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YumCha! Picks: Best Movies of 2011

Written by YumCha! Editorial Team Tell a Friend

When we're not writing, we watch movies. Out of the many Asian movies that were released this year on video, here's what our editors have picked as the Best Movies of 2011!


Chonmage Purin (Japan)
This offbeat time-traveling comedy stars Johnny's pop star Nishikido Ryo as a samurai who travels to the present and becomes a pastry chef. As strange as the concept sounds, Nakamura Yoshihiro (Fish Story) miraculously makes it work. With this and the Kaibutsu-kun film, Nakamura seems to have become the new go-to director for films starring Johnny's stars. As long as he keeps making them this funny and sweet (both literally and figuratively, in this case), it doesn't matter one bit.

Come Rain Come Shine (Korea)
Domestic chores take on a new meaning in Lee Yoon Ki's heartbreaking character study. Chronicling a couple's final day in their home before their separation, Lee captures the painful post-breakup clean up (been there, done that) by staying close to reality and keeping the emotional outbursts in check. Lee's quiet, contemplative style left some Hyun Bin fans at my film festival screening confused, but it should at least make any viewer have a sudden urge to clean their home.

Confessions (Japan)
Potential mothers beware: The teenage characters in Confessions are so irredeemable that they may turn anyone off the idea of having children. Nakashima Tetsuya continues to perfect his music video-influenced filmmaking style, turning a dreary schoolyard drama about a teacher's shocking revenge plan into a thrilling, stylish drama that will leave viewers shaken and stirred. While Matsu Takako is brilliant as the vengeful teacher, it's the teenage actors that will haunt you long after the film's over.

Let the Bullets Fly (China)
Recalling a time when films had smart, hilarious quips delivered at lightning speed and star charisma mattered far more than spectacle, Jiang Wen's exhilarating satire can be seen as a Chinese take on a studio film from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Featuring a smart battle of wits and filled with possible political allegories for cultural scholars to analyze (though Jiang will never own up to them publicly), Let the Bullets Fly may be one of the wittiest, smartest Chinese blockbusters ever made. It's not a coincidence that it's also one of the highest-grossing Chinese films in history.

Petty Romance (Korea)
Playing like a dirtier version of the Hugh Grant-Drew Barrymore romantic comedy Music and Lyrics, Petty Romance depicts a sweet romance developed between a former sex columnist and a comic artist during the creation of an erotic comic. The thing that brings them together is dirty, but the relationship itself is as clean and cute as any other Asian pure romance. Combine writer-director Kim Jung Hoon's charming script with impeccable screen chemistry between stars Lee Seon Gyun and Choi Kang Hee, and you've got the best Korean romantic comedy of 2011.

Sketches of Kaitan City (Japan)
A realistic, "as-is" portrait of a fictional seaside city in post-bubble Japan that doesn't fall for happy endings or easy solutions, Sketches of Kaitan City may be too depressing for some. However, it's extremely well-directed by director Kumakiri Kazuyoshi, who uses a precise directing style that doesn't waste one single shot, and everyone in the large ensemble cast is equally strong. Its somber tone and 152-minute running time may have made it unpopular with film festivals around the world, but it's more than worth watching for any fan of Japanese independent cinema.

Sunny (Korea)
Director Kang Hyung Chul does the seemingly impossible task of outdoing his hit directorial debut Scandal Makers with this wonderful coming-of-age/girl power comedy. Following a housewife's journey to reunite her middle school friends, Sunny is a joy to watch from start to finish thanks to its endearing characters, hilarious script, and addictive soundtrack. Extra points go to the film's English subtitle writer, who came up with some of the most hilariously creative translations for Korean curse words I've seen all year.

Villain (Japan)
On the surface, Lee Sang-Il's Villain appears to be self-indulgent award bait. However, it's actually a powerful acting showcase for some of the best actors working in Japan today (it literally swept the acting awards at the Japan Academy prize). An emotionally intense drama about the various forms of villainy that exist around us, Villain is a film that's so powerful that it's hard to imagine anyone being able to come out of it untouched.

When Love Comes (Taiwan)
With recent Taiwan commercial hits like You Are the Apple of My Eye and Monga taking the spotlight, many seem to have forgotten about this bittersweet drama about a large dysfunctional family in Taipei. Shot in a naturalistic manner by director Chang Tso Chi, When Love Comes is surprisingly warm and full of humor without ever becoming emotionally manipulative. It may not have contributed to the revival of Taiwanese cinema from a financial standpoint, but When Love Comes should not be missed by anyone interested in Taiwanese cinema.

Wu Xia (Hong Kong/China)
A fresh twist on the martial arts genre that's also a loving tribute to it, Wu Xia is Hong Kong director Peter Chan's best film in years. Inspired by crime procedural television dramas like CSI and contemporary crime documentaries, Chan uses computer imagery to integrate western medicine into the action scenes, resulting in one of the most visually inventive Chinese action films in recent years. Kaneshiro Takeshi gives a memorable performance as an eccentric Sichuanese-speaking detective determined to expose a paper worker who may be a former assassin (played by Donnie Yen).


The Borrower Arrietty (Japan)
It may not by directed by Miyazaki Hayao, but Yonebayashi Hiromasa's directorial debut lives up heartily to the Studio Ghibli label. Based on the beloved Borrowers novels, the film takes the premise of thimble-sized people who survive by borrowing from humans, but presents its own set of characters and stories in a Japanese countryside home. A simple coming-of-age fantasy that harks back to Ghibli's earlier efforts like Kiki's Delivery Service and Whisper of the Heart, Arrietty beautifully captures the wonder and whimsy of seeing the world from a wee perspective. Not as visually stunning and thematically meaty as Miyazaki's recent films, of course, but quite possibly more pleasant for the whole family.

A Crazy Little Thing Called Love (Thailand)
If a movie's quality is measured by how much it's loved by its intended audience, then A Crazy Little Thing Called Love passes with flying colors. This coming-of-age romance about a plain schoolgirl who strives to change herself to win her crush is cute, funny, and oh so full of teenage heart. The heroine's transformation is not a makeover, but the process of an insecure adolescent growing up into a confident young woman, little by little, year by year. Pimchanok Lerwisetpibol is a charming revelation, enthusiastically carrying her role from pre-teen to twenties. As the object of her affection, Mario Maurer has less to work with character-wise, but the alarmingly handsome star doesn't need to do much to convince as "that one guy" from those hazy-dazy high school days.

Don't Go Breaking My Heart (Hong Kong/China)
There are few questions in life as pressing as: Daniel Wu or Louis Koo? The search for the answer is enough to make Don't Go Breaking My Heart Johnnie To and Wai Ka Fai's best romantic film since Needing You. It's not often a love triangle feels this balanced, with the male leads exuding completely different personalities as an earnest architect and an amusingly honest playboy, but both emerging as very worthy contenders for Gao Yuanyuan, who plays an analyst from China working in Hong Kong. To and Wai make smart use of the workplace setting in the multi-national high-rise offices of Hong Kong's financial district. Also, best use of a frog in a movie this year.

The Front Line (Korea)
Secret Reunion director Jang Hoon makes it 3-for-3 with his third film, a Korean War entry focusing on the soldiers futilely fighting over a small hill that will help determine the North-South border whenever the forthcoming armistice is declared. We've seen the themes before in other war movies - brotherhood, survival, camaraderie between enemy soldiers, war sucks, war changes a man - but that doesn't make the message any less compelling or the journey any less harrowing. Realistic war scenes are complemented by fine performances from the cast, in particular breakout actor Lee Je Hoon, as the young morphine-addicted unit leader, and Ko Su, who displays a rough intensity hitherto unseen in his acting.

I Wish (Japan)
There's something about Kore-eda Hirokazu and kids. Seven years ago, the acclaimed director made Nobody Knows, a devastating film about abandoned children that could reduce grown men to tears. I Wish is a lot lighter, but similarly realistic and disarming, following the adventures of two brothers living apart after their parents' separation. Hoping to reunite, they decide to make a wish at the spot where the Kyushu bullet trains pass each other. Kore-eda's observant script and camera gently capture the mixed feelings of kids who at one moment still believe in miracles, and at another reveal they are more understanding of the world than any adult would have guessed. They seem more mature than Odagiri Joe as the musician father anyway.

Let the Bullets Fly (China)
Bullets do fly in actor-director Jiang Wen's period mega-hit, but it's the words you have to watch out for. A barrage of double meanings, double identities, double crossings, and even double Chow Yun Fats drives the epic battle of wits among a bandit, a crimelord, and a would-be mayor vying for control over a township. There are no good guys in this opportunistic free-for-all, but everyone has good tricks up their sleeves to entertain the audience, not to mention double-edged dialogue prime for netizen dissection. The humor may fly over the heads of many the first time, but this movie gets even better with double viewings.

The Man From Nowhere (Korea)
Nothing beats the movie magic of watching an action thriller executed to perfect form. Won Bin is awesome as the mysterious pawnshop owner with a dark past who goes rogue to save a kidnapped neighborhood girl from the mob. Instead of some token romance, the film backs up its violent action with the touching surrogate father-daughter bond that develops between the leads. Child actress Kim Sae Ron is almost scarily good for her age. The Man From Nowhere might not break any new grounds in filmmaking, but it sure does tread existing ground like it owns it.

No Doubt (Korea)
Do former convicts who have served their time deserve a second chance? What if the crime was child molestation? What if he moves into your neighborhood? What if a child disappears? What if it's your child? Park Soo Young's underrated drama chronicles how a concerned community responds aggressively to a child's mysterious death, and the discovery that a former sex offender is in their midst. There is no proof of wrongdoing, but try telling that to the desperate, grieving father. Laying bare our greatest fears and our greatest prejudices, No Doubt is not an easy film to watch, but very much worth the time. Lee Jung Jin delivers arguably the best performance of his career as the suspect who elicits both sympathy and abhorrence.

Under the Hawthorn Tree (China)
For those of us who prefer Zhang Yimou's small, intimate dramas over costume epics, Under the Hawthorn Tree is the movie we've been waiting for. Set during the Cultural Revolution, the gentle romance between a sent-down girl and a smiley soldier unfolds as a series of aching encounters and moments, beautifully scattered with nostalgic and pastoral imagery and hints of the political turbulence that make their meeting possible and their love impossible. Newcomer leads Zhou Dongyu and Shawn Dou bring no baggage and fresh-faced innocence to their pure characters. Zhang Yimou has always had a knack for discovering actresses, and Zhou Dongyu is the most adorable thing ever.

Wu Xia (Hong Kong/China)
Why is Kaneshiro Takeshi speaking Sichuanese? Who knows, but that is one of the many details that makes Peter Chan's visually and narratively rich effort differ from other Chinese period action pieces. Despite being titled Wu Xia, the blockbuster is less an outright martial arts actioner and more a genre-blending curiosity about a quirky detective stumbling upon a mysterious and possibly deadly papermaker while investigating a crime in the countryside. Don't worry, Donnie Yen does fight (yay!), and he even goes up against Shaw Brothers legend Wang Yu (double yay!).


Don't Go Breaking My Heart (Hong Kong/China)
Much has changed since Johnnie To and Wai Ka Fai set the benchmark for urban romantic comedies a decade before with Needing You, and fans of the duo should revel in their latest collaboration which is proudly on a par with the classic. It's justifiable to be jealous of Gao Yuanyuan, who captures the hearts of two Prince Charmings and made them fight tooth and nail for her. Louis Koo or Daniel Wu? To love or to be loved? It's a tough choice to make indeed, and the final score isn't settled until after many twists and turns - just like in real life.

Let the Bullets Fly (China)
Loud, crazy, smart, and fun, the exhilarating Chinese western blockbuster is a cinematic thrill ride like no other. Told in a manic pace that lives up to its title, the film offers tons of star appeal and entertainment value worthy of the best popcorn flicks, while containing a wealth of political allusions for perceptive audiences to read into. The superb Ge You and Chow Yun Fat are especially memorable, but the biggest accomplishment belongs to star/director Jiang Wen, who has crafted a film true to his artistic calling and still very successful commercially.

Love For Life (China)
I don't know which is sadder - the tragic affair between the protagonists, or the greed and selfishness inherent in human nature that is laid bare in the AIDS patient colony. Director Gu Changwei doesn't make it too sentimental, but the poignancy does creep up on you; nor does he touch on any sensitive issues, but let's just take the film for what it is: a well-made, well-acted drama about people who love until their last breath. The sweeping cinematography by Christopher Doyle is remarkable, as is Aaron Kwok's portrayal of the rural village Romeo.

Lover's Discourse (Hong Kong)
Pang Ho Cheung's screenwriting partners Derek Tsang and Jimmy Wan have proved with their outstanding directorial debut that they are a force to be reckoned with. Omnibus romance movies have been all the rage in recent years, and the rookie helmers' panorama of Hong Kong romance skillfully weaves together several interrelated plotlines of unique styles with a unified narrative voice. The ensemble cast is brilliant across the board, each actor contributing to the film's heart and soul with their subtle and captivating performance.

My Kingdom (Hong Kong/China)
The period action drama presents a stylized wuxia world where clans fight for supremacy on the Peking Opera stage. The story packs enough material to make a TV serial, so at feature length, the film's plots and characters are bound to feel somewhat underdeveloped. Still, Wu Chun and Han Geng should be praised for their better-than-expected turns as sworn brothers that end up becoming enemies. It should be recognized, though, that the true driving force powering this pop idol vehicle is the martial arts sequences choreographed by Sammo Hung.

Overheard 2 (Hong Kong)
Thumbs up for co-directors Alan Mak and Felix Chong for achieving the rare feat of keeping up with, if not surpassing the predecessor in terms of quality. The main plot devices of phone tapping and stock market conspiracy return in this "sequel", but Daniel Wu, Louis Koo, and Lau Ching Wan find themselves playing more challenging roles in a brand-new story that's as socially relevant as the first film. The veteran actors are a joy to watch, in particular Kenneth Tsang as the chillingly intimidating arch-villain.

Punished (Hong Kong)
Law Wing Cheong's Punished is a film worthy of its Milkyway Image heritage. In true Johnnie To fashion, the gritty crime thriller brings together elements of kidnap, murder, and revenge in a thought-provoking tale of karma and fatalism, but it's ultimately about forgiving and letting go - redemption is a matter of choice. Owning the silver screen as he always does, Anthony Wong gives a powerful performance as the conflicted, semi-villainous protagonist, which should make him a serious contender for major accolades come the award season.

Shaolin (Hong Kong/China)
Benny Chan bounces back from the mediocrity of City Under Siege to give us a solid action drama with epic ambitions. At its core is a man finding redemption in Shaolin, and if the sacred temple is a metaphor for the nation, then it makes sense why the story is so marked by pathos and tragedy. Andy Lau does a decent job with his character's transformation from ruthless warlord to enlightened warrior monk, and Chan deserves a pat on the back for his effort balancing the introspective stuff with the martial arts and the over-the-top mayhem.

The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake (Hong Kong/China)
Herman Yau works wonder again to deliver a tight and compelling biopic of Qiu Jin, a celebrated historical figure far ahead of her contemporaries. The director's decision to dramatize her already rousing life story for today's audiences - mainly by portraying her as a rebel and kung fu heroine - has raised a few eyebrows, but it's a commercially sound move and one that's done with utmost respect and admiration. A great deal of credit goes to Huang Yi, who nails the title role with an assured performance full of elegance and vivacity.

Wu Xia (Hong Kong/China)
With his innovative deconstruction of the martial arts genre, Peter Chan has again showed why he is held as one of the foremost visionary filmmakers in Chinese cinema. Donnie Yen turns in his best performance in recent memory - both as actor and as action director - even though the film only gives him three major action set pieces to exhibit his marvelous kung fu. Still, the film's most intriguing "action" comes in the form of internal struggles on the part of Kaneshiro Takeshi 's quirky detective character, allowing him to steal every scene he is in.

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Published December 23, 2011

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