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The 30 Best Asian Movies of The 21st Century

07 December 2015 | Features, Film Lists | by Panos Kotzathanasis


The progression of Asian cinema has become globally evident since the 90s and is now a widely acknowledged fact, with a plethora of productions screening in festivals around the world and gaining distribution in a constantly growing number of countries. The number of Hollywood remakes of Asian genre films also proves this, chiefly among them “The Departed” that netted four Oscars in 2007, including Best Picture and Best Director, and is largely based upon the Hong Kong movie “Infernal Affairs”.

The following list has been compiled with the purpose of including the foremost distinguished ones from as many directors, countries and genres as possible.


1. Confessions (Tetsuya Nakashima, 2010, Japan)


Based on the novel by Kanae Minato, “Confessions” deals with the tragic story of Yuko Moriguchi, a junior high school teacher. One morning in the classroom, after distributing milk to her students, she proceeds to inform them that this is her last day at school.

Two facts regarding this teacher were common knowledge, up to that point. Her husband is HIV positive and her daughter, who attended kindergarten, was drowned in the school’s swimming pool by accident. However, she discloses that her death was not an accident, but a murder, and the two perpetrators are presently in the classroom. She does not name them; nevertheless, she presents enough evidence for the rest of the class to not have doubts regarding the wrongdoers. Furthermore, she states that she has inserted blood from her husband inside the milk boxes of those two students, who have already consumed it.

Tetsuya Nakashima depicts the film mainly through flashbacks resulting from the confessions of the protagonists. Furthermore, he presents a number of social issues including sexuality, death and bullying, as well as the relationships between parents and children, between teachers and students, and between parents and teachers.

Another characteristic of the film is that the majority of the protagonists are drowning in their need for revenge, a notion that causes to the film’s audience to not be able to sympathize with any of them, despite the fact that they all are victims.

Equally impressive is the fact that he manages to provide humor, however cruel and dark, in a cold, psychological thriller.


2. I Saw the Devil (Kim Jee Woon, 2010, S. Korea)

I Saw the Devil

Revenge is a theme that the Koreans have been excelling in with their films, and this particular film is an utmost distinct example.

Kyung Chu, a sadistic murderer, violently kills the fiancé of special agent Soo Hyun. After a while, the police discover parts from her mutilated body in a river and her father, who happens to be the chief of police, presents Soo Hyun with a list of suspects. Subsequently, he takes an absence of leave in order to discover the culprit and to exact revenge.

Kim Jee Woon portrays revenge as the utmost human driving force, the sole reason that could cause an individual to resort to extreme measures. Furthermore, he presents a battle between good and evil. However, as the revenge process is chronically extended, the borders between the two become less visible, eventually reaching the point of doubt regarding the actual “monster” between the two.

Both of the protagonists, Byung Hun Lee as Soo Hyun and Min Sik Choi as Kyung Chu, are sublime in one of the best duels in the history of cinema.


3. Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale (Te Sheng Wei, 2011, Taiwan)

Warriors of the Rainbow Seediq Bale

Seediq Bale is a 4-hour epic based on historic facts that took the director 15 years to complete, and the most expensive production in the history of Taiwanese cinema.

The film focuses on Seediq, an indigenous tribe of Taiwanese Austronesian people that used to spend their lives hunting in the jungle and fighting among each other for their rights to hunting grounds. Although violent, the various clans lived in harmony with the nature, until the Japanese Occupation, which initiated in 1895.

The film starts a little before that year, where an adolescent Mona Rudao is exercising the aforementioned practices. However, in 1895 the Japanese Army attacks the indigenous folk, in order to enforce the occupation, changing their lives forever.

In 1930, the Seediq are in a state similar to enslavement, having to work arduously for little pay and spending their time getting drunk. Nevertheless, a number of the young ones revolt and with Mona Rudao as their leader, they stage an attack toward the Japanese living in Wushe. Their acts result in massive killings of the Japanese locals and subsequently, to the occupying forces staging war against them.

Te Sheng Wei wrote the script and directed his magnum opus, chiefly focusing on the realistic depiction of the natives and their customs. In that aspect, he chose local non-actors for the roles of the protagonists, with Da-Ching, who plays the young Mona Rudao, being a model, and Nolay Piho, who plays the elder, a local priest. One of his biggest achievements in this film is that he managed to extract excellent acting from these two.

Furthermore, in his quest for realism, he portrayed the Seediq with all their faults, since they are a sadistic, cunning and ruthless tribe, constantly ready to resort to violence. However, they are also heroic and absolutely selfless toward the common goal, including the women and children of the tribe.


4. Oldboy (Park Chan Wook, 2003, S. Korea)


This second installment of Park Chan Wook’s trilogy regarding revenge is undoubtedly the film that turned the global interest toward Korean cinema.

Based on the homonymous Japanese manga, the film focuses on Dae Su, a content family man, who, for no apparent reason, is abducted and forced to live in the same room for 15 years. When he is unexpectedly released, he is set on extracting revenge, although the sole evidence in his possession is the fact that he must accomplish this revenge in five days.

Although “Oldboy” has revenge as its central theme, Park directs a movie with an actual goal of presenting another dimension, one that leads to repentance. The humiliation and ensuing catharsis are the primary concepts, and revenge, which creates chain reactions of growing hatred, is solely an element of the set.

“Oldboy” has a plethora of stylized violent scenes, sublime acting, (mainly by Choi Min Shik, who plays Dae Su), and equally competent directing, in one of the masterpieces of the global cinema. The film won the Grand Prize of the Jury at the Cannes Film Festival, among a number of additional local and international awards.


5. Always Sunset on Third Street (Takashi Yamazaki, 2005, Japan)

Always Sunset on Third Street

Based on the multi-awarded manga by Ryohei Saigan, this particular film takes place in Tokyo in the 50s, where, following the completion of the war, an intense sense of hope has ensued.

The script follows the lives of the habitats of a slum in that period. Mitsuko arrives in Tokyo from the country in order to work for a large corporation; however, upon her arrival, she realizes that the company is actually a modest car repair shop owned by Norifumi Suzuki. Furthermore, it is situated in the ground floor of the family’s residence, where Mitsuko is supposed to live from now on.

Ryosuke Chagawa is an author of a monthly children’s manga; however, he aspires to be a serious writer and feels constant disappointment due to his continuing failure. Moreover, he is in a love with a local bar hostess named Hiromi Ishizaki. Hiromi eventually forces Ryosuke to let a child of one of her friends in his house who abandoned him.

Yamazaki depicts Tokyo in the 50s with a sense of nostalgia for a more romantic era, when technology had not yet shaped the contemporary society. His characters, played by an ensemble cast including Maki Horikita, Shinichi Tsutsumi, Hidetaka Yoshioka and Koyuki, are all eccentric in their own fashion; however, none of them are even potentially evil, in a time where people were still pure and kind-hearted.

Furthermore, he presents a clear message regarding the family as a concept, that one can be a member not only by blood, but through the bonds of caring and loving as well.


6. Yi Yi (Edward Yang, 2000, Taiwan)


The script revolves around a big bourgeoisie family in Taipei. The middle-aged father, NJ, is tormented by a plethora of issues. During his brother-in-law A Di’s wedding, he reacquaints with Sherry, a former affair of his, who he abandoned without a warning. Furthermore, his mother is in a coma and his spouse, tortured by a psychological crisis, leaves their home and attends a monastery. At work, he has a number of issues with his partners, who aspire to reform the company radically and at the same time do not seem to appreciate him at all. Lastly, his brother owes him a large sum of money due to continuous failed investments.

His adolescent daughter, Ting Ting, gets romantically involved with the ex-boyfriend of her neighbor, who happens to be one of her closest friends, thus resulting in experiencing the sad side of love.

Finally, his son Yang Yang has trouble in school with his teacher and a number of his female classmates, while struggling at the same time to understand the world and the people in it.

Edward Yang wrote and directed sublimely, both in terms of the script’s development and in terms of the characters’ analysis. His disposition toward philosophy is evident throughout the film and is chiefly demonstrated through Yang Yang’s queries. Furthermore, he presents a clear message regarding the need for individuals to simply sit and contemplate at regular points in their life. He mostly demonstrates that through his characters’ issues and the way they manage to solve them.

“Yi Yi” was screened in a number of festivals around the world, winning a plethora of awards, including the one for Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival.


7. The Raid: Redemption (Gareth Evans, 2011, Indonesia)

The Raid Redemption

A special team of the Indonesian Anti-Terrorist Force, led by First Lieutenant Wahyu, Sergeant Jaka, and including the rookie Rama, arrives in a block of flats in the slums of Jakarta. Their mission is to arrest the owner of the building, Tama Riyadi, who is a notorious crime boss.

Their ascent up to the sixth floor seems to progress smoothly. However, at that point, a tenant notices their presence and sounds the alarm, seconds before the team kills him. Riyadi informs the residents regarding the raid, the majority of whom are hardcore criminals and armed to the teeth. Furthermore, he asks them to kill all of the police officers and promises to reward them with permanent stay, without any fees. Subsequently he unleashes his two henchmen, Andi and Mad Dog, upon the special team.

Gareth Evans is the definite master of the film, as he was responsible for the direction, the script, the editing and the overall production. As usual in the martial arts genre, both the direction and the script are present solely for providing a base for the action, and this particular movie is not an exception. However, the film entails a number of the most impressive and violent action scenes, and the choreography is sublime.

Responsible for the latter were Iko Uwais, who plays Rama, and Yayan Ruhian, who plays Mad Dog. The film introduced, aside from the aforementioned that are currently following an international career, the Indonesian martial art Pencak Silat. Iko Uwais was a champion of the style at the time. The final duel between the two and Andi is one of the greatest scenes of the genre.


8. 3-Iron (Kim Ki Duk, 2004, S. Korea)

3-Iron (2004)

Seemingly homeless, Tae Suk is an urban hermit who spends his life in apartments of people who are not present at the time. He eats from their refrigerator, takes selfies with their heirlooms, and pays for his stay by fixing broken apparatuses and washing their clothes. Eventually, he reaches Sun Hwa’s house thinking that it is empty, due to her husband being away on business. He initiates his routine, up to the point that he discovers her beaten. Subsequently, they decide to leave together and he introduces her to his peculiar way of life. Nevertheless, her husband is not eager to let her leave him.

Probably Ki Duk Kim’s easiest film to watch, chiefly because he had a large budget in his hands, which he implemented in “furbishing” the production, particularly in contrast to his previous ones that were utterly low-budget.

Nevertheless, the characteristics of his cinema are present, with scarce dialogue and the surreal last act, an element that meets its zenith in the two protagonists who hardly utter a word. Expectantly, a number of awkward scenes are present, although they are considerably fewer than usual.

The acting by the two leads, Lee Hyun Kyoon as Tae Suk and Lee Seung Yeon, is competent in its silence and Kwon Hyuk Ho is impressive as the evil husband.

The film was a huge success at the Venice Film Festival, netting four awards for Kim Ki Duk.


9. 13 Assassins (Takashi Miike, 2010, Japan)

13 Assassins movie

In 2010 and 2011, the prolific filmmaker shot two remakes of the most distinct samurai films of the 60s, “13 Assassins” and “Harakiri”, both of which are amongst his foremost accomplished and celebrated works. “13 Assassins” netted him the Best Director Award from the Nikkan Sports competition, amongst a plethora of other local and international awards.

In Japan in 1830, young lord Matsudaira Naritsugu acts in an exceedingly violent fashion, murdering infants, raping and mutilating women, and killing citizens without any apparent reason. However, he is protected because he is the son of the previous shogun and a brother to the current. An elderly lord, Doi Tashitsura, assigns a trustworthy samurai, Shimada Shinzaemon, to organize Naritsugu’s murder.

Subsequently, Shinzaemon enlists 10 additional samurai and his nephew, Shimada Shirokuro; altogether, they scheme to ambush Eiichi and his 70 soldiers on their return from Edo. On their journey, they meet a hunter, Kiga Koyata, who becomes the 13th assassin.

Miike took the former film and added violence, blood and slapstick humor (the scene with the mayor is preposterously hilarious), thus transforming it into his own, unique style. The movie is split into two parts: the initial one has almost no action, apart from Naritsugu’s violent acts that are shot in Miike’s typically extreme fashion; the second is filled with impressive battle scenes, where the large budget of the film becomes obvious.

Koji Yakusho is wonderful as always in the role of Shimada Shinzaemon, despite the fact that he acts in the fashion of the protagonists of the samurai films of the 60s, with grandiloquence and intense theatricality.


10. 13:Game of Death (Chookiat Sakveerakul, 2006, Thailand)

13 Game of Death

Based on a one-shot comic titled “13th Quiz Show” by Eakasit Thairaat, the film tells the tale of Phuchit Puengnathong, a music instrument salesman who has the worst day of his life. During a visit to a potential client, he discovers that a colleague has already closed the deal behind his back, and upon his return to his car he finds out that the police has seized it.

Furthermore, when he arrives at his office, his boss calls him and forces him to sign his resignation in order to receive a letter of recommendation. Subsequently, his mother calls him and asks for money for his sister.

Moreover, Phuchit has overcharged his credit cards and his girlfriend, who recently became a famous singer, has abandoned him. Drowned in despair, he sits in the stairwell of his building to smoke a cigarette when something unexpected occurs. A girl calls him on the phone and seems to know everything concerning him, including what he is doing at that moment. She asks him to participate in a game, where his first task would be to kill a fly with the newspaper he is holding, and upon completion, his account will be credited with 10000 baht.

Chookiat Sakveerakul was only 25 when he wrote and directed this film. However, he managed to create an astonishing movie that moves with extremely rapid pace and combines artfully elements of thriller, horror and action, even incorporating a number of darkly humorous moments. The question he presents is quite evident: How far can a man reach in order to earn money?

Κrissada Terence is staggering in the leading role, presenting a variety of feelings and states in an utterly competent fashion.



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  • Dimitrije Stojanovic

    No Chang Dong Lee, Kiarostami, Panahi.. Kim Ki Duk, Takashi Mike, Hirokazu Koreeda not with their best movies. Not really a relevant list, in my opinion.

  • Chandradeep

    I’m pretty sure the author of this article thinks Iran is outside Asia. Like seriously? and moreover, there are 1000 better Indian films than gangs of wasseypur. It’s a shame how bollywood still rules and regional films of India don’t get noticed at all

    • Panos Kotzathanasis

      I did include “A Separation”, although I have to admit, my knowledge of Indian regional cinema is lacking. I would be happy to check any films you suggested though.

      • Chandradeep

        Yes, it’s not your fault. That’s what is projected outside – that India is only bollywood, but tbh, if you are a fan of the language of cinema let me tell you that bollywood is the worst thing out there. Bengali films and South indian films are the best and they have the best directors. I can suggest you some great Bengali films (Bengal gave India their best directors – Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak ).. also about the Iranian aspect, I meant you must have Panahi and Kiarostami in this list although the latter’s best works are not from this century

        • Panos Kotzathanasis

          Yes, Panahi could have been included in the list,and the reason i did not choose any of Kiarostami films is exactly the one you stated. And also, please let me know of any Bengali films you think are great.

        • Rui

          yes, let us know some bengali films!

          • Chandradeep

            Ok. Sanjhbatir Rupkathara, Dosar, Moner Manush, Mahulbanir Sereng, Choturanga, Herbert, Iti Srikanta, Faltu, etc. you can find them on torrents

      • सन्केत मनोज लिमकर

        There are indeed some great Marathi films made and Marathi films cannot be ignored since the initial films developed in India, though were silent, were quintessentially Marathi in its form.
        If you’d ask me for suggestion, here are some flicks.
        1) Shwaas by Sandeep Sawant
        2) Harishchandrachi Factory by Paresh Mokashi
        3) Sairaat by Nagraj Manjule
        4) Natsamrat by Mahesh Manjrekar
        5) Katyar Kaljat Ghusli by Subodh Bhave
        6) Fandry by Nagraj Manjule
        7) Elizabeth Ekadashi by Paresh Mokashi
        8) Killa by Avinash Arun
        9) Court by Chaitanya Tamhane
        10) Deool by Umesh Kulkarni
        11) Dombivali Fast by Nishikant Kamat
        12) Jogwa by Rajiv Patil
        13) Mee Shivajiraje Bhosle Boltoy by Mahesh Manjrekar
        14) Natrang by Ravi Jadhav
        15) Kaaksparsh by Mahesh Manjrekar

  • Tobias Palma

    Really missing Uncle Boonmee here. And even if they are more mainstream, Hayao Miyazaki’s work is definitely between the best in history.

    • Panos Kotzathanasis

      Yes, “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” could have been on this list. However, although not stated, this was a list regarding live-action movies and that is the reason no anime were included

  • Rahul Fageria

    So you completely ignored like a thousand great movies from India and put just one. There are like 500 movies greater and better than that listed one. Just stay in your own region, you have no grip over Asia.

    • Panos Kotzathanasis

      As I also stated in previous comments, I have to admit that my knowledge of Indian regional cinema is lacking. I am willing to check any films you suggested though.

  • Prince Purple

    Happy to see “Gangs of Wasseypur” but sad to see the author’s lack of knowledge on Indian regional cinema. For everyone’s information, the Indian regional cinema churns out movies of world class standards quite often & one shouldn’t judge Indian movies by what Bollywood portrays.

    • Panos Kotzathanasis

      I have to admit, my knowledge of Indian regional cinema is lacking. I would be happy to check any films you suggested though.

      • Rahul Madadi

        I would recommend Tamil movie ‘Subramaniapuram'(2008) for its honest and gritty treatment of characters and the social conditions. You can also watch malayalam movie ‘Annayum Rasoolum’ (2013). I feel these movies would give you a proper feel of south indian cinema. You can find these movies with english subtitles on torrents.

        • Panos Kotzathanasis

          Ok, thank you very much Rahul, I will check them. And if yu want to discuss them my facebook account is on my profile at the end of the list

  • FAS

    “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”, “Hero”, “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring”, “Ilo Ilo”, “Norte, the End of History”, “Oasis”, “About Elly”, “The Willow Tree”, “A Bitterswet Life”, as well as some anime films from Japan.

    • desterrado

      of course. Good taste.

  • Ryszard Borges

    There are some great movies here. But this type of title ” the 30 best ” is always really dangerous… However I thing that a better tomorrow could be in this list, some Kitano movies could be here too and of course some Jacky Chan one’s not for the depth of the story but for the amazing cascades.

    • Panos Kotzathanasis

      Thank you Ryszard, although “A Better Tomorrow” is not a 21st century film and I have included Kitano’s Zatoichi. I laso believe that Jackie Chan’s prime was before 2000 and that’s why I did not include any of his films on the list

  • rogeriozz

    Great list. I like them all, with some exceptions – I don’t think, for exemple, Lust / Caution should be on the list. And I’d definitely include something by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, such as Tokyo Sonata. Cheers.

    • Panos Kotzathanasis

      Thank you for your kind words and yes, Tokyo Sonata could be a part of this list

  • Matthew Sutton

    I would’ve expected to see Oasis or Peppermint Candy and maybe 2046 on the list.

    At least Hou Hsiao Hsien, Eddie Yang, and Wong Kar Wai made it.

    • PPaul

      +1 for Oasis.

  • PPaul

    Some great picks here, but many omissions too. I’d add Oasis, Nobody Knows, House of Flying Daggers and Spirited Away.

  • Jaser Sapien

    Great list. I love that so many after so many years of these lists, people still take offence that their favourite movie is off the list, rather than using that as a springboard to conversation.

    • Panos Kotzathanasis

      Thank you Jaser. At times I think the conflicts that ensue are the ultrior purpose of those lists

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  • Assandro Journey

    Sorry but I was very suprised to see Iranian film in Asian (!) cinema list. It’s a bit weird considering that Iranians are not asians in no way. At least Separation is middle eastern cinema not asian. Iranians are persians and are caucasians. Not asians. Also to conflate Indian movies with asian movies (korean, chinese, japanese et cet) is doing disservice to great Indian cinema that is separate category by itself. I know that americans and british consider India as Asian counrty geographically but Iran? C’mon. Iranian cinema is different from Asian cinema completely. Culturally and geographically and mentally.

    • John Carvalho

      So you’re saying the only culture in Asia is the culture of East Asia? Asia is a gigantic continent with the Middle East/West Asia and South Asia being part of it, so Iran and India ARE Asian countries, even if you don’t want them to be.

  • D. L.

    The best one besides Infernal Affairs is missing. If you haven’t seen it, check out “Black” by Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Trust me 🙂

  • Dimitri Poenaru

    Shinobi: Heart Under Blade.

  • avasaravadi

    Gangs of Wasseypur. Come on! You have no clue about Indian cinema. Its not even Anurag Kashyap’s best film.

  • emotion films

    where is the lunchbox, court