Although this year brought many amazing film experiences from Asia, 2018 in Asian cinema will no doubt be remembered primarily for two films: Lee Chang-dong’s Burning and Hirokazu Koreeda’s Shoplifters. Since screening at Cannes to rapturous praise, both films have stolen the hearts and minds of many and continue to blaze a trail that has given worldwide audiences a newfound appreciation for the talents of two of East Asia’s leading auteurs. As the year draws to a close, both have already topped many critics’ lists and won awards from various film bodies around the globe. Shoplifters and Burning are also currently vying for a nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Academy Awards in 2019 and have been successfully shortlisted.


Of course, this isn’t to dismiss the efforts of other Korean and Japanese filmmakers, or indeed the wider Asian populace. The other big Asian film from Cannes, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, directed by Kaili Blues‘ Bi Gan  also proved to be a hit with critics and has received festival play all around the world. Japanese horror-comedy One Cut of the Dead shattered the local box office and became a major indie success story in its own right while Southeast Asian fare like Vietnam’s The Third Wife and Indonesia’s The Seen and Unseen continued to shine a spotlight on women in filmmaking.


To get a better understanding on which films made an impact on us this year, we’ve rounded up a few of our critics’ thoughts on their favourite films this year (some may surprise you!). We also touch on a few of the older films we’ve discovered or reconnected with this year because at Filmed in Ether, we’re all about giving these special films an audience they deserve!



Hieu Chau’s Favourite New Discoveries


What are your favourite Asian films from 2018?


I’m a little embarrassed to say that I didn’t make enough time for Asian films this year! Yet of the films I did manage to see, I’m pleased to report that Kamila Andini’s The Seen and Unseen was the one that meant the most to me (perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised, given how much I’ve praised her work in the past). She and cinematographer Anggi Frisca are such a great pair of collaborators and I hope they continue to work together, whether on shorts or features.


I also liked Believer, the Korean remake of Johnnie To’s Drug War. It’s a fun film and, at least for me, is an improvement over To’s original. It also features Kim Joo-hyuk’s final movie role before his untimely passing in 2017 and it’s one that’s absolutely worth witnessing. It’s a small supporting role but he really makes that psychotic character his own. Talk about making the most of what’s given to you!


Which older Asian films have you discovered this year?


No first time viewings for me this year (like I said, my film consumption this year has been so much lower compared to previous years). I did however revisit Lee Chang-dong’s filmography after saying to myself for a long time that I wanted to do some kind of a feature on him (this eventuated into a video essay on his character work!). I definitely appreciated Green Fish a lot more this time around. I also realised that I get really upset every single time I finish watching Oasis because it’s always just so frustrating to see the family members speak on Gong-ju’s behalf at the police station when we, as viewers, know what actually took place.


Brooke Heinz’s Favourite New Discoveries


What are your favourite Asian films from 2018?


In a complete 180 from last year, my film of the year is as unsurprising as it can get. Of course, I’m talking about Palme d’Or winner Shoplifters. Hirokazu Koreeda continues to prove why he is the master of family dramas with the touching story of a drawn-together family affected by poverty. Anchored by powerful performances and Koreeda’s realistic script, every minute of Shoplifters is bursting with emotion – whether that be joy at the close bond of the Shibata family, or devastation when they inevitably begin to fall apart.


My second favourite new Asian film of 2018 is one I caught by chance – The Seen and Unseen. I picked it on a whim at Adelaide Film Festival after I couldn’t make my screening of critical juggernaut Roma, and it ended up being my best of the festival. Indonesian director-writer Kamila Andini’s surrealist fairy-tale of twins dealing with impending loss contains, in my opinion, the best cinematography of the year. Meticulously choreographed dance scenes set against the dream-like landscapes of rural Indonesia are a feast for the eyes, while the symbolism beneath it all is a meal for the mind.


Honourable mention also goes to Microhabitat, another film with a fairy-tale-like story, but with a much more grounded tone. Social commentary in Korean films are almost a given at this point, but Microhabitat turns it up to 11, with its episodic structure and nomad protagonist allowing writer-director Jeon Go-Woon to shine a light on the dark corners of life in modernised South Korea.


Which older Asian films have you discovered this year?


As for favourite films which are new to me, I’ve got two words: Love Exposure. A four hour experience which transcends tone, genre, and taboos, Sion Sono’s magnum opus touches on everything from religion to feminism to up-skirt photography. What easily could’ve been a gigantic mess is instead a masterpiece thanks to its breakneck pace, Sono’s bombastic sense of humour, and a terrific cast (including Sakura Ando in her stunning major film debut).


This year also marked a new endeavour for me: trying to get over my fear of horror films. My admittedly short-lived quest led to some fantastic discoveries in the early 2000s Japanese horror scene, where scares are based more around atmosphere rather than cheap shocks. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse encapsulates this, with its scares coming from sedate, blurry ghosts and subtle movements on screen which make you question, “Did I really see that?”. A more traditional Japanese ghost film that also captured my attention this year was Dark Water, which manages to turn something as mundane as a roof leaking into an involving, anxiety-inducing mystery.


Inevitably, a journey through the halls of Japanese horror history leads to 1970s cult classic House. A disorienting cacophony of stunning special effects, rambunctious set pieces and an incomprehensible story (an actual selling point of the film), unfortunately Nobuhiko Obayashi’s debut film was all a bit too much for my taste. However, his 2017 film Hanagatami (which screened at TJFF this year) succeeds for me where House fell flat by delivering a compelling, deeply meta story which matches the magnificence of Obayashi’s magnificent wacky visuals.



Aidan Djabarov’s Favourite New Discoveries


What are your favourite Asian films from 2018?


All hail female directors! Easily the stand-out film for me this year was Vivian Qu’s Angels Wear White — especially timely in the #MeToo era and painful to watch but without being exploitative. The film uses a story about a single assault to make a larger commentary on the abuse and humiliation of vulnerable women at the hands of powerful men, and institutions at large. It is a stark look at the many ways women are failed by patriarchal societies that prioritise a man’s future over a woman’s pain.


Two other films by female directors I enjoyed this year touched upon a personal subject for an immigrant such as myself: coming home. Little Forest was a sweet story about the power of food to not only to fill our bellies, but fuel our soul and alongside On Happiness Road, it demonstrated that our hurry to run away from home to reach bigger, brighter pastures will not ease all of our troubles. Coming back home and reconnecting to your past and your family provides you with a better sense of what you want your future to look like.


It has been an inspiring year for Asian-American talents and I want to give them a shout-out. Crazy Rich Asians by Jon Chu, The Rider by Chloe Zhao and Minding the Gap by Bing Liu are all powerful pieces of work in their own way and stand among my overall favourite films of the year.


Which older Asian films have you discovered this year?


I did some catching up this year with acclaimed films I hadn’t made time to see yet. Bad Genius was just as good as everybody said it was. I Am Not Madame Bovary was an enjoyable comedy about an unflappable woman in search of justice and unwilling to capitulate to any man. And of course, I dove into some Japanese classics. I watched Street of Shame for an essay on prostitution as depicted in Japanese cinema and it ended up being my favourite amongst all the films I mentioned in the piece. The ensemble of great, interesting female characters in that film was a joy to watch.



Levin Tan’s Favourite New Discoveries


What are your favourite Asian films from 2018?


2018 has been… indescribable, for many reasons, both relating to film and for me personally. What else can I say? Truthfully, I did not get to watch a ton of Asian films released this year. However, I recently attended the Singapore International Film Festival and it is honestly nothing to do with coincidence, timeliness nor patriotism that I herald these recent watches — they were just really great. Most of them are shorts, but they really got me on my feet.


The Third Wife (dir. Ash Mayfair)


“Poetic cinema!” as they say. The film follows the story of a young child bride as she experiences her coming-of-age as a third wife to a wealthy landlord. Ash Mayfair’s debut feature film is beautiful; her vision has inspired me. The Vietnamese filmmaker credits the film as a product of her cultural upbringing and the support of all the wonderful women in her life. One could not imagine a more wonderful tribute — moving, tantalising, gripping.


Salted Egg (dir. Nikki Koh, short film)


Nikki Koh made this as her thesis film in her last year of film school in Singapore. She travels to her mother’s hometown of Hainan and shows us how salted eggs are traditionally made. Maybe it really hit home with how Singaporeans are currently obsessed with salted egg flavoured everything, but no, truly it was just touching. Through making this documentary, she not only captures a slowly disappearing recipe but a strengthening relationship.


Songs of Our Memories (dir. Carin Leong, short film)


I love films that bring me to specific corners of the world I would not have known otherwise. Carin Leong’s film presents a snippet of Havana’s Chinatown, now past its prime but nonetheless just as magical. A dashing Cuban grandson bellows out, in perfect harmony, one of the most popular Chinese pop songs to exist. You’re really not left wanting.


You Idiot (dir. Kris Ong, short film)


The best way to describe this short film by Kris Ong is mumblecore. Two guys roam Singapore’s east side at night, jesting with each other, being pals and all. There’s a subtle homoeroticism that underlies the film… we will have to reach out to the director to find out more. This is really just a lot of fun, and well-made. It’s funny, charming and endearing; what we wish Singaporean youthfulness could be like for everyone!


Which older Asian films have you discovered this year?


Small Talk (2016, dir. Huang Hui-chen)


Filmmaker Huang Hui-chen’s documentary digs deep, very deep, into her strained relationship with her mum, excavating all her past trauma including unveiling the fact that she is a lesbian who had undergone a very heteronormative (and damaging) Chinese upbringing. There’s a lot to unpack, and perhaps for queer Asians this film can serve as a poignant healing narrative.


Dear Pyongyang (2006, dir. Yang Yong-hi)


Filmed In Ether has recently featured a video essay detailing the Zainichi, so perhaps a large explanation isn’t needed. Another documentary, filmmaker Yang Yong-hi tries to understand her parents’ undying dedication to Pyongyang. Having grown up separated from North Korea and in Japan, Yang’s questions of family and identity present a well of depth.


Sway (2006, dir. Miwa Nishikawa)


I chanced upon Miwa Nishikawa this year by pure accident and have fallen in love with her knack for handling the dramatic genre. In Sway, two brothers reignite their longtime rivalry towards each other when one of them returns to the hometown for a funeral where they both fight over a woman from their past. We end up with a bit of a Rashomon story that is rife with conflicted emotion.


20 30 40 (2004, dir Sylvia Chang)


In the recesses of Netflix, Sylvia Chang’s film called out to me. The title kind of delivers it to you: we follow three women of those ages navigating their brand new singlehood, sexuality and coming-of-age — you get the gist. It is smart, funny, and I remember just being captured by these grounded portrayals of women that we hardly ever get in most media, let alone Asian media.


One Million Yen Girl (2008, dir. Yuki Tanada)


This film is my first of Yuki Tanada’s, and am I glad as lead actress Aoi Yū is wonderful as the titular character. After gaining a criminal record in her hometown, Sato Suzuko pledges to earn 1 million yen to move to another town, and continues to do so with every new place she settles in. A warm tale contemplating what it means to find a sense of belonging and acceptance, from other and from one’s self, this film is like sipping a hot mug of tea on a chilly morning.


Spider Lilies (2007, dir. Zero Chou)


Right off the bat, I would like to say that some of Zero Chou’s films can be so cheesy. But it is the early 2000s, and as most of us might know, that is ultimately inevitable. Chou has become one of those filmmakers I really like, as she’s always telling these fantastical lesbian dramas that fill the void left by fetishistic male filmmakers. In this film, webcam girl Jade wants to get a tattoo, and stumbles upon tattoo artist Takeko in her shop. They find themselves drawn to each other, naturally, and a suspenseful online ‘pursuit’ ensues, along with… other things. Chou is an expert at creating incredible atmospheres through cinematography, soundtrack and even costumes. Perhaps no one else has dressed Taiwanese queer women in such a way that just gets to me.



Natalie Ng’s Favourite New Discoveries


What are your favourite Asian films from 2018?


While I found Western filmmaking lacking, this year was a great one for Asian film. Asian films enjoyed a good amount of spotlight for most of the year thanks to Hirokazu Koreeda’s Shoplifters winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes (finally!). Shoplifters is haunting and gut wrenching yet always delicate, generous and never overwrought in the way Koreeda does best.


2018 was also a return to form for director Zhang Yimou with Shadow, a technical, visual and storytelling masterpiece. Drawing from Chinese calligraphy, Zhang crafted a film in inky blacks, whites and greys that serves to enhance Shadow‘s themes and overall narrative. Shadow shows that Zhang is the undisputed master of colour and the film is right up there with Hero and Raise the Red Lantern as one of his best films.


Just like in the west, female filmmakers shone brightly in 2018 and told the most joyful stories such as Im Soon-rye’s Little Forest and the most confrontational of stories with Vivian Qu’s Angels Wear White (which nabbed her a Golden Horse award for Best Director Golden in 2017). On Happiness Road, the debut film by Taiwanese director Hsin Sung-yin uses animation in an ingenious way to tell a story about memory, nostalgia and childhood woven into a larger picture of class, culture and history of modern Taiwan.


Director Shunji Iwai also directed his first Chinese film Last Letter (the Japanese version to come in 2019!), which combines all of what he does best — memory, letter writing and insightful looks into the inner worlds of women. Meanwhile, commercial Japanese films such as The Travelling Cat Chronicles and Color Me True were also delightful and sincere respective leads, Sota Fukushi and Haruka Ayase, demonstrating their bona fide star quality. Also worth taking a look at are films Call Boy (trigger warning for graphic sex) and Oh Lucy!.


And thanks to Netflix, Asian dramas also soared to new highs with the Netflix-backed Korean drama Mr Sunshine and Chinese drama The Rise of Phoenixes. Mr Sunshine stars The Handmaiden‘s Kim Tae-ri as a noblewoman turned freedom fighter and Lee Byung-hun as a Korean American Captain determined not to take sides during the dawn of Japanese Imperialism in Korea at the turn of the century. The Rise of Phoenixes is a classical Chinese period drama of courtly intrigue where stars Chen Kun and Ni Ni really get to sink their teeth into the juiciest roles of their careers.


Not only were these two dramas able to reach a global audience, the production quality was evident in how cinematic both series were. Both series’ casting choices also speak to how special these projects were. For Lee and Chen, their respective series’ mark a return to televised dramas after years of pursuing stardom on cinema screens. In the case of Kim and Ni, both actresses made their drama series debut in their respective show.


Which older Asian films have you discovered this year?


My favorite pre-2018 release I saw was Yukiko Mishima’s Night’s Tightrope, which is a riveting high school drama mystery with a commanding lead performance by Tsubasa Honda and a great female friendship at its heart. I also got to see more Japanese classic films like Kon Ichikawa’s Nihonbashi, Yasuzo Masumura’s Manji, and rewatched Mizoguchi’s geisha films such as A Geisha and Gion Bayashi (all for an essay I produced on the defiant heroines of classic Japanese cinema). And as a fan of Daniel Wu and Shu Qi, I finally found their earlier films like Bishonen and City of Glass, both of which I loved.



Nathan Nicolau’s Favourite New Discoveries


What is your favourite Asian films from 2018?


Flavors of Youth (2018) is a short and sweet collection of three animated shorts focusing on family and what we love about them. Going beyond the hurtful stereotypes we see in portrayals of Asian families, Flavors of Youth focuses on the cultural aspects of family relations. The Chinese cultural gaps may confuse western audiences, but the heart and soul presented in these three short tales are universal. It’s no wonder Netflix nabbed this cute little film and featured it on their streaming service. It’s my favorite film of the year because of it’s big heart and something we really needed this year.


Which older Asian films have you discovered this year?


Kon Ichikawa’s masterpiece An Actor’s Revenge (1963). The Criterion Collection just put out a fantastic Blu-ray re-release of this counter-cultural gem. Coming across as a strange mix between Japanese New Wave, Noh melodrama, and a high-concept blockbuster, Ichikawa gives it his all in this audacious, thematically rich film, which handles themes of gender identity, postmodernism, feminism, and Japanese traditionalism vs. modernism while offering a highly entertaining samurai-inspired tale. Expect a full write up on this one soon!



Hayley Inch’s Favourite New Discoveries


What is your favourite Asian films from 2018?


Can we even begin a best films of 2018 discussion without diving straight away into Shoplifters? Hirokazu Koreeda’s affecting drama of a found family of petty thieves who take in a little girl from an abusive household won Koreeda this year’s Palme d’Or – long overdue Western recognition well-deserved, although long time Koreeda fans may have spent a lot of time quietly discussing which films of his they consider better than Shoplifters that merited the accolade more!


Far and away the best action film of the year was Zhang Yimou’s Shadow, a poetic black and white epic following an emperor’s double on a journey of treachery and the greatest fight sequence ever devised involving deadly umbrellas. If you managed to see it in the perplexingly miniscule amount of time it was on big screens in Australia, well done.


A long-lost missing link of Singaporean cinema was brought back to ghostly life in Shirkers, director Sandi Tan’s documentary of every filmmaker’s worst nightmare. As Tan unravels the twenty-five years long mystery of what happened when a collaborator stole her debut feature film, the air fills with apparitions of what was and what could have been: for Southeast Asian cinema, for women filmmakers, and of a Singapore that no longer exists.


Kamila Andini’s debut feature The Seen and Unseen more than delivered on the promise of her wonderful short films, with a magical realist fantasy grounded in the very sombre situation of a young girl processing having to say goodbye to her terminally ill twin brother. The last twenty minutes saw me with my heart sitting in my throat and I don’t think I have yet managed to swallow it again.


While I understand and respect partisans of the original Japanese version turning their noses up at any remake, the Korean version of Little Forest, directed by Im Soon-rye, felt like the most emotionally restorative piece of cinema I saw this year. Watching Kim Tae-ri work through her character’s problems via growing and preparing food and surrendering to the will of the seasons was cinematic self-care of the highest order – and given the audible gasps and moans that greeted every new dish’s appearance on screen I wasn’t the only one in the audience having a delicious experience!


But my favourite film of 2018 remains the one that I declared the best I had seen thus far for the year in its review here on Filmed in Ether – Sung Hsin-yin’s On Happiness Road. A Taiwanese animation that showcased the extraordinary talents of that nation’s hand-drawn animation industry and sung, with a sparklingly unique authorial voice, a story of a woman’s coming of age through a maelstrom of national and personal becoming, On Happiness Road was grand, ambitious, and a fitting crown to a year defined by the triumphant cinematic visions of Asian women directors.


Which older Asian films have you discovered this year?


The Melbourne Cinémathèque presented a retrospective this year on the first lady of Japanese cinema, Kinuyo Tanaka, not just screening films from her long and celebrated acting career, but also two of the films that she directed (for possibly their first screenings in Australia!). Only the second woman to direct in Japanese film history, when the ACMI screen opened up to accommodate the widescreen beauty of Tanaka’s historical epic The Wandering Princess, the room got very dusty as I realised that I had seen countless sweeping historic dramas in eye-popping, lush colour like this from the 1950s and 60s directed by men – but this was the first I had seen directed by a woman.


Likewise, it was a highly emotional experience watching Tanaka’s The Eternal Beasts, inspired by the life of poet Fumiko Nakajo and her experience of being diagnosed with breast cancer. In seeing this kind of story under a feminine eye, themes such as illness as a form of transformation rather than destruction and the unique forms in which women must undergo suffering makes this no ordinary melodrama. Tanaka’s camera is just as assertive as her heroine – a shot where Fumiko embraces her lover, shot through the floor with the man in silhouette and the poet lit with clarity and internal fire, takes the breath clean away.


Also presented in the Tanaka Cinémathèque season was Yasujiro Ozu’s Equinox Flower, which once again proved that when you fear that you may be weary of cinema, all you need is Ozu to bring you back to life. Incredibly, this was Ozu’s first film in colour, and the perfectly judged, rich palate of the production design elevates the story of a couple grappling with the decisions made by their young daughters who are emphatically of a different generation into something extraordinary to experience.