Top 10 Asian films of 2009

By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly

2009 brought a wealth of Asian and Asian-related films to American theaters.  Here’s a quick look back at 10 films you should have seen — and if you haven’t, you should hunt these down at your local video store:

1. “Ponyo,” (directed) by Hayao Miyazaki. English voice cast includes Tina Fey, Noah Cyrus, and Frankie Jonas.

Japanese master animator Miyazaki keeps threatening to retire. This latest film is an excellent argument as to why he shouldn’t. His vivid characters, thrilling visuals, and mastery in the use of subtle colors combine for one of the most amazing cel animation films ever.

2. “Kabei: Our Mother,” by Yoji Yamada, starring Tadanobu Asano, Sayuri Yoshinaga, and Miku Sato

With his celebrated samurai trilogy behind him and more than 70 features to his credit, Japan’s Yamada could well have thought about retirement. Instead, he applied his gifts for emotional detail to this gorgeous and sometimes painful fact-based saga of a family in pre-WWII Japan, after a professor father is hauled into jail by Japanese “Thought Police.” Asano shines as a bumbling but warm-hearted family friend. You’d never guess he played Genghis Khan not too long ago.

3. “Still Walking,” by Hirokazu Kore-Eda, starring Hiroshi Abe, Yoshio Harada, and Yui Natsukawa

This film portrays a Japanese family trying and failing to forget the loss of its oldest son. The film contains more emotions than most people can name. Harada, the stoic father, is hard to look at and listen to, but thanks to the director, you understand his point of view and you hurt with him as he imprisons himself with his own pain.

4. “The Red Jacket,” by Yalin Zou

This is a Chinese film that is so obscure that the Internet Movie Database has no listings for the title, the cast, or the director. And some of the reviewers found it too slight. Well, let them huff. Zou tackles the complexities and slights of family life. The components of the film include a young girl in a small Chinese village, a red jacket for sale in a market, which she desperately wants, and a grandmother who teaches her granddaughter about life’s frustrations.

5.  “The Betrayal,” by Thavi Phrasavath and Ellen Kuras, starring Thavi Phrasavath

This documentary is a vivid look at the ravages of war. The story offers insight into a Laotian boy’s uneasy transformation into manhood under the shadow of his vanished soldier father. The mother, who needs her son all the more for not having her husband, becomes the center of the narrative. The dutiful son’s life revolves around her.

6.  “Late Bloomer,” by Go Shibata, starring Masakiyo Sumida and Mari Torii

An affectionate look at a handicapped Japanese man, Sumida-san, who likes to drink, smoke, watch pornography, and plow his scooter through the crowd at hardcore punk shows. His sunny demeanor suddenly warps into that of a murderer. Never assume you know, the film tells us, what a person, handicapped or not, is capable of. Sumida-san came into the world with a broken body, but his sharp mind manifests the will of his dark heart.

7.  “Evangelion 1.0:  You Are (Not) Alone,” by Masayuki, Kazuya Tsurumaki, and Hideaki Anno. English voice cast includes Spike Spencer, Allison Keith, and John Swasey.

This is an essential Japanese anime. After the apocalypse, alien warriors continue to stalk and destroy humans. Only the pilots of the “mecha,” which are giant robots, can save what’s left of civilization. By focusing on the psychology of the warriors under tremendous stress, Hideaki Anno and his collaborators come up winners themselves.

8.  “Thirst,” by Chan-wook Park, starring Kang-ho Song and Ok-bin Kim

If you stop and think about it, becoming a vampire is pretty gross. Then you have to spend the rest of eternity feeding on others. Even grosser. Controversial and often gory, South Korean director Chan-wook Park gives us all the pustules and ripping flesh. Not a
movie for the queasy, but a good one for open-minded vampire fans.

9.  “Daytime Drinking,” by Young-Seok Noh, starring Kang-hee Kim, Sam-dong Song, and Sang-yeop Yuk

Heartbreak leads to heavy drinking, which leads to a road trip through the South Korean countryside, which leads to getting utterly lost, which leads to more heavy drinking. And a drunk on the road may run into those who may not have his best interests at heart. First-time director Noh shows an admirable grasp of human desperation. We root for the hero even as he treats his failures with more liquor.

10. “My Dear Enemy,” by Yoon-kid Lee, starring Do-yean Jean and Jung-woo Ha

A man owes some woman money. The woman won’t let the man out of her sight until he pays up. Things take a long time to happen in this South Korean drama, but the viewer settles in to know the characters, which proves to be rewarding. ♦

Andrew Hamlin can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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