As the eagerly anticipated “Crazy Rich Asians” arrives in theaters this week, one of the most underrepresented minority groups will get a rare chance to shine in a major Hollywood production. While we wait for Hollywood to catch up to the world, with this long overdue cultural moment, it’s worth reflecting on the success of native Asian filmmakers. Indeed, the well-established film industries across the Asian continent have produced filmmakers and movie stars to rival any Hollywood A-lister. And with the vast array of socioeconomic and cultural contexts of the various countries, Asian cinema is a buffet of cinematic delights. From the dazzling spectacles of India’s Bollywood cinema to the consistently edgy works from South Korean directors, there’s something for everyone.
In celebration of AwardsCircuit’s 10 Year Anniversary, we take this time to acknowledge this thriving collective of world cinema. Here are our 10 Best Asian Films since 20018.
With a career dating back to 1979 debut “The Secret”, Ann Hui has firmly established herself as Hong Kong’s pre-eminent female director. Her most acclaimed film to date came in 2011, with the release of “A Simple Life“. This understated drama tells the story of a benevolent housekeeper who suffers a stroke and decides to move into a nursing home, aided by one of the grown sons of the family she worked for. Deannie Yip and Andly display effortless chemistry in these lead roles, as Hui beautifully captures the deep affection of their relationship and the fleeting pleasures of late life.
Adored worldwide but often censored at home, Jia Zhangke is one of the most influential figures in Chinese cinema today. His films are known to be critical of modern Chinese society, perhaps none more than 2013’s “A Touch of Sin“. In this anthology-like narrative, Zhangke portrays 4 incidents of violence based on real-life accounts, with each one more brutally nihilistic than the last. “A Touch of Sin” is therefore not for the faint of heart. But Zhangke’s assured direction and award-winning screenplay, coupled with a handful of strong performances, make this film a must-see for fans of Asian cinema.
You can always rely on Korean cinema to deliver some of the most provocative films each year. One of the leading figures of this movement of edgy filmmakers is undoubtedly Chan-wook Park, whose 2003 release “Oldboy” became a cult favorite. For his most recent effort “The Handmaiden“, he once again stirred up the arthouse with one of best films to date. Based on the British novel “Fingersmith”, this erotic mystery follows a woman who attempts to con a Japanese heiress in a devious plot to marry her off to a greedy man. But things get tricky than expected as seduction and deception reveals a complex web of secrets and lies. Showcasing jaw-dropping production design, a mind-blowing screenplay and delicious performances Min-hee Kim and Tae-ri Kim, “The Handmaiden” is unforgettable.
Released in 2014 as Pakistan’s official Oscar submission, “Dukhtar” marked the promising debut of Afia Nathaniel. Inspired by a true story, it follows a mother and her 10-year old daughter who flee their rural Pakistani village to protect the girl from a forced marriage. As a manhunt ensues to capture the daughter, a nerve-wracking adventure ensues against the grand backdrop of the Pakistani mountainside. But it’s the visceral power of a mother’s love – tremendously conveyed by Samiya Mumtaz – that makes this such a deeply affecting work of feminist cinema.
On the surface, Haifaa al-Mansour’s “Wadjda” is a deceptively simple film about a young girl who wants to buy her own bicycle. But in the context of a conservative and patriarchal Saudi Arabian society, the film takes on a deeper meaning. Directed with rare warmth and sensitivity, “Wadjda” strikes a delicate balance between challenging the status quo and respecting the culture. And the result is a truly winning film with a feminist message that can resonate with any audience.
In a prime example of a personal story resonating universally, Anthony Chen took Singaporean cinema to new levels of acclaim with his stellar debut feature “Ilo Ilo”. Chen drew inspiration from his own childhood experiences to craft this tender portrait of a middle-class family in Singapore during the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Featuring a slew of brilliant performances – especially Angeli Bayani as the family’s Filipino maid – “Ilo Ilo” won a historic Camera d’Or award at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.
4. “The Insult“
For a cinematic crash course on social tensions in the Middle East, look no further than Ziad Doueiri’s Oscar-nominated “The Insult”. This gripping drama begins with a seemingly trivial incident, as two men – a Lebanese Christian and Palestinian refugee – get into an argument over a leaking drain pipe. Their situation quickly escalates, however, as their bruised male egos transform a small misunderstanding into a national scandal of greater societal relevance. Written and acted with a riveting flair for drama and a perceptive understanding of Middle Eastern politics, “The Insult” is a powerful reminder of the damaging effects of bigotry, prejudice and even more universally, fragile masculinity.
3. “Like Father, Like Son“
Having won the Palme d’Or this year and with a likely Oscar bid forthcoming, Japan’s Hirokazu Koreeda is set to gain many new fans. And if his new followers revisit his older work, they’ll surely fall even more in love with this uncommonly humanist filmmaker. Of his recent efforts, one standout is “Like Father, Like Son“, which follows a pair of families of different social standing as they respond to the news that their child was accidentally swapped at birth. As they decide how to move forward with the life-changing news, this deeply moving film is gorgeously wrought through uniformly wonderful performances and a nuanced script that examines class, fatherhood and the true meaning of family.
2. “Peepli (Live)“
With their society’s deeply entrenched history of inequality imposed by the caste system, it’s hardly surprising that Indian filmmakers have produced some of the best social dramas in the history of cinema. Continuing that tradition in the new generation are filmmakers like Anusha Rizvi, whose 2010 debut feature “Peepli (Live)” ingeniously satirized Indian society with a touch of humor. The film tells the unbelievable story of a desperate farmer who pledges to commit suicide in order for his family to receive a rumored government compensation. His plight eventually captures national attention as part of a growing epidemic of similar suicides, with politicians and media alike taking keen interest ahead of upcoming elections. From there, the script goes in some wild directions as the media circus reaches farcical levels of “will he or won’t he” enthusiasm. But Rizvi never loses sight of the film’s important message about our collective apathy towards the less fortunate, with an ending that packs a sobering punch.
Screenwriting hardly gets any better than the work of Iran’s Asghar Farhadi. His filmography is filled with complex dramas about the human condition, his most recognizable masterpiece being 2011’s “A Separation“. This film explores the fallout when a couple if faced with the difficult decision of uprooting their family or staying in Iran to look after an ailing parent. With their observant daughter caught in the middle of their conflicting perspectives, Farhadi unfolds an engrossing plot which reveals far-reaching implications. Remarkably even-handed towards its characters, this stunning film won the Foreign Language Oscar and was also nominated for its undeniable screenplay, a rare achievement for a foreign language film.