I wanted to wrap up this series in two more posts, but I’ve remembered some more notable films from 2019 that I had watched earlier in the year, so realistically this series may go on up to Part 7! I have 6 English language movies to cover, 5 international films and one that is an American production but takes place in China (easy to guess which one I’m referring to).
Four of the international films are centered around family, and given that Oscar winner Parasite is about families as well, it feels right to make that the theme for this post:
Kumbalangi Nights: This film from my native state of Kerala in India was released at the beginning of 2019 and went on to become one of the biggest Malayalam hits of the year. It is the debut film of Madhu C. Narayanan, who had previously been assistant director on Aashiq Abu’s breakout films Salt n’ Pepper and 22 Female Kottayam. Through these connections, this film was set up with a solid production pedigree, backed by some of the big names from the Malayalam New Wave film community. This is an immensely engaging and ultimately, heart-warming story of four brothers living in the fishing village of Kumbalangi. Each is broken in his own way and are barely on speaking terms with each other, but they overcome their differences in a time of need. The story outline might sound cliched, but its on-screen realization becomes something special in the hands of celebrated script writer Syam Pushkaran and the ensemble cast of Shane Nigam, Soubin Shahir and New Wave star Fahadh Faasil. There are moments of conflict, humour, intense emotion and even, incongruously, a psycho killer situation! The film is available on Amazon Prime and iTunes.
A Sun: This movie came up as a recommendation on Netflix and I decided to watch it when I discovered that it was a big winner at the Golden Horse Awards, Taiwan’s equivalent to the Oscars. It’s easily one of the best 2019 films I’ve watched, with an engrossing story built around a horrific crime committed by a couple of juveniles and the impact it has on the family of one of the teenagers. The acting by the entire cast is outstanding, with Yi-Wen Chen and Chien-Ho Wu winning awards as the father and son respectively, both with vary satisfying character development arcs. There’s also a chilling performance by Kuan-Ting Liu as the son’s criminal friend, Radish. I was seriously stressed out in the second half of the movie as I just couldn’t bear the thought of this family going through any more trauma; I won’t spoil the ending. Director Mong-Hong Chung also co-wrote the film and was the cinematographer, credited under the pseudonym Nagao Nakashima. The film premiered at the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in September 2019.
The Truth (La Vérité): One of the most celebrated directors of contemporary Japanese cinema, Hirokazu Kore-eda, released his first non-Japanese film in 2019, co-produced with Canal Plus and set in Paris. In a superb bit of ‘meta’ casting, French acting legend Catherine Deneuve plays a fictitious French acting legend named Fabienne. Acclaimed actress Juliette Binoche plays Fabienne’s daughter Lumir, a screenwriter who lives in the US with her husband Hank, who is a struggling TV actor (and again, cheekily meta-countercast with Ethan Hawke). As with all of Kore-eda’s films, the focus is on family dynamics, this time between mother and daughter. It took a while to get going, but I was soon caught up in the cat-and-mouse game played between the emotionally distant, self-centered diva Fabienne and the affection-starved, chronically morose Lumir, with everyone else just pawns on the board. Cinematographer Eric Gautier uses the muted light of autumn, both outdoors and indoors, to reflect the inner turmoil and self-confidence issues faced by these characters. I also loved the way he composed the closing shot – symmetry and balance to signify closure, I suppose. The film premiered at the Venice Film Festival last year and was nominated for a Golden Lion.
The Farewell: This is a film that a lot of people in Asia have watched already; it debuted at Sundance more than a year ago and has had an extended run in theatres around the world. Awkwafina has been such a revelation on screen in the past year and a half, breaking out with Crazy Rich Asians and Oceans 8 in 2018 and then The Farewell and Jumanji: The Next Level in 2019. But of course, it’s in The Farewell that she showed she could shine in a dramatic role, winning the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy. It’s little gem of a movie and Awkwafina’s Billi is such an appealing character – hangdog and downbeat on the outside, feisty and resilient on the inside. It’s very easy as an Asian viewer to relate to the value systems and family dynamics, something I felt when I watched A Sun as well. This is indeed one of the feel-good films of the year.
Eight movies to go, including two that featured Best Actress Oscar nominees and one that was nominated for Best International Film and Best Actor Oscars.