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Best Asian Movies of 2021

Written by YumCha! Editorial Team Tell a Friend

Here are our editors' picks for the best Asian films released on DVD or Blu-ray in 2021! How many have you watched?


SANWEI'S PICKS

Cliff Walkers
Cliff Walkers
Zhang Yimou applies his masterful touch to the espionage genre with an alluring period thriller that may not rank among his very best, but comfortably fits into his decorated filmography. Set in the 1930s in northeastern China, Cliff Walkers opens with four Communist Party agents (Zhang Yi, Amanda Qin, Zhu Yawen and newcomer Liu Haocun) parachuting into a snowy forest. They split up to make their way to Harbin and extract a survivor who can help expose Japan's war crimes. With their identities leaked by a turncoat, one pair manage to elude capture, while the other get picked up by enemies posing as comrades. What follows is a dangerous battle of wits as the agents strive to survive and fulfill their mission while being hunted and monitored. From a cat-and-mouse game on a train to car chases and shootouts on the streets of a stunningly recreated Harbin, Cliff Walkers has the old-timey glamor, tension and twists of a spy action potboiler, but Zhang Yimou paces the lusciously shot story with dignified precision and restrained emotions that burn and flicker in the unforgiving winter air.


Dear Tenant
Dear Tenant
Taiwan may be the only place in Asia where same-sex marriage is legal, but gay couples still have to face many societal and familial hurdles. Cheng Yu Chieh's Dear Tenant stars Morning Mo as a soft-spoken piano teacher looking after his late partner's son and mother (Chen Shu Fang). He faces an uphill battle earning the elderly woman's trust, but matters worsen after she passes away, and his partner's brother (Jay Shih) accuses him of murder. His kindness, patience and dedication to his partner's family members are called into question as being suspiciously beyond the scope of a "tenant," but would the same suspicions exist if he was a woman who lost her husband? Adding to the complex emotions at play is that the audience may also start to have doubts as irregularities emerge in the case. Morning Mo is brilliantly understated in a Golden Horse-winning performance, creating a delicate character study of a grieving man with a world of emotions brewing under the surface.


Eight Hundred
Eight Hundred
Eight Hundred may be viewed as yet another Chinese war epic about heroic sacrifice during the Sino-Japanese War. Even then, it would be a notch above the rest for its pure technical achievement and visceral battle scenes of an outnumbered regiment holding its ground to cover the Chinese army's retreat from Shanghai in 1937. But there's another aspect to the Defense of Sihang Warehouse battle that director Guan Hu compellingly brings out in the film. With the Nationalist army having effectively lost Shanghai, military brass meant for this futile last stand to be a symbolic victory. Besides boosting the morale and determination of the battered army, the battle would show the world what was happening in China. With Sihang Warehouse separated only by a creek from the untouched International Settlement area, Eight Hundred depicts foreign onlookers on the other side watching in interest and horror as events unfold. The stark contrast between the two sides of Shanghai – one awash in gray rubble and gunfire, the other lit with life and glitz – reinforces the powerful and unsettling image of war as theater.


We Made a Beautiful Bouquet
We Made a Beautiful Bouquet
Love blooms beautifully and withers gradually in this drama about a couple's relationship over five years. Director Doi Nobuhiro is ever reliable for glossy works that get you in the heart, but the bigger presence here is Sakamoto Yuji, the writer of TV classics like Last Christmas and Mother. Sakamoto's scripts are the closest thing to a quality guarantee in Japanese television, and he worked with Doi for the excellent 2017 TV series Quartet. Though their silver-screen collaboration is less nuanced in narrative, the straightforward story of day-to-day life puts Sakamoto's writing at the forefront, as much is conveyed through conversation and narration. Portrayed by Suda Masaki and Arimura Kasumi, Mugi and Kinu click immediately as university students who wear the same sneakers, like the same authors, and share the same musing thoughts and hipster interests that come with being young. Their encounter is ordinary yet exhilarating, capturing the giddy feeling of finding that soulmate who thinks like you. However, after entering the workforce, the ideals and interests that connected Mugi and Kinu begin to diverge. I Fell in Love Like a Flower Bouquet is about growing in and out of love, but more so than that, it's about the inevitable process of growing up.


Cliff Moonlit Winter
Moonlit Winter
Winter lingers in the heart and the mind in writer-director Lim Dae Hyung's poetic feature about the beauty and melancholy of first love. Kim Hee Ae is the picture of grace as Yoon Hee, a single mother who has tucked away an unforgettable love of her past until her teenage daughter (Kim So Hye) opens a letter to her mom from a woman named Jun (Nakamura Yoko). As questions and memories are awakened, the two take a trip to a small town in Hokkaido, Japan, where Jun lives. Yoon Hee and Jun's unfulfilled love and separate lives are gradually revealed in tender vignettes. Slow, subtle and sentimental, Moonlit Winter is less of a story and more of a mood, evocatively rendered in punctuated conversations, unspoken yearning and long walks down snow-covered streets. Not since Love Letter has a cold film about love lost brimmed with such warmth.


Mother
Mother
Not all parents are good for their children – that much is painfully clear in Omori Tatsushi's gut-wrenching film simply titled Mother. Nagasawa Masami gives a terrific Japan Academy Prize-winning performance as a terrible, manipulative mother. We first meet her son Shuhei when he's elementary school age but not in school. Instead, he follows his grifting mother around as she screams at her family, butters up men, engages in petty crime, and saddles up with an abusive lover. Her fallback when money runs out: send Shuhei out to lie and plead. After a time jump, listless teen Shuhei (Okudaira Daiken) has a little sister in tow, and the family of three are sleeping on the streets. Things look up briefly when social workers step in, and Shuhei is introduced to the possibility of life beyond his mother's hold, but their toxic bond runs deeper than any outsider can understand. Though the final act of Mother is shocking, all the ugly moments leading to the breaking point are sadly recognizable and realistic. Watching mother and son trapped in a miserable cycle of her making is like watching a train wreck in slow-motion.


Rurouni Kenshin: The Final
Rurouni Kenshin: The Final
If there was any film series that I was stoked to see return this year, it was Rurouni Kenshin – and what's more there were two films. Though Rurouni Kenshin: The Beginning was released last, The Final is the series ending, story-wise. Based on the manga's Jinchu Arc, The Final pits our hero against his last and most difficult challenger – Yukishiro Enishi, the vengeful younger brother of Himura Kenshin's late wife. Their fierce duel is as emotionally taxing as it is cinematically thrilling, with Kenshin seeking to stop Enishi's destructive revenge plan and to make amends with the past. Previous entries of the Rurouni Kenshin film series redefined samurai action on the silver screen with intricate, fast-paced choreography and huge action setpieces with many moving parts. The Final lives up to the series' sterling reputation with both intense one-on-one swordfights and sprawling crowd fights. Satoh Takeru is still pitch-perfect as Kenshin, and Arata Mackenyu shows that he is indeed Sonny Chiba's son with his impressive physicality and charismatic performance as the tortured antagonist. Just about everyone from the series returns for some action including Kamiki Ryunosuke's Sojiro (fan service!). This is an exciting and satisfying conclusion to one of Japanese cinema's best franchises of the past decade.


Under the Open Sky
Under the Open Sky
Nishikawa Miwa is ever adept at slowly unpeeling the different layers of flawed individuals and their relationships with the world around them. Her latest character study casts the great Yakusho Koji as a former murder convict trying to acclimate back into society after 13 years in prison. But how does someone who has never been a part of mainstream society even begin to start anew? With a thread involving Nakano Taiga as a TV producer documenting the protagonist, Under the Open Sky takes a documentary-like approach as it shares the backstory of the subject's natural progression from orphan to juvenile delinquent to yakuza, and candidly follows his everyday trials in attaining public assistance and employment. The film is quiet but Yakusho Koji is anything but, as he channels the short temper and violent tendencies of a man who has spent much of his life in and out of jail. An uneasy undertone runs throughout the film because of its volatile main character, but the story is one of empathy and understanding for those at the margins. His journey to becoming ordinary is hopeful and encouraging, yet bittersweet and soul-draining, as we see how much it takes to just fit into society.


Voice of Silence
Voice of Silence
Yoo Ah In and Yoo Jae Myung are crime-scene cleaners for the mob in writer-director Hong Eui Jung's remarkable debut which has rightfully picked up many accolades. The unexpected film begins as a slice-of-life dark comedy of the two mild-mannered men going about their job as usual in working Joe fashion. Things take a turn when they're asked to temporarily look after a kidnapped girl by their immediate boss, who soon gets killed by the syndicate because of his side business. In over their heads, the duo ponder how to claim the ransom themselves, but matters escalate into a topsy-turvy thriller of grave consequences. Slow-burning yet tightly executed, Voice of Silence hits its emotions and beats with poignant precision, eliciting both surprise and sympathy for its unpredictable characters. Yoo Ah In gives another strong, idiosyncratic performance as the silent and awkward Tae In, who bonds despite himself with his resourceful charge.


Your Name Engraved Herein
Your Name Engraved Herein

In 1988, martial law had just come to an end in Taiwan. Times were changing fast, and yet not fast enough. Young stars Edward Chen and Tseng Jing Hua give breakout performances as two boarding school boys who forge a deep bond beyond friendship, but only one is willing to face his feelings. Director Patrick Liu drew from his own experiences growing up in Taiwan to create this stirring coming-of-age film that pulsates with the overwhelming passion and angst of adolescence. This time period of both revolution and repression is vibrantly realized and appealingly wrapped in a nostalgic glow that's cinematically grand. After all, everyone's first love is as great as an epic movie.



VIOLET'S PICKS

Baseball Girl
Baseball Girl
Premiering at the 24th Busan International Film Festival, director Choi Yun Tae's first feature film Baseball Girl revolves around a female high school baseball athlete (Lee Joo Young) who is seeking a spot in the male-dominated world of professional baseball prior to her graduation. Striving hard to join a professional baseball team, the aspiring player pushes her physical limits through training with her strict coach (Lee Joon Hyuk), even though her family, teammates and pro team personnel all look down on her because of her gender. Baseball Girl is more than just a sports film about a teenager trying to live out her dream – it shows strong female representation through the tough protagonist's attempts to break stereotypes while experiencing the cruel reality of life.


The Con Heartist
The Con-Heartist
You know it'll be a good if it's from GDH, the production studio of hit Thai movies Bad Genius and Happy Old Year. I Fine..Thank You..Love You director Mez Tharatorn's latest heartfelt comedy The Con-Heartist comically depicts a bank clerk teaming up with a con man to take an eye for an eye from her ex-boyfriend, who scammed her and left her with heavy debts. Despite the plot being quite predictable, the crime romcom doesn't fail to make us chuckle with its interesting lines and CG, and the fine comedic acting of the all-star cast, not to mention their witty way of naturally portraying a COVID backdrop that audience could just laugh off. As they swindle, Baifern and Nadech develop from crime partners to romantic partners, and their relationship couldn't be more cute and genuine. The Con-Heartist is just the right feel-good popcorn movie if you want to relax and enjoy a good laugh.


Food Luck
Food Luck!
Itadakimasu! Director Terakado Jimon's Food Luck! is a moving tale surrounding yakiniku, Japanese grilled meat, that connects two generations. EXILE's Naoto stars as a food critic with "good food luck." He has solid knowledge of meat as he grew up watching his mother run a yakiniku restaurant, but he drifted apart from his mother. While working on a restaurant review project with his partner (Tsuchiya Tao), he by chance learns of his mother's kind heart and reflects on the past. Besides feeding us with mouth-watering food porn of savory meats sizzling on the grill, Food Luck! reminds audiences of the weight of words from food critics and reviewers, and how the world should treat food with sincerity, no matter if you're the one eating it or making it.


Man in Love
Man In Love
Adapted from the same-titled Korean romance film, Taiwan's take on Man in Love stars Roy Chiu as the charming, big-hearted, goofy debt collector Ah Cheng, who falls for tough girl Hao Ting (Ann Hsu), the daughter of an ill debtor. He proposes to write off her debts by dating. Love at first sight, parting due to misunderstandings, reuniting, illness – these are all clichéd tropes and story elements to incite emotions in a melodrama, but in this box office hit, they flow naturally in a way that doesn't make audiences cringe. Emotionally charged, Man in Love easily makes you resonate with the characters' ups and downs, and their delicately romantic story. You laugh your heart out in the first half, and then cry a whole tissue box in the second half. Apparently that chemistry onscreen was real because Roy Chiu and Ann Hsu recently announced their marriage!


My Lovely Angel
My Lovely Angel
Raising a kid is never easy, but it takes extra effort and care when the child has a physical impairment. Also titled You Are So Precious To Me, My Lovely Angel warms hearts with its touching story about a lonely man (Jin Goo) who becomes the father of his late employee's daughter, though his original intention is to take her inheritance. From confronting to gradually accepting each other, the two lonely souls break down barriers by finding their own ways of communication through love and patience. Child actress Jung Seo Yeon impresses with her outstanding portrayal of a girl with visual and hearing impairments, and her natural expression of the character's emotions. Inspired by Korea's proposal of the "Helen Keller law" in 2008, My Lovely Angel aims to raise awareness and support for children with deafblindness so as to improve their welfare and educational opportunities.


Three Sisters
Three Sisters
Three sisters who grew up without parental love in their childhood carry trauma and wounds that last a lifetime in this stirring Korean family drama. Three Sisters chronicles the lives of three unhappy women – Moon So Ri, Kim Sun Young and Jang Yoon Ju – who are torn apart inside but pretend to be fine on the outside. As they recall memories of the past, they finally burst with the anger and grief long held up in their hearts. The three leads precisely interpret their very different characters, each of whom suffers from personal problems like cancer and spousal infidelity, but shares the same pain. The psychological damage from childhood not only leaves scars but also affects the next generation, as they are unable to express motherly love to their children in the right way.


The Way We Keep Dancing
The Way Keep Dancing
In 2013, The Way We Dance lit up the screen with the fervent passion of street dancers showing how far they're willing to go for their dreams. Eight years later, writer-director Adam Wong's unlikely sequel The Way We Keep Dancing arrives with almost the same cast, including Cherry Ngan, Babyjohn Choi and MIRROR's Lokman, but carries a totally different theme and storyline. While it's still related to the lives of street hip-hop artists in Hong Kong, The Way We Keep Dancing focuses on the adversities of KIDA (Kowloon Industrial District Artists) as they struggle to find a place of their own under the pressure of property hegemony. Though there are relatively less dancing scenes, the film continues to illustrate the unique colors of Hong Kong-style street culture like colloquial Cantonese rap, while addressing real-life social issues that connect with locals. In the first installment, we were inspired to dream; now we're brought back to reality with the cost of living out those dreams.





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Published December 17, 2021


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  • Region & Language: Hong Kong United States - English
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