As much as we adore Korean dramas and Japanese anime, there’s so much more to the world of Asian cinema and television than many may realise – like pictures from Southeast Asia. And while it’s true that the majority of regional productions were hampered or delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic during the first half of the year (like in most of the world), there are still plenty of film and TV gems to cherry-pick from.
From tense crime thrillers and tender LGBT romances to family dramas and supernatural mysteries, these were the best and brightest to hit Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia screens in 2020 so far.
Top 5 Southeast Asian movies of 2020
1Help Is On The Way (Indonesia)
Directed by Ismail Fahmi Lubis, this insightful documentary centres on prospective domestic helpers at a preparatory facility in West Java called Foreign Workers Training Agency.
Following them from the village to school, into Jakarta and eventually working overseas in Taiwan, Help Is On The Way brilliantly humanises this oft-forgotten and exploited female workforce in a way that’s rarely seen on screen. By immersing us in the hopes and hardships of characters like Meri, Sukma, Muji and Tari, this excellent non-fiction feature potently personalises the urgent issues of migration, class division, gender and labour rights in Indonesia and abroad.
2A Moment Of Happiness (Malaysia)
This Mandarin-language comedy is a delightful take on the artificiality and hypocrisy of social media celebrities. Lim Min Chen stars as Zhen Zhen, a young influencer who positions herself online as a “princess” leading a lavish lifestyle. In reality, though, she’s a poor college graduate maintaining a fake persona in order to provide for her struggling family.
In a modern Cinderella-esque twist, she falls in love with a wealthy Thai tourist named Nat (Tul Pakorn). Hilarity ensues when Zhen is faced with the tough dilemma of either coming clean or keeping up appearances for her new beau.
3Present Still Perfect (Thailand)
Present Still Perfect is a slow-burning and sensual LGBTQ film that’s the long-awaited follow-up to writer-director Aam Anusorn Soisa-ngim’s acclaimed 2016 hit Present Perfect.
This sequel continues the beautiful, complicated romance between gay lovers Toey (Adisorn Tonawanik) and Oat (Kristsana Maroukasonti). Taking place four years after the bittersweet events of the first film, the lovers are accidentally reunited at a breathtakingly gorgeous beach resort called Koh Kood. Toey is fuelled by the hurt and resentment over how their initial dalliance ended (Oat ended up marrying a woman, and now has a son), but is also overcome by the desire to rekindle their genuine connection.
4Nanti Kita Cerita Tentang Hari Ini (Indonesia)
Adapted from the book of the same name (translated from Bahasa Indonesia as One Day We’ll Talk About Today) by Marchella FP, this film by director and co-writer Angga Dwimas Sasongko is a richly textured portrait of a household haunted by loss and trauma.
Framed around a two-decade-old secret that destroys a family’s facade of harmony, Nanti Kita Cerita Tentang Hari Ini observes how an Indonesian family, divided by generational values, copes with conflict and festering wounds. Told non-linearly through three time periods – the birth of youngest child Awan (Rachel Amanda), Awan’s childhood and the present day – this is a compelling family drama that revels in emotional authenticity.
Directed and written by Imran Sheik, Daulat tells a story that will hit close to home for its Malaysian viewers: a politician and her Malay-based party are plotting a comeback after losing an election due to multiple scandals.
This chamber drama is obviously loosely based on Malaysia’s recent history of political turmoil, specifically the collapse of the Pakatan Harapan government and the rise of Perikatan Nasional. Blunt and unflinching in its dissection of bureaucratic corruption and unscrupulous politicians, this self-funded Malaysian House Of Cards headed directly to streaming rather than risk censorship in the country’s cinemas.
Top 5 Southeast Asian TV Shows of 2020
6Titoudao: Inspired By The True Story Of A Wayang Star (Singapore)
Life can be unfair, but she'll never give up. How did a poor kampong girl overcome poverty, abandonment, and more to become one of Singapore’s biggest wayang celebrities? ✨Catch #Titoudao: Inspired by the True Story of a Wayang Star for free on meWATCH from Tue, 18 Feb! #madeforyou
Posted by Mediacorp Channel 5 on Wednesday, February 5, 2020
Adapted from Goh Boon Teck’s fantastic 1994 play of the same name, which in turn is based on the tumultuous life of his mother Madam Oon Ah Chiam, Titoudao follows the journey of Ah Chiam (played with boatloads of effervescent charm by Koe Yeet), a lowly Hokkien street performer who had to overcome personal and professional hurdles to become a wayang (Chinese street opera) icon.
This expansive yet intimate 13-part biopic, which spans the 1940s to the present day, features handsome production values, a star-studded cast (including Fann Wong, Andie Chen, Constance Lau, Lina Ng and Joel Choo), early-independence Singaporean nostalgia and vivid depictions of a near-extinct artform.
7The Ghost Bride (Malaysia)
Set in colonial Malacca in the late 19th century, Netflix’s first Malaysian Mandarin-language original series is a bewitching blend of period drama, murder mystery and supernatural romance.
The Ghost Bride is based on the bestselling 2013 novel of the same name, and draws its premise from the old Chinese practice of ghost marriages, which involves a living person ‘marrying’ someone deceased. The story follows 20-year-old Pan Li Lan’s (Huang Pei-jia) impending betrothal and her unravelling the suspicious circumstances of her groom-to-be’s death. This fun and ambitious series is buoyed by impressive production design that fleshes out both the spiritual world and 19th-century Malacca with magnificent detail.
8Phượng Khấu (Vietnam)
Billed internationally as The Emperor’s Gift, Phượng Khấu is a gorgeous period drama of palace intrigue surrounding the court of Thiệu Trị, the third monarch of the Nguyễn Dynasty.
The lavishly produced series follows the life of Phạm Hiệu Nguyệt, the favoured and most powerful concubine of Prince Miên Tông, taking a deep dive into the deceptions and conspiracies of the imperial family while presenting a captivating look at how Hiệu Nguyệt rose to become the most influential woman in the Nguyễn Dynasty for over 60 years. From intriguing palace power plays to its detailed recreation of 17th-century Vietnam, Phượng Khấu is well worth your time.
Created as one of the first pieces of original content for a new streaming service backed by tech giant Gojek, this expertly crafted crime series is a superb reason for viewers to subscribe to GoPlay.
Adapted from the 2017 hit South Korean series of the same name (which was inspired by the Hwaseong serial murders), this Indonesian remake begins in 1990 and follows Detective Tigor as he investigates a series of killings that has remained unsolved for decades.
However, during a confrontation with a suspect in a Yogyakarta tunnel, things get weird when the detective is mysteriously transported 30 years into the future – to 2020. It’s an engrossing, thrilling take on whodunnits that puts a smart sci-fi bent on a twisting cat-and-mouse narrative.
Our nice Singaporean boy finally met his perfect match – a nice Singaporean girl. 🤭🔪Catch Derek II for free on meWATCH premieres on 14 Feb, Valentine's Day! http://mewatch.sg/codeoflaw #Derek #Derek2 #CodeofLaw #madeforyou
Posted by Mediacorp Channel 5 on Monday, February 10, 2020
Spun off Mediacorp’s expansive, Dick Wolf-indebted Code Of Law shared TV universe, this psychological thriller follows Singaporean banker-turned-serial killer Derek Ho (Desmond Tan). Now in its second season, we find the titular character on death row as he draws ever nearer to the gallows.
Faced with a ticking clock, troubled and traumatised psychiatrist Dr. Winnie Low (Cheryl Chitty Tan) races to complete her profile of the murderer, so as to get to the bottom of the list of other missing women Derek is believed to have been responsible for. Featuring brilliant performances from both leads and a juicy twist on Hannibal and Clarice’s Silence Of The Lambs dynamic, season two of Derek is one of the most gripping dramas on Singaporean TV in the last few years.