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Arts

Top 10 East Asian films to stream during lockdown

For those confined by coronavirus, our pick of the best movies available at a click

"Okja," directed by Bong Joon-ho of recent "Parasite" fame, tells the endearing story of a girl and her relationship with a genetically modified superpig. (Courtesy of Netflix)

SEOUL -- The moment the cast and crew of Korean film "Parasite" went up to collect the Best Picture Academy Award in February feels like something from a different era. It was a historic day, not just for Korean film but also for Asian cinema, which has long been overlooked by the Oscars.

Two months later, with millions in coronavirus lockdown, the future of cinema is looking uncertain as multiplexes are closed, releases delayed and film production halted.

Streaming was already forcing the industry to evolve away from the more cinema-based experience, but without the likes of Netflix and Amazon, lockdowns and quarantines would be even more challenging.

Crucially, these services allow audiences easier access to East Asian cinema.

When this crisis does finally pass, perhaps viewers who have used their time in isolation to experiment with Asian cinema will be even more eager to watch non-English fare on the big screen. "Parasite," directed by Bong Joon-ho, is a groundbreaking film but there is a wealth of content available online; here are recommendations by directors from East or Southeast Asia or with Asian heritage.

Note: Not all films will be available on all streaming services in all countries.

1. "Okja" (2017) Netflix

Bong Joon-ho is invariably ahead of his peers. A case in point is "Okja," which was the first Netflix feature film by a South Korean director.

The film about a girl (Ahn Seo-hyun) and her relationship with a genetically modified superpig caused a storm at the Cannes Film Festival where it premiered in 2017 because Netflix's streaming model and the complexity of French laws meant national cinemas would not be able to show it.

Chaos in and around Bong's films is not unusual, but the heart of this one is an endearing story of friendship that was arguably lost in the media frenzy. If there is a time to revisit it, it is now.

2. "Spirited Away" (2001) Netflix

A still from "Spirited Away."   © AP

Twenty-one of Studio Ghibli's revered animated films are now available on Netflix in some regions. Perhaps the studio's most iconic film is Hayao Miyazaki's stupendous "Spirited Away," which follows 10-year-old Chihiro as she stumbles upon an amusement park with her parents, but soon finds herself having to work there to rescue her mother and father, who have turned into pigs. (Yes, pigs do seem to be a theme so far.)

Watching these films is a reminder of the remarkable level of artistry that goes into each frame but also Miyazaki's layered storytelling that speaks to audiences of all ages.

3. "Pushing Hands" (1991) Amazon Prime

Not unlike Bong, Ang Lee has forged a career both on the local and international stage, making films in his native Mandarin and English; his engrossing feature debut mixes both.

"Pushing Hands" (Screen grab from YouTube)

Set in New York, it focuses on an elderly man (Sihung Lung) who emigrates from Beijing to live with his son and American daughter-in-law. Tackling cultural and generational differences in a subtle but affecting manner, it is reflective of Lee's deft craftsmanship.

It came to form the first part of Lee's "Father Knows Best" trilogy that also includes the acclaimed "The Wedding Banquet" (1993).

4. "Sorrow Even Up in Heaven" (1965) YouTube

The Korean Film Archive partnered with Google to develop its own YouTube channel in September 2011 and it now has 110 films with English subtitles that can be streamed for free there.

"Sorrow Even Up in Heaven" (Screen grab from YouTube)

One of its recent uploads was Kim Soo-young's absorbing and touching drama that centers on a boy in Daegu, South Korea, whose father is a gambling addict and whose mother has run away.

He writes a diary about his daily struggles, and while it is a bleak film, it is also uplifting as it finds hope in times of despair. The boy's teacher is determined to help get the diary published.

5. "The Third Murder" (2017) Amazon Prime

"The Third Murder" (Screen Grab from YouTube)

Director Hirokazu Koreeda is famous for his family-focused dramas that include the award-winning "Shoplifters" and "Our Little Sister." Yet his superb thriller "The Third Murder" has not received the same level of affection because of its frustrating narrative complexity.

Brilliantly written by Koreeda, it follows a defense attorney with a client who has admitted to killing a man -- but nothing is quite what it seems. Koreeda's expert direction and writing play with the atmospherics to deliver a riveting, unnerving thriller.

6. "The Widow" (1955) YouTube

Also available on the Korean Film Archive's YouTube channel is Park Nam-ok's compelling feature debut "The Widow" -- the first Korean film to be directed by a woman.

"The Widow" (Screen grab from YouTube)

At the center of the narrative is a widow (Lee Min-ja) who falls in love with a young man (Lee Taek-gyun). The film follows her struggle with her obligations as a widowed mother wrestling with her personal desires.

Park, who was pictured with a baby on her back while filming, encountered numerous difficulties during and after production. Sadly, the film's final reel was lost, but it remains a hugely significant feature.

7. "On the Job" (2013) YouTube/iTunes

"On the Job" (Screen grab from YouTube)

Well-received by critics and audiences alike, Erik Matti's enthralling neo-noir action thriller hones in on two policemen tracking two assassins carrying out a hit while on temporary release from prison.

With a turbulent and violent backdrop in the Philippines, the film brings together strong genre characteristics along with political commentary to brutal but lasting effect.

8. "The Farewell" (2019) Amazon Prime/iTunes

Lulu Wang is fast emerging as a major directorial talent. The Chinese-American filmmaker has helmed several shorts and documentaries but it was her award-winning "The Farewell" that has elevated her status.

"The Farewell" (Screen grab from YouTube)

The comedy-drama stars Awkwafina as a young woman who has been told by her relatives not to inform her terminally ill grandmother of her disease as the family rushes to put on an impromptu wedding. Wang finds the perfect balance between humor and poignant drama.

9. "Port of Call" (2015) YouTube/Google Play

Hong Kong has an abundance of crime thrillers, so much so that its industry is synonymous with the genre. Filmmakers who are renowned for such films include John Woo and Johnnie To.

"Port of Call" (Screen grab from YouTube)

To's "Election" is available to stream on Netflix and is certainly worthy to be included here, but somewhat overlooked is Philip Yung's grim but excellent feature "Port of Call."

Based on a true story, it features Aaron Kwok as a detective who investigates the murder of a young female sex worker in Hong Kong. Masterfully directed and shot by cinematographer Christopher Doyle, the film deserves much wider recognition.

10. "Hero" (2002) Amazon Prime

"Hero" (Screen grab from YouTube)

Zhang Yimou's Chinese wuxia -- martial arts -- films "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers" encountered much critical and commercial success, making him one of the most sought after directors in China.

He has since failed to replicate the success of these films as interest in the genre has waned, but "Hero" in particular remains a major accomplishment.

Starring Jet Li as a fighter who claims to have defeated the king's fiercest adversaries, the fight choreography on display, together with Christopher Doyle's cinematography, is extraordinary.

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