In recent years, East Asian cinema has established itself as a driving force behind the global film industry, with the release of Parasite (2019) and Squid Game (2021) accelerating the phenomenon of hallyu – meaning ‘Korean wave’. But East Asian filmmakers have been pioneering the region through original screenplays and stunning animations for decades. Eve Mustin discusses Your Name (2016) and Past Lives (2023), and Jacob Dax Harris Pom Poko (1994) and Marry My Dead Body (2022).
Japan – Your Name (2016)
Your Name was my first anime, so I knew it had to be included in this list. And what an introduction it was to the genre. This beautiful animation plays on the common trope of a body-swap but is entirely unique in its narrative. It features relatable teenage protagonists with an unconventional love story, as Mitsuha, a high school student from the rural village of Itomori, never meets Taki, a boy from Tokyo. Instead, their bond is established by a desperate urgency to save Itomori from a natural disaster. Despite the unrealistic, fantastical elements of the film, it’s hard not to empathise with the main characters as they navigate their adolescence. Your Name is underpinned by a pop-rock soundtrack from the Japanese band Radwimps and directed by the highly acclaimed animator Makoto Shinkai. It’s easy to see why it’s the third highest-grossing Japanese film of all time. The film’s ability to transcend both genre and audience makes it a truly special watch.
South Korea – Past Lives (2023)
This Korean-American film is a tale of nostalgia, friendship, separation, and identity. It switches from Seoul to New York, from Korean to English, from childhood to adulthood, as it tells the story of Na-young and Hae-sung, classmates in Seoul, who are separated when the former emigrates to Toronto. The audience follows both of their lives, both past and present, until the two childhood crushes are reunited in New York. Throughout the film, the Korean concept of in-yun is ever present – the belief that the interactions between two people in this life are owed to interactions in their past lives. It was shot on 35 mm film, enhancing the nostalgic aspect of the narrative. Greta Lee, who plays Na-young, gives a standout performance as she alternates between her Canadian-American identity and her Korean identity, acting as a bridge between her husband and Hae-sung. Both heart-breaking and funny, Past Lives leaves the audience reflecting upon their own ‘past lives’, and the relationships that define their present ones.
Japan – Pom Poko (1994)
Written and directed by Isao Takahata, Pom Poko is one of the truly underrated films from Studio Ghibli. This animated documentary-style film tells the story of magical shapeshifting raccoon dogs – or tanuki – trying to prevent the destruction of their homes during Tokyo’s urban expansion. For fans unfamiliar with Japanese folklore, the start of Pom Poko might be a bit jarring. It begins with two factions of raccoons going to war over resources after the forest shrinks, but instead of seeing wild animals tear each other apart, they transform into brightly coloured anthropomorphic raccoons, wielding samurai weaponry and turning into even more cartoonish figures when they are injured. The tonal shift between harsh environmental destruction and exaggerated visual comedy is confusing at first, but blends perfectly through the rest of the film, making for an incredible dark comedy. The film expertly reflects the difficulties of environmental action and the impacts of capitalist expansion on natives, while boasting fantastic imagery that never ceased to surprise.
Taiwan – Marry My Dead Body (2022)
I found this film by chance scrolling through Netflix one day, and it’s really just one of those films with the perfect premise: Wu Ming-han (Greg Hsu), a brash, homophobic police officer winds up in a fate-driven ghost marriage to Mao ‘Mao Mao’ Pang-yu (Austin Lin), a gay man recently killed in a hit-and-run. The newlyweds must team up to solve Mao Mao’s death, and slowly uncover a larger mystery. Like I say, the premise alone sold me on this film, but I was surprised by the depth and quality of the production itself. Well-timed whacky and dark comedy, brilliant hand-to-hand combat scenes, and incredible chemistry between the protagonists make Marry My Dead Body a delight to watch. It’s also a great melding of traditional customs like ghost marriage with modern storylines, giving light to the ongoing struggles queer people experience after gay marriage is legalised.
Illustration: Hayleigh McLean