Last year, when South Korean director Boon Joon-ho’s Parasite became the first foreign language film to win Best Picture at the Oscars, the filmmaker suggested that his win would open the door to getting more East Asian films in front of Western audiences — and it seems he was right. With an increasing number of filmmakers from the region showing at last year’s big film festivals (and taking many of the prizes), there’s an abundance of captivating new releases well worth a watch. As film award season approaches, these are the East Asian films that could prove to be 2021’s big contenders.
This epic drama from Taiwanese director Chung Mong-hong has already received numerous accolades, including Best Feature Film and Best Director at the famed Golden Horse Awards, and has made the shortlist for Best International Feature Film at the Academy Awards. A heart-wrenching and stunningly cinematic work, A Sun tells the story of two brothers, one a top student about to go to medical school and the other an angry family disappointment who gets sent to a juvenile detention center. When a shocking twist forces the parents to reevaluate the way they see their sons, familial prejudices and the costs of having a ‘golden child’ are brutally exposed. It’s an unforgettable family drama that undoubtedly will translate for audiences everywhere.
Although originally released at the end of 2019, the romantic drama from director Derek Tsang is getting a fresh round of attention as the Hong Kong submission for Best International Feature Film at the Academy Awards. Following a classmate’s suicide, impoverished teen Chen Nian finds herself the new target of her school’s bullies. After a series of vicious and cruel attacks, she asks petty criminal Xiao Bei to protect her, and out of the shocking depiction of bullying appears a tender love story. Beautifully acted and incredibly moving, it’s a gripping and at times deeply upsetting tale of teenagehood and the lasting scars of schoolyard bullies.
Another Academy Awards’ entry, this Chinese submission follows the journey of the Chinese women’s national volleyball team over 35 years. Directed by Peter Chan, the film was a hit with Chinese audiences, topping the opening day box office numbers of Disney’s remake of Mulan. Inspired by real events, actress Gong Li stars as the team’s head coach (nicknamed “Iron Hammer”) as she guides the athletes through their ups and downs, leading them to world championships and Olympic titles. Moving between nostalgic and thrilling, the biographical sports drama is an intriguing look at the world of China’s female sports teams.
Following fellow South Korean director Boon Joon-ho comes Woo Min-ho with his political thriller, The Man Standing Next. Starring Lee Byung-hun, who’s appeared in a number of American films including R.E.D.2 and G.I. Joe, the film sheds light on a previously little-known true story of the 40 days before President Park Chung-hee, who had Korea under military rule, was murdered by one of his aides in 1979. Told mostly through the eyes of his aides, the film also uncovers political maneuverings inside the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, with consequences that stretch right into the heart of Washington, D.C.
Japanese director Naomi Kawase, who received international acclaim for her award-winning The Mourning Forest, returns with this heartfelt and complex drama about motherhood. Based on the novel by Mizuki Tsujimura, True Mothers follows the story of the adoptive parents of a five-year-old boy whose world is shaken when the troubled birth mother returns with hopes of getting her child back. Jumping between different character’s perspectives, the film was praised for its sensitive and intimate depiction of parenthood at its Toronto Film Festival Premiere, and was the official Japanese entry for at the Academy Awards.