The 10 best Asian films and TV shows of 2021 – so far

Satirical films, comedies and riveting documentaries – see what made our list

Like every other industry, the ongoing global pandemic continues to severely affect the entertainment world – forcing production delays, altered release schedules, and major shifts to on-demand streaming distribution. Nevertheless, the first half of 2021 has somehow still managed to produce a number of remarkable titles on screens big and small, particularly in Asia.

From a dark satire of India’s caste system and a heartbreaking documentary about the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, to an addictive South Korean mafia series and an educational anime about human biology – NME highlights the best Asian films and TV shows of the year so far.

Hidzir Junaini

Top Asian movies of 2021 so far:

The White Tiger (India)

Netflix, January 22

Based on Aravind Adiga’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel, executive produced by Ava DuVernay, and helmed by Ramin Bahrani, The White Tiger is a mercilessly satirical and visually kinetic thriller about servitude and class division. Think of it as Parasite, but set in modern India’s caste system. This scathing and acidic crime saga follows impoverished villager Balram Halwai, who uses his cunning and charisma to climb the social ladder, often at the cost of his integrity and dignity. But as Balram is finally on the verge of attaining the success he desires, he faces a crisis of conscience, caught between his humble upbringing and his envy of his employer’s blinding wealth.

Led by a trio of phenomenal performances from Adarsh Gourav (in his first leading role), Priyanka Chopra and Rajkummar Rao, The White Tiger grimly observes the moral costs of inequality and corruption on all levels. Bahrani weaves an unintentional antithesis to Slumdog Millionaire here, crafting a cynical rags-to-riches tale of innocence lost, ruthless ambition and shameful self-betterment. It’s easy to see why the film’s punchy and propulsive script was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the 93rd Academy Awards.

76 Days (China)

Cinemas and Amazon Prime Video, January 23

This immersive and intimate documentary captures the struggles of patients and frontline medical professionals battling the first outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan. Filmed at four different hard-hit hospitals during the city’s initial lockdown, Hao Wu and Weixi Chen’s journalistic film remarkably captures all the unbridled panic and heroic pragmatism greeting a disaster before its entire global impact had even been gauged. 76 Days is unvarnished and experiential, following under-resourced doctors and nurses doing everything they can to deal with unimaginable grief, physical exhaustion and terrified patients amid a relentless onslaught of emergencies.

Eschewing voice-over and talking heads for a fly-on-the-wall approach, this documentary obtains first-person footage, cutting through abstract statistics and plunging viewers in the chaos and confusion. Filled with raw emotion and selfless acts of humanity, 76 Days is an essential documentary. It reminds viewers that beyond social inconveniences and economic repercussions, it’s important to see and fully appreciate the devastating human toll of the coronavirus, and the tireless bravery of healthcare workers everywhere.

Wheel Of Fortune And Fantasy (Japan)

Berlin Film Festival, March 4

A girl finds out that her best friend is dating her ex, which makes her wonder if she’s still in love with him. A directionless woman in her 30s half-heartedly tries to seduce her old college professor, at the request of her young lover. A middle-aged woman attends her high school reunion in the hopes of rekindling an old flame, but finds an unexpected connection instead. Hamaguchi Ryūsuke’s latest effort is a charmingly bittersweet anthology film, tying together a triptych of thematically related but wildly unpredictable stories about coincidence.

Set in Tokyo, Wheel Of Fortune And Fantasy comprises three beautifully humane, dialogue-driven pieces that find understated poetry in seemingly mundane domestic drama. Built around long takes, opaque resolutions and compellingly flawed female leads, these elegantly observed and emotionally authentic snapshots of middle-class ennui are alternately humorous, moving and erotic. A collection of modest yet moving shorts about love and kismet may seem like an unusual choice as the winner of the Silver Bear at the recent 71st Berlin International Film Festival, but it is well deserved.

The Con-Heartist (Thailand)

Netflix, March 3

Part rom-com and part heist caper, The Con-Heartist is a delightfully absurdist and fast-paced comedy that’s guaranteed to put a smile on your face. Directed by Mez Tharatorn, this Thai film follows a banker and YouTube influencer Ina (Pimchanok Luevisadpaibul) who’s been swindled out of 500,000 baht by her ex-boyfriend Petch (Thiti Mahayotaruk). She then teams up with a suave con artist named Tower (Nadech Kugimiya) to defraud Petch, recoup her losses, and even make some extra money along the way. Filled with a cast of goofy characters, quirky escapades and ridiculously over-the-top humour, The Con-Heartist feels like if Jim Carrey had remade Ocean’s 11 in the early 1990s before Steven Soderbergh got his hands on the franchise.

Pulling off an old-school slapstick farce in an era where audiences have become accustomed to more sophisticated, witty or ironic humour is no mean feat. Thankfully, Tharatorn and his cast are able to pull off the zany tone with effortless charm and frenetic energy – all while balancing a complicated plot and surprisingly well-developed characters. Although a 129-minute runtime might seem a tad long for a light-hearted movie such as this, The Con-Heartist packs nearly every moment with either a good belly laugh or a cool reveal. Unlike its characters, this film doesn’t cheat you out of your time and money.

The Disciple (India)

Netflix, April 30

Chaitanya Tamhane’s sophomore feature is a contemplative drama that follows Sharad Nerulkar, an idealistic young man who has devoted his life to becoming an Indian classical music vocalist. Sharad diligently follows the traditions and discipline of old masters, his guru and his father – but as years go by, he finds himself stuck in mediocrity while his less dedicated and less passionate peers reach creative heights and commercial success that he can only dream of. Sharad naturally begins to wonder if he simply lacks the innate talent to achieve the excellence he’s striving for, and as a result, loses the identity endowed him by his craft.

The Disciple is a profound and quiet exploration of a failed artist left to languish in anonymity and struggling to accept his limitations. Tamhane’s patient character study is a melancholic story about enchantment and disenchantment, artistic purity and the impossibility of attaining it. While other music dramas stereotypically deal with the perils of fame, this one examines inadequacy and disappointment. This is a soul-searching journey of self-discovery told through the lens of a storied musical tradition.

Top 5 Asian TV shows of 2021:

Cells At Work: Code Black (Japan)

Viu, January 7

Cells At Work is a delightful anime set inside the human body that chronicles the life (literally) and times of everything from the oxygen-carrying red blood cells, to the bacteria-fighting white blood cells – each doing their jobs to keep their host healthy. The child-friendly series offered a clever edutainment approach to human biology that was both informative and adorable.

This darker, adult-oriented spin-off, however, is most certainly not for kids. Code Black focuses on the inner workings of a dystopian body in disrepair. The cells we meet here are neither cute nor earnest, but disillusioned and miserable – overworked and overstressed from the endless toil of caring for an unhealthy host that suffers from lack of sleep, heavy drinking, poor diet and a smoking habit.

Like its parent show, each Code Black episode still deals with a different medical crisis, accurately anthropomorphising how every cell comes together as a cooperative community to handle injuries, germs and viruses. But unlike its parent show, Code Black is grim and depressing, detailing the consequences of high cholesterol, stomach ulcers, fatty liver and clogged vessels. There’s even a memorably sad arc about erectile dysfunction, featuring exhausted cells trying to help a man ejaculate (no, really). Exciting, entertaining and educational, nothing will inspire you to start taking better care of yourself than Code Black.

Vincenzo (South Korea)

tvN and Netflix, February 20

An Italian mafia narrative is the last thing we thought we’d ever see in a South Korean television series, and yet as Netflix’s recent smash hit proves, K-dramas are nothing if not malleable. Vincenzo follows Vincenzo Cassano, a Korean boy adopted by a Cosa Nostra boss who grows up to become a formidable lawyer and consigliere to the crime family. Repercussions from a mob war in Italy force him to move back to his home country, where he gets entangled with a snarky law firm and a rag-tag group of small business owners fighting an evil conglomerate called Babel.

While Vincenzo starts out as a dark legal drama, the series eventually grows to become both a revenge thriller, and most impressively, a really funny comedy. Its ability to deftly juggle a variety of contrasting tones is what keeps this show consistently enthralling. Thanks to a large ensemble of interesting characters, breathless pacing, stunning production values, shocking twists and addictive cliffhangers, this K-drama does a fantastic job of keeping viewers on the edge of their seats. Anchored by a charismatic lead performance from Song Joong-ki as the show’s unscrupulous anti-hero with a heart of gold, Vincenzo remains riveting from beginning to end.

Girl From Nowhere season 2 (Thailand)

Netflix, May 7

Thai anthology series Girl From Nowhere grew to immense popularity with its first season back in 2018, thanks to its satisfying doses of karmic justice. The series revolves around Nanno, an immortal girl who transfers to different schools to enact revenge on problematic students and teachers. The supernatural avenger returned earlier this year for eight new episodes, righting more wrongs and exposing misdeeds with fantastical methods of payback. Featuring stories ripped from the headlines, season two finds Nanno heading to various campuses to brutally punish a high school playboy, hazing seniors, a rich girl who uses her wealth to escape consequences, tyrannical faculty, and much more.

The greatest strength to Girl From Nowhere remains Kitty Chicha Amatayakul’s chameleonic and downright creepy lead performance. Nanno may be ostensibly good, but she is frightening, oftentimes enacting gruesome and horrifying vengeance upon perpetrators with a cold smile. Like in Dexter or Death Note, Nanno is a vehicle for lurid catharsis, a demonic entity who’s more than a match for predatory males, social inequity and corrupt institutions. And season two ups the intrigue with the introduction of Yuri, a victim who eventually becomes Nanno’s bloodthirsty protégé after she’s granted similar powers. This development adds a fresh new dynamic to the series thanks to the tension that arises between Nanno and Yuri’s conflicting philosophies.

7 Hari Sebelum 17 Tahun (Indonesia)

STRO, February 14

7 Hari Sebelum 17 Tahun (7 Days Before 17 Years) takes place in a world where everyone must find their true love before their 17th birthday, or else they will spontaneously grow old and become social pariahs. Its intriguing concept, which echoes Yorgos Lanthimos’ 2015 film The Lobster, may be outlandish, but this Indonesian series uses its surreal backdrop to explore teenage stories that feel more real than most other coming-of-age dramas.

7 Hari Sebelum 17 Tahun does a wonderful job of painting complex portraits of several high school students, each dealing in their own way with the issue of communal pressure and bullying. The cyclical nature and psychological toll of such abuse are explored in fascinating ways through sharp allegorical storytelling. This character-driven teen drama is often elevated by rich emotional arcs and genuinely unexpected twists, offering consistent entertainment value while slyly raising awareness about the importance of mental health.

Trese (Philippines)

Netflix, June 11

From Devilman Crybaby to Castlevania, Netflix is the current king of gritty, violent, adult-oriented fantasy anime. And its latest success comes in the form of Trese, adapted from the award-winning Filipino graphic novel of the same name by writer Budjette Tan and artist Kajo Baldisimo. The story follows Alexandra Trese (voiced by Liza Soberano in Filipino, and Shay Mitchell in the English dub), a detective and demon hunter who investigates crimes of a mystical origin. In the vein of Supernatural or Hellblazer, this is a horror procedural dealing with creatures from Philippine folklore (like the werehorse Tikbalang or a subterranean, dwarf-like entity called Nuno sa Manhole) who have found a home in the shady underworld of Metro Manila.

Bolstered by fluid and dynamic animation from BASE Entertainment and director Jay Oliva, Trese is a beautiful series to watch, giving equal attention to bloody battles, gorgeous character designs and its Manila setting. But besides being a visual treat, Trese stays fairly faithful to the comic’s moody tone and excellent storytelling, ensuring that the anime retains the occult-noir spirit of its source material. If you’re tired of tedious reiterations of the vampires, dragons, ghosts and zombies of Western fantasy, Trese’s superb twist on the rural and urban legends of the Philippines should be a breath of fresh air.