The 10 best Asian films and TV shows of 2022 – so far

Slow-burning arthouse fare, hilarious yet heartwarming anime, nonlinear historical epics… there’s something for everybody

With the rise of streaming services, it’s become easier than ever for anyone to access films and television shows from around the world. In fact, many of the best Asian movies and series of 2022 so far have greatly benefited from the global exposure afforded them via distribution on popular platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime or Apple TV+. From moving arthouse films to hilariously quirky anime to lavishly produced K-drama, the vast majority of NME’s mid-year highlights can now be streamed from the comfort of home.

Hidzir Junaini

Top Asian movies of 2022 so far:

Writing With Fire (India)

Amazon Prime, March 1

Writing With Fire is the feature debut of directors Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh. This inspiring journalism documentary follows the brave editors and reporters of India’s only women-run newspaper, the Khabar Lahariya. In some ways, their concerns are the same as any journalist’s – informing their communities, exposing corruption, and navigating the transition from print to digital. But these particular journalists face extraordinary challenges in other crucial ways. They are all Dalit women operating in Uttar Pradesh, one of the most patriarchal regions of India. Dalits are also among the lowest in India’s caste system, and Dalit women are frequent targets of sexual assault and violence.

As viewers sit in on editorial meetings, training sessions, or go out in the field with these women, Writing With Fire becomes a compelling look at the personal and professional sides of their work. From veteran editor-in-chief Meera investigating the disturbing story of a repeated rape victim who has been ignored by the police to 20-year-old Suneeta, a former child labourer now on a crusade against the illegal mining industry, we’re thrown into the thick of the process with these scrappy reporters. Facing caste discrimination, fighting resistance from men and becoming the targets of powerful officials are just everyday dangers for these women, yet they courageously continue to strive for their ideals of truth and justice.

The Falls (Taiwan)

Netflix, January 29

Chung Mong-Hong’s pandemic-set family drama The Falls is Netflix’s best feature release this year. Set in Taiwan circa 2020, this intensely compassionate film examines the fissures in the relationship between single mother Pin-Wen (Alyssa Chia) and her teenage daughter Xiao Jing (Gingle Wang) as they quarantine together. When financial and personal pressures start to mount, mum begins to suffer from a nervous breakdown (or possibly a psychotic break from reality), forcing her struggling daughter to provide for the family and care for her mother’s rapidly deteriorating mental health.

As with Chung’s 2019 drama A Sun, this film is more than meets the eye. Rather than the COVID-themed thriller it’s marketed as, The Falls is a largely plot-less chamber drama focusing on a pair of incredibly nuanced character studies within close quarters. Thanks to stunning performances from Chia and Wang, a sensitively written script, and Chung’s impeccable handling of raw naturalism, The Falls’ slow-burning intimacy will envelop you whole and leave you feeling like you’ve known these characters for much longer than two hours. This a great example of why Chung’s quietly profound domestic dramas are the best around.

Broker (South Korea)

Cinemas, June 8

Who could have predicted that a film about human trafficking could be so tender and life-affirming? Shoplifters director Hirokazu Kore-eda is back with yet another bittersweet tale of criminals and found families living in the fringes of society. His latest film, Broker, begins with an infant being left at a baby box facility – a space where parents can give their children up anonymously. Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho) and Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won) secretly take the abandoned child away, hoping to sell him to desperate parents. Surprisingly, the baby’s mother (IU) returns for her child, but upon discovering that the “baby brokers” will be paid a hefty sum for the kid, she joins them in their rickety van to find her son a caring home.

Improbably, Kore-eda manages to infuse this dark premise with warmth and kindness. What begins as a crime caper evolves into a road trip odyssey reflecting on the family we choose and the family we tearfully let go of. This nonjudgmental look at the Korean gray market for adoption finds humanity in every single character.

Whether The Weather Is Fine (Philippines)

KTX, iWantTFC, and Upstream, February 9

Carlo Francisco Manatads latest is the perfect antidote for the dumb disaster movies that Hollywood churns out. Set in the director’s hometown of Tacloban in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, this film is a tragicomic look at refugees who survive environmental catastrophe. Whether the Weather is Fine follows Miguel (Daniel Padilla), his mother (Charo Santos-Concio), and his friend Andrea (Rans Rifol) as they navigate the strewn debris and bodies that litter what once was their village. With another storm impending, the trio must flee via ship to Manila, but the decision to leave home proves to be a difficult one.

Filming in a tight 1:33 square aspect ratio, Manatad finds haunting beauty in sprawling shots of devastated tropical landscapes, framed by brightly coloured tarps and detritus, as throngs of survivors weave in and out. The movie captures the dreamlike state that victims of disaster find themselves in with a cinematic sense of magical realism. Through it all, Whether the Weather is Fine maintains a darkly comedic tone as each character searches for meaning in the disarray: escape, a purpose, forgiveness. The escalating surreality of our protagonists’ evolving plight highlights the unexpected absurdity of life as one’s sense of place erodes.

Photocopier (Indonesia)

Netflix, January 13

Indonesian filmmaker Wregas Bhanuteja’s debut feature is a crime mystery withmore on its mind than simple whodunit. Photocopier follows Sur (Shenina Cinnamon), a shy computer science student who’s invited to a party hosted by her university’s theatre company. Sur’s life spirals when she wakes the following morning with no memory of what happened. Not only does she suspect that she was roofied and date-raped, drunk selfies from the party have been uploaded online without her knowledge. These compromising photos lead to her strict Muslim family disowning her, and the rescinding of a much-needed scholarship.

Confused and enraged, Sur is determined to investigate what happened at that fateful party with the help of her best friend. By making Sur the agent of her own quest for justice, the film cleverly subverts the crime genre’s tendency to glamourise either the detective or the criminal while ignoring the traumatic fallout for the victim entirely. Instead, Photocopier unflinchingly focuses on how Sur copes with shame and takes a frank look at the way survivors are treated and disbelieved. This film accomplishes this all while delivering pointed social commentary on the disparity in institutional support for the rich and poor, the patriarchal nature of Muslim families in Indonesia, and the dangers of social media.

Top Asian TV shows of 2022 so far:

Spy x Family (Japan)

Netflix, May 21

Spy x Family is easily the best new anime of the year. Adapted from Tatsuya Endo’s beloved manga, the series follows a spy called Twilight who must pretend to have a family for his latest mission. So he enters into a marriage of convenience with a lonely woman named Yor Briar, who happens to be an assassin. They each have no idea about each other’s secret identities. They also adopt an orphan named Anya, who happens to be a psychic. Though this adorable mind reader knows her adopted parents are liars, Anya is thrilled that they have such exciting jobs. The spy, the hitwoman, and the esper do everything they can to make this newfound family a happy one, all while carrying out their own hidden agendas.

If you’ve ever wanted a wholesome sitcom version of acclaimed espionage drama The Americans, this anime is for you. The series perfectly translates the absurdist humor of its source material, leading to several laugh-out-loud moments per episode. Most importantly, the show also does well to endear viewers to this dysfunctional found family, who develop genuine bonds despite the deceit their relationships are founded on. Heartwarming, exciting and extremely funny, Spy x Family is an instantly enjoyable treat.

Pachinko (South Korea)

Apple TV+, March 25

Based on Min Jin Lee’s historical fiction novel, Pachinko is a beautiful series that chronicles the lives of an impoverished Korean family across four generations as they leave their homeland in a quest to survive and thrive. Beginning with the Japanese occupation of Korea in the early 1900s, the era-spanning story is told nonlinearly through the eyes of a remarkable matriarch named Sunja (played by Yu-na Jeon as a child, Minha Kim in young adulthood, Youn Yuh-jung as an elderly woman) who triumphs over a multitude of hardships through the decades.

Adapted by Soo Hugh, and directed by Kogonada and Justin Chon, this series is sweeping in its scope, gorgeous in its visual production, and yet intensely intimate in its focus. Pachinko’s immersion in the history and politics and different periods is certainly educational for audiences, but it only forms the backdrop for its finely calibrated, multigenerational family drama. From its detailed observation of the clash between Korean and Japanese cultures to its emphasis on character work over plot machination, Pachinko is a sumptuous and lyrical observation of human perseverance and tenacity that will stir your soul.

Ya Boy Kongming! (Japan)

HIDIVE, April 5

Reverse isekai titles – where a main character comes to earth, instead of transporting to another world – tend to be on the more oddball end of the anime spectrum. But Ya Boy Kongming! is unique even by those standards. The series begins with the titular legendary Chinese general during the Three Kingdoms period. Just before he dies, Kongming is suddenly transported 1,800 years into the future. As he wanders the streets of modern-day Tokyo, the bewildered man out of time befriends a young, struggling pop singer named Eiko Tsukimi. After hearing Eiko perform at a nightclub, he’s so moved by her talent that he marshals his fabled tactical genius as Eiko’s new manager to help her conquer the music industry.

Seeing as Kongming is famously brilliant, the anime only briefly indulges in stereotypical fish out of water comedy. In fact, by the first episode, Kongming has already used his keen intellect to successfully acclimatise himself to the 21st century. The true joy of the series lies in watching the renowned strategist adapt ancient military tactics for a new battlefield made up of rival influencers and pop idols. Whether he’s manipulating a Steve Aoki-esque DJ to produce his client’s latest single, finagling high-profile slots for Eiko at EDM festivals, or cultivating social media followers, watching Kongming work his magic in our mad modern world is an utter delight.

Not Me (Thailand)

GMMTV, December 12

Not Me isn’t your typical frothy Boys Love (BL) drama. The series reunites stars Gun Atthaphan Phunsawat and Off Jumpol Adulkittiporn (a duo colloquially known as OffGun) in a socially conscious action thriller that tackles some thorny issues in Thai politics. Gun is outstanding playing two characters: White and Black, twin brothers who were separated as children. When White discovers that Black has been brutally beaten into a coma in a gang-related attack, he decides to assume his twin’s identity to infiltrate his brother’s shady group of friends and investigate.

Shockingly, White discovers that this gang aren’t common criminals or hooligans: they’re a radicalised group of activists determined to help exploited and marginalised local communities. While troubled by the disjunct between the group’s violent means and noble goals, White also begins to fall for one of the vigilantes, Sean. The slow-burning romance between the two undoubtedly sizzles, but it ultimately takes a backseat to the knotty moral and political issues explored here: namely, the and complex problems facing the LGBTQ community, women, and disabled people of Thailand.

Thermae Romae Novae (Japan)

Netflix, March 28

One of the more genuinely eccentric Netflix anime in recent memory is Thermae Romae Novae. The series follows Lucius Modestus, an ancient Roman bathhouse architect whose business is failing. Inexplicably, his fortunes change when he’s periodically transported to modern-day Japan, where he’s amazed by the bathing innovations he discovers such as private toilets, outdoor hot spring baths, shower heads, bidets, and much more. Inspired, Lucius attempts to recreate these inventions in his own time, thus revitalising his reputation as one of the Roman Empire’s most innovative bathhouse architects.

Most time-travel stories feel the need to impose high stakes, like the destruction of the space-time continuum or some other highfalutin concern. But the only thing Lucius is passionate about is bathhouses – and his nerdy enthusiasm for the engineering and culture of it all is infectious. This idiosyncratic scope makes Thermae Romae Novae really fun and unexpectedly enlightening, as we not only understand the importance of bathing culture in both ancient Rome and modern Japan, but see how Lucius, who is a proud Roman, slowly begin to respect the manners and ingenuity of the Japanese people.