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YumCha! Picks: Best Asian Movies of 2014

Written by YumCha! Editorial Team Tell a Friend

With the year ending soon, we're taking a look back at our picks for the best Asian movies released on video in 2014!


ROCKMAN'S PICKS


The Attorney (Korea)
I doubt that The Attorney would have the same impact on me if it had been released here in Hong Kong any other year. Arriving just months before the pinnacle of the social unrest movement in the city, Yang Woo Suk's rousing legal drama gave liberal-minded Hong Kongers the ideal image of an activist leader: a once indifferent man whose ideals for democracy and justice are awakened by his conscience. Though the fact-based story is essentially a fantasy disguised as mainstream activist cinema, The Attorney was absolutely the film that Hong Kong needed in 2014.



Be My Baby (Japan)
Workshop films are a new trend in Japanese independent cinema that emerged in the last several years. The idea is simple: A respected indie director holds a series of workshops with a group of aspiring actors. After several weeks, the director and the actors churn out a cheaply shot feature film that serves as the graduation thesis of their collaborative effort. One Hitoshi's Be My Baby is one such film. Shot entirely within several Tokyo single-room apartments, this hilarious and cynical romance comedy chronicles two weeks in the lives of three Tokyo slacker couples who swap partners almost as quickly as they change clothes. No one with common sense would want to relate to any of the characters in the film, but you likely already have someone like them in your life.



Behind the Camera (Korea)
Those who don't know much about Korean cinema won't understand much of E J Yong's pseudo-mockumentary about the filmmaker's attempt to remotely direct a star-studded short film from an off-site location (in a very meta touch, that short is also about a filmmaker directing a film from an off-site location). However, those who understand why director Lee Joon Ik may be trying to hijack the film during his set visit will find Behind the Camera to be a delightful feature-length inside joke that pokes gentle fun at the Korean film industry and the egos that dominate it. We'll never know if some of the information in the film is real (does Hong Sang Soo really not pay his actors?), but like a good gossip session between friends, being in on the conversation is already fun enough.



The Girl at My Door (Korea)
July Jung's directorial debut is a solid drama that features confident direction (supported by producer Lee Chang Dong) and a script that is sometimes a little too understated for its own good. The main reason that this official selection at this year's Cannes Film Festival's Un Certain Regard section is included on the list are Bae Doo Na and Kim Sae Ron. The two actresses give remarkable performances as the lonely policewoman with a secret and the abused teenager who may be less naïve than she appears to be. Despite the film's numerous flaws, the two stars make A Girl at My Door a mesmerizing watch from beginning to end.



Ilo Ilo (Singapore)
Anthony Chen's directorial debut is a sublime family drama that many middle-class Asian households will undoubtedly relate to. Based on his family's experiences during the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, Chen's moving story is filled with warmth and humor, but without the easy and excessive sentimentality that would've taken the film into melodrama territory. As the surrogate mother and the pregnant biological mother trying to hold the family together, both Angeli Bayani and Yeo Yann Yann stand out in the generally excellent ensemble.



Like Father Like Son (Japan)
Very few contemporary filmmakers can capture the complexity of family like Kore-eda Hirokazu. His latest drama, about two families who discover that their six-year-old sons were switched at birth, is another gentle, intimate drama featuring excellent performances, well-crafted characters and a handful of brilliant moments. The winner of the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, the film impressed Jury President Steven Spielberg so much that his Dreamworks Pictures has purchased the English-language remake rights.



The Lunchbox (India)
With Ilo Ilo and Ritesh Batra's poignant romantic drama, this past year has been a remarkable year for directorial debuts. Produced by Gangs of Wasseypur director Anurag Kashyap (who also shepherded the remarkable Lootera in the same year), The Lunchbox chronicles a romantic bond between a lonely widower (Irrfan Khan) and an unhappy housewife (Nimrat Kaur) created purely through letters tucked away in lunchboxes. With a well-written script, memorable characters (Nawazuddin Siddiqui nearly steals the show as the widower's co-worker) and Batra's suitably natural directorial style, The Lunchbox is what a flawless execution of a great concept looks like.



Thread of Lies (Korea)
Calling Thread of Lies a bullying drama is almost doing it a disservice. Writer-director Lee Han's adaptation of a Kim Ryeo Ryeong novel transcends the genre as a complex, multi-layered character drama that slowly exposes the truth behind the suicide of a bullied young girl through the eyes of several characters. Avoiding the clichéd, sensationalized images of bullying, Lee depicts the act as quiet psychological torture (with more devastating effect) and even explores the psyches of the tormenters to understand the root of the act itself. The director also approaches the material in a surprisingly calm manner, inserting moments of humor despite the somber topic. It's difficult to see what makes Thread of Lies stand out from its genre counterparts on the surface, but those who take the plunge will find one of the most rewarding – and likely underrated - Korean films of the year.



Why Don't You Play in Hell (Japan)
Sono Sion's requiem for 35mm film and love letter to the insanity of filmmaking is a breathtaking comedy of epic proportions. Sono's most purely entertaining film since Love Exposure, Why Don't You Play in Hell sees Japan's bad boy director poking fun at self-obsessed auteurs like himself with this hilarious story of a yakuza boss putting together a film for his daughter to please his imprisoned wife. On the surface, Hell seems to be another violent genre film aimed at overseas fanboys, but it's also a wild ride made with genuine passion, inspired energy and even a sizable dose of self-deprecation.



The World of Kanako (Japan)
Relentless, intense, violent and nihilistic are just some of the words that may come to mind when thinking about the latest film from Nakashima Tetsuya (Memories of Matsuko, Confessions). This mystery-thriller about a disgraced former detective's reckless search for his estranged teenage daughter is a brutal ride led by a character who has zero redeeming quality. Nakashima's extreme visual language is as loud as a man screaming into your face with a loudspeaker, and it's far too fascinating to turn away from it. It's so refreshing to see a commercial Japanese film (released as such due to the commercial success of Confessions) shaking audiences out of their usual comfort zone that The World of Kanako automatically deserves a place on this list.



SANWEI'S PICKS


A Time in Quchi (Taiwan)
Reminiscent of Hou Hsiao Hsien's A Summer at Grandpa's, Chang Tso Chi's quietly captivating coming-of-age pastoral plops a city boy and his sister in their grandfather's care while the parents work out their divorce. Disgruntled at first with the arrangement, the boy soon adapts to life in the country, along with its simple joys of treehouses, school plays and making new friends. However, as oft in life, the lazy days of childhood come with their own share of adult troubles and inexplicable tragedies, all of which our inscrutable young hero observes and absorbs over a bittersweet summer that starts as a charming slice-of-life account of children in the countryside and ends as a moving meditation on mortality and transience.



Gyeongju (Korea)
Following his friend's funeral, a Beijing-based professor (Park Hae Il) impulsively sojourns to the historical city of Gyeongju where he meets and befriends a graceful teahouse proprietor (Shin Min Ah) over a long and lyrical day. What sounds like a formula for romantic serendipity actually plays out as a curious series of conversations and encounters, both pensive and preposterous, in which death quietly seeps into life. Indie arthouse director Zhang Lu's latest film is definitely his most watchable and arguably his most accomplished. Delicately injecting humor, whimsy and poetry into an amorphous escapade, Gyeongju leaves behind the overbearing bleakness of Zhang's previous films without forgoing his rich themes of loss, trauma, displacement and identity.



Hope (Korea)
You may need the tissue box handy for Lee Ik Joon's heartwrenching film about how a family and community cope after the brutal attack and rape of a young girl, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. After its harrowing beginning, Hope gently and realistically follows the recovery journey of the eponymous protagonist and her anguished parents, wonderfully played by Uhm Ji Won and Sol Kyung Gu. Rather than being consumed by the anger and injustice of the crime, the film focuses on the human drama as the victim slowly heals with the love and support of those around her. Watching the little girl bravely face the emotional and physical damage inflicted on her is distressing on so many levels, but also genuinely hopeful and uplifting. When Hope smiles again, it's a reminder that a happier tomorrow does await victims of sexual violence.



Kano (Taiwan)
Who doesn't love a good old underdog sports movie? Especially when it has as much history, sincerity and production values as Kano. Based on the inspiring true story of the humble multi-ethnic Taiwan team that made history at Japan's 1931 Koshien high school baseball tournament, the final installment in Wei Te Sheng's "colonial trilogy" about Taiwan during the Japanese occupation is also my hands-down favorite. The big-hearted epic fills its three-hour running time with detailed scenes of the boys' growth and baseball training under a strict new coach (Nagase Masatoshi) and rousing gametime exploits during an against-the-odds run that transcended national and ethnic lines and brought great pride to a rural corner of Taiwan. Crowd-pleasing and big-budget for all the right reasons, Kano takes Taiwan commercial cinema to a new high.



Like Father, Like Son (Japan)
Kore-eda Hirokazu takes the sensational premise of two families discovering their six-year-old sons were switched at birth and creates a subtle, heartbreaking study on the meaning of family and fatherhood. As always, Kore-eda is wonderful at depicting the inner world of children dealing with adult problems, but the even greater challenge lies in bringing out the inner struggles of the parents, who must choose between the child they birthed and the child they raised. Fukuyama Masaharu and Lily Franky are the pillars of the story as two very different men – one strict and inexpressive, one warm and laid-back – who approach their changing father-son relationships in different ways. Like Father, Like Son is never tragic or heavy-hearted, and yet few films have made me cry as much as this one.



The Lunchbox (India)
A delicious lunchbox serves as the catalyst for an unlikely relationship in Ritesh Batra's sublime drama about loneliness, yearning and aging. Due to a glitch in Mumbai's famously accurate dabbawala delivery system, a punctilious widower (Irrfan Khan) nearing retirement suddenly starts receiving homecooked lunchboxes prepared daily by an earnest young housewife (Nimrat Kaur) for her husband. After realizing the mix-up, the two lonely kindred spirits exchange notes via the lunchbox, forming a bond that prompts them to briefly dream of a different life. The simple, aching film poignantly captures the fragile joy of hope and the suffocating resignation of daily life.



On the Job (Philippines)
Is there any alibi better than prison? Inspired by scandals involving the Philippines' notoriously corrupt prison system, Erik Matti's sordid thriller begins with a hit in broad daylight carried out by contract killers who turn out to be temporarily released inmates working for a crime ring that intends to dispose of them when their time is up. Piolo Pascual is the agent leading the murder investigation, but he finds himself squeezed from all sides by ruthless army officials and politicians who are pulling the strings and triggers. Various violently murky threads converge in an explosive third act that rapidly escalates in shocking, fatalistic manner. Gritty action, challenging storytelling and strong performances, particularly by Joel Torre as a veteran hitman, lift this thriller from the underbelly of Manila to the top tier of crime cinema.



Personal Tailor (China)
Feng Xiaogang is back in satire mode and no one is safe from his mocking, least of all the people who are supposed to be watching this movie. In a premise that recalls Feng's earlier Dream Factory as well as writer Wang Shuo's Troubleshooters, Personal Tailor is about a dream-making team led by Ge You that devises elaborate playacting scenarios to help humble clients' realize their lofty dreams. The dreams unfold in episodic format, from a woman who wants to be a revolutionary heroine, to a driver who believes he'll make a better leader than those corrupt politicians, to a commercial filmmaker trying to make an art film. The surreal scenarios – and the dream team's vow to debase themselves in order to elevate others – highlight the very real and laughable hypocrisy of the clients and everyday Chinese society. Feng's divisive blockbuster raked in at the Chinese box office, and then understandably left many people angry, because, well, the joke's on the audience.



Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno (Japan)
It's not easy to get live-action manga/anime adaptations right, especially when the source material is so iconic, but the stars are aligned for the Rurouni Kenshin series. After the success of the first film, the action and adventure increase double-fold with the more serious and more violent two-part epic based on the Kyoto Arc. The Kenshin universe expands with the fan-favorite addition of Kamiki Ryunosuke as smiley killer Sojiro and the intense combo of Iseya Yusuke, as revenge-obsessed commander Aoshi, and Fujiwara Tatsuya, who absolutely will not let full-body bandages stop him from overacting as Shishio, the crazed assassin out to topple the Meiji government. Sato Takeru continues to be unassumingly pitch-perfect as Kenshin and surprisingly good with action scenes, of which there are very many. Kyoto Inferno and its sequel The Legend Ends are simply great for fans and a great time at the movies.



The Wind Rises (Japan)
Miyazaki Hayao's final feature has no otherworldly fantasy to enchant the kids or cute characters to merchandise forever, but the visionary auteur's least magical film is his most fitting swan song. The Wind Rises is beautiful, elegiac and of another era, both in its use of hand-drawn animation and its stubbornly old-fashioned story set in WWII-era Japan. The film pays tribute to writer Hori Tatsuo and aircraft engineer Horikoshi Jiro by combining the former's novella and the latter's life into a fictionalized biopic about living and dreaming through adverse times. It's also very much an ode to Miyazaki himself. Wind covers themes that have occupied his entire career: his love of warplanes and his abhorrence of war – and coming to terms with that inherent contradiction. The hero also reminds of the director: a singular genius whose pure dedication to creation advances his field to new levels, but not without great costs.



FROOD'S PICKS


The Apology King (Japan)
All hail the mighty power of the dogeza! Dogeza is the sincerest, weightiest type of apology in Japanese culture, and Kurojima Ryoro is its foremost expert. He runs a business called Tokyo Apology Center and has got apologies down to a science. This film is made up of vignettes about Kurojima and his clients that are seemingly unconnected, but turn out to intersect in delightfully unexpected ways. Abe Sadao is perfect as the man whose life revolves around apologies, as is Inoue Mao as his straight-talking, often deadpan assistant. With a fantastic script and perfect ensemble cast that come together to form an awesome concoction of gut-busting hilarity, The Apology King is undoubtedly one of my favorite comedies of the year.



Beyond Beauty: Taiwan From Above (Taiwan)
If you've ever wondered why Taiwan is referred to as the "Jewel Island," Beyond Beauty: Taiwan From Above can give you a definitive answer. Directed by veteran aerial photographer Chi Po Lin and produced by the much-revered Hou Hsiao Hsien, the film won Best Documentary at the 50th Golden Horse Awards, and it's easy to see why. "Breathtaking" was about the only adjective I could think of as I watched this astounding tour of the beauty Taiwan has to offer, from snow-topped mountains to grassy plains to pristine beaches to lovingly tended farmland. Aside from being a rare encompassing look at Taiwan's natural treasures, the film also shows the detrimental effects of Taiwan's rapid industrialization in the past decades. The contrast between the images of awe-inspiring beauty and those depicting the costs of development gives audiences much fuel for contemplation regarding sustainable development.



The Fatal Encounter (Korea)
What does a Joseon Dynasty king need to do to get some respect? Deal with an assassination conspiracy that spans the entire palace and beyond, as it turns out. Featuring Hyun Bin in his first acting role since returning from military service, veteran TV director Lee Jae Kyu's filmmaking debut gives audiences a very stylish (and fictionalized) look at King Jeongjo's (1752-1800) danger-fraught early reign. Although set over just one day, the thrilling film deftly conveys the atmosphere of constant uncertainty and peril in which the young king lived. Aside from some truly stunning cinematography and action direction, The Fatal Encounter also boasts fantastic performances from its more-than-capable cast, which includes Jung Jae Young, Jo Jung Suk, Han Ji Min, Jung Eun Chae, Cho Jae Hyun and Park Sung Woong.



The Kiyosu Conference (Japan)
Working from his own 2012 historical novel, beloved playwright-screenwriter-director Mitani Koki delivers another hilarious farce in The Kiyosu Conference, this time lampooning the historic first-ever political summit in Japan. As is standard in Mitani's films, The Kiyosu Conference features a ridiculously star-studded cast, which includes Yakusho Koji, Oizumi Yo, Sato Koichi, Asano Tadanobu, Suzuka Kyoka, Nakatani Miki and Tsumabuki Satoshi. The barb-filled script has historical figures like Shibata Katsuie and Toyotomi Hideyoshi engaging in a battle of wits that's heavy on the wit. A delight from start to finish, The Kiyosu Conference is a most entertaining (albeit fictionalized) lesson in an important moment in Japanese history.



Make Me Shudder (Thailand)
There's something to be said for the humble horror comedy. Filmmakers who tackle this genre must reconcile two starkly different forces, visceral jolts of fright and gut-busting bursts of laughter. Thai horror/comedy maestro Poj Arnon does just that with Make Me Shudder, which follows a group of high school boys who venture into a restricted building in their school that's rumored to be haunted, all in a bid to gain some daredevil cred. Although not without its problems, the film sets itself apart from similar fare thanks to the infectiously enthusiastic performance of its young cast. With their admittedly unpolished yet relentlessly enjoyable performances, the central actors help make the film a work of pure, unadulterated fun.



Miss Granny (Korea)
Following her star-making turn in 2011's Sunny, Shim Eun Kyung returned this year with another wonderful performance in the box office-dominating comedy Miss Granny. Sharing the role with the equally fantastic Na Moon Hee, Shim plays a woman in her 70s whose body magically reverts to that of her 20-year-old self. With a perfect balance of humor and pathos, Shim's beautiful depiction of one woman's struggle with family, love and growing old lifts the already very good film to great heights, and she was accordingly recognized for it at the 50th Baeksang Arts Awards, where she was named Best Actress.



One Third (Japan)
Continuing the streak of crackers he began with 2009's Drop, comedian and director Shinagawa Hiroshi released the Golden Shisa Award-winning One Third this year. Based on Kinoshita Hanta's 2012 novel, the film features some top young stars (Fujiwara Tatsuya, Tanaka Koki, Kubozuka Yosuke and Nakashima Mika) as well as cameos by a veritable who's who of Japanese comedy. It's a tongue-in-cheek heist comedy lovingly made by a movie geek for movie geeks. Crass, outlandish and sometimes violent, the film contains so many twists it borders on farce. Yet, it never crosses that line, as the story simply gets more exciting and compelling with every twist. Much of that is thanks to the efforts of Shinagawa, who also wrote the script, deftly marrying Japanese comedy with Tarantino-esque style.



The Snow White Murder Case (Japan)
Based on the novel by Minato Kanae, The Snow White Murder Case is an exquisitely crafted whodunnit with an added dash of Rashomon that's thoroughly of the 21st century. Director Nakamura Yoshihiro delivers the twisty tale in style, incorporating social media into film in an effortlessly seamless way that has eluded many a director. The movie deftly shows the dangers of unfounded speculation and sensationalist journalism in the era of Twitter, while also reflecting on the nature of human relationships as shaped by the 21st century. Stars Inoue Mao and Nanao deliver compelling performances as polar opposites who are subjected to the same Rashomon-style treatment, whereby their characters and actions differ completely depending on who's telling the story. With an engaging mystery, terrific performances and a contemporary sensibility, it's no wonder that the film has been lauded as one of the best Japanese mysteries of the year.



Where Are We Going, Dad? (China)
Ingeniously combining two surefire crowd-pleasing elements – the cuteness of children and celebrities showing that they're just like regular folk – Korean broadcaster MBC ended up with a hit on their hands in reality show Dad! Where Are We Going? Recognizing the potential of the premise, Chinese broadcaster Hunan TV made their own version of the series with celebrity dads Jimmy Lin, Wang Yuelun, Guo Tao, Zhang Liang and Tian Liang, which became a massive hit, so much so that a movie was released during the 2014 Chinese New Year holidays. The film went on to break the record for biggest opening day for a non-3D Chinese film. Despite the fact that it's basically just a feature-length episode of the series, Where Are We Going, Dad? is an undeniably charming film with inspired editing. Seeing children being their adorable selves never gets old, and the doting celebrity dads endear themselves to audiences by trying their very best to take care of their children. If ever you need a movie to make you laugh and repeatedly say "Aww...," this is it.



The Wind Rises (Japan)
The master returns! Along with Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki Hayao composes a gentle and gorgeous ode to the power of dreams with The Wind Rises, the revered filmmaker's last feature film. Adapted from his own manga, which was loosely based on Hori Tatsuo's 1937 short story The Wind Has Risen, the film offers a fictionalized account of the life of Horikoshi Jiro, who designed the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, the most-produced fighter aircraft in Japan during World War II. The entrancingly lyrical drama depicts the ups and downs of Horikoshi's life, and through it all, his universal desire to chase after his dreams.






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Published December 19, 2014


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