It has been a very difficult year for many of us and it has been particularly frustrating to see the impact of the global pandemic on the creative industries around the world.
In South Korea, a #SaveOurCinema awareness campaign has been launched to encourage local audiences to learn about independent and arthouse films and to support independent cinemas in financial difficulties. The campaign was supported by many actors, including independent productions such as Choi Hee Seo (Our Body), Lee Ji Hoon (Glitter Night) and Chun Woo Hee (Han Gong Joo).
Japan has also launched two similar campaigns to support the industry locally: the #SaveTheCinema initiative and the IDA Foundation for Mini Theatres. The first was a call for help from influential talents such as the director and star of Shoplifters, respectively Hirokazu Koreeda and Sakura Ando, who asked the Japanese government to financially support the many independent cinemas in the country that are about to close because of the pandemic. The latter is the result of a crowdfunding campaign organized by renowned Indian filmmakers Koji Fukada and Ryusuke Hamaguchi to directly support independent cinemas affected by the pandemic, known as minishists or minicinemas.
Always in the spirit of these initiatives, we want to support you by guiding you to new cinematic experiences. Every year, when we produce these annual reports, the aim is always to give you the chance to discover something new and learn about the world of Asian cinema. Due to the current health crisis, our summaries and lists of new content for 2020 will be less than in the past, but we hope there is something here for you, old and new, that will give you some respite from the debilitating year we have had. Now more than ever, support good talent when you see it, and when the weather is safe, support local film festivals and independent cinemas as best you can.
Highlights of Hugh Chow’s film 2020
Of all the new Asian releases I’ve seen, none has remained as much in my mind as Moving On, the first feature film by Korean director Yoon Danby. If Amir hadn’t made a brilliant review of the film and if I hadn’t participated in a video about young South Korean filmmakers, I probably would have missed it. Yoon’s film is a perfect blend of minimalism, family drama and coming of age, and I sincerely believe that in a better year, this handsome independent in all areas would have reached even higher heights. Moving On is my film for 2020.
Very close to victory are Han Ka-ram Our Body (technically a 2019 film but never made in Australia before), a film that impressed me in a way that I wasn’t prepared for, and Ray Yeon’s Suk Suk (now renamed Twilight Kiss for the international market), the story of two gays who in their final years each struggled with their own coming out closed.
As for the older films that I first discovered or saw in 2020, here are some of my strengths:
- Parasite (2019, Dir. Bong Joon Ho) : After the historic Oscar victories I had to see the genre movie Bonga again and it’s not surprising that it’s still very good in a second screening. Respect!
- Master (2006, dir. Bong Joon Ho) : I didn’t know that this movie and the mysterious Bonga, the mother killer, would be the last movies I would see in 2020…… Melbourne’s famous repertory cinema, the Astor Theatre, has had a bong-jung-ho season since the victory of Parasite, and until now I had never realized what a masterpiece The Host is.
- The Petal Dance (2013, dir. Hiroshi Ishikawa): Hiroshi Ishikawa is the king of modern Japanese minimalist cinema (with little cinematography). The Dance of the Flowers is my favorite therapy film. Come back, Ishikawa.
- Rashomon (1950, ed. Akira Kurosawa) : Kurosawa is timeless, and Rashomon is probably my favorite movie I’ve seen so far. Just the know-how… Glad to see it for the first time in 2020.
- The Shadow (2018, directed by Zhang Yimou) : Everyone’s a gangster until an army of umbrella warriors crawls into your territory. It was the first time I saw him and I loved him so much.
- Micropopulation (2017, Dir. Jeong Go-woon) : Cigarettes, whiskey and you… It’s my only relief. You know that. This film could have been a lot darker, so I’m thankful he chose a more promising direction.
Highlights of Levin Tan’s film 2020
I am often overwhelmed by the choices made at film festivals – again this year, where film programming has also felt the effects of the global pandemic. It’s this sense of infinite possibilities that has led me to cultivate my current habit of blindly buying tickets based on criteria such as not being made by a man or coming from a country where I haven’t seen many movies. Because I was unemployed, I really limited the points of view where I wanted to go, so I closed my eyes and dropped the tape measure where it was going.
This led to Biyambasuren Davaa buying me a ticket for the Vienna of Peace. To be honest, the only thing I remember about the film before boarding is the day it was shown and the time it started; I even got to the wrong place and didn’t realize it until after I got on the train. I really went without expectation.
The opening plane is unusually wide and shows a hilly landscape stretching out to the horizon, bathed in golden light, with a dreamy blue sky floating above it. Suddenly we see a red car with a missing roof over the screen. For some reason, my instinct told me at the time that I would take this home with me.
This Mongolian film is based on the story of a commercial mining operation that invades a nomadic population, but this motif is transposed to the story of a boy in mourning after the death of his father. His father loved to sing from birth, and this ability led him to audition for Mongolia Get Talent.
As a Mongolian filmmaker, Davaa takes care to convey the importance of this land and cultivate it. He takes small pictures that breathe the mind into every blade of grass, whether it’s rich green or misty yellow grass. This approach extends to his characters, many of whom are funny, moving and sincere in both their triumphs and their struggles.
Perhaps as a result of the criticism, viewers begin to wonder what the perfect film looks like – which boxes it should tick in terms of technique and story. I think the veins of the world, frankly, don’t celebrate here and there. But the film doesn’t have to be perfect. It can be enough to capture an emotion – the love of something or the sadness of its end – and in its ability to give tangible life to something so spooky, the marriage of image, sound and story is a gift that can shake the outside of the most stone-cold cinemagoer (at least that’s what I hope).
I think I will always remember how Davaa made the main character, Amra, sing the song her father taught her in the Mongolia Got Talent show, when she took us on a tour of the Mongolian countryside and told us how our own greed keeps eclipsing the country. It is a recording that both leave a feeling of incredible power and perhaps give you a glimpse of the old energies that continue to flow beyond the perception of time and space as they envelop you with a sense of helplessness in the face of a changing world that will continually put aside the health of the planet and its guardians.
When I came out of the movie theater, some random guy came up to me and said: Great movie, huh? I had really gotten off on the wrong foot; I was busy searching the internet for dried Mongolian cheese curd, so I just smiled and kept my fingers crossed.
I only wanted to mention one movie, but the day before the deadline I bumped into Melancholic from Seiji Tanaka. This film was released in 2018, but to be honest, I hadn’t heard of it so far, and it was pure coincidence. Perhaps fate seems to strike twice. I had absolutely fun.
On a superficial level, Tanaka’s film is not one you can enter right away – at first, the new direction is clear and you feel rough edges being pushed and crushed. But clumsiness even plays into his hands – or perhaps even intentionally – because the main character’s clumsy interactions become indelible for maximum irony and comedy.
That’s the problem with this movie: Where he may lack artistic talent (whatever that means), he fills the void with sincere writing and humour, so dark that it feels like an endless night. Some more experienced spectators with a background in cross-trillers can put their nose into the less truthful aspects of life, yet I was attracted to this constructed world and even volunteered for all the theatre works.
Maybe this has a special place in my heart, because someone who also has a university degree is currently unemployed and is considering new ways to go (joke about the flight): Why would a Tokyo University graduate want to work in a bathhouse?). I just appreciate the film’s ability to make me smile and walk out of the theatre while remembering all the strange and crazy things that happened. I think I just liked that there was a Filipino-Japanese actress in there. I could list a lot of things, but I just want to imagine a world where a professional hitman treats me like a real friend and then talks to me at the family table.
What’s not to love? My summary can hardly do justice to this film – go and have a look!
Highlights of Timothy Amatulli’s film 2020
I haven’t even seen enough new films this year to make it to the top ten. The only new Asian version I managed to catch is Setsuro Wakamatsu’s Fukushima 50, a useful but inconspicuous report of the 2011 nuclear disaster in Japan. Last year I was a big fan of Johan Renk’s Chernobyl mines and hoped that Wakamatsu could pick up the same radioactive tension in a similar disaster, but unfortunately that didn’t happen. Fukushima 50 is a simple biopic with Ken Watanabe and Koichi Sato directing a great cast. Overall, however, the film is largely forgetful.
Because I didn’t get to see a lot of new movies, I took the time to see a lot of old ones. My main project in Quarantine, The Sanshiro Boys, is a podcast retrospective of 35 episodes of Akira Kurosawa’s film. I’ve seen most of his films, but the one that surprised me the most was No Regrets For Our Youth from 1946, with Setsuko Hara and Susumu Fujita. It was Kurosawa’s first post-war film, so he could express himself much more artistically than under the strict censorship of war. This change compared to his previous films is immediately perceptible and enables Kurosawa, for the first time in his career, to make full use of his potential as an artist and storyteller.
The decades-long story, told by the prism of middle-class youth, depicts the rise and fall of Imperial Japan, with an emphasis on the government’s attack on freedom of speech and liberal thinking. The scale is much larger than in any of Kurosawa’s earlier works and is accentuated by Asakuza Nakai’s striking visual compositions. Setsuko Hara really shines here in a rare Kurosawa women’s film. He puts her in unique situations that allow her to show more space than she usually does with Yasujiro Ozu or Mikio Naruse. No Regrets For Our Youth is undoubtedly a hidden gem that deserves more attention from Akira Kurosawa fans or Japanese cinema in general.
Brooke Heinz 2020: the highlights of the film
This year, many major Australian festivals have cancelled, reduced or lost the wealth of Asian quality cinema we have enjoyed in recent years.
Instead, I had to switch to streaming to catch up on Asian films, with an involuntary preference for Japanese cinema. Although they did not all live up to expectations, a few gems stood out.
Noriko dining table (2005, Sir Shiono Sono)
For me, Sonos films are on a scale of two extremes. On the one hand, there is what I frankly can only describe as ruthlessly cruel and sexist garbage. But rarely does Sono manage to use this energy to make films at the other end of the spectrum – deliciously crazy, somewhat feminist and philosophical, but always so winding. When I saw the exhausting Forest of Love, I almost gave up hope that something about the Guilty Romance or her magnum opus Love Exposure would never come out of Sono’s head again.
Fortunately, the return to Sono’s early work proved to be the answer to my concerns, with Noriko’s dining table being a more moderate approach to Sono’s starting point. Holder Noriko is a disgruntled teenager who leaves her small town of Tokyo, where she becomes entangled in online communities, family versus family and mass suicide.
Sono’s surprisingly optimistic reflections on identity and self-determination hit me hard, perhaps because of my own disabling depression at the time. I didn’t expect Sonos Film to have the power and potential, but I think it will do well in 2020.
A cup of the dead (2017, ed. Shinichiro Ueda)
Another pleasant surprise is One Cut of the Dead, of which the horror comedy is a bit unfortunate for the tone of the heartbreaking family drama. It’s a difficult film to watch because it’s in the middle. One Cut of the Dead is an intelligent and rather metaphorical representation of low-budget filmmaking – a true love letter to the co-creative and social community involved in making the film.
I’ll leave it at that, because the film is really the best thing to figure out. But be warned: If you have any doubts about the first 40 minutes of the film, I strongly advise you to save them for a unique and very entertaining revenge action.
The Cure (1997, directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa).
But for a film that’s more in the horror genre, I’ll switch to treatment.
In addition to Hideo Nakata, Kiyoshi Kurosawa is undoubtedly the master of Japanese atmospheric horror, and if you look at Cure, you can say his reputation is well-deserved.
Even at the most basic level, Cure is enough to satisfy the tastes of thriller fans: a beautiful crime thriller, interrupted by first-class performances by Koji Yakusho and Masato Hagiwara. But Kurosawa’s attention to detail and discreet horror style elevates Cure to a classic. Come for technical films and brilliant stories, leave with a high heart rate at the sight of X-shaped graffiti.
Highlights of Claire Langlet’s film 2020
The number of films I’ve seen this year is ridiculously low compared to the list I made at the beginning of the long holiday, but some films have still impressed me.
Two films I’ve seen at the cinema: Voyage dans la nuit pour un long jour (2019, directed by Bi Gan) and Fleurs de Shanghai (1998, directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien). Although the story of Journey Into Night on a Long Day is disturbing and I couldn’t understand it (the title card in the middle of the film didn’t improve anything either), the film works on such a visual level that I had to think about it several times during the year. I hope to see the film again to fully appreciate the photography and everything that surrounds the charismatic Tan Wei. Flowers of Shanghai is also a city I would like to see again, even though seeing the restoration in 4K was a great opportunity. To some, it may seem very slow, but I thought it was quite natural for the film to slowly introduce characters that wouldn’t be revealed to anyone else. For me, the second projection is perfect to appreciate the subtleties of the characters and admire the quality of the film by candlelight.
The two films I have to see are Little Forest (2018, directed by Yim Soon-ri) and Simple Life (2011, directed by Ann Hui), both directed by women. Little Forest is the first of a number of films that calmed me down in April. It’s about the character of Kim Tae-ri (Mitten, Mr. Sunshine) who returns to her hometown to leave the hustle and bustle of the city behind. From that moment on she uses food as a way to reconnect with old memories and relationships. As far as A Simple Life is concerned, you will probably leave this film a bit sad, but with the simple but incredibly moving performances of Andy Lau and Deanie Yip, you can say that this is not the main purpose of the film. A simple life is an honest exploration of what it means to grow old and take care of your loved ones. Even if we are sometimes stuck in a state of mind that leaves no room for these feelings, films like this one can give the impression of being the pat on the back you’ve been waiting for.
The last two films that really struck me this year were two quirky stories: Sisterhood (2016, directed by Tracy Choi) and Daughters of God Dance (2020, directed by Byung Seng-bin). Sisterhood explores the relationship between two best friends after the death of one of them. Although part of the plot is tragic, the film is primarily an ode to homosexual relationships, which are somehow difficult to define in a hetero-normative society, but which are essentially filled with love and caring. God’s Daughter Dances is a short film that follows a transsexual woman who was brought to South Korea to take part in a compulsory military recruitment exam for male civilians. When Aidan saw the Reel Asian short film, she described it as a film with a lot of heart and humour, and I agree. Directed by Choi Hae-joon, who herself is a transgender dancer as the mother of the House of the Sea, this is a shortcut that deserves to be followed. I would have liked to see both films every year, but because some of the eccentric locations were difficult to reach or transport this year, it was very useful to find some rest.
Highlights of Natalie Ng’s film 2020
This isn’t the first time you’ve heard about director Yoon Dunby’s first feature film, Moving Forward. Popular among writers, director Yoon shines in his complex work about the dynamics of the relationship between the protagonist Ok-joo and her family and the way she deals with the world. As Amir said in his review of the film, the scene in which Ok-joo’s quarrel with his younger brother is quietly resolved by his grandfather is a personal highlight in this beautiful film.
The highlight for me was the discovery of Shepherdess and Seven Songs, directed by Pushpendra Singh. I chose this film in the programme of the Singapore International Film Festival on the basis of its synopsis, which is said to be built around folk songs. The film is a great technical achievement and looks incredible, but what really sets it apart is the writing. Inspired by poems by Lalleshwari, a 14th century Kashmiri mystic. Inspiring not only from the 19th century, but also from the popular history of Rajasthan, director Singh updates these inspirations to this day, placing his story against the backdrop of the beautiful Himalayan mountains of Kashmir and Jammu. As a young woman in a patriarchal society, the protagonist Lila faces challenges on a daily basis, including the classic folk troops of men in power who demand women they know they cannot have. The way she mastered them in her own mind and sometimes in a playful way was a real pleasure to watch. Some describe it as a feminist story and it is not difficult to understand why, given the absolutely murderous end.
Coincidentally I saw two films in the theatre with a cloud in the title. Both are also made by Asian women, can be described as experimental and are part of the Bright Future range in Rotterdam in 2019 and 2020 respectively.
Yashaswini Raghunandan’s Cloud Never Left is a fantastic mix of stories and documentary, combining old 35mm Bollywood film roles with images of villagers making toys out of them. You don’t know where the documentary and the story begins and ends, and that completely destroys the expectations of a film.
Cloud in Her Room by Zheng Lu Xinyuan is an impressionistic view of the life of a young woman returning to her hometown. Impressionist style cinema is not new, but director Zheng takes it to a whole new level in this respect. It is not perfect, but at the same time it shows their immense confidence and promise in their vision.
Other highlights of 2020 are Woman Who Ran, in which Hong Sang-soo covers the faces of men (always a plus!); Suk Suk (dir. Ray Yeung), a realistic and tender take on the lives of older homosexuals; Dear Tenant (dir. Cheng Yu-Chieh), absolutely devastating, you will definitely need handkerchiefs; and My Prince Edward (dir. Norris Wong), on which I wrote an essay and which I still call my most disturbing and imaginative film of 2020.
Trigger outside 2020
In the first months of Blockchain, I decided that it was the right time to get acquainted with the Japanese New Wave cinema. The director who became the favourite was Yasuzo Masumura, who sometimes wasn’t even counted in this circle because he was studio manager. And yet much of his work for me was more transgressive and experimental than the other key films of the movement. Maybe it’s because I’m more interested in performance-based characters and works, especially his collaboration with the great Ayako Wakao. Among the films I have seen this year are my favorites Blue Maiden of Heaven (1957), Red Angel (1966) and Confessions of a Wife (1961).
The other movies I liked are the two Masahiro Shinoda movies: Pale Flower (1964), an exemplary work by Japanese neo-noir, and Double Suicide (1969), one of the most experimental and exciting works I have seen playing with space and staging in film.
The best film I’ve seen this year was Liz and the Bluebird (2018, Naoko Yamada). This 90-minute film is a masterpiece. He is amazing and experimental in the field of animation, both technically and emotionally. The short film highlights the small pieces and subtleties of the relationship between two high school girls preparing for a duet based on the story of Liz and the bluebird. In addition to the beautiful sound design, there are absolutely stunning watercolour animations of the story, as well as greenish hand-paintings that the animators used to create animated images of birds in the sky.
Highlights of Amir Mohammed’s film 2020
Honestly, what more can we say about 2020? There have been many smarter people, with much better words, who have been much more successful in turning those feelings into something poetic, so I won’t try. This year I tried to do my best and not be satisfied with my opinion. In that respect, I think I did pretty well! I’ve had a lot of great opportunities to see movies through virtual festivals, for which I’m grateful. If there’s one thing we’ve confirmed this year, it’s that we’ll do well as long as we do our best. At least, I hope so, but I’m wandering off.
My reflections on the moving portrait of Yoon Danby Moving Forward are well documented, so I won’t elaborate on the subject. I have to say that with every day since I’ve seen him, my feelings for him and his family have only grown stronger. At a time when family reunions were very limited, it was nice to see how the family came together and became a normal family. No exaggeration, no obscure revelations, no serious dysfunction, just pure family dynamics.
The film Calm by Song Fan, which I saw this year at the New York Film Festival, is a calm and honest portrait of loneliness that serves as a piece of the journey, a piece of character study. In this film, a recently divorced filmmaker embarks on a journey that takes him to friends and his new wife, asks questions about his latest film, and finds inner peace and determination to move on. None of this happens in the traditional narrative structure or in the great monologues. The guy doesn’t even show up, so we don’t have to sit on familiar paths that might have occurred. Instead, Song focuses all his attention on our heroine’s personal journey and cuts off any standard tropics into similar stories that could tarnish this film. In addition, the song brings with it a high degree of control and a sense of calm that is rarely found in movies these days. Never before has a picture of a woman sleeping in a train been so well done (and there are many pictures of our heroine travelling by train).
What about the main subject? To be honest, the film doesn’t really have anything to do with the above and doesn’t really look like Moving On of The Calming either. But it doesn’t matter, the main subject is probably one of the most beautiful film experiences of the year, an energetic interruption of the workings of pandemic life. For 100 minutes, Yoshimitsu Morita and her delirious company bring this creative little romantic comedy to life. The plot is subtle and includes a stand you don’t want to touch, but it’s perfectly fine if you’re treated to crazy wizard shows, comic panels, decorations, beautiful pictures of the beach and cliff suspensions, jazzy nightclubs, and an urban pop soundtrack with songs by the star Hiroko Yakushimaru (who also stars in Kichitaro Negishi, the equally charming and animated Detective Story, another film that impressed me this year).
Unfortunately, the main theme will not be retained in the pantheon of the big cinema, but in a year in which apparently everything could go wrong, it was fun to cut off the power, sit down and laugh. I think we all deserve it, anyway.
Highlights of Aidan Dzhabarov’s film 2020
Thanks to the virtual format of this year’s Asian Reel Festival, I was able to see a number of new films and became a fan of many upcoming filmmakers. The future of Asian cinema is bright and one can expect that South Korean cinema will play a dominant role this decade. Here you can read my favorites from this festival. Other new films I’ve seen this year are Heavy Craving (2019) and the short film A Woman (2020), which I interviewed director Tahmin Rafaella.
As for the older films I discovered this year, those were my strong points:
- Comrades: Almost a love story (1996, Dr. Peter Chan): It’s one of the most romantic films I’ve ever seen, because it focuses on intimate little moments that make you feel as big and grand as the people who experience them. It is not surprising that Maggie Cheung’s performance was perfect.
- Kamome Dinner (2006, Naoko Ogigami) : This film shows friendliness just for the sake of friendliness and how it contributes to the communities. So even if you’re far from home, as long as there’s someone to welcome you, you can find a place for you anywhere. And how cooking and sharing food plays an important role in caring for someone.
- Silent Family (1998, directed by Kim Ji-woon) : The Criterion Channel created the New Korean Cinema series, allowing me to overtake this black comedy with Song Kang Ho and Choi Min-sik. Definitely my new favourite in this genre, and I’m surprised I’ve never heard of it for this series!
- White Balloon (1995, directed by Jafar Panahi) : One of the best performances with a child on the screen of Aida Mohammadhani. The film was funny and fun, but what I liked most was the way it subtly shows the diversity of the people in Tehran, which is not often appreciated by people who don’t know Iran. The script was written by Jafar Panahi and Abbas Kiarostami.
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