We are halfway through 2012 already, and as Hong Kong gears up to celebrate the 15th Anniversary of its reunification with Mother China, it's time for me to collect my thoughts, look back over the 53 new Asian films I have seen in the past six months, and select my 10 favourites. 2012 has been an exciting, adventurous year for movie-watching, most notably taking me to the remote, wintry climes of Hokkaido for the weird & wonderful Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival, crammed full of low budget delights from Japan and the surrounding region. More than one of the films in my list enjoyed their world premiere in the cramped, yet cozy make-shift screening rooms of this delightful snow-caked festival. Elsewhere, the epic Hong Kong International Film Festival brought treasures from all over the world - and even if this year's pickings of Chinese-language films were less bountiful than in previous years - the programme still yielded a few notable Asian gems. Besides that, it's been a surprisingly strong year for Hong Kong Cinema thus far, and one filmmaker in particular, with Chinese language films dominating my Top 10. So, without further ado, these are the 10 Asian films that have impressed me most in the first half of 2012:
The Brat! (Japan)
Directed by Taichi Suzuki
My favourite film from Yubari 2012 is the brutally honest, yet often hilarious story of a struggling young filmmaker willing to blame all of his failures in life on his ugly appearance. However, when he strikes up a conversation with the adorable, yet equally insecure Momoko (Sayaka Tashiro), a glimmer of hope presents itself. This courageous, assured debut from Taichi sets him apart as a filmmaker to watch in the coming years, but the star of the show here is stand-up comedian, turned ferocious screen presence Hiroki Konno as the oddball lead. A unique coming-of-age romance that deserves widespread success.
Directed by Ohata Hajime
Taking its cues from Cronenberg's The Fly and Shinya Tsukamoto's Tetsuo, this is a twisted love story of a young couple torn apart by illness. When Yoshiaki's seizures begin to manifest as strange physical mutations, loving wife Keiko goes from doctor to psychiatrist to spiritual healer, but to no avail. Soon the horrific reality of Yoshiaki's condition becomes apparent, but by that time it may be too late to stop it taking him over completely - and taking over Tokyo! What Ohata achieves here would be impressive on any scale, as he refuses to let budget limitations restrain this old school monster movie that is a revelation to horror and kaiju fans everywhere.
I Wish (Japan)
Directed by Kore'eda Hirokazu
An absolute delight from start to finish, Kore'eda again looks within the family unit to find drama, comedy and affirmation that life is well worth living. Two young brothers, separated after their parents' marriage breaks down, plot a hairbrained scheme to make a secret trip to a spot where two bullet train lines intersect, and make a wish to reunite their family. While Jo Odagiri and Nene Otsuka play the parents, the film gambles everything on its young leads, who do a knockout job of carrying the humour and emotional weight of the story, and proving that a little childish enthusiasm is sometimes all it takes to put the world right.
Love In The Buff (Hong Kong)
Directed by Pang Ho Cheung
This worthy successor to surprise hit Love In A Puff breaks up Jimmy and Cherie's relationship, only to send them both to Beijing, where they must contend with cultural differences galore and their own unresolved feelings. While the smoking is gone, Pang ensures that the filthy humour remains, along with its spot-on depiction of young professionals and modern Chinese dating rituals. The laughs come thick and fast, there are a number of excellent cameos, but above all this is a romantic comedy that succeeds on the strength of the romance between two very real and believable characters, whom we have grown to love, despite their many flaws.
Modest Reception (Iran)
Directed by Mani Haghighi
There is no greater thrill than stumbling upon a truly excellent film about which you knew nothing at all. It was solely due to location and tight scheduling during this year's HKIFF that I opted to see this Iranian drama in between two other films playing nearby. And what a discovery it was! Haghighi plays alongside the gorgeous Taraneh Alidoosti (About Elly) as a mysterious couple (are they lovers? relatives? colleagues?), tearing through the mountainous wilderness in a car packed full of cash. When they proceed to dump life-changing quantities of money on a random series of bewildered strangers, this is only the beginning of this curious tale of twisted morality in a country close to implosion.
Painted Skin II: The Resurrection (China/Hong Kong)
Directed by Wuershan
Like Overheard 2 last year, this is a sequel in name and cast only, with the gorgeous Zhou Xun playing an escaped demon who must feed off the hearts of men to retain her physical form. Saved by the warm-hearted but facially scarred Princess Jing (Zhao Wei), the pair strike a dangerous deal, with violent, supernatural consequences. Less an action-packed, demon-quelling thrill ride, Wuershan manages to deliver a gorgeously staged romantic fantasy, brimming with tragedy and unrequited love, anchored by the beautifully complex relationship between its stunning female leads.
A Simple Life (Hong Kong)
Directed by Ann Hui
After playing seemingly every film festival in the world last year (and snatching up Best Actress awards at every turn), Ann Hui's intimate drama finally came home in March, to a rapturous reception. The sheer simplicity of its story, about a successful film producer (Andy Lau) forced to put his career on hold to care for his family's ailing helper (Deanie Ip), coupled with two superbly understated performances are the key to the film's success. Hui can't help taking a few swings at hot button social issues along the way, but it is the film's big heart and stripped down humanity that ultimately give it its power.
Vulgaria (Hong Kong)
Directed by Pang Ho Cheung
Pang Ho Cheung scores a one-two punch with this lewd, acerbic, juvenille and flat-out hilarious comedy about a struggling film producer who'll go to just about any lengths to get his next film financed. Chapman To is the perfect cypher for Pang's particularly smutty sense of humour, who explains through a series of lengthy anecdotes, how his professional and personal lives deteriorate after he strikes a deal with a manipulative mainland gangster to make a period softcore porn flick. From insightful satire about the current state of the local film industry, to a tirade of dick jokes and animal sex, Vulgaria is the comedy to beat in 2012.
The Woman In The Septic Tank (The Philippines)
Directed by Marlon Rivera
A scathing satire on Filipino Cinema, where poverty porn is embraced internationally, while commercial fare is dismissed as lowbrow and impenetrable. Two ambitious young filmmakers struggle to get their low budget indie into production so they can surf the festival wave all the way to the Oscars. But their story of a poverty-stricken mother forced to sell one of her kids to a known pedophile becomes increasingly compromised as they battle problems ranging from funding to casting and dangerous locations. Featuring a hilarious turn from local superstar Eugene Domingo as their prima donna lead, Rivera displays a keen understanding of the festival circuit as well as a smart, knowing sense of humour.
Young Gun In The Time (South Korea)
Directed by Oh Young Doo
I was a huge fan of micro-budgeted Korean sci-fi Invasion Of Alien Bikini, and Oh's follow-up is even better. Young Gun (Bikini star Hong Young Geun) is a struggling private detective, with a false hand and a penchant for loud Hawaiian shirts, who becomes embroiled in a case of missing scientists, murder and time-travel after crossing paths with the beautiful yet peculiar Choi Song Hyun. The script is smart and inventive, the performances lively and likable, while Oh's direction gives the film a slick, action-packed style that's worth a thousand times the film's miniscule $US30,000 budget. If their last collaboration wasn't proof enough of their talents, Young Gun In The Time should undoubtedly set Oh and Hong on course for the big leagues.