By Valerie Soe. Posted December 20, 2023
Sensitive, Past Lives, 2023
2023 was, to paraphrase Dave Markey, the year Asian American media broke. Beginning by Everything Everywhere All At Once taking home a phenomenal seven Oscars at the Academy Awards, including Best Picture, it was a banner year for Asian and Asian American media.
Emotional, Past Lives, 2023
My list of favorite movies from 2023 includes Celine Song’s gorgeous and engaging debut film, Past Lives. This quietly emotional movie follows two people who meet as children in South Korea and whose lives cross and recross through the years and across the ocean. The film is notable for its lack of melodrama and its avoidance of overwrought and manufactured crises despite many opportunities for the film to veer in those directions. Song’s sensitive direction allows the narrative to breathe and flow naturally and some of her compositions and framing are spectacular.
Fearless, Wisdom Gone Wild, 2023 – Watch on POV: https://www.pbs.org/pov/films/wisdomgonewild/
Another Asian American cinematic experience that I had the pleasure of enjoying was Wisdom Gone Wild, Rea Tajiri’s essay film about her mom’s journey through dementia. Tajiri’s brilliant, nonlinear filmmaking approach echoes the sideways thinking of Alzheimer’s patients and her film consistently surprised and delighted me. More than thirty years after making her iconic experimental documentary History and Memory: For Takiko and Takashige (1991), Rea is still fearlessly exploring new ways of telling stories and making movies.
Glorious, Attack, Decay, Release, 2023
H.P. Mendoza’s spectacular multimedia performance Attack, Decay, Release, which I had the pleasure of witnessing at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, included live music, a triptych of film projections, a glorious mashup of original, found, and archival footage, poetic narration and text, and other sundry mind-bending elements, all supported by H.P.’s deliriously joyous EDM compositions.
Wanker, Shortcomings, 2023
Randall Park’s adaptation of Adrine Tomine’s emo graphic novel Shortcomings was an able illustration of what writer Viet Thanh Nguyen calls narrative plenitude, or the abundance of stories by and about Asian Americans that has allowed Asian American characters to be less than heroic and more realistic. Shortcomings main character Ben was such a self-centered wanker that it was sometimes hard to care about his whiny self-hatred, but Park did a great job keeping the film engaging and funny. Kudos to lead actor Justin H. Min for making Ben somewhat sympathetic despite his aggravating personality and to Sherry Cola for brightening up the film as Ben’s fun and acerbic gal pal.
One Asian American show that I did not see, nor do I plan to, was the Ali Wong/Steve Yeun vehicle Beef. I was about to start watching it back in April when writer Aura Bogado reminded folks that one of the show’s supporting players, David Choe, had made some egregiously rapey comments back in 2014 and had never really been called to task for them. Soleil Ho from the San Francisco Chronicle said it best: “I see it this way: To uncritically embrace “Beef” for what it gives to the Asian American community shows that we’re on board with rape culture and with misogyny, especially against Black women. To embrace it shows that we’re willing to let others pay the price for our feelings of validation and belonging.”
Parable, Concrete Utopia, 2023
On the Asian film tip, I made a special pilgrimage to the San Diego Asian Film Festival in early November to see the South Korean disaster film Concrete Utopia (dir. Um Tae-hwa), starring the redoubtable Lee Byung-hun. At the start of the film a massive earthquake has leveled most of Seoul, except for a single high-rise apartment building. As it traces the fate of the inhabitants of that fortunate structure, the film becomes a parable for nationalism, tribalism, and the human cost of survival under dire circumstances. Lee brilliantly leads a stellar cast that also includes fellow South Korean superstars Park Seo-jun (The Marvels) and Park Bo-young.
Commentary, Jawan, 2023
Shahrukh Khan, the baadshah of Bollywood, released two films in 2023, the spy thriller Pathaan (dir. Siddharth Anand) and the action film Jawan (dir. Atlee). Both movies were massive hits, entering the 1000 crore (US$140 million) club and ranking as the second and third highest grossing Hindi-language films of all time (behind Amir Khan’s 2016 family wrestling epic Dangal). Of the two I preferred Jawan, as it features SRK in yet another dual role, allowing him to flex his charismatic acting chops. Jawan also features some pretty pointed social commentary, including a monologue by SRK at the end of the film that indirectly critiques Hindu nationalism.
Hyperlocal, One More Chance, 2023
While on a very brief trip to Hong Kong I had the privilege of seeing One More Chance (dir. Anthony Pun), the newest film starring another one of my fav actors, Chow Yun-Fat. Chow plays a down-on-his-luck gambler barely making ends meet in Macau who unexpectedly is reunited with his neuroatypical adult son. The film is an unabashed family melodrama leavened with a smattering of gangsters, some inept poker playing, and an uplifting conclusion that left me feeling all warm and fuzzy. It was great to see CYF once again on the big screen speaking Cantonese in a Hong Kong movie. Small and sentimental, unflashy and hyperlocal, the film will probably never see the light of day in any theatrical US release, so I’m glad I was able to catch it in a cinema in Hong Kong. A side note: the film’s release was rumored to be delayed due to its original English title, Be Water, My Friend, which was taken from a quote from Bruce Lee, whom Chow Yun-fat’s character idolizes. But “be water” was also a slogan from the 2019 Hong Kong protests and thus China’s censors held up the film’s release for more than two years.
Brilliant, Monster, 2023
I also caught the latest films from two Japanese masters, Kore-eda’s Monster and Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Evil Does Not Exist. True to form, both films adroitly look at social issues in Japan while skillfully sketching the relationships between each film’s characters. Monster uses a Rashoman-style structure to look at all sides of a controversial situation in a grade school small Japanese town, slowly and brilliantly revealing its story elements.
Elliptical, Evil Does Not Exist, 2023
Evil Does Not Exist similarly uses a slow, understated reveal to tell its story, as a rural village near Tokyo struggles against encroaching development. Rather than overexplaining, Hamaguchi’s film respects the viewer’s ability to piece together elliptical information to come to their own conclusion.
For my Korean drama consumption, there were a few standouts.
Jung Haein, D.P, 2021, 2023
In 2023 I watched both seasons of D.P., which is all about the rampant hazing and bullying that goes on in South Korea’s armed forces. Jung Haein is excellent as a mild-mannered soldier thrown into the maws of the military/industrial complex and he shows off acting (and boxing) chops that I didn’t even know he had, since he’s primarily appeared in romcoms up until now. The show is a deeply empathetic look at the plight of those who for whatever reasons are compelled to desert from their mandatory military service, and the last three episodes of Season one are absolutely harrowing. Season two is slightly less stellar but the D.P. is still miles ahead of most k-drama fluff in its unflinching look at the messed up shyte that occurs in the ranks of SK’s military.