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A splendid year for Asian cinema

A splendid year for Asian cinema

Led by Parasite, films from the world’s largest and most populous continent are on a roll in the festival circuit and beyond

Saibal Chatterjee

This year, Cannes saw the premiere of as many as eight Asian films across various segments, including Takashi Miike’s First Love (Japan) in Directors’ Fortnight and Diao Yinan’s The Wild Goose Lake (China) in the Competition. Earlier in the year, the Berlin Film Festival showcased 10 Asian titles

On the first day of December, the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, one of the biggest events of its kind in northern Europe, handed out its top prize, the Grand Prix, to a very unusual film — a Japanese-language allegorical drama directed by an Indian.


Anshul Chauhan’s Kontora, shot in black and white by Estonian cinematographer Maxim Golomidov, deals tangentially with Japan’s past and present seen through the prism of a strained father-daughter relationship that begins to change inexorably when they give refuge to a mute man who walks backwards.

Significantly, the Black Nights Festival’s best director prize went to another Asian — Jun Robles Lana for the Filipino film Kalel, 15, also shot in black and white by Carlo Canlas Mendoza. Asia was clearly the dominant flavour as the curtains were rung on the festival.

Chauhan, raised and schooled in India, is an animator who has lived and worked in Japan since 2011. Kontora is his second narrative feature following up on the critically acclaimed Bad Poetry Tokyo, a story of an aspiring actress who is compelled to return to rural hometown and come to grips with her past.


Anshul Chauhan and Jun Lana may not be household names yet but they represent a crop of Asian directorsthat is making waves around the world. They are, of course, in the illustrious company of established masters from South Korea, Japan and China, who already have massive global constituencies that lap up every film that they make.

Therefore, as 2019 draws to a close, observers of Asian cinema can look back at the year, as well as several that preceded it, with a sense of satisfaction. Celebrated auteurs as well as relative newcomers from the world’s largest and most populous continent have been in great form lately, churning out films of an exceptionally high quality.

To the Ends of the Earth

Two recent Asian films stand out: Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters (Japan, 2018) and Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (South Korea, 2019). Both are Palme d’Or winners and rightfully regarded as two of the most accomplished cinematic works of all times. Shoplifters, about a non-biological family that indulges in shoplifting for survival, was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar but was edged out by Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma. This year, Parasite, which explores the class divide in urban South Korea, will be the film to beat in the Oscars race. The film taps the universal in the culturally specific and delivers a cautionary parable for our fraught times.


Bong Joon-ho, the first Korean director to win the Cannes Film Festival’s top prize, was already a name to reckon with when he arrived on the Croisette early this year with Parasite. Kore-eda, another Cannes regular, has already done the rounds with his next film, The Truth, his first non-Japanese-language production, starring Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche as a filmstar mother and her screenwriter-daughter.

This year, Cannes saw the premieres of as many as eight Asian films across its various segments, including Takashi Miike’s First Love (Japan) in Directors’ Fortnight and Diao Yinan’s The Wild Goose Lake (China) in the Competition. Earlier in the year, the Berlin Film Festival showcased 10 Asian titles, including Chinese auteur Zhang Yimou’s One Second and compatriot Lou Ye’s The Shadow Play.

Wet Season

To the Ends of the Earth, the latest from Kiyoshi Kurosawa, a Japanese director who has invested the supernatural-horror genre with a philosophical edge, besides successfully working with other narrative forms, lends a culture-clash drama both depth and empathy. The film tells the story of a young travel show presenter who discovers herself in the process of exploring an alien land — Uzbekistan.

The most exciting aspect of the current Asian resurgence is that great tidings are emanating from outside of the circle of heavyweights who dominate major festival selections. In Venice this year, two Asian films — Yonfan’s animated feature No. 7 Cherry Lane (Hong Kong), a romance set in 1960s Hong Kong, and Raymund Ribay Gutierrez’s debut feature Verdict (the Philippines), about a victim of domestic abuse who seeks punishment for an alcoholic, violent husband but runs into systemic obstacles and a severely compromised judicial system — returned home with awards.

The former, which the director has described as a love letter to his city, won the best screenplay prize in the main Competition, the latter bagged a Special Jury Prize in the Orizzonti section of the festival.

Singapore’s Anthony Chen, whose debut film IloIlo (2013) fetched him the Camera d’Or in Cannes, is back with his sophomore effort, Wet Season, a critically acclaimed coming-of-age drama with a strong undercurrent of feminism. The film tells a tale of a childless schoolteacher grappling with infertility and a failing marriage and a male student suffering the pangs of parental neglect bond in a self-fulfilling way as each of them grapples with serious emotional issues.

Come Oscar night, all eyes will be on Parasite, a potent symbol of the growing clout of Asian cinema.

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