The global rise of Asian cinema

We trace the global rise of Asian cinema, from blockbusters to independent arthouse.

At this precise moment, the world is in the grip of Squid game, the violence-infused South Korean series that set Netflix records (to 111 million viewers and over) by becoming the platform’s most popular show.

Always Squid games (Photo: Netflix)

Prior to that, Chloe Zhao’s first historic Oscars as an Asian woman rightly grabbed attention at this year’s ceremony. But there was also the remarkable achievement of Hong Kong director Derek Tsang, which somehow missed the degree of attention he surely would have garnered in previous years.

So let’s start with a little reminder.

The rise of Asian cinema

Last year, Tsang became the very first Hong Kong-born director to have an Oscar nominated feature film when his bullying and crime-themed drama is set in China. Better days was in contention for the award for best international feature film.

The rise of Asian cinema
Images of Better Days by Derek Tsang (Photos by Wei Lun Wong)
Photos of Derek Tsang Better days (Photos by Wei Lun Wong)

Better days is just the second feature film that Tsang, 41, has directed on his own, and that his avant-garde and fringe subject matter and style conquered the Academy of Cinema Arts and Sciences was a surprise, not at least to the man himself, who admits, “We never really thought it would be so well received, critically or commercially. We just thought we would put all of our hearts into making this movie – and hopefully that would make audiences appreciate the effort and the story.

But the world has woken up to what’s going on in Asia, and the nod to Tsang’s work was yet another reflection of the growing influence and hold of the region’s cinema – and its makers of. content – on the global audience, both mainstream and arthouse. This idea was confirmed at the same Oscars party in April, when Zhao, of Chinese descent, became the first Asian woman to win Best Director and Best Picture with Nomadic country, his atmospheric and haunting portrayal of age – and of an aging America.

There is also an increased interest in the way Asian filmmakers tell their stories, and a welcome shift in perception, given the traditional predominance of a point of view very close to that of predominantly white, middle-class filmmakers. and men.

Shang-Chi and the legend of the ten rings
Shang-Chi and the legend of the ten rings (Photo by Jasin Boland)

Never one to miss the tide of public opinion, Hollywood quickly added depth to its talent pool, turning to Zhao to take the reins of the Marvel Cinematic Universe superhero actor. Eternals, slated for release this month and the first time an Asian woman has added her vision to the franchise. Meanwhile, the first Asian-led superhero film, Shang-Chi and the legend of the ten rings has so far withdrawn over US $ 400 million at the global box office – including over US $ 214 million in the US, making it the biggest blockbuster of 2021 in America.

At this year’s Oscars, Korean-American family drama Lee Isaac Chung Minari was also in the shortlist for Best Picture and Best Director (as well as Best Actor for Steven Yeun), and won Best Supporting Actress for veteran Youn Yuh-jung, proving the change many had hoped for. be able to follow the whole of Bong Joon-ho -conquest Parasite last year was indeed seismic.

The South Korean director has long called on the world at large to “overcome the one-inch-high subtitle barrier” and his elegantly dark, dystopian suburban thriller showed just how easy that can be, as Bong walked away with four Oscars of his own. in 2020, including those for best film and best director.

So, yes, ignore the enemies. It often really takes Oscar recognition to wake up film audiences and the film industry itself. Just look at where Tsang is now, at the time of writing. He didn’t win the Oscar – he went to Danish black comedy Another round – but he’s since been torn from the relative obscurity of pre-Oscar life and put to work in London by global streaming giant Netflix.

Director Derek Tsang
Director Derek Tsang Kwok-cheung

Tsang is currently directing two episodes of Netflix’s highly anticipated adaptation of Chinese author Liu Cixin’s acclaimed sci-fi epic. Three-body problem, and it works under the watchful eye of the creative team that gave the world the Game of Thrones phenomenon.

“Of course, from an opportunity perspective, there has been a huge change [after the nomination]”Tsang said via Zoom, after a day of filming in London.” A lot of producers from different countries are reaching out to us and there is a lot of talk about collaboration. “In the last couple of years it really felt like he there was a demand for more Asian content, be it feature films or streaming content, with the success of Chloe Zhao and Crazy Rich Asians at the box office, and now Squid Game. , all of a sudden, the momentum is really there.

“In recent years, it really feels like there is a demand for more Asian content”

– Derek Tsang

Asian successes continued on the international festival circuit in 2021, with Japan’s Ryusuke Hamaguchi winning three awards at Cannes, including Best Screenplay, for Drive my car, following the Silver Bear that he took from Berlin to Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy.

“Sometimes good stories have to come from a different country,” Tsang explains, “and reading the subtitles isn’t as big a barrier as a lot of producers or studios once thought. So now everyone. The world is hungry for international content, not just Asian content, but good story that can travel well across different cultures and nations, and it’s a really exciting time for Asian storytellers.

Always Ryusuke Hamaguchi Drive my car

In the arthouse world, this year’s festival circuit has so far been owned by Hamaguchi, 42, and it’s an embodiment of literary texture, with long, slow shots of people. engaged with each other, and not at all afraid of the attention span of his audience. His soaked love Happy Hour (2015) actually works for five of them, while Drive my car spans three.

Taken from a short story by Haruki Murakami which traces the relationship between a widowed actor and the young woman he hires as a driver, the latter has already been touted as Japan’s hope for the next round of the Oscars. It follows Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, which weaves its way around three coincidences and how they affect the love life of its characters. These are films in which emotions and truth slowly come to light – just like drama – and they are imbued with a style of poetic cinema championed by Asian masters of yesteryear, like the Japanese Yasujiro Ozu. (History of Tokyo).

Always Ryusuke Hamaguchi Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy

“In life, your heart always trembles,” says Hamaguchi, when we speak via Zoom at this year’s Far East Film Festival in Italy. “It’s not stable. It’s very important that these characters are shaking like that, otherwise they would be boring characters. It is by making these characters tremble in this way that I can portray universal feelings. In a sense, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy can be seen as a kind of experimenting with how I tell stories and want to keep doing it – experimenting with storytelling.

At the Busan International Film Festival last month, Asia’s largest and most influential, both Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy and Drive my car performed as part of the gala presentation program and Hamaguchi was joined on stage by Bong Joon-ho for a discussion of each other’s life and times.

Director Bong Joon-ho at the Busan International Film Festival
Director Bong Joon-ho at the Busan International Film Festival

Always the showman when an audience gathers, the Korean director admits a personal obsession with Hamaguchi’s style of storytelling. “His films help us experience progress at the heart of our inner emotions and feelings,” Bong says. “Thanks to its sophisticated and complex portrayal, a three-hour film is no obstacle.”

Another champion of slow-burning, atmospheric and emotional cinema, Hong Kong author Wong Kar-wai is currently nestled in Shanghai putting the finishing touches on his own plunge into the pure mainstream, the romantic-looking TV series. Flowers, configured for streaming through Tencent Video. The Covid-19 blocks appear to have accelerated acceptance and access to Asian content, around the world.

“Streaming is a completely different platform from feature films, where you’re limited to a maximum of two hours,” Tsang explains. “You can spend a few seasons to really develop your stories and your characters. As a filmmaker and storyteller, it’s really exciting to have the opportunity to choose the most suitable platform or storytelling device for your story.

Bong Joon-ho and Ryusuke Hamaguchi on stage at the 26th Busan International Film Festival

But that doesn’t mean the big screen remains the dream. Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), the arthouse darling in Cannes and winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes, is another Asian filmmaker who has hit the mainstream this year – or which is as close to it as an artist who features regularly in his Spirit Worlds movie characters might never be able to get it.

This year he released his first feature film in English – The Mystery Memory, with Tilda Swinton – as the world awakens to her unique talent and an almost mystical directing style.

“Nationality seems to be less relevant than it was 10 to 20 years ago,” he says. “Streaming platforms are good opportunities because they target local content and audiences. I think streaming platforms have created a different kind of moving image and formula. But they also make us realize that the cinema experience, the collective experience, is unique and precious.

(Hero image courtesy of Netflix)

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