Asia on Film: 2012 in Review

2012 was a great year for film. So many unique and interesting works were released that it is inevitable that you may have missed at least a few good ones. All the better for you, as this means you can have the pleasure of a cinematic feast from the comfort of your own home. Here are a few of our top picks from Hollywood and beyond which we think will make compelling viewing for anyone with an interest in the Asian region.

Argo takes place primarily in Iran during the hostage crisis of 1979-1981 when 52 Americans were kidnapped from the US embassy in Tehran and held by Islamist militants supporting the Iranian Revolution. Ben Affleck plays the real-life CIA agent tasked with evacuating six Americans who escaped from the embassy to the Canadian ambassador’s house. This is also Affleck’s third film as a director and has received high praise in the USA, but has been met, somewhat inevitably, with an understandably chilly reception in Iran, and no scenes were ever filmed there. Instead, it was partly shot in neighbouring Turkey.


The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was one of the nicest surprises in theatres last year. Typically, films about senior citizens are not the most well-received, but this one broke the mold. Starring great actors from British old-school (Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, et al) alongside younger stars like Dev Patel, the story is refreshing and funny, taking us from ‘dreary’ England to sunny India. Revolving around the hotel of the title and filmed in Rajasthan (home of the Jaipur literature festival), it was directed by John Madden of Shakespeare in Love fame.


Cloud Atlas although a big disappointment at the box office in the US and yet to be released in the UK, is nonetheless a spectacularly ambitious production partly set in Neo-Seoul (future Korea), including Korean characters and actors (Bae Doona plays multiple roles) as well as one famous Chinese actress, Zhou Xun. It is based on an equally dense and complex novel by the UK’s own David Mitchell, who used to live in Japan.


The Impossible is set (and filmed partly) in Thailand during the devastating tsunami of 2006 which swept through the of Southeast Asian region, destroying almost everything in its path. The film is based upon the true story of a Spanish family that was caught up in the disaster. It has received some criticism for not focusing more on the plight of the local Thai people, but that should not take away from the emotional impact of the story.


Life of Pi was directed by Ang Lee, originally from Taiwan, and stars a mostly Indian cast, with themes and ideas taken from a multiplicity of world religions. The scenes set in South India at the beginning of the film reveal the beauty and colour of Pondicherry. The film is likely be most remembered for its wonderful use of 3D, especially when Pi and the tiger named Richard Parker are marooned on a small boat in the middle of the ocean.


Looper is a science fiction thriller that got rave reviews for its ingenious and often baffling plot. It is partly set in a future Shanghai (filmed there in the present day with the assistance of CGI) and co-stars Qing Xu, a Chinese actress who plays Bruce Willis’ wife. Partially funded by a Chinese production company, Looper went on to become an unexpected hit at the box office in both the US and China.


The Raid: Redemption is an Indonesian film that seemingly came out of nowhere and blew away the competition in the action category. Filled with extreme violence, it is not for the weak-hearted, but anyone who loves their action non-stop (and their plots minimal) will have more than enough to enjoy here. The Raid was so successful that it is apparently soon to be remade in the USA.


A Simple Life is a wonderful heartfelt film from Hong Kong director Ann Hui that received a limited release in several countries including the UK and the US but may have been slightly overlooked. This is disappointing as the film deserves to be more widely seen. Although it mainly observes the relationship between two characters in a quiet manner, it is anything but boring. The acting by Andy Lau (not usually known for this type of role), and especially Deannie Yip as the maid, is subtle yet moving.


Skyfall was the undisputed box office champ of 2012 in the UK, and with good reason: it was the 50th Anniversary of the James Bond movie franchise, and everyone seemed to agree that it was one of the best of the bunch so far. Although the film spent a good chunk of time touring around London, it also took time to explore some locations in Asia, including Istanbul,  Macau and Shanghai, China. The Chinese casino may have been overexoticized a little, but it was undoubtedly a spectacular setting. Also be on the lookout for the Chinese island where the main villain has his headquarters: it was actually filmed at Hashima Island in Japan which used to be a coal mining facility before it was deserted in 1974.


The Thieves and Masquerade. A bit of a cheat here with a tie between two titles, but both the opening and closing films at the London Korean Film Festival 2012 were extremely entertaining and proved that the (South) Koreans can make films just as good as – if not better than – their Hollywood counterparts. The Thieves plays like a hybrid of Ocean’s Eleven and The Italian Job but some fine actors, location shooting in Hong Kong, Macau and Busan, and a good balance of comedy and action make this one of the better genre entries of recent years. Masquerade is a historical drama set during the Joseon dynasty period in Korea, but it also has lighter moments of laugh-out-loud humour, and the lead performance by international star Byung-hun Lee (G.I. Joe, Red 2) is perhaps his best ever.

By Tim Holm

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