Every six months I like to take stock of the many new Asian films that have played in front of me, and consolidate my favourites into a Top 10 list to share with the ScreenAnarchy readership. I should point out that this is a list of ten films - so should in no way be considered exhaustive - and highlights only my personal favourites from the 40 eligible films I have seen since the end of June. You are unlikely to find any Indian films listed here, not because I'm a vindictive racist, but simply because I tend to defer to the superior knowledge of my esteemed colleague Josh Hurtado in these matters. That and the fact that not too many Bollywood films play in Hong Kong. I am also just a man, and therefore must dedicate at least a few hours of each day to more trivial pursuits such as eating, sleeping, watching non-Asian films and bowing to the whims of my domineering girlfriend.
As a result I have not seen every Asian movie that was released in the past 12 months, and so the absence of a title here is just as likely to be because I haven't seen it, rather than simply because I have dreadful taste in films. If some Far-Eastern gem from 2012 has failed to materialise on the list below, or my roundup of the first half of the year, which can be found here
, then feed my ignorance and enlighten us all in the comments.
Now that my general overall feebleness and irrelevance has been dealt with, let us embrace the matter at hand. While the first half of 2012 was a notably strong period for Chinese-language Cinema, the second half of the year proved otherwise. There was no shortage of output - Jackie Chan's CZ12, Andrew Lau's The Guillotines, Heiward Mak's DIVA, Alan Mak & Felix Chong's The Silent War, Stephen Fung's two-part Tai Chi saga - it's just that they were all a bit rubbish. We were treated to glittery all-star casts and sparkly cinematography in Cold War, the summer's prestige release, and I actually quite liked it, but this is a Top 10, and it didn't make the cut. If it's any consolation, however, Cold War probably placed No. 11 or 12.
As you'll see, one or two Chinese films did sneak in, but this list is overwhelmingly dominated by Japan, who had another cracking year. But it wasn't the big-budget, star-packed crowdpleasers that had the biggest impact on me, but rather a handful of obscure low-budget features that I was lucky enough to catch, in large part thanks to Jasper Sharp and his phenomenal Zipangu Fest
in London, which I was fortunate enough to attend this past summer. Sharp's dedication to bringing the weird and the wonderful to new audiences is peerless in the film programming community and it was a delight to experience that enthusiasm and knowledge first-hand.
So without further ado, here are my Top 10 favourite Asian movies of 2012 (July-December), in alphabetical order:
(China, dir. Gao Qunshu)
Hands down the best Chinese film of 2012. Gao Qunshu, director of The Message, goes verite for this fly-on-the-wall style docudrama following small crimes detectives on the streets of Beijing as they track and nail con artists, fraudsters and pickpockets. Featuring a cast of non-professional actors and handheld photography, Beijing Blues is a fascinating portrait of a city wrestling with an expanding poverty gap, and makes for hugely engaging, funny and downright scary viewing.
For Love's Sake
(Japan, dir. Miike Takashi)
My favourite Asian film of the year. Miike Takashi blends his Crows: Zero
flicks with West Side Story
for an insane high school musical epic, featuring gorgeous art direction, an excellent ensemble of both young and old acting talent, as well as a dozen catchy, knowingly kitsch musical numbers. Read my full review here.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi
(Japan, dir.David Gelb)
Simple, subtle, yet incredibly powerful - kind of like sushi itself. While you can rest assured that this is a film that will make you incredibly hungry, it is also a touching portrait of family, tradition, legacy and responsibility, as Gelb takes us through the routine of running one of the most famous and renowned sushi restaurants in the world, and the burden of responsibility that it represents to the rest of the family.
Key of Life
(Japan, dir. Uchida Kenji)
A 30-year-old single woman (Hirosue Ryoko) quits her job to get married - although she has yet to meet anyone who seems up to the task. In the meantime, a young introverted actor (Sakai Masato) and a ruthless hitman (Kagawa Teruyuki) inadvertently swap identities after a slip-up at a public bath house. Uchida interweaves these three lives in a delightfully humourous manner, while also delivering plenty of yakuza-related thrills punctuated by obnoxious car alarms. A rare treat.
(China, dir. Frant Gwo, Li Yang)
While this officially opened in China at the end of 2011, I don't think anybody noticed. Since then, I've been doing my level best to make as much noise as I possibly can about Gwo and Li's genre-bending time travel romance. I even went so far as to bring the film to Texas for Fantastic Fest last September, where it went down quite a treat. Hopefully it will make itself easier to come-by at some point in 2013, as it's hugely entertaining.
(South Korea, dir. Kim Ki-duk)
Far from being vintage Kim, it is reassuring nonetheless to see that the director's brief hiatus from filmmaking has done little to supress his determination to shock and revile us with his screwed up worldview. A young loan shark (Lee Jeong-jin) is thrown through a loop when a middle-aged woman (Jo Min-soo) turns up on his doorstep, claiming to be his mother. What follows is a typically off-kilter relationship that grows in frightening and farcical directions thanks to the intense, committed performances from its two leads.
(Japan, dir. Tomita Katsuya)
Frankly I'm surprised more people aren't talking about this one. Tomita and scriptwriter Aizawa Toranosuke spent a year in the rural town of Kofu, getting to know the residents and looking for characters for their film. Then they wrote their film around them - the young construction workers struggling to get by, the growing tensions between the native Japanese and the Brazilian-Japanese immigrants, and two groups of young men who find their outlet through the medium of hip-hop. Tomita presents a collage of different personalities, backgrounds and social issues in this gritty, honest and often humorous drama that is unlike anything else coming out of Japan.
The Echo of Astro Boy's Footsteps
(Japan, dir. Masanori Tominaga)
Not only a dream documentary for anyone who is a fan of the iconic Japanese anime character, but also a delight for audio-tech fanatics who remain unsated even after Berbarian Sound Studio. When landmark animated series Astro Boy first launched back in 1963 it was a phenomenal success, and among the shows many triumphs was its incredible sound design from Ohno Matsuo. A pioneer of experimental music and soundscapes throughout the 60s and 70s, Ohno mysteriously disappeared in the mid-80s and Masanori's documentary sets out to document the man's work, chart his influence and discover the truth about what became of him. The results are captivating, aurally sensational and ultimately, revelatory.
The Last Tycoon
(Hong Kong, dir. Wong Jing)
Whoever would have thought Wong Jing still had the ability to make richly entertaining action Cinema?! Huang Xiaoming and Chow Yun Fat play the young and older incarnations of Shanghai gangster Cheng Daqi, while Francis Ng all but steals the show as corrupt General Mao Zai. Read my full review here
The Woodsman and the Rain
(Japan, dir. Okita Shuichi)
A gentle, sweetnatured and delightful tale of the unlikely friendship between a young insecure filmmaker (Oguri Shun) and a veteran reclusive lumberjack (Yakusho Koji), that strives to awaken the dormant zombie in all of us.
(Japan, dir. Hosoda Mamoru)
A far-cry from the zany, computerised world of his previous film, Summer Wars, Hosoda's story of a young woman struggling to raise two young werewolves proves to be perhaps the year's finest cinematic depiction of the struggles of parenthood.