Although Filmed in Ether traditionally covers Asian cinema, this year we’ve decided to expand our end-of-year round up to include the world of television! Don’t worry, our end-of-year list for 2020 films is still arriving!
This round-up was put together as a response to the lack of new release films due to the ongoing health crisis affecting everyone around the world. With so many of us holed up at home and possessing a lot more time on our hands than usual, it presented us with the perfect chance to binge new shows and catch up on the ones we missed out on.
But perhaps this won’t be the last time we write about Asian television. After all, the format—much like its Western counterparts—has grown exponentially in the last decade with slickly-produced shows boasting production values that can rival films. Many of these shows also continue to attract established talent from the world of film and the longer format has allowed for more rewarding experiences: for viewers, it’s a commitment to quality long-term storytelling and for creative talent, it’s an opportunity to expand stories, get to know their characters and not feel confined to the average two-hour runtime.
In the future, we may consider doing more coverage on Asian television, live-action or otherwise, but for now here are our thoughts on some of the best new shows of 2020 and a few of the shows we’ve been catching up on during lockdown in our countries.
Levin Tan’s Favourite Shows During Isolation
Having succumbed myself to the gruelling ‘365 Film Challenge’ for the past few years, I finally burned up all my gasoline and came to a sputtering stop. I haven’t completely divested from the world of film, but my capacity towards accommodating the sheer amount of releases, both old and new, has become rather narrow.
When I was still employed, but working from home, I suddenly decided to return to my roots – TV series are what cultivated my love for this storytelling medium in the first place! It’d been a few years since properly following anything, so I felt quite far behind and overwhelmed by what I should and could watch.
I’m not going to get into it too much, but somehow I ended up wholly entrenched from neck down in the land of Chinese dramas. It started with Nirvana In Fire, but there’s two in particular I want to mention that really changed my life this year.
First on the list is Suddenly This Summer – it’s honestly a fairly typical Gaokao drama (or starts off as one) that follows the romance between the two main protagonists. Something that compelled me to stop watching dramas for the longest time was that I lost interest in depictions of straight relationships. Yet somehow, Suddenly This Summer dragged me right back; I’m surprised myself! There’s many plot points that are cheesy and melodramatic, I won’t lie, but what really pulled me in was the chemistry and acting prowess of Bai Yu and Bu Guanjin. The latter in particular—it was her drama debut—really made me fall in love with her idiosyncrasies as she played her on-screen character. I’m really excited to see her career continue, and I hope she will play a myriad of character types too.
But speaking of Bai Yu, it was thanks to him that I subscribed to iQIYI as a premium user so that I could follow The Long Night (also part of their Light On series, same as The Bad Kids). While the drama first presents itself as a crime thriller, I came away surprised at how it ended up as this touching tale of unbreakable brotherhood, and I don’t mean the BL-under-censorship type; it was all purely platonic. Aside from Bai Yu, there were so many wonderful talents, such as Zhao Yang and Tian Xiaojie, who really brought the story and all its tender, painful moments alive. I hardly ever rewatch things, and especially without giving it a few years in-between, but I did give this 12-episode series a rewatch a month down the road, excited to pick up small details that Chinese netizens had dissected and laid bare.
If anything, you get to watch two ends of Bai Yu – playing a 17/18 year old high school student and then a really beaten-down middle-aged man absolutely eroded by the harsh winds of life. The versatility is astonishing!
Claire Langlais’ Favourite Shows During Isolation
Ironically enough, two drama series I watched in 2020 that will stay with me for a long time both relate to the passing of time: Dear My Friends and Chocolate.
Dear My Friends falls into the category of the heartwarming series that can make you cry a lot. At the heart of the series is its focus on friendships and love stories that pass the test of time through various hardships such as grief and dementia. It is beautifully brought to life by a group of terrific women, from writer No Hee-kyung (It’s Okay That’s Love) to actress Kim Hye-ja (Mother). As a relatively young viewer, Dear My Friends felt like an invitation to take a step back and identify the things that truly mattered to me and separate them from the details that wouldn’t be of much importance in the next few years.
Chocolate is also written by a woman, Lee Kyung-hee, and just like Dear My Friends, can be a tearjerker. The story gravitates around food and how it links not only the two main characters together, but also patients from a hospice ward to their cherished memories. In both scenarios, a dish is used to tell part of their story. Although some episodes can feel very dramatic, something you might draw out of Chocolate is that what you let go of can at times make room for kindness and understanding.
Miles away from the calming category, The Bad Kids was the most intense and well-produced series I watched this year, and makes it in my top three. I was drawn to this Chinese crime drama, part of the Light On series, by the photo stills that were making the rounds online – and the photography through the series definitely delivers. There is an incredible cast leading the story, with names like Wang Jingchun (Shadow, So Long, My Son), Yong Mei (The Assassin, So Long, My Son) and Qin Hao (Spring Fever, Burning Ice) as the adults of the series who are supported by a cast of captivating kids. The animated opening credits are unsettling and I could never get tired of those, hopefully they are just another reason for you to keep watching.
I have to add two special mentions this year for The Untamed and Reply 1988. The Untamed took me about five months to finish, but it’s the portrayal on screen of a love story I could hear about any day, and it sparked many conversations with friends, which are always priceless! And finally, my Reply 1988 watch came at the right moment; while I was away from loved ones during lockdown, it was as close to getting a warm hug as I could get. I won’t lie, I was very excited to finally see my all time favourite Lee Hyeri on screen. Overall, it was refreshing to follow the life of these neighbours, friends and families, which at times reminded me of the neighbours from home who always say their house is also mine, and so in many ways, it made me happy.
Hieu Chau’s Favourite Shows During Isolation
I didn’t commit to live-action dramas as much as I would have liked to this year (I still want to watch the Netflix branded Korean drama Extracurricular cause it looks like it’ll be up my alley) but I did attempt to re-kindle my interests in anime!
During lockdown, I subscribed to Animelab, Australia’s premier anime streaming service owned by Madman Entertainment, and started watching My Hero Academia with my partner. It’s been such a long time since I’d seen a shōnen-style anime (probably not since I was a teenager when things like Naruto and Bleach were massively popular) and while these things may be juvenile at times and broadly appeal to young males, I found it was just the thing I needed to help me get back into televised anime. I sparingly watched televised anime for a long time (or at least the big popular series’) purely because filler episodes killed my interest and so I thought this tradition of ‘anime shows waiting for the manga to finish’ still continued today for the massively popular shows. I was surprised then that My Hero Academia featured none of this and that episodes that could be categorised as ‘filler’ are instead used just to catch audiences up in between big arcs and seasons. I’m all caught up now with My Hero Academia and am such a fan of the show (as is my partner) and we’re both very excited to watch the movies!
I’m already onto my next shōnen anime which is Demon Slayer and am enjoying it so far! It leans more into horror and is more violent than I had anticipated but I think that’s probably a good thing; variety in the genre is good! I also started JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, a series that’s so outrageously ‘extra’ and where every episode feels like the final episode. In that way, JoJo almost a parody of shōnen and I kinda love the show for it! With this renewed interest, I’m also very excited to return to anime cons in the future too!
Natalie Ng’s Favourite Shows During Isolation
I watched three Chinese ‘premium’ crime drama miniseries this year, all of which were great in different ways. The Bad Kids stars critically acclaimed actors, including last year’s Silver Bear winner Wang Jingchun and frequent Lou Ye collaborator Qin Hao and is nail-bitingly suspenseful while The Long Night is a bleak look at the relentless pursuit of justice (these two are companion pieces part of iQiyi’s ‘Light On Theater’ series). Tencent’s Murderous Affair in Horizon Tower was my favourite of the three. Horizon Tower is rooted in female relationships, and the resilience of women. The story plays with expectations of women, and also deals frankly with sexual assault, domestic violence and mental health/trauma. The series starred Angelababy, who’s more known for her beauty than acting, so people were cautious about it, but her acting and series was given a seal of approval by Zhang Ziyi.
I highlighted the Chinese series Winter Begonia in my essay for Song Lang, and again I’m recommending it. A sumptuous period piece set in 1930s Beijing, it follows the unlikely bond that forms between a Western educated businessman and an eccentric Beijing opera star.
Korean drama It’s Okay Not to Be Okay (available on Netflix) deals with themes such as mental health, self-care, self-worth and self-love and is structured around fairytales written by the story’s female lead, who has an antisocial personality disorder. The acting in this is astounding from all three leads, and this series, along with Violet Evergarden, was just a constant back and forth of crying for me, personally.
Among the 2020 animation highlights for me are Chinese animation Heaven’s Official Blessing (available on Bilibili’s Youtube channel) and anime The Case Files of Richard the Jeweler (available on Muse Asia’s Youtube channel). I read the monolith that is Heaven’s Official Blessing at the start of the year so I was thrilled to see how faithfully and beautifully it was captured in animation. Between the fantastic 3D animation in Jiang Ziya and sublime 2D work in this series, Chinese animation is proving to be a force to be reckoned with. Meanwhile, Richard is a slice of life anime about university student Seigi who works part-time as assistant to Richard, a master jeweler. The series was a highlight to me because of its progressive and frank discussion of mental health and societal expectations and as early as its second episode, introduced a lesbian character a client struggling with her identity.
Other than It’s Okay Not to be Okay, all the linked dramas are available to stream for free if you’re from Asia.
Quite possibly the most technically accomplished anime series I’ve ever seen, Violet Evergarden’s (available on Netflix) strength lies in its ability to use visual storytelling to tell detailed character and relationship driven stories. The series is the culmination of what makes Kyoto Animation so beloved. Set in an alternate European-inspired turn of the century world, the series confronts the aftermath of war as titular character Violet must learn how to live with her new prosthetic arms after losing her own in battle. Having only known death and destruction her entire life due to her upbringing as a child soldier, Violet takes up a job as an Auto Memory Doll where she ghost writes letters to learn about emotion and empathy. You don’t write a letter to someone you don’t love, and this is the major theme that runs through the series.You only need to do a simple search to see how every frame of this anime is a painting, and how affected people were by it, including ex-military vets. Every bit of its emotion is sincere and completely earned through deeply empathetic writing and visual storytelling.
Hyouka (available on Muse Asia’s Youtube channel) is a gem that I missed out on during its original run in 2012 and I finally got around to watching. Apathetic high schooler Oreki wishes to go through life exerting as little effort as possible but is goaded into joining the Classics Club by his older sister. Along with the ever-curious Chitanda, “database” Satoshi and otaku Mayaka they stumble upon everyday ‘mysteries’, where Oreki reveals an ability for deduction. The ‘cases’ are mundane, but not the point. Oreki’s skill is in his inherent ability to observe and read people, something he seems determined to switch off to protect himself. The writing makes acute observations about people and life, and has playful nods to classic mystery thrillers, revealing the most original writing inspired by classic mystery writing I’ve ever seen. The animation is always creative and detailed, showing that you don’t need hundreds of millions of dollars to make an Agatha Christie style mystery pop. On a sadder note, Hyouka was directed by Yasuhiro Takemoto, one of the 36 victims of the Kyoto Animation arson attack that occurred on July 18, 2019.
Aidan Djabarov’s Favourite Shows During Isolation
This year, I sought out comfort as much as possible. Because being quarantined for nearly the entire year doesn’t really put you in the mood for much else. That being said, I found my best comfort this year with Mika Ninagawa’s Netflix show Followers and the K-Drama Crash Landing on You. Both centred around women and their relationships with the people around them, and made my heart feel full as I watched them.
Followers had all the Ninagawa signatures that I have come to love so much – incredible set design, saturated colours that almost bleed off the screen, and great music. Every episode felt like a box of chocolates that I couldn’t help but devour. And Crash Landing on You was that K-drama that myself and all my friends fell for. Genuinely funny and romantic, while hitting all the usual K-dramas marks while still feeling fresh. I found this year that I kept starting and stopping K-dramas that were trying to not fit the typical K-drama mold. Fine, I guess, but K-dramas are fun for me because of the cliches and expected plot twists. It was fun to watch a well-produced show that leaned into that instead of veering away from it.
Final shout-out to the second season of Stranger (also known as Secret Forest). It started off slow, focusing on bureaucratic twists and turns, but when it picked up steam it caused hair-raising shivers. Cho Seung-woo and Bae Doona have quickly become one of my favourite pairs on television.