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Best Asian Movies of 2019

Written by YumCha! Editorial Team Tell a Friend

Before saying goodbye to 2019, let's take a look back at the best of the year! To start off our countdown to the year-end, here are our picks for the best movies released on DVD or Blu-ray in 2019.


SANWEI'S PICKS


After My Death
High school girl Kyung Min is suspected to have jumped off a bridge, and the last person to see her, Young Hee (Jeon Yeo Bin), is rumored to have goaded her into suicide. The troubled and spiteful Young Hee quickly becomes the target of other classmates, authorities and the missing girl's mother (Hong Sang Soo regular Seo Young Hwa), but she refuses to cooperate or accept the likelihood of Kyung Min's death. While she lashes back and tries to prove her innocence, Kyung Min's desperate, aggrieved mother harasses her endlessly, driving both to breaking points. Kim Ui Seok's powerful directorial debut creeps up on you with an ambiguous mystery, and then persistently gnaws at you as it gradually reveals the dark thoughts, bullying and destructive anguish of adolescence and grief. Both Kim Ui Seok and Jeon Yeo Bin are names to watch.



Burning
Two masters in storytelling intersect in Lee Chang Dong's slow-burning adaptation of the Murakami Haruki short story Barn Burning. Ever deliberate in its patient pacing and dropping of ambiguous details, the film subtly yet surely morphs from a character study of a struggling young man (Yoo Ah In) into a menacing mystery about the true nature of a suave new acquaintance (Steven Yeun). The wealthy stranger's self-professed habit of arson carries increasingly alarmingly implications to the protagonist after their mutual female friend (Jeon Jong Seo) seemingly disappears. Burning spends its entire length provoking and unsettling you, but – just like the obsessed protagonist – you're not quite sure for what. The nagging feeling that something is very wrong kindles and grows in intensity until something must burn.



An Elephant Sitting Still
Chinese author Hu Bo's first and last film clocks in at nearly four hours, but the hardest thing about watching An Elephant Sitting Still isn't the length – it's the familiar bleakness. Winner of Best Film at the 55th Golden Horse Awards, the writer-director's posthumous magnum opus follows four troubled people in a gray-washed industrial town: a high school boy who injures a classmate while defending his friend, a girl whose affair with a teacher gets exposed, a senior citizen who is being forced out by his family, and a gangster who drove his friend to suicide. Each burdened with problems that contribute to more problems, the four cross paths during a long day of cruelly casual misery that reflects the coldness, hostility, indecency and indifference of society at large. Hu Bo's naturalistic presentation is realistically stark and blank, and yet the four hours go by seamlessly, even quickly, as there is a constant and observant sense of futile movement, conflict and activity in this go-nowhere world.



Every Day a Good Day
Every day is worth living, learning and discovering in Omori Tatsushi's gently enlightening drama about a woman's growth through practicing the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. Kuroki Haru is the clumsy everywoman who begins taking tea lessons in the spring of 1993 when she is still a college student with no idea what comes next in life. In the ensuing years, she regularly stumbles and falters as she grows and ages, but always has a refuge and a mentor (the late, great Kiki Kirin) at the tea room. The tranquil sights and sounds of the tea ceremony – the whisking of tea, the trickling of water, the changing of hanging scrolls – are presented with a grace, precision and down-to-earth warmth that illustrate how the way of tea can illuminate the way of life. This is a simple and beautiful film that, like tea, can be enjoyed slowly and quietly while its meaning and flavor gradually steep in.



Hidden Man
Jiang Wen concludes his Beiyang Trilogy with Hidden Man, and what a strangely rewarding trilogy of films it's been. Like Let the Bullets Fly and Gone with the Bullets, this installment portrays the early Republican era of China as a mad, lawless yet romanticized free-for-all time populated by mobsters, wheeler-dealers, sirens and traitors. It's a rollicking world where people stab you in the back and the front for good measure. Two pure-hearted, revenge-driven souls are added to the mix in the form of Zhou Yun as an enigmatic seamstress with an unknown backstory, and Eddie Peng as an American sleeper agent who returns to China to avenge his family. However, getting to that final showdown against the man (Liao Fan) who ruthlessly murdered his family will involve a lot of biding, lurking, second-guessing, sidetracking, rooftop-running and shady interference from other parties, notably Jiang Wen as a two-faced businessman who pulls the strings. Bloody and bonkers, Hidden Man gets in some good sequences as the most action-oriented entry of the trilogy. What we're really here for though are the clever and circuitous conversations filled with subtext, the manic humor and tone, the wonderful art direction and the utterly wild and unpredictable progression of events only possible in a Jiang Wen film.



Microhabitat
What's more important: holding on to your home or holding on to your smokes? How about holding on to yourself? Esom is quietly compelling as Mi So, a young woman who lives hand to mouth on her irregular pay as a house cleaner. She makes just enough for housing and the two things she likes most – cigarettes and the occasional whiskey. When her rent and the price of cigarettes both go up, she does the math and decides to give up the room first. Looking for a place to crash, she calls up old bandmates who have moved on to different lives. Through her interactions with her friends and her boyfriend (Ahn Jae Hong), we get a gist of the different kinds of people in her world, and what kind of presence Mi So represents in their lives. In the end, the mild-mannered drifter who seems to make bad decisions is also the most considerate, clear-headed and genuine of the bunch. Jeon Go Woon's unassuming debut feature provides a subtle portrait of a lost and lonely generation that has nothing to their name and nowhere to go, but must keep moving nonetheless.



Mirai
Mirai may be an animated fantasy fueled by a young boy's imaginative escapades, but for parents and kids who have gone through similar rough patches – and for those bothered by whiny tots – it likely feels too real. Nominated for Best Animated Film at the 91st Academy Awards, the film is essentially about a boy's roller coaster of emotions and experiences after the arrival of a baby sister who takes parental attention away from him. Hosoda Mamoru is a master at manifesting the anxieties of growing up and not belonging into magical worlds and creatures. Four-year-old Kun encounters a plethora of unexpected visitors and meandering adventures in the nooks and crannies of his home and garden. He peeks into the future to meet his sister in teenaged form and journeys into the past to meet his great-grandfather and his mother as a child. The time-blurring lessons in family and growing up present the world from a child's eye level, but it's adults who will come out of it with teary eyes.



Project Gutenberg
In a better year for Hong Kong cinema, Project Gutenberg would not sweep seven categories at the Hong Kong Film Awards, but it's not a better year. Instead, Felix Chong's crime thriller succeeds by recalling those better years with Chow Yun Fat in larger-than-life, guns-blazing mode as the charismatic and menacing boss of a counterfeiting ring. Project Gutenberg throws back to old-school Hong Kong action in a smart, self-aware and, at times, giddily entertaining way. This film rolls out a blood-splattered Chow Yun Fat with double guns, and then furnishes a legitimate reason for being so over the top with its homage and gun fights. Chong's tense and twisty script, the bombastic action and the strong performances of Aaron Kwok and Zhang Jingchu all lift this crime drama above the pack. But really, Project Gutenberg makes my list because I unabashedly loved every moment with Chow Yun Fat onscreen.



Shadow
After making a rare misstep with The Great Wall, Zhang Yimou wipes the palette clean with one of his most stunning efforts yet. Visually evocative of a traditional Chinese ink wash painting, the jaw-droppingly beautiful Shadow does with monochrome what Hero did with colors. More cerebral than action-packed, the martial arts saga unfurls the complex powerplay between a cunning king, a power-hungry general and the general's unwitting understudy, all while a rival kingdom threatens the border. Zhang slowly lays out the tense battle for political power and the transformation of a "shadow" into the wild card that upturns the power balance. Besides the chess moves onscreen that disorient loyalty and identity, the film deploys some unconventional casting moves that threaten to break the fourth wall. Deng Chao convinces in dual roles as the general and the doppelganger opposite his real-life wife, Sun Li, and variety show castmate Zheng Kai, but former child stars Wu Lei and Guan Xiaotong are out of their range as brash young royals. Even for those who find the action or acting to be slightly wanting, just on direction and presentation alone, Shadow is a work of art to behold.



Shoplifters
Kore-eda Hirokazu adds to his staggering filmography with his most internationally recognized and domestically successful work yet. Shoplifters not only earned the auteur the top Picture and Director honors at the Japan Academy Prize for the second consecutive year, it also won the Palme d'Or and received Best Foreign Language Film nominations at the Oscars and the Golden Globes. Besides being the pinnacle of Kore-eda's career to date, the film is also the pinnacle of his style of intimate, slice-of-life dramas about flawed families. Lily Franky, Ando Sakura, Kiki Kirin and Matsuoka Mayu are the kind yet questionable adults of a makeshift family that takes in a mistreated little girl off the streets, and then just keeps her. When her abusive parents finally report her missing, the authorities – and the family members' checkered pasts – also finally catch up. Shoplifters is sprinkled with secrets, reveals and wrongdoings that make it move louder and faster than Kore-eda's usual family dramas, while also digging deeper into the composition and complexities of a family. The film's gentle feeling of foreboding and inevitable unraveling recall Kore-eda's 2004 classic Nobody Knows.


*Updated December 16, 2019

Parasite
Parasite's DVD/Blu-ray release popped up right after we published this article (because of course it did), and it's simply too important to omit! Bong Joon Ho's Palme d’Or winner paints a wickedly scathing yet sympathetic portrayal of a resourceful low-income family that worms their way into the household of a naïve, well-heeled family. We first meet the Kim family of four while they're struggling to make ends meet by folding pizza boxes. The son (Choi Woo Sik) fabricates his education credentials to become a tutor for the uppity Park family. Then he recommends his sister (Park So Dam) as an art therapist. Then his parents (Song Kang Ho, Jang Hye Jin) move into the sprawling mansion as the family chauffeur and housekeeper after deploying tricks to usurp their predecessors. The process has the ingenuity and excitement of a heist movie, but who's the victim and who's the villain in this amoral story? The black tragicomedy thriller keeps going further down the rabbit hole to reveal the proud and desperate facets of both families and to build a compelling critique of socioeconomic inequality – all while being darkly humorous and utterly unpredictable to the very end.



VIOLET'S PICKS


12 Suicidal Teens
"If you can make a decision to commit suicide, why can't you make a decision to live?" 12 Suicidal Teens arrive at an abandoned hospital one by one to end their lives together. True to the title, these teens – portrayed by young actors like Arata Mackenyu, Hashimoto Kanna, Sugisaki Hana, Kitamura Takumi and Kuroshima Yuina – have lost hope in life for different reasons, be it family problems, bullying or health issues. The one thing they have in common is that they've made the decision to end their own lives. Before they can carry out the plan, they discover a mysterious 13th person lying unconscious in the hospital room. Rather than being just a mystery drama, Tsutsumi Yukihiko's 12 Suicidal Teens sheds light on teen suicide and the hardships that youngsters encounter these days, as well as delving into the meaning of life and death. Through the process of trying to find out who the killer is, the characters take a step back and reconsider their own lives and choices. This isn't merely a whodunnit mystery, but a movie that reflects on an alarming phenomenon in society.



Cafe Funiculi Funicula
If you could turn back time, who would you meet and what would you do? Arimura Kasumi serves a cup of coffee that brings you to the past in Tsukahara Ayuko's Café Funiculi Funicula, based on Kawaguchi Toshikazu's same-titled bestseller novel. In the family café where Kazu (Arimura Kasumi) works, there is a special seat that allows customers to travel back in time under the following conditions: (1) drink the whole cup of coffee before it gets cold to return to the present, and (2) the past cannot be changed no matter what they do. The film revolves around touching stories relating to family love and romantic relationships, including Fumiko's (Haru) regret of letting her crush go, Yasunori (Matsushige Yutaka) meeting his dementia-stricken wife while she was still lucid, Yaeko (Yoshida Yo) reuniting with her late sister, and eventually, Kazu overcoming her mental blocks. Looking back might not change the present, but it gives us an opportunity to face ourselves and our regrets, and then move on. Just let bygones be bygones.



Distinction
"It's hard to see equality. I've tried my best but no one realizes. Mediocre like me with different ability, are you willing to give me a helping hand?" (from theme song "You're With Me"). It's hard to change public perception only through words, but what about a musical? Directed by Jevons Au, Distinction is based on a real-life story about a special educational needs school collaborating with a regular school to put on a musical. Teacher Miss Tsui (Jo Koo) and students Zoey (Jennifer Yu) and Ka Ho (Kaki Sham) go through a journey of self-discovery while preparing a musical for special needs students and their families. Faced with discrimination in society, disabled people struggle to live like "normal people" as they are often labeled by others. The three main characters, each coming from different backgrounds, eventually understand the uniqueness of every student, and the experience inspires them on their own paths in life as well. Just like how the English title carries both the meaning of "excellence" and "differentness," Distinction motivates us to open our minds and embrace the individuality of different people in society.



Extreme Job
Setting new records as the #2 highest-grossing Korean film ever, Extreme Job is no ordinary police procedural but a lighthearted family comedy that successfully earned big laughs and applause from the audience. Directed by Lee Byeong Hun, the blockbuster police comedy follows a ragtag undercover team that opens a fried chicken restaurant to monitor the criminals across the street, but unexpectedly profit from the business. The lineup of Ryu Seung Ryong, Honey Lee, Jin Seon Kyu, Lee Dong Hwi and Gong Myung may not sound like a box office guarantee, but the cast's chemistry and comedic talents, as well as the wacky and funny plot, all added up to huge success for the film. And of course, we cannot forget a big highlight of the movie – the mouthwatering scenes of chicken frying. If you understand Korean, you'll find even more humor in the subtle wordplay of the catchphrases and movie lines. Undoubtedly one of the best popcorn movies of 2019!



Innocent Witness
Lee Han touches hearts with this moving feature that explores discrimination against the disabled in Korea's judicial system. Lawyer Soon Ho (Jung Woo Sung) tries to get close with autistic girl Ji Woo (Kim Hyang Gi), the only witness in his client's case, in order to get her testimony. He learns that communication, patience and care are the key to building trust and relationships with autistic people. The plot of Innocent Witness is not particularly surprising, but the outstanding acting elevates the film to a higher level. Needless to say, Baeksang Grand Prize winner Jung Woo Sung demonstrates impressive acting as always. Meanwhile, Kim Hyang Gi shines in her role as the clever and introverted autistic girl, again proving that she is one of Korea's best young actors.



Mal-Mo-E: The Secret Mission
Korean historical films never disappoint. Much like A Taxi Driver and 1987: When the Day Comes, box office hit Mal-Mo-E: The Secret Mission stirs emotions with the patriotism and sacrifices of its protagonists, this time in a different time period but still based on real-life events. During the Japanese occupation, two men of polar opposite backgrounds – illiterate Pan Soo (Yu Hae Jin) and Korean Language Society President Jung Hwan (Yoon Kye Sang) – risk everything to complete one mission: to publish the first Korean language dictionary. Pan Soo is a hero, but he is also just a normal citizen, like any one of us, who cannot bear to see the loss of his language. Without the Korean Language Society's efforts to preserve the Korean language, would K-pop and Korean culture still be a thing now? We use language every day, but we may not think about how precious it is to a culture, a country and a people. Eom Yoo Na's Mal-Mo-E is perhaps the best gift to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Korea's March 1st Movement for independence.



Miss Baek
If you have watched the award-winning Korean or Japanese TV drama Mother, you would also love the sentimental film Miss Baek. The tearjerker shares a similar storyline to the famous series in which a woman tries to save a girl from parental abuse that evokes her own childhood trauma. Winning Best Actress at the Blue Dragon Awards, Han Ji Min takes the unlikely role of rebellious ex-convict Miss Baek, who seems to be indifferent to the whole world. But Ji Eun (Kim Si A), with her injured little body and pitiful face, draws the attention and sympathy of Baek, who realizes that they are in the same boat. The scenes of abuse are brutal in a way that critically reflects how severe the problem of child abuse is. A captivating story with thrilling escapes and frightening scenes alongside emotional moments that show the bond between the two characters.



More Than Blue
A story sadder than sadness. Adapted from the same-titled 2009 Korean hit, Gavin Lin's Taiwan installment of More than Blue spawns a wave of sorrowful romance again. Popular actors Jasper Liu and Ivy Chen star in this love story about falling for each other, leaving for each other, and eventually coming back for each other. Despite being in their thirties, Jasper and Ivy still look young and give off the "first love" vibe of a teen romance drama. As ordinary as the plot may be, More than Blue offers heartwrenching moments that get the audience's tears falling, especially whenever Cream (Ivy Chen) is crying. It's a sad story indeed for K (Jasper Liu) and Cream, and also for the second male lead, Yang (Bryan Chang).



Still Human
"Still Human, Still Dreaming." Award-winning rookie director Oliver Chan's feature debut tells the heartwarming story of paralyzed man Cheong Wing (Anthony Wong) and his Filipino helper Evelyn (Crisel Consunji). In contrast to the nitpicking and fussy Cheong Wing, Evelyn is a well-educated and kind woman who needs money to pay off debt from her divorce in her home country. Chan wrote the character of Evelyn as an aspiring photographer in hopes of breaking the negative stereotype that the lower class can't dream. The intention of encouraging the audience to chase their dreams regardless of age, occupation and background is great, though it may be difficult to relate to certain scenes, such as the financially strapped Cheong Wing buying professional cameras for Evelyn twice and helping to prepare her art portfolio. As idealistic as the plot may be, Still Human delivers the hope of building a discrimination-free society in which people find strength from one another.



Swing Kids
The Swing Kids dance their way to freedom and joy during the Korean War in acclaimed director Kang Hyung Chul's latest feature. Different from most POW movies, Swing Kids mainly focuses on how the passion for dancing unites various people in tough times. Unable to resist his love for tap dancing, North Korean soldier Ki Soo (Do Kyung Soo) joins a dance crew with American soldier Jackson (Jared Grimes), Pal Rae (Park Hye Soo), Kang Byung Sam (Oh Jung Se) and Xiao Pang (Kim Min Ho), each of whom hail from different backgrounds and have different reasons behind their participation. Despite their differences, they develop a sense of belonging and a common aspiration – to perfectly wrap up their Christmas show. Their passion for tap dancing is real, but with so many political and ideological conflicts happening in the POW camp, brutal reality hits hard. The ending is regrettable but not disappointing. From the storytelling to the music, editing, cinematography and even the vintage costumes, everything about Swing Kids is on point.






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Published December 13, 2019


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