Although we traditionally focus on Asian cinema, this year we have decided to extend our coverage to the world of television! Don’t worry, our list of end-of-year films for 2020 is still coming!
This overview has been drawn up in response to the lack of novelties as a result of the current health crisis affecting everyone in the world. As many of us stayed at home and had much more time than usual, it was a good opportunity to catch up on the new shows and make up for what we had missed.
But this may not be the last time we write about Asian television. After all, the format, like its Western counterparts, has grown exponentially over the past decade, and this year there are theatres that can match production values. Many of these screenings continue to attract established film talents, and the longer format has made the experience more rewarding: For the audience it is a pursuit of quality, a long-term story, and for creative talent it is an opportunity to broaden the story, get to know the characters, and not feel limited by the average workload of two hours.
In the future we may consider paying more attention to Asian television, live or not, but for now, here are our thoughts on some of the best new programs of 2020 and some of the programs that we have overtaken during the lockdown of our countries.
Levin Tan’s favorite shows during the lockdown.
After succumbing to the grueling 365 Film Challenge of the past few years, I finally burned down all my fuel and committed murder. I haven’t completely disconnected myself from the film world, but my ability to adapt to the number of releases, old and new, has become quite limited.
When I was still on duty, but working at home, I suddenly decided to go back to my roots – soap operas are what cultivated my love for this fantastic medium in the first place! It’s been a few years since I’ve really followed everything, so I feel pretty late and overwhelmed by what I should and could see.
I don’t want to go into too many details, but I’m lost in the land of the Chinese drama. It all started with Nirvana In Fire, but there are two in particular that I would like to mention that have really changed my life this year.
The first on this summer’s list is, frankly, a fairly typical Gaokao drama (or begins as such) that follows a romance between the two main characters. What made me stop watching drama the longest was that I lost interest in the representation of heterosexual relationships. But this summer suddenly brought me back, I was surprised myself! There are a lot of plot points that are cheesy and melodramatic, I’m not going to lie, but what really attracted me was the chemistry and acting of Bai Yu and Bu Guanjin. Especially the latter – her dramatic debut – made me fall in love with her mannerisms when she played her character on the screen. I’m really looking forward to her career and hopefully she can play many more kinds of characters.
But speaking of Bai Yu, he is the reason why I signed up with iQIYI as a premium user to follow The Long Night (which is also part of their Light in Action series, like Bad Kids). Although the drama began as a thriller, I wondered how it ended up being this moving story of unbreakable brotherhood, and I’m not referring to the BL character of the subplot; it was all purely platonic. Besides Bai Yu, there were so many great talents like Zhao Yang and Tian Xiaojie who really brought the story and all its tender and painful moments to life. I rarely look at anything, certainly not a few years apart, but this 12-episode series I watched for a month, excited to pick up the little details used to dissect and expose Chinese mestizos.
There are two endings to Bai Yu: he plays a 17/18 year old high school student, then a middle-aged man, completely exhausted by the fierce winds of life. The versatility is amazing!
Claire Langley’s favorite shows during the lockdown.
Ironically, the two drama series I’ve seen in 2020, which will remain in my memory for a long time to come, are hobbies: My dear friends and chocolate.
My Best Friends falls into the category of the moving series that can make you cry a lot. The series focuses on friendships and love stories that stand the test of time through various challenges such as grief and dementia. It is beautifully directed by a group of amazing women, from writer No Hee-kyung (It’s Okay That’s Love) to actress Kim Hye-ja (Mother). As a relatively young viewer, My Dear Friends felt an incentive to take a step back and identify the things that really matter to me, and separate them from the details that won’t matter much in years to come.
Chocolate is also written by a woman named Lee Kyung Hee and can move you, like my dear friends, to tears. The story revolves around food and how it connects not only the two main characters, but also the hospice patients with their most cherished memories. In both scenarios the court is used to tell part of their story. Although some episodes can be very dramatic, chocolate teaches you that what you let go sometimes gives way to kindness and understanding.
Far from the soothing category, The Bad Kids was the most intense and consistent series I’ve seen this year, climbing into the top 3. The photos taken during the internet rounds have made me addicted to this Chinese criminal drama that is part of the Light On series – and the photos in this series are very entertaining. The series has an incredible cast leading the story, with names such as Wang Jingchun (The Shadow, So Long, My Son), Young Mei (The Killer, So Long, My Son), and Qin Hao (Spring Fever, Burning Ice), supported by a series of fascinating children. The animated opening credits bore me and I can’t get enough of them, I hope they’re another reason why you keep looking.
I have to add two special mentions this year for The Untamed and Reply 1988. Untamed took about five months to complete, but it’s a display of a love story on screen that I could have listened to every day, and it led to a lot of conversations with friends, which is always priceless! In the end, my 1988 Reply Watch came at just the right time; while I was away from my loved ones during the confinement, it was as close to a warm embrace as I could get. I’m not going to lie, I was very excited to finally see my favorite Lee Hjeri on the screen. All in all, it was a pleasure to observe the lives of these neighbours, friends and families, which sometimes reminded me of the neighbours at home who said that their home was also my home, and that made me happy in many ways.
Hieu Chow’s favorite show during the lockdown.
I haven’t gotten as involved in live drama as I’d like this year (I still want to watch Netflix’s extracurricular drama in Korea because it seems to be in my street), but I’ve tried to rekindle my interest in anime!
While imprisoned, I enrolled in Animelab, Australia’s leading anime streaming service owned by Madman Entertainment, and started watching My Hero Academia with my partner. It’s been so long since I’ve seen Shonen cartoons (probably not since I was a teenager, when things like Naruto and Bleach were very popular), and although those things can sometimes be youthful and generally appeal to young men, I thought it was exactly what I needed to help me get back to TV cartoons. I have long watched anime on TV sparingly (or at least the big popular series) simply because the filler episodes killed my interest. So I thought that this tradition of anime series waiting for the end of the manga always applied to massively popular series. I was surprised at the time that My Hero Academia had none of that and that the episodes that could be described as fillers were instead used to catch up with viewers between the big arches and the seasons. I really love My Hero Academia now and I’m a big fan of the series (just like my partner), and we’re both really looking forward to the movies!
I’m already in my next shonen anime, called Demon Slayer, and I’m enjoying it so far! It relies more on horror and is more violent than I thought, but I think that’s probably a good thing; variation in the genre is a good thing! I also started the series JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, which is so outrageously extravagant and where each episode seems to be the last. So JoJo’s almost a parody of Shonen, and I love it! With this renewed interest, I am also very much looking forward to returning to cartoon consultancy in the future!
Natalie Ng’s favorite shows during containment
This year I’ve seen three top-quality Chinese mini-series, all of which are excellent in different ways. Bad Kids features acclaimed actors, including Wang Jingchun Silver Bear and Qin Hao, a frequent contributor to Lu Ye. The Long Night is a dark look at the ruthless pursuit of justice (these two companions are part of the iQiyi Light in the series Theatre). Tencent’s killer novel, Horizon Tower, was my favorite of the three. Horizon Tower is based on the relationships with women and the resilience of women. The story plays with women’s expectations and also speaks openly about sexual assault, domestic violence and mental health/trauma. The series included Angelabai, who is more known for her beauty than for her acting. So people were suspicious about her, but her game and the series were marked by Zhang Ziyi.
In my essay for Song Lang I have highlighted the series of Chinese winter begonias, and I recommend it again. Situated in Beijing in the years 1930, this piece of work somptuously fits the improbable relationship between a man of occidental instrumental affairs and a star eccentric of the Beijing opera.
The Korean drama It’s Okay Not To Be Okay (available on Netflix) explores the themes of mental health, self-reliance, self-esteem and self-love, and is based on the stories of the main character, who suffers from an antisocial personality disorder. The acting in this role is literally breathtaking, and this show, with Violet Evergarden, has been a constant back and forth for me personally.
Animation highlights for me in 2020 are the Chinese animated film Heavenly Official Blessing (available on Bilibili’s YouTube channel) and the anime The Case Files by Richard the Jeweler (available on Muse Asia’s YouTube channel). I read Monolith, the official blessing from heaven, at the beginning of the year, so I was happy to see how faithful and beautiful it was captured in animation. Between Jiang Ziya’s fantastic 3D animation and the sublime 2D work of this series, the Chinese animation turns out to be a force to be reckoned with. Meanwhile, Richard is an anime about a student at the University of Seiga who works part-time as an assistant to Richard, a master jeweler. This series was a highlight for me because of the progressive and open discussion about mental health and society’s expectations. The second episode introduced a lesbian character, a client who has difficulty finding her identity.
Besides the fact that it is good, all related dramas are available for free if you come from Asia.
Trigger outside 2020
Probably the most technically advanced anime series I’ve ever seen. The power of Violet Evergarden (available on Netflix) is her ability to use visual storytelling to tell detailed stories of characters and relationships. This series is the highlight of what makes Kyoto Animation so popular. The series takes place in an alternative Europe at the beginning of the century, and after the war Violet, the protagonist, must learn to live with her new prostheses after losing a battle. Violet knows only the death and destruction of her entire life as a result of her upbringing as a child soldier and takes on the task as a mannequin in which a ghost writes letters to teach emotions and empathy. You don’t write a letter to someone you don’t like, and that’s the main theme that runs through the series. Just do a simple search to see how each image in this cartoon is a picture and how people, including veterans, are affected by it. Every piece of his emotion is sincere and fully deserved thanks to his deeply insightful writing and visual narration.
Hyouka (available on Muse Asia’s YouTube channel) is a gem I missed when it was first aired in 2012, and I’ve finally been able to watch it. Oreki, an apathetic high school student, wants to go through life with as little fuss as possible, but his older sister defends him in the Classics Club. With the tireless Chitanda, Satoshi’s database and the Otaku Lighthouse, one encounters daily puzzles where Oreki discovers his power of deduction. Cases are common, but that’s not the point. Oreki’s ability lies in his innate ability to observe and read people, which he seems determined to stop in order to protect himself. The style of writing makes relevant observations about people and life and makes a playful nod to classic detective novels, revealing the most original writing inspired by classic detective novels I have ever seen. The animations are always creative and detailed and show that it is not necessary to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to unravel the mystery of Christianity. Unfortunately Hyouka was the leader of Yasuhiro Takemoto, one of the 36 victims of the arson in Kyoto on the 18th. July 2019.
Aidan Dzhabarov’s favorite programs during the isolation
This year I tried to find as much comfort as possible. Since you’ve been in quarantine for almost a year, you don’t really want to do anything else. However, this year I found my best consolation in the Netflix supporters of Miki Ninagawa and K-drama Crash Landing on You. Both of them focused on women and their relationships with the people around them and filled my heart when I looked at them.
The chasers had all the Ninagawa signatures that I liked so much – incredible landscapes, rich colours that almost bleed the screen, and beautiful music. Every episode was like a box of chocolates I couldn’t finish. And Crash Landing on You was the K-drama that all my friends and I fell in love with. Really funny and romantic, while playing all the usual dramas and always feeling fresh. This year I found that I started and stopped with dramas that don’t want to fit in the typical K-drama form. Well, I guess, but K-dramas are fun for me because of the clichés and the expected turns. It was nice to see that a well made series was after him instead of deviating from it.
The last one in the second season of Stranger Things (a.k.a. The Secret Forest). It started slowly and focused on the intricacies of bureaucracy, but as it progressed, it shuddered terribly. Choi Seung Woo and Bae Doon soon became one of my favourite couples on TV.