Yohei Suzuki’s Ow (Maru) is the first Japanese film in decades—say, since Oshima’s Death by Hanging—to give Japan’s political, cultural, and economic inertia a good kicking. Equal parts black comedy, sci-fi mystery, investigative reportage, and mindfuck, it starts as docudrama with captions identifying the members of a supremely ordinary suburban family, turns into a satire of bungled police procedurals, and then gradually morphs into a sex-pol depth-charge, all to a backbeat from Samuel Beckett’s novels. It is, in short, an absolutely phenomenal debut feature and the year’s most welcome surprise. Typically, almost all Japanese critics are averting their gaze.
Hwayi: A Monster Boy
The rest of my list reveals how much time I spend looking at East Asian cinema. In addition to Godard’s late masterpiece, I did see fine movies from the rest of the world, but these titles excited me more. Thanatos, Drunk has not yet premiered (I’ve seen it because I did the subtitles) but will do wonders for Chang Tso-Chi’s rep when it does. Two brothers, one straight, one gay, negotiate the hazards of Taipei’s subcultures in the wake of their mother’s death. It’s what it says on the can: an intoxicating dance of death. The same label would suit Hwayi: A Monster Boy, Jang Joon-hwan’s 10-years-late follow-up to Save the Green Planet; it, too, achieves a delirious intensity rooted in turbulent, ambiguous emotions. It’s about a boy raised by five surrogate fathers, all of them murderous criminals.
Fruit Chan’s “comeback” movie The Midnight After uses a sci-fi premise to state Hong Kong’s spiritual/linguistic/cultural differences from China more forcefully than anyone has done before. Ning Hao’s No Man’s Land emerges from a four-year battle with China’s censors as a brilliant pastiche of Leone. In his short films and installation pieces Jung Yoon-suk has looked like a more political Apichatpong; his docu-essay Non-fiction Diary offers the year’s most spirited (and cinematically sophisticated) attack on South Korea’s body politic. Im Kwon-taek’s 102nd feature Hwajang, rather absurdly titled Revivre for export because the Korean title is an untranslatable pun, broaches with astonishing candor the stoicism with which old people must face physical, moral, and intellectual decline.
Nguyen-Vo Nghiem-Minh’s 2030 (Nuoc) is the latest in a short line of challenging and innovative movies from Vietnam’s slow cultural renaissance: an eco-minded noir-ish sci-fi mystery, executed with aplomb. And The Continent is the debut feature from China’s celebrity-dissident blogger and race driver Han Han; it’s an okay road movie exploring the usual range of broken dreams and failed male bonds. The film language is more considered than you might expect, but it sneaks onto my list largely because of Jia Zhang-ke’s ineffable cameo appearance as a gangster uncle.