7 Great 2016 Asian Films not from China, Japan or S.Korea

Asian cinema is not just China, Japan and S. Korea

Since these three countries enjoy the lion's share of the global attention towards Asian cinema, I decided to highlight some 2016 (more or less) films from other Asian countries that definitely deserve some attention. Here are 7 of them, most of which I watched on Five Flavours FIlm Festival, in Warsaw.

1. Jagat (Shanjhey Kumar Perumal, Malaysia, Tamil)

“Jagat” is a very important film for Tamil cinema in Malaysia, since, apart from taking over a decade to overcome issues with funding, due to its theme, it also changed the competition rules at the Malaysia Film Festival awards, which did not previously allowed films from minorities’ languages to compete.

The script is set in the 90’s and revolves around two parallel axes that occasionally intermingle: The first one concerns Appoy, a 12-year old boy who prefers to watch TV and listen to Michael Jackson than studying. His father, Maniam is constantly infuriated by his tendencies, as he tries to keep him away from the organized crime which is at large in the area, usually by beating him.

Organized crime is the second axis of the film, as Maniam’s brother, Mexico, tired of his life’s difficulties, enters into the world of the mob, along with his friend, Chicago. As the two become more and more sucked into the crime world, they start to change, while they eventually clash with their beliefs.

Shanjay Kumar Perumal had a clear purpose when he was shooting the film: To highlight the dire situation of Tamil lives in Malaysia, during the 90’s. In that aspect, he succeeded to the fullest, with the film being highly realistic in all aspects, including family, school, crime and drug addiction. However, the crime aspect entails elements of fiction, that heighten the entertaining aspect of “Jagat”, as the director’s wish was not to shoot a documentary, but a realistic genre film.

Little Harvind Raj gives a wonderful performance as Appoy, although it becomes obvious that he is actually playing himself. Kuben Mahadevan as Maniam is great as the violent, but at the same time loving father, and Jibrail Rajhuha does a fine work of Mexico, particularly during the scenes that he shows his conflict about his line of work. Tinesh Sarathi Krishnan as Chicago is, mostly, a comic relief character, and in that fashion, he succeeds to the fullest.

2. City of Jade (Midi Z, Taiwan, Burma)

Midi Z follows his brother, Zhao De-chin, recording his everyday routine as he returns to the City of Jade, in Kachin state, in Myanmar. At the same time, he tries to unveil his brother’s past, who abandoned the family when he was 16 years old (and Midi Z, five) to come to this “promised land.”

The area is tormented by civil war as the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) fights the government’s forces. The conflict has forced large corporations that were mining there to abandon the place, and that has given the opportunity to unlicensed individuals to take over. However, raids by both fighting parties are regular, and occasionally result in confiscating equipment and imprisonment for the workers. Add to that the fact that they mostly dig with basic tools, like hoes and hammers, most of them eventually succumb to drug addiction, and that many come down with malaria, and you have a truly onerous setting. Burmese, though, keep coming in the place, as they dream of riches that will change their lives.

At the same time, De-chin reveals part of his story in the place, which led him to drug addiction and subsequently, to prison, but did not deter him from coming back. Some of his revelations are truly shocking
Life in the City of Jade is harsh for everyone. However, the setting presents a number of images of extreme beauty, where brown and yellow dominate the scenery, and a lake created by the digging stands as the sole spot of calmness in an area swarmed with people working.

The scenes where a bunch of workers try to avoid arrest by climbing down a quarry and crossing the lake with a makeshift raft, and the ones where a quarry collapses are the ones that stand apart.

Through De-chin’s psychological status, Midi Z’s narration, and Lim Giongs’s music, a sense of melancholy permeates the documentary. This sense becomes even more intense as workers start smoking drugs and popping pills, and even Midi Z comes down with malaria.

In that fashion though, Midi Z portrays the harsh conditions still dominating the country, despite the international press perspective of a country that moves towards freedom and the free market. If this is actually the case, City Of Jade has not even heard about it.

3. Interchange (Dain Said, Malaysia)

Adam is an ex-police photographer who experienced a nervous breakdown and quit the force. Currently he suffers from hallucinations and spends his time in his apartment, secretly watching his neighbors with his camera, and particularly a woman, Iva. Eventually, detective Man, an ex co-worker asks Adam to help him in an investigation regarding a number of brutal murders. As they discover some photographic negatives made of glass, their research leads them into the world of antique shops and the supernatural. Iva, a deformed man named Belian, and an antique owner named Sani seem to be involved in the mystery. Everything seems to revolve around a true incident that took place a century ago, when Norwegian explorer Carl Lumholtz traveled through central Borneo between 1913 and 1917 and photographed some tribal women.

Dain Said directs and pens (along June Tan, Nandita Solomon and Redza Minhat) a film that keeps a delicate balance among thriller, fantasy and noir. The pace is fast, and it initiates from the movie’s intro and never actually slows down, in no-nonsense fashion. The case, however, is slowly revealed, retaining the agony and the questions almost until the end, and the supernatural element is introduced quite late in the film, despite the fact one could suspect that the story would eventually head towards the fantastic. Said’s characters, in distinct noir fashion,  fit the genre’s archetypes. The protagonist who does not know why he is involved in the case, the cop willing to break the law, the smooth villain, the love object and the mysterious female are all present and give the film a distinct noir essence.

The cast does a very good job of presenting each character in a way that fits the film’s general aesthetics. Iedil Putra as Adam manages to portray a man constantly in distress, lost among powers that overwhelm him. Shaheizy Sam is very entertaining as Detective Man, an occasionally obnoxious individual willing to go to extremes to achieve his goal. Nicholas Saputra, as Belian, does not speak much, but remains cool, smooth, and always looking dangerous. Prisia Nasution plays the love object to perfection, starting as flirty and with a clear purpose of leading Adam, before she transforms into a fragile, desperate woman. Nadiya Nisaa as Sani is great as the pretentious and sure of herself woman.


4. A Copy of my Mind (Joko Anwar, Indonesia)

Shot in just 8 days in true guerrilla fashion, with Joko Anwar placing his actors in neighborhoods in Jakarta that neither police nor army would accompany them, “A Copy of my Mind” proves that talent, planning and expertise do not need time in order to achieve a great outcome. Financed by the S. Korean powerhouse CJ Entertainment, the film is the first part of a trilogy.

Sari works in a beauty salon, but her real passion is movies, particularly “trash” ones, usually involving hybrid monsters like the anacobra. Being poor though, she has to buy her films from shops that sell copied DVD, which usually feature awful subtitles. Alek is responsible for this fact, since he makes a living by writing subtitles for pirate DVD, almost exclusively by using Google Translate. The two of them eventually stumble upon each other as Sari is complaining about the quality of the subtitles, and the shop’s owner turns her to Alek. Eventually the two of them become a couple, and their life seems to be picking up, as Sari gets a job in a more aristocratic beauty salon. However, when she is sent in prison to do a facial to a woman crime lord, their lives become extremely dangerous, since Sari decides to steal a DVD from her that proves to contain a video of her dealings with politicians.

Joko Anwar directs a film that cruises through the genres, as it begins like a realistic drama, then becomes a romance and eventually a thriller with political elements. Furthermore, his distinct sense of humor is always present, and exemplified in scenes like the one with the gay porn. Apart from that, the movie features much less violence than his previous works (“The Forbidden Door” for example), although it is not completely absent. The political message is quite poignant and derives from the concept of the crime lord and her dealings with the authorities, in a segment that is largely based on true events.

Chicco Jericho as Alek and Tara Basro as Sari exemplify their chemistry, and in the process become one of the most likeable couples I have witnessed on cinema, this year at least. Their looks  help much in this aspect, as both of them are gorgeous.  The latter’s performance is evidently on a higher level, since her role is much larger and she responds with elaborateness, as she exemplifies her mischievous but somewhat naive persona.

5. Apocalypse Child (Mario Cornejo, Philippines)

The script is inspired by the shooting of “Apocalypse Now” in the area, as the crew of the film had quite a lot of “contact” with local girls, with many of those affairs resulting in illegitimate children. One of those children is Ford, a champion surfer, whose mother, Chona supposedly had him with Francis Ford Coppola himself (thus the name), when she was just 14 years old. At the time the story begins, Ford has a new girlfriend, Fiona, who seems to have touched something very deep inside him. However, when his childhood friend Rich, currently a senator, returns in the area with Serena, his fiancée,  a lot of secrets from the past resurface, that seems to be connected with Rich’s father and Ford’s mother. Furthermore, Rich seems to be testing his fiancée by making her take surfing lessons from Ford.

Mario Carnejo directs a very entertaining film, that is based much on his and Monster Jimenez’s (who co-wrote the script) sense of humor (the scene where Chona, makes her first appearance is a distinct sample), the dark secrets that shape the relationships of the characters, and the beauty of both the scenery and the actors. The concept of the children born by the affairs the crew of “Apocalypse Now” had with locals functions as a base, but is not addressed so much, as the film focuses on the antagonism of Ford and Rich, and the obvious erotic triangle that was bound to happen at some point. The entertaining aspect is also stressed by a number of artistically shot but definitely steamy sex scenes, and the fact that most of the protagonists usually roam around half naked. In that fashion, the film functions much as  Hollywood productions in the setting of the beach.

In terms of acting, two performances stand apart. Ana Abad-Santos as Chona  exemplifies the fact that due to her age, she is a more a friend than a mother to her son. The scenes where she is drunk or stoned are actually hilarious and adorable at the same time. Annicka Dolonius is also great as Fiona, particularly after the moments she begins to fear that she will lose Ford. The rest of the actors (Sid Lucero as Ford, Rk Bagatsing as Rich and Gwen Zamora as Serena) function nicely within the general aesthetics of the film, but do not excel in terms of acting.

6. Bitcoin Heist (Ham Tran, Vietnam)

Special agent Dada is set on catching Interpol’s most wanted hacker, an individual who calls himself “The Ghost”, and has made a fortune in Bitcoins, through ransomware. She orchestrates a large operation targeting two of Ghost’s associates, his accountant named Phuc and one of his henchwomen, Ky. The mission goes horribly wrong, ending up with Ky and a number of police officers dead, and Phuc in custody. Furthermore, during the operation, a hacker ends up in a coma after he succeeded in stealing 30.000 bitcoins from Ky’s phone. His sister, Vi, also a hacker, barely survives and has to tend to her brother.

Dada decides to go after The Ghost without the help of the police and in that purpose, she assembles a group of skilled thieves and criminals of every kind to help her. The team includes Jack Magique, a professional magician and pickpocket, but also her former boyfriend; a forger named Luhan and his little daughter Linh, who has acrobatic skills and is also a thief; Phuc and Vi, who is set on revenge for her brother. Their target is Thomas, a Korean-German bon viveur, whom they have identified as The Ghost. All of them together conceive an intricate plan in order to surpass his safety measures and receive proof of his wrongdoings.

Ham Tran directs, pens, and edits a film very similar to Ocean’s Eleven, both in script and aesthetics, with the obvious purpose of commercial success. In that fashion, the script entails sexy women with guns, handsome protagonists, some comic relief scenes, a cute girl, gunfights, a boat chase, explosions, a plot twist, some romance, and a little drama, in a true paradise for the action flick fan. However, it also includes a number of illogical occurrences, to the point of being naive, at times.

The casting also aimed at commercial success, as it includes real-life magician and TV persona Petey MajicNguyen as Jack Magique, top Vietnamese female rapper Suboi as Vi, gorgeous Kate Nhung as Dada and Thanh Pham as Phuc. As usual in similar films, the acting’s purpose is to service the action, and Bitcoin Heist is not an exception. However, there is obvious chemistry among the protagonists.


7. The Road to Mandalay (Midi Z, Burma)

The story revolves around Lianqing, a Burmese woman who takes the trip from her country to Thailand, through rivers, forests, checkpoints and much bribing. In her trip, she meets a young man named Guo, who seems to like her, helping her from the moment they meet. Lianqing has some Burmese friends in Thailand, who give her a place to live and help her find a job. Initially they take her to large company, but they cannot hire her because she does not have legal papers. Eventually, she ends up washing dishes in a small restaurant for a very meager pay. She manages however, and even sends some money back home. Guo is still around, trying to persuade her to work at the factory he works, but she declines.

After some time, one of her roommates who seems to have a nervous breakdown, after losing her job, kicks her out. Furthermore, she is arrested and, although her employer manages to get her out of prison, he fires her. Having nothing else to do, she agrees to go work with Guo, and the two of them become a couple. Things start going better for her; however, as she is set on acquiring legal papers to work for the initial company she has visited, betrayal seems to come from every direction.

Midi Z directs and pens a film much like a documentary, since realism is evident in every aspect. The way Lianqing crosses to Thailand, her workplaces, the places she lives, the lives of other immigrants, and her efforts to acquire legal working permit all have a tincture of disillusionment, usually associated with documentaries. The lack of music and intricate cinematic techniques (except a metaphoric one involving a giant lizard) also move towards this direction.

Wu Ke-xi (Midi Z’s regular) as Lianqing and Ko Kai as Guo both give great performances, in perfect harmony with the film’s realism and general aesthetics. The former is extraordinary  in her desperate efforts to achieve her goals, while he presents the unambitious, simple man who is blindly in love, with accuracy. Their chemistry is also evident and exemplified in a scene where he helps her wear a necklace he bought her. Overall, the acting by every single actor appearing on screen is so realistic, that occasionally seems as if it was real footage.



13 Assassins,1,2017,3,A Company Man,1,A few words about us,1,A Lonely Cow Weeps at Dawm,1,A Love,1,A Man Vanishes,1,A Simple Life,1,A Single Rider,1,A Stone from Another Mountain to Polish Your Own Stone. Go Shibata,1,A Tale of Love,1,A Whale of a Tale,1,About Elly,1,Adam J. 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Asian Film Vault: 7 Great 2016 Asian Films not from China, Japan or S.Korea
7 Great 2016 Asian Films not from China, Japan or S.Korea
Asian cinema is not just China, Japan and S. Korea
Asian Film Vault
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