The 10 best Asian films of the year

By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly

2010 gave us great Asian and Asian-related films from, quite literally, all over the map. Look for the following at your local well-stocked video store:

1.  “Last Train Home,” (directed) by Lixin Fan, starring Yang Zhang, Changhua Zhang, Suqin Chen, and Qin Zhang

This is a documentary film covering the annual migration of 130 million people — Chinese factory workers — traveling to and from their homes to observe Spring Festival and Chinese New Year. The film could have become an ocean of anonymous faces. However, director Lixin Fan made sure that this didn’t happen. This was done by focusing on one family. Their triumphs, headaches, heartaches, and screaming matches stand in for other families, forming a powerful picture of modern life in mainland China.

2.  “The Harimaya Bridge,” by Aaron Woolfolk, starring Ben Guillory, Saki Takaoka, Misa Shimizu, Danny Glover, and Misono

A middle-aged Black man (Guillory) has grown up with a deep-seated hatred of the Japanese, for what they did to his own father in World War II. His son goes off to teach in Japan before suddenly dying. The father’s journey to Japan to discover the truth about his son takes unexpected twists and turns, some directly into his own conflicted heart.

3.  “Mao’s Last Dancer,” by Bruce Beresford, starring Chi Cao, Joan Chen, Bruce Greenwood, Amanda Schull, and Camilla Vergotis

This dramatic film tells the true story of ballet star Cuxin Li (played by real-life dancer Chi Cao), who arrives in Houston in 1981 as part of a carefully considered cultural exchange program with mainland China. He dances brilliantly. However, he must make painful choices in regard to his country, his art, and love. Watch for Joan Chen’s performance, wonderfully understated as the dancer’s mother.

4.  “Tales from Earthsea,” by Goro Miyazaki, with English voice cast Timothy Dalton, Willem Dafoe, Cheech Marin, and Mariska Hargitay

This animated feature-film debut from Goro Miyazaki strained his relationship with his father, the famous animator Hayao Miyazaki. Legal issues prevented the film from reaching the United States for several years. Was it worth it? You bet. The younger Miyazaki manages a touching story of a few hearty souls, with a fantastic landscape and dragons as a backdrop. Look for his next feature film sometime in 2011.

5.   “Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo,” by Jessica Oreck

An American director tackles Japan’s insect obsessions in this documentary film. We see beetles and other bugs in the wild and wandering the streets of Tokyo in playfully constructed insect-level view shots. The narration can get academically stiff, but the visuals carry this one.

6.  “The Sun Behind the Clouds: Tibet’s Struggle for Freedom,” by Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam, starring the 14th Dalai Lama

This documentary reveals a side of the Dalai Lama that many Americans don’t see. Caught between his religious beliefs and the increasing calls from his people to free Tibet, he launches his “middle-way approach” to mixed reception. His Holiness emerges as a reluctant politician. The film’s thought for the decade: Is it possible that his conciliatory, tolerant views no longer make sense in an age of dictators with the potential means to conquer the planet?

7.  “Jeonju Digital Project 2009,” by Sang-soo Hong, Naomi Kawase, and Lav Diaz

Three directors — one Korean, one Japanese, one Filipino — are armed with digital cameras and a grant of roughly $44,000 from the Jeonju Film Festival in South Korea. All three capture vivid emotions, but Diaz comes up with the single killer image: a cadre of criminals stalking through the forest in ceremonial Moriones Festival masks.

8.  “Old Partner,” by Chung-ryoul Lee, starring Won-kyn Choi and Sam-soon Lee

This documentary is about an old Korean farmer, his wife, and his ox. Whether the old farmer has more love in his heart for his beast than for his wife becomes a matter of deep speculation. All three fight frailty and inevitable death with varying strategies and varying degrees of success. This is a stark portrait of age and survival.

9.  “Like You Know It All,” by Sang-soo Hong, starring Tae-woo Kim, Ji-won Uhm, and Hyeon-jeong Ko

South Korean director Song-soo Hong (see “Jeonju Digital Project 2009”) continues his run as one of the most promising young directors.

He shows that sometimes, the friendliest face — in this case, a sunny young director we hope isn’t modeled on Hong himself — can disguise the deadliest snake in the grass.

10.  “The Sun,” by Alexander Sokurov, starring Issey Ogata, Shiro Sano, Shinmei Tsuji, and Robert Dawson

This film is set in Japan at the end of World War II. Emperor Hirohito and the servants around him go about their business as best they can, but they can’t escape the mental and spiritual pressures of an empire being squeezed to death.

Director Sokurov had to be cagey about the casting of Issey Ogata, since some Japanese still consider a portrayal of the Emperor taboo.

But the actor makes us feel his character, from his edicts to the government down to the last shake and sniffle. ♦

Andrew Hamlin can be reached at

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2 Responses to “The 10 best Asian films of the year”


  1. […] I’ve taken a long break from posting, but to start off the new year, here are two lists for the “Top 10s” of 2010: Top 10 Asian Americans in Pop Culture and 10 best Asian or Asian American themed movies. […]

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Craig Crumpton, Rick F. Barnes. Rick F. Barnes said: The 10 best Asian films of the year […]

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