Akihiko Shiota's Wet Women in the Wind
Akihiko Shiota's Wet Women in the Wind

The year might well be remembered as the moment when the weight of China’s influence started to be overtly felt by international audiences – in the plotlines and the characters greeting us in our multiplexes.

OK, so everybody has to turn a buck – and appealing to as wide an audience as possible simply makes good business sense. But surely we can expect a little more than the tacked-on presence of Hong Kong’s Angelababy trying to save the world (but failing to save the film) in the dire Independence Day: Resurgence, or the purported benevolence of China’s leaders, as imagined in 2015’s The Martian, as they shared state secrets … with the whole world.

Thankfully, Rogue One came around at the end of the year to show studios how an international cast – including the scene-stealing duo of Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen – can seamlessly add to a film’s merits and even help things remain credible (even in sci-fi fantasyland).

But enough of the quibbling – let’s look at the films and filmmakers that stood out in the major Asian markets through 2016.

Over the past year the scene has been in rude health, creatively speaking, with the major markets of China, Japan and South Korea producing some gems from across the spectrum.

Both big studios and never-say-die independents gave audience plenty to think about, led by the region-wide smash Your Name, director Makoto Shinkai’s commercially savvy teen-focused body-swapping wonder that showed there’s much life left in Japanese anime in these post-Hayao Miyazaki days – and that you don’t have to rely on animals acting like humans to make animation reach a wide audience. The rest of the film-watching world – and perhaps even the Oscars – await.

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Read: our interview with Your Name director Makoto Shinkai

Life was once again breathed into the Godzilla franchise with Godzilla Resurgence – politically pointed, quite spectacular and a rallying point for those leaning both left and right, depending on who and what you read. It was simply good to see the big green wonder smashing the crap out of things again.

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Most exciting (OK, for some of us) was the rebooting of the Roman Porno genre in Japan – wildly inventive, more than a little pervy and thoroughly entertaining – as witnessed at the Busan International Film Festival in October.

Industry heavyweights Akihiko Shiota, with Wet Women in the Wind, and Isao Yukisada (Aroused by Gymnopedies) have had a crack at the genre this year. More would be most welcome.

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Speaking of Busan, Asia’s major festival seems – on face value at least – to have ridden out the political storm that has shadowed it since it ran a documentary about the Sewol ferry disaster (The Truth Shall Not Sink with Sewol) back in 2014. Some major industry players boycotted the October event this year but programmers somehow found the money needed to provide the usual wildly diverse selection.

There was no Train to Busan – the surprise box office smash from director Yeon Sang-ho that put family issues first in a zombie splat-fest, a plot device the Koreans excel at (a la the Bong Joon-ho monster classic The Host). But for international visitors there were any number of examples of why Korea leads the way in creativity – including Na Hong-jin’s creepy serial killer thriller The Wailing, yet another example of how far Korean directors can push the envelope. It gets under your skin and festers there for months.

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Busan’s major prize – the New Currents award given to first or second-time filmmakers – had an ultra-strong field this time around and its two winners gave hope for the future of a Chinese industry currently in thrall to mindless spectacle.

Hong Kong funnyman Stephen Chow had started the year off in China with the uneven but often charming The Mermaid – raking in around US$525 million and showing he still has a unique talent for both nonsense and narrative nous.

Read more about Asian film from Asia Times

Zhang Yimou’s English-language monster epic The Great Wall is holding sway currently – but is pure nonsense. Nothing more nor less. But, hey, it’s also a film about monsters, so who cares. And at Busan we saw two new Chinese directors take that top prize. So hope for Chinese cinema springs eternal.

Wang Xuebo’s Knife in the Clear Water was a lyrical look at the modern world’s clash with the old – as reflected in a father-son relationship – while Zang Qiwu’s The Donor was a grim and gritty look at the illegal organ trade. Both touchy subjects handled superbly.

Of the smaller markets, Hong Kong seemed to make the most noise – first because of the controversy over the micro-budgeted Ten Years winning best film at the Hong Kong Film Awards. In it, five young filmmakers presented their fears for the future of the former British colony as China increasingly exerts control over the city.

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The were was much – often embarrassing – brow-beating by those wanting to be seen publicly supporting China, and even calls for the film (and its makers) to be somehow banned.

That one of the directors involved – Jevons Au – was involved in the most exciting Hong Kong film produced this year, the inventive and thoroughly entertaining cop-thriller Trivisia, shows us all once again that talent will always find a way to shine. And it offered a nice poke in the eye for those wanting to put a lid on freedom of expression.