbeatable is undeniably one of my favorite action films.

Very Ordinary Couple (Korea)
A realistic portrayal of modern relationships, the debut work of Korean female director Roh Deok is in no way ordinary with its heartfelt dialogue and intriguing cinematography. Inserting post-event interviews of the lovers throughout the movie, Roh lays bare the many untold, honest feelings of couples in different awkward situations, provoking feelings and even giving audiences much-needed solace. The use of hand-held camera and natural lighting plus a believable cast bring warmth and memories to those who have experienced a bittersweet relationship at least once in their lives.

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Published December 23, 2013

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