With Crazy Rich Asians topping the box office, Southeast Asia Globe has put together a list of four must-watch movies from Southeast Asia.
The last few years have seen a surge not only in beautiful story-telling out of Southeast Asia but also an attention to detail with cinematography and soundtracks. Here, along with Crazy Rich Asians, are some staff picks from Southeast Asia Globe.
1. Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
Based on the bestselling novel by Kevin Kwan, Crazy Rich Asians didn’t just live up to the hype – it surpassed it.
The plot is typical of many romantic comedies: Rich boy meets girl from a poor background, they fall in love, boy’s family disapproves… and therein begins a tussle between love and familial approval.
What has made this movie so appealing is its all-Asian cast. It took only 25 years for Hollywood to cast a predominantly Asian film – the last time was 1993’s The Joy Luck Club – and this resonated with not just Asian-American but all second-generation Asians worldwide.
Many of the film’s actors have talked in interviews about going to castings only to be given the role of the maid, sex worker or nerd – stereotypes that Hollywood has created for Asian actors on screen.
The movie, which sticks mostly to the book, had a glowing opening weekend haul of $25 million, making it that weekend’s top-grossing opener on US screens.
2. Bad Genius (2017)
Think Ocean’s 11 meets 21, but better. With a 92% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Bad Genius became Thailand’s highest-grossing film of 2017 – and Thailand’s most internationally successful film of all time.
In her debut acting role, Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying plays Lynn, the socially awkward math genius and protagonist who comes from a middle-class background and befriends the wealthy students in her new school.
The movie revolves around a group of students who hatch a lucrative plot to help paying clients cheat on a university admissions exam. With Lynn’s talent at the centre, they begin to devise unique methods of cheating, one of which is a code involving classical piano pieces.
The goal for the students is the Standard Test for International Colleges (STIG), a standardised exam that decides the fate of students. The trailer highlights the battle cry “We get to choose the universities. The universities don’t get to choose us!” – a running theme throughout. While Bad Genius also depicts the difference in social backgrounds between the students, some have suggested it was written to appease government censorship in Thailand.
3. Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts (2017)
In the first act, we are introduced to our eponymous protagonist, a widow living in a small village on the island of Sumba, Indonesia. Markus, a gang leader, tells her he plans to rob and rape her. Markus keeps his promise, and Marlina is forced to feed Markus’s gang when they enter her home. With no escape route, Marlina poisons the food. While the gang members are slowly dying, Markus rapes Marlina only to be decapitated by her – all in the first act.
The next three acts follow Marlina as she sets off on a journey through the deserted beauty of Sumba with Markus’s decapitated head by her side.
With traces of Tarantino and old Western movies and a touch of the surreal, the film also has an essence of feminism that isn’t nuanced or heavy-handed.
Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts is the third feature film by Mouly Surya. It’s based on the true story of a Sumbanese woman who decapitated the man who raped and robbed her, then took his head to a police station. “I see this film as a celebration,” Surya told Vice in 2017. “With the current issues in the world, with all the sexual assault allegations, it makes us think back. When I read how these women fight back, it reminded me of Marlina.”
4. Diamond Island (2016)
Davy Chou’s 2016 drama Diamond Island is one of the gems of modern Cambodian cinema. The stunning cinematography – from the daily life on a construction site to Phnom Penh’s late-night city lights – captures the country of today.
The film follows young Bora, played by Sobon Nuon, as he slaves away on an expensive new construction project on Phnom Penh’s man-made Diamond Island, all the while dreaming of another life that seems so close and yet so far.
This film feels very, very real, and that has a lot to do with Nuon’s genuinely brilliant performance – not bad considering Chou more or less plucked him from obscurity to star in the film.
5. Yellow Flowers on The Green Grass (2015)
Yellow Flowers on the Green Grass is directed by Victor Vu, one of Vietnam’s most successful filmmakers, and is based on the award-winning and best-selling novel I See Yellow Flowers on the Green Grass by Nguyen Nhat Anh.
Yellow Flowers is a visual feast for the eyes. The cinematography and music are highlights of the film, set in rural 1980s Vietnam.
The coming-of-age movie follows two brothers, Thieu and Tuong, as they explore the complexities of their relationship. The young boys share a close bond and many adventures together, but that begins to change when Man, a young girl from their village, becomes an ever-present figure. The brothers start competing for her attention and affection, only for things to take a turn.
Love and friendship are the major themes, and the three children give wonderful performances.