From politics to a pandemic, 2020 has inarguably been a depressing year. But the one silver lining is that it presented a steady slew of outstanding movies that got us through these troubled times. While we’ve been quarantining at home, we’ve had more time than ever to dive into diverse Asian films via streaming and virtual film festivals.
Ranging from insightful nonfiction and escapist fantasies to gorgeous period dramas, here are the best flicks from East and Southeast Asia this year.
10. Genus Pan (Philippines)
Taking place on the ghostly terrain of Hugaw Island, Genus Pan (or Lahi, Hayop) is a bleak allegory of moral rot set against contemporary Philippines’ violent and traumatic history. Filming in stark black and white, writer and director Lav Diaz explores a poverty-stricken Filipino enclave populated by superstitious citizens who often confront the misery and unfairness of modern life by embracing old legends and myths.
Genus Pan is an elongated treatise on unchecked capitalism, and a punishingly grim examination of the seemingly inescapable fate of the underclass, who remain trapped in an endless cycle of violence.
For fans of: Metro Manila, Ma’ Rosa
9. A Whisker Away (Japan)
Originally titled in Japanese as Wanting To Cry, I Pretend To Be A Cat, A Whisker Away is a sweet and vibrant anime film from Satō Jun’ichi and Shibayama Tomotaka. The story follows Miyo, an outcast junior-high schooler with an overly exuberant spirit that some would find endearing, and others, obnoxious.
In order to escape her social, romantic and parental troubles, the girl is gifted a magical cat mask that changes her into – you guessed it – a kitten. Contemplative and earnest, A Whisker Away tackles themes of abandonment and identity with a depth and visual beauty that won’t look out of place within the Studio Ghibli canon. A charming coming-of-age fantasy.
For fans of: A Silent Voice, The Secret World Of Arrietty
8. Help Is On The Way (Indonesia)
This eye-opening documentary by Ismail Fahmi Lubis explores the lives of domestic helpers and migrant workers through the lens of the prospective nannies trained at a West Java facility. An illuminating and empathetic look at the forgotten women of Indonesia, this nonfiction film humanises the urgent issues of class divisions and labour rights in the region.
From their lives in a rural village to their training at the school, all the way to their eventual postings in Taiwan, Help Is On The Way plunges us into the hopes and fears of an exploited female workforce who dream for a better life by working abroad.
For fans of: Roma, Ilo Ilo
7. Wife Of A Spy (Japan)
Veteran filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s lavishly produced espionage yarn is an elegant and absorbing period drama that lays bare the atrocities of war. Set in 1940 – after Japan’s invasion of China and alliance with Nazi Germany and fascist Italy – Wife Of A Spy follows a wealthy trade merchant named Yusaku Fukuhara and his trophy wife Satoko.
After stumbling upon shocking state secrets, Yusaku is determined to expose them to the outside world. Bolstered by a bravura performance from Yū Aoi as a glamorous starlet thrown into marital torment by her husband’s covert operations, Wife Of A Spy is a suspenseful and compulsive cloak-and-dagger caper.
For fans of: Bridge Of Spies, Eye Of The Needle
6. You And I (Indonesia)
This heartfelt documentary by Fanny Chotimah tells the story of a 50-year friendship between Kaminah and Kusdalini, two elderly women who first met as political prisoners in 1965. After first encountering each other during the harrowing years of President Sukarno’s regime, the pair have remained inseparable well into their 70s.
Although backdropped by dark history, You And I is really a heartfelt look at their genuine friendship as they face the cruel realities of growing old together in Surakarta, Central Java. This sensitive film is a bittersweet observation of their kindness and loneliness during their final days.
For fans of: To Singapore, With Love, Friends In Prison (Gokutomo)
5. Beasts Clawing At Straws (South Korea)
With his debut feature, Kim Yong-Hoon crafts a suspenseful Coen Brothers-esque crime caper that drenches its black humour in neon hues. Through five non-linear chapters following hard-luck characters ranging from loan sharks and a customs agent to assassins and a prostitute, we see their desperate search for quick riches cascade and intertwine in a chain of violent events.
A Louis Vuitton bag stuffed with cash serves as the catalyst of the intricate plot, where unexpected connections between characters, double-crosses and murders are discovered as timelines collide. An immensely satisfying watch.
For fans of: No Country For Old Men, Time To Hunt
4. Sementara (Singapore)
No film has managed to weave together the sprawling tapestry of Singapore’s diverse cultures and identities more vividly than Sementara. Shot during Singapore’s 2015 golden jubilee celebrations, this observational documentary eschews the guiding voice of a narrator in favour of immersing viewers in a series of candid interviews with Singaporeans and residents of the city-state – including the migrant workers who call the country home.
Directors Chew Chia Shao Min and Joant Úbeda open-mindedly broach thorny topics like race, religion and sexuality – allowing their subjects’ wide spectrum of values and perspectives to paint a humanist picture of the nation at a milestone in its history.
For fans of: Invisible City, Singapore GaGa
3. A Balance (Japan)
A Balance follows documentarian Yuko who tries to unearth the truth behind a sensational case of teen bullying which led to two suicides. Speaking to family members of the high school students and a teacher suspected of a love affair, Yuko’s journalistic ethics guide her through the emotional burden of being a conduit for the tortured subjects and their differing accounts.
But when she realises that a scandal is about to break much closer to home, she is forced to reevaluate her lofty principles. Yujiro Harumoto’s film offers revealing insight into Japan’s culture of shame, and asks knotty questions about the responsibility of the media.
For fans of: Night’s Tightrope, Angels Wear White
2. Veins Of The World (Mongolia)
Veins Of The World centres on Amra, an 11-year-old boy who lives the traditional life of a nomad with his mother Zaya, father Erdene and little sister Altaa in the Mongolian steppes. While Zaya takes care of the flock, Erdene works as a mechanic and sells his wife’s homemade cheese at the local market.
However, their peaceful routine is threatened by the encroachment of mining companies digging for gold and devastating the natural habitat. Helmed by Byambasuren Davaa, this picturesque film is a slow-burning, child’s-eye-view of a unique culture and a beautiful environment endangered by mega corporations.
For fans of: Pahuna, The Wasteland
1. A Thousand Cuts (Philippines)
Ramona S. Diaz’s fantastic documentary follows a group of intrepid Filipino journalists, led by the indomitable Maria Ressa, who for years now has been suffering constant harassment from President Rodrigo Duterte and his followers.
A Thousand Cuts is partly an alarming examination of the social media disinformation campaigns and brutal crackdowns that the press are subject to in the Philippines. But it’s also an inspiring portrait of an extraordinary woman (among other brave reporters at Rappler), who goes above and beyond to expose the truth no matter the personal and professional cost.
For fans of: Spotlight, Page One: Inside The New York Times