Covid-19 hit East Asia hard in 2021. Last year’s early preventative measures were, as they say, world-beating in many countries in the region, but this year’s vaccination programmes have generally struggled to keep up. In consequence many cinemas were temporarily shuttered and many productions were paused.

Few East Asian filmmakers have been able to travel to international festivals, and few foreigners have been allowed to visit without lengthy, expensive quarantines. South Korea’s Busan festival managed to stage a physical event this year, but with hardly any foreign visitors present; the Tokyo festival, now synchronised and allied with the more adventurous and Asian-oriented Tokyo FILMeX, is expected – at the time of writing – to go the same way.

One filmmaker who has sailed through all the obstacles is Hong Sangsoo in South Korea; his cottage-industry approach to production went largely unscathed. He premiered his winter 2020 film Introduction in Berlin in February (and won Best Screenplay), and then a brand new film In Front of Your Face (Dangsin-eolgul Apeseo) in Cannes in the summer. Typically, the two films are polar opposites. Introduction is structured in three chapters, separated in time, and shot in black and white; In Front of Your Face is in colour and more conventionally linear, although a concluding twist throws the ‘truth’ of much of the action into doubt. Both films, though, bring an almost spiritual dimension to the question of whether transient emotional ties can be ‘authentic’; both feature characters who pray in moments of doubt and pain, plus frayed familial relationships, heavy drinking, health problems and Hong’s boyish star Shin Seokho.

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (2021)

Hong straddles the arthouse and indie sectors, both of which are proving surprisingly resilient in present difficult circumstances. Case in point: Japan. Koreeda Hirokazu has completed his Korean feature (working title: Baby, Box, Broker) and shown no great inclination to return to Japanese cinema, although he did make one miniseries episode for Japanese TV last year. His position as Japan’s prime maker of exportable arthouse movies has been taken up by Hamaguchi Ryūsuke: his three-part omnibus Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Guzen to Sozo), which won the Grand Jury Prize in Berlin this year, and three-hour Murakami adaptation Drive My Car, which won Best Screenplay and two other prizes in Cannes, will both get UK releases.

Like other prominent Japanese directors (except perhaps Yoshida Daihachi, who has a cameo in Drive My Car), Hamaguchi brings zero political awareness to his work, so anyone wanting a bit more edge must look to the indies. Sasaki Omoi’s elegiac near-future fantasy Suzuki-san takes Japan’s systems of social control up a notch to make their oppressiveness apparent, and questions the emperor’s divinity along the way. Komatsu Takashi’s Cat and Salt, or Sugar (Neko to En, mataha Sato, made with a cash award from the Pia Film Festival) is a familial satire in which none of the five central characters has a predictable narrative arc; it blends witty stylisation with subtle observation and gives Japan’s social-class realities a serious poke.

Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash (2021)

Venice this year premiered arthouse titles from Thailand and Taiwan, neither fully achieved but both impressive. Jakrawal Nilthamrong’s Anatomy of Time (Wela) deliberately fudges its political background and never quite gets to grips with why an elderly woman remains devoted to her adolescent sweetheart, now near to death, even after he married someone else and joined a right-wing army coup that earned him nothing but hatred and contempt. But the film has a quiet, slow-cinema power, rooted in an Apichatpong-like appreciation of the strangeness of objects and the natural world. From Taiwan, Chung Monghong’s The Falls (Pubu) doesn’t quite finesse the kind of metaphor he pulled off with light and shade in A Sun (Yangguang Pu Zhao, 2019), using the sound and image of a large waterfall to express a mother’s mental difficulties while self-isolating with her daughter during Covid. But it boasts Chung’s usual visual precision, and several peerless performances.

The headline East Asian title this year was from Indonesia: Edwin’s Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash turns a knowingly pulpy novel (by Eka Kurniawan, published in translation by New Directions) into a knowingly pulpy movie, the tale of a macho but impotent trucker who channels his frustrations into violence but meets his match in an even tougher woman bodyguard. Crammed with jokes and shocks, it’s the first of Edwin’s four features to match the anarchic humour, quirky inventions and storytelling surprises of his brilliant early short films.

The best films of 2021

The 50 best films of 2021

The 50 best films of 2021

The best films of 2021: the year in cinema

By Isabel Stevens

The best films of 2021: the year in cinema