2021 has proven to be a banner year for Asian cinema. The continent offered a myriad of thoughtful movies tackling topics such as classism, sexism, loneliness, grief, culture clash, healthcare and the toxicity of modern media – all in a variety of diverse and inventive ways. From scathing social commentaries, fantasy animation and immersive nonfiction, to intelligent action flicks, lyrical character studies and mockumentary horror – these were the finest films to come out of Asia this year.
10. The Medium (Thailand)
Directed by Banjong Pisanthanakun (Shutter) and co-written by Na Hong-jin (The Wailing) – two legends of 21st century Asian horror – it’s no wonder that The Medium is the scariest supernatural film of 2021. Framed as found footage (à la The Blair Witch Project), this movie follows a documentary crew looking to survey the spiritual practices of the Isan people in Thailand’s rural northeast.
Focusing on the life of a local shaman and her attempts to exorcise her possessed niece, The Medium is a non-stop fright-fest fueled by intense gore, dark occultism and a believable sense of immersion.
For fans of: The Blair Witch Project, Rec
9. 76 Days (China)
Unvarnished and intimate, this fly-on-the-wall documentary showcases the struggles of patients and frontline medical professionals battling the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in Wuhan.
Set during the city’s initial lockdown, Hao Wu and Weixi Chen’s experiential film remarkably captures all the unbridled panic and heroic pragmatism of a healthcare disaster before the virus’ global impact had even been gauged. 76 Days is a raw-nerved plunge into the chaos and confusion as bone-tired doctors and nurses deal with grief, fatigue and terrified patients amid an unending blitz of life-and-death emergencies.
For fans of: Lenox Hill, Code Black
8. Escape From Mogadishu (South Korea)
Rival diplomats from North Korea and South Korea become trapped as civil war rages in Mogadishu, Somalia. With no aid from either government, the bitter enemies have to join forces for their only shot at survival.
Based on a true story from 1991, this propulsive and intelligently written South Korean adventure thriller casts partisan politics aside and celebrates what can be achieved when adversaries come together. Energetically directed by Ryoo Seung-wan and extremely well-acted, Escape From Mogadishu is the most crowd-pleasing, nail-biting action movie of the year.
For fans of: Argo, Black Hawk Down
7. Barbarian Invasion (Malaysia)
Since her divorce and the birth of her son, award-winning actress Moon has been aiming for a comeback. Her director friend Roger soon casts her in a martial arts flick that promises to reignite her star power. She endures gruelling training for the role, and soon Moon is using the fighting skills she’s learnt to regain control of her life.
Gliding seamlessly from arthouse drama to stylish blockbuster action to metafictive commentary, Barbarian Invasion never loses sight of its thematic focus: a woman struggling to overcome her loss of agency. Tan Chui Mui’s slyly semi-autobiographical return to cinema is a refreshing Malaysian action flick that serves an allegory for motherhood and self-reclamation.
For fans of: Adaptation, Birdman
6. Yuni (Indonesia)
Set in a small Indonesian town, this film follows a bright high-schooler who starts receiving marriage proposals, which is customary of her conservative and religiously devout community. But Yuni’s teenage preoccupations, from college aspirations to romantic rendezvous, render marriage a dreadfully confining prospect. Societal expectations multiply and the adults around her look to make decisions that will irreversibly shape her future.
A lyrical character study packed with poetic moments of interpersonal intimacy, Yuni’s earnest approach makes a poignant indictment of gender inequity. That’s thanks to the thoughtful direction and writing of Kamila Andini, alongside Arawinda Kirana’s magnificent performance as the titular teenager.
For fans of: A Wedding, Fill The Void
5. Belle (Japan)
Social media sensations, grieving teens and cyber dragons collide in Mamoru Hosoda’s oddball anime take on Beauty and the Beast. The story follows Suzu, a shy 17-year-old living in the countryside. For years, she has been unable to process the death of her mother and growing distant from her well-meaning father.
One day, she enters “U”, a virtual world where she becomes a famous singer called Belle. She soon encounters a mysterious dragon and embarks on a challenging quest to break out of their shells in their real and virtual lives. This beautifully observed, dazzlingly animated sci-fi fairy tale about our online and offline existences is Hosoda’s finest film since 2012’s Wolf Children.
For fans of: Beauty and the Beast, Sword Art Online
4. The White Tiger (India)
In The White Tiger, director Ramin Bahrani (adapting a 2008 Booker Prize-winning novel by Aravind Adiga) delivers a kinetic and acidic satire of class, caste, culture and capitalism. The film follows Balram, a man born into extreme poverty in a rural village, who feels trapped in his role in the servant underclass. But Balram is also a born hustler who has no moral qualms in using his cunning to climb the social ladder.
When he becomes the driver for an obscenely wealthy family, Balram begins his odyssey to claim, by hook or by crook, the material comforts he so yearns for. Led by great performances from Priyanka Chopra and Adarsh Gourav, The White Tiger is a cynical rags-to-riches tale of shameful self-betterment.
For fans of: Parasite, Shoplifters
3. Terrorizers (Taiwan)
Terrorizers follows various disillusioned youths in Taipei whose stories intertwine before and after a violent slashing incident. Director Wi Ding Ho does a phenomenal job of crafting a queasy drama that unravels the underlying causes of crime – ranging from societal malaise and dehumanising pornography, to toxic social media activity and parental neglect.
Terrorizers is a powerful commentary on the proliferation of violence and misogyny through entertainment, but it’s also a humanist film about how people choose different ways to seek out love, cope with emotional trauma and deal with rejection.
For fans of: Short Cuts, Amores Perros
2. Wheel Of Fortune And Fantasy (Japan)
Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Wheel Of Fortune And Fantasy is a triptych of beautiful short stories about the unexpected outcomes of otherwise mundane interactions – how one can find poetic depth in the subtleties of everyday exchanges.
There’s a bizarre love triangle when a woman discovers her best friend is dating her ex, a failed seduction of a college professor, and a case of mistaken identity at a school reunion. These three tales of regret-filled women offer profound and empathetic looks at how desire, chance and error define us. Alternately thrilling, erotic and heartwarming, this wonderful film could easily have been Japan’s entry to next year’s Oscars… if not for our next entry.
For fans of: Three Colours: Red, Paris Je T’aime
1. Drive My Car (Japan)
Also directed by Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, Drive My Car is a graceful, aching film that stretches into an enchanting, novelistic journey about mourning, shared solitude, the nature of acting, and catharsis through art.
Yusuke Kafuku, a stage thespian, is happily married to Oto, a screenwriter who dies of a sudden brain haemorrhage just after Kafuku discovers her infidelity. Still unable to fully cope with the loss after two years, Kafuku distracts himself with an offer to direct a play at a Hiroshima theatre festival. This is where he meets Misaki, a reticent woman assigned as his chauffeur. As they spend time together, Kafuku confronts his undying love and bitter resentment towards his late wife through the theatre piece he’s producing, and through conversations with the taciturn Misaki, who is hiding her own wellspring of trauma.
Both of Hamaguchi’s films are languid, eye-opening and keenly observed parables about ordinary human beings who are forced to reframe their sense of self. The auteur peoples his unpredictable chamber dramas with richly drawn characters with emotionally complex interior worlds. The elegant dialogue and micro expressions laden with meaning in his films prove far more fascinating than even the most expensive CGI fantasias of modern popcorn blockbusters.No other film in Asia even comes close to the level of Hamaguchi’s pair of 2021 masterpieces.
For fans of: Pain and Glory, Departures