Here’s my list of the 10 best Chinese/Korean films of 2016, in no particular order. Enjoy!
1) Saving Mr. Wu (dir. Ding Sheng)
This is a terrifically gritty thriller about a movie star (Andy Lau) kidnapped outside an expensive Beijing nightclub by criminals who do not recognize him but are simply looking for a likely, well-heeled victim. (The movie was based on an actual case.) What gives the film extraordinary force is that the lead, a HK star who was been lately known for lighter fare, such as this year’s Mission Milano, gives an unvarnished performance, combining raw fear and barely controlled panic. An additional tension producing factor is that the cops some of the actors were cops involved in the original real-life case, find these kidnappers have struck before. Their MO: they collect the money, then kill the abducted.
2) Mr. Donkey (dir. Zhou Shen and Liu Lu)
There is a hard to translate Cantonese expression “hai wei,” which indicates the bittersweet emotion that occurs when a person looks back over the past. It’s something like that captured at the end of Seven Beauties, when the protagonist, wandering through a devastated, just post-WWII Naples, seems to say to himself, “At least I survived.” But he did so at the cost of betraying his friends to the Nazis and losing all human dignity.
Mr. Donkey begins with the teachers in a small provincial school in Nationalist China (in the early 1940s) pledging to continue to educate their rural charges. At the end, they repeat their vow but with a sense of hai wei in that, in a scheme to get more funding from the government, they have cheated, betrayed each other, and betrayed themselves. For instance, the most uncompromising idealist of the batch, who vows he will stand up to any unjust authority, changes his stance once he gets shot at by a provincial official’s guard. The bullet creases his skull and turns him into a cringing sycophant, so craven that he even cowers in the corner while that same guard is raping a local woman.
Overall, this is a tragicomedy in the truest sense in that as the movie progresses, the tiny tragedies are so palatable they cannot be forgotten even in the film’s more whimsical, delightful scenes.
3) The Age of Shadows (dir. Kim Jee-woon)
A ten-finger nail biter, set during WWII in Japanese-occupied Seoul, the film hinges on a complex premise. Since the Korean resistance has been penetrated by a mole, which has caused the death of the second in command, the anti-Japanese leaders decides the only way to find the mole is to “turn” the Korean traitor, played by Song Kang-ho, who is leading the Japanese secret service.
There is an incredible set piece midway through the movie on a moving train on which the Japanese are trying to locate the 10 resistance fighters aboard, most of whom they don’t know by sight and all of whom are disguised. Meanwhile, Song, for reasons of his own, does not want the resistance members caught as they could reveal he has been meeting with them, though not supporting them. What takes place is a multilayered, super-tense scene of mobile hide and seek leading to a violent explosion.
Though I’m not ranking these entries, if I had to, I would say that Age, with an incredibly complex plot and stand out acting, was the best film of the year.
4) Train to Busan (dir. Yeon Sang-ho)
Speaking of trains, I guess everyone has already put this on their top ten lists as it crossed over to American cinemas.
Simply put, the best zombie film I’ve seen, one existing in a separate universe from American product, which generally breathes a survivalist, libertarian ethic. In Train, when a chance remark among those struggling to survive reveals that one is a fund manager, he is immediately reviled and spit on by the other passengers as someone who takes people’s homes and ruins their lives.
As readers probably know, the protagonists are on a high-speed train that is rapidly filling with zombies. And these are not the somnolent living dead in HW flicks. These undead run like bats out of hell when they catch the scent of living prey. Heart in your mouth stuff.
5) The Tunnel (dir. Kim Seong-Hun)
A shoddily made highway tunnel in a remote, mountainous province, collapses, burying two motorists trapped in the center. The hero (Ha Jung-woo) has a cell phone (till its dies) so can tell authorities he is inside. However, unlike your typical HW fare, which so often represents heroic rescuers, here the chief government minister, once Ha is without cell contact, says it is simply costing too much to tunnel to him, so he should be declared dead and abandoned. Meticulously acted and worked out, the film rivets you to your seats.
6) Three (dir. Johnnie To)
Some critics are saying that the latest crop of HK action films (in contrast to those made on the Mainland) are getting immersed in HW glitzy, all car chases gun and kung fu fights, with little else. Too true, but this hardly applies to the old hand, Johnnie To. Three is a suspenseful hospital yarn. A criminal (Wallace Chung) has been shot in the head, but he refuses a needed operation, thinking his gang will rescue him. Meanwhile, the cop who caught him (Louis Ko) wants him to take the operation, pressuring neurosurgeon (Vicki Zhao) to cut him open (since he knows the procedure will likely kill Chung, thus covering up the police corruption he knows about).
One high point is an extraordinary, innovative action scene in which the camera goes from real time to slo-mo to real time to slo mo, in a continual, fractal seesawing that shows incisive action choreography rivaling that in works of John Woo, such as Hard Boiled and The Killer.
7) Cold War II (dir. Lok Man Leung, Kim-Ching Luk)
This film, which we saw last summer in Guangzhou, was a big hit in China and is stocked with HK stars, from Chow Yun-Fat to Tony Leung to Aaron Kwok. It tells a story of baroque intricacy about a plot to unseat the new Police Commissioner who is a bit too incorruptible for the tastes of the elite. Intrigue, subterfuge, plot and counterplot unfold as his opponents (who engineer the kidnapping of the commissioner’s wife and daughter) and supporters match swords. The conspiracies include senior police, Legco members, businessmen/women, and criminals. The complexity of the goings-on can be a bit daunting, in an ultimately engrossing film, which ends with one of the chief villains, to maintain his mask, having to hunt down his own criminal cohorts.
8) Lost in Hong Kong (dir. Xu Zheng)
The comic set up is this: A man, played by director Xu, comes to his Hong Kong from the provinces, ostensibly to accompany his wife to fertility treatments but really to approach his first love, Du Juan, who left the backwaters when she got a scholarship to a HK school, and who now, 20 years later, is an art star. So all Xu has to do is leave his wife at the doctor’s and sneak across town to a rendezvous. But getting through the city does not go as planned. After from getting a metal helmet stuck on his head when he inadvertently becomes an extra in a Wong Jing film – the director doing a cameo – with a title of Kung Fu Masters Vs. Robot Heads – and being chased by mobsters through a massage parlor, then things really break loose.
Breakneck pacing, comic turns (many provided by Xu’s annoying brother who is videoing the escapades), and a lot of bravura camerawork make this an extravaganza of fun.
9) Our Times (dir. Frankie Chen)
My wife, who has already seen this movie three times, says this is the year’s best. An overworked, lonely office worker, Joe Chen, thinks back to her high school romance. It turns around two young men, the rebel and the more staid, Mr. Popularity. Getting involved with the rebel, Darren Wang, in a plot to break up Mr. Popularity from Ms. Popularity, because each has designs on one in the couple, they begin to like each other. Since this is Taiwan, not the U.S., much of the plot revolves around the students doing well in schoolwork, not sports. Also, as per films of HK, there is a subplot of gangsters and cops. In any case, the budding romance is cut short when Wang gets sick and is sent to America.
My plot summary, though, cannot convey the panache of the actors, the sharp character drawing, and the deftness and lack of sentimentality in the romantic scenes, nor the thoughtful mise-en-scene.
10) The Beauty Inside (dir. Baik)
And you thought you had identity issues? This brilliant film follows a buyer for a department store, Han Hyo-joo, who has become fascinated by what is going on in the furniture workshop where on each visit she is met by a different person. It turns out the reclusive owner has an odd condition. Each morning he/she wakes up with a new body: Asian/black/white, male or female, old or young. He’s lonely since she/he can’t reveal the details of his transformative existence.
The film is not played for laughs or cuteness but rather is speculative. Could Han fall in love with someone who is literally unrecognizable day by day? What would the stages of such love be and would his/her partner reciprocate. A fascinating, maddening and charming film.