This has been a great year for the Asian filmgoing audience. Not only were we blessed with complex and unruly tales adorned in extravagant dress, courtesy of a well-earned lush budget, but we were also treated to smaller projects that gained immense viewership for the ways in which they compelled and conveyed nuanced tales of resilience, womanhood, and love.
Below, you will find a list of the films and shows we at The Asian Cut loved this year for their intricacy, for their recognition of the joys and heartbreak attendant to life, for their celebration of the myriad forms of being. These are films from Asian and Asian diaspora filmmakers or films about Asian and Asian diaspora characters that interrogate injustice, trauma, gender norms, the self, and even existence, through either a comedic or dramatic lens. You will find documentaries and animated features; but ultimately, what this list contains is a kind of seeing that we at TAC are grateful to have witnessed.
Created by Lee Sung Jin
Beef was undeniably one of the hottest TV shows of 2023, and for good reason. A deliciously dark tale created and written by showrunner Lee Sung Jin, the show featured 10 gripping episodes of wild vengeance, shockingly bad behaviour, and unveiled family trauma told from an unapologetically Asian-American perspective. Searing performances from Steven Yeun and Ali Wong put the spotlight on two performers who showed us new facets of their prodigious talents. Above all, Beef was gobsmackingly hilarious and incisive.
Bye Bye Tiberias
Directed by Lina Soualem
This documentary, by filmmaker Lina Soualem, follows French actress Hiam Abbass, Soualem’s mother, as she returns to the Palestinian village she left many years prior to pursue a career in film. The daughter, camera in hand, trails after her mother as the latter immerses herself in a home and family she loves dearly, while also reconciling with the fact that she at one point wanted distance from both.
Bye Bye Tiberias is gentle and understanding as it weaves archival footage of Palestine with family footage captured in the latter half of the 20th Century during moments of bliss in Palestine. As we see that Abbass’ history is equally Soualem’s history, we are presented, as though we were a friend, with a map that charts for the first time this particular family’s history of generations of women finding joy amongst and apart from each other, coming to terms with their identity, their place within a family that loves as powerfully as a river flows. This documentary is intimate and artful in equal measure, but most of all, it is adroit in its delicacy as it works to present a history of love, pain, and motherhood.
Directed by Zarrar Kahn
There’s a suffocating quality to In Flames that traps us as an audience. It’s a claustrophobia reflected in Mariam (the incredible Ramesha Nawal), a medical student living in Karachi, who can do nothing more than live within the confines set by her country. The film, Zarrar Kahn’s feature directorial debut, carries with it the generational pain and strength of women and the perennial complexity of mother-daughter relationships. An unsettling meditation that embeds itself in the soul and lingers far beyond the film’s end.
Directed by Adele Lim
The rowdiest comedy of the year, Joy Ride follows four friends on a trip to China in search of family, friendship, acceptance, and business (not necessarily in that order). Though they eventually find what they are looking for, it’s all a bit unorthodox and raunchy. The film doesn’t hold back when it comes to the jokes, but when it’s tender, it’s truly touching. Adele Lim’s feature directorial debut might inspire you to start spontaneously planning your own besties trip — but hopefully your trip has a little less adventure.
Karen K. Tran
Directed by Todd Haynes
Todd Haynes’ domestic drama is one of the few films this year that's truly unforgettable. It is as unnerving as it is engrossing, thanks in large part to Samy Burch’s razor-edged script and the impeccable performances from the cast. Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore going head-to-head is cinema at its finest, but it’s Charles Melton’s breakthrough performance that will be talked about for years to come. Rugged and handsome, yet shattered and aching, it’s a career-making turn that harkens to the days when real movie stars were born on the big screen. In terms of burgeoning Asian talent, Melton is one to watch (this awards season and beyond).
Directed by Carl Joseph Papa
Using rotoscope animation to tell a deeply personal story, director Carl Joseph Papa delicately crafts a narrative that reveals the depths and hidden layers of trauma, and how its unspeakable effects shape a person's worldview. The result is The Missing (Iti Mapukpukaw), a heartbreaking film about a young man without a mouth, forced to confront his past when an alien from his childhood returns to Earth and threatens to abduct him. As Papa's best work thus far, this is a cathartic exercise in reclamation and acceptance that resonates the loudest even — and especially — when words won't suffice.
Directed by Celine Song
There’s a gentle beauty to disconnection that Celine Song presents with great poignancy in Past Lives. The idea that it’s okay for two souls not to live their happily-ever-after in this lifetime offers optimism, but doesn’t dull the hurt and pain of the present. This stunning directorial debut from Song, bolstered by three stirring performances (Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, and John Magaro), comes together in an elegantly tragic wrong-place-wrong-time love story.
Directed by Wim Wenders
The epitome of ‘less is more,’ Koji Yakusho pulls off one of the great acting masterclasses of our modern times in Wim Wenders’ Perfect Days. In a performance that speaks volumes with silence and evokes just as much power when he does speak, this beautiful character study of Hirayama, a toilet cleaner in Tokyo, vividly realises its appreciation of the everyday through beautiful visuals and immaculate needle drops, courtesy of Hirayama’s cassette collection.
Directed by Davy Chou
Davy Chou’s film, about a French adoptee returning to South Korea in search of her biological parents, strikes at the heart of the Asian diaspora experience: self-discovery is as much an epic journey as it is a lonely island we don’t always know how to navigate through. As Freddie does in the film, we sift through the sands for answers, but only seem to grasp at more questions — searching, in other words, is all that we have. Return to Seoul shows us how painful living can be, but, in a deeply radical way, reminds us that it can also be the most beautiful thing in the world.
Directed by Noora Niasari
Noora Niasari’s debut feature is an unflinching look at her own mother’s strength. The spellbinding Zar Amir Ebrahimi stars as Shayda, a young Iranian mother who, with her small daughter, turns to a women’s shelter in Australia after suffering terrifying violence from an abusive husband who refuses to agree upon the divorce Shayda wants. Niasari immerses us in Shayda’s feelings with delicate heft and poetic grace, allowing us to feel both her fear and aspirations, her love and quiet strength. Shayda’s resilience is not cast as something saintly, for Niasari understands Shayda’s humanity, and so we see her as a woman working to survive against terrifying odds, balletically wearing a strength necessitated by horrifying, unjust circumstances. Ultimately, this film, with its tearfully resolute gaze, is a love letter to Niasari’s mother, and to mothers everywhere who fight for the opportunity to thrive alongside their children.