12 East Asian Films That Defined 2022

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Return to Dust, 2022
Return to Dust, 2022(Film still)

From Park Chan-wook’s exquisite noir to Li Ruijun’s vividly-shot arthouse meditation on rural hardship; these are the best films from Korea, Japan, China and more released in the UK this year

When it comes to global filmmaking, 2022 was another year to remember. Triangle of Sadness won Sweden’s Ruben Östlund the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Carla Simón’s Spanish-Italian drama Alcarràs took home the Golden Bear at Berlin. Brendan Fraser’s return as an obese shut-in in Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale was a major talking point everywhere. And rave reviews for Indian action-musical RRR made it one of the year’s most unexpected foreign-language hits.

But just as these titanic movements impacted wider film discourse, so too did the wheel continue to turn for the various forces within East Asian cinema – with mainstream and arthouse features receiving wide recognition and distribution in 2022 to cement an ongoing presence in the global zeitgeist.

As the year reaches its gloomy twilight – and with the announcement of the 15-film shortlist for the 2023 Oscars’ Best International Feature Film competition just around the corner – AnOther looks back on the best works from Korea, Japan, China, and more that turned heads in the UK in 2022. Check them out below.


Return to Dust, 2022 (Li Ruijun) – lead image

In the scorched and landlocked Gansu province of Northwest China, a real-life farmer (Wu Renlin) struggles to care for his disabled wife in a near-inhospitable environment. Salvation is out of reach, especially as the threat of urbanisation threatens to destroy what little they have – but in this vividly-shot arthouse meditation, they find solace in the delicate moments spent together.

After debuting at the Berlin Film Festival in February and topping the Chinese box office in the summer, Return to Dust disappeared from streaming platforms in the Mainland in September after coming under fire from the Communist party for its realistic depictions of rural hardship. The move only amplified the film’s message overseas, and following its UK cinema release in November, the film remains one of the most critically-acclaimed Chinese-language films of the year.


Decision to Leave, 2022 (Park Chan-wook)

If 2020 was the year of Parasite and 2021 was the year of Minari (both were Academy Award winners for Korean talents), then maybe 2022 was the year of Decision to Leave, as far as Korean cinema goes. 

This exquisite noir – about a possible romance between a murder suspect and the detective investigating her – is the latest feature from powerhouse filmmaker Park Chan-wook (head to MUBI now for a streaming retrospective of the director’s career, including Oldboy and The Handmaiden). It’s every bit as masterful as the master's previous outings, and was a true headline film event in September when it sold out the 3,000-capacity Royal Festival Hall for its BFI London Film Festival premiere.

If a monumental UK advertising campaign didn’t already make it known, the film is Korea’s official submission to the Oscars in 2023 for the category of Best International Feature Film – having deservingly won the coveted Best Director prize at Cannes earlier this year.

Return to Seoul, 2022 (Davy Chou)

While a UK cinema release for Hong Sang-soo’s mega-low-budget ‘mumblecore’ feature In Front Of Your Face was a boon for arthouse fans in September, it was the London Korean Film Festival’s November showcase of indie works that made the deepest mark in 2022.

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Broker, for which Song Kang-ho won Best Actor at Cannes earlier this year, was a narrative highlight (it goes on general release in February). Drag documentary I Am More, meanwhile, offered a vibrant look at “homo hill” in Seoul’s Itaewon neighbourhood. And Park Se-young’s lysergic body horror short The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra fused mushroom spores with a kaleidoscopic colour scheme.

Another noteworthy offering was Return to Seoul – which also competed for the Camera d’Or at Cannes. The film follows Freddie (Park Ji-min, in a captivating debut performance), a 25-year-old party girl raised by adopted parents in France, as she journeys to Seoul in search of her birth parents. She battles with language and cultural barriers while also jostling with new friends and lovers over a series of trips – and her free-spirited personality and independence ensures one of the most memorable characters of the year. 

Emergency Declaration, 2021 (Han Jae-rim)

Though Lee Jung-jae’s Hunt was arguably the biggest mainstream talking point at London East Asia Film Festival (LEAFF) this year (the Squid Game star arrived in Leicester Square to a huge crowd for the UK premiere in September), the most entertaining Korean blockbuster of the festival was Emergency Declaration

A mach-speed airborne disaster movie that goes shoulder-to-shoulder with Hollywood’s best, Emergency Declaration groups a host of Korean superstars together for the ride of their lives. Song Kang-ho (Parasite, Broker) is on the ground dealing with a viral crisis while retired pilot Lee Byung-hun (I Saw The Devil) battles his inner demons in the sky. K-Pop idol Im Si-wan, meanwhile, is riveting as the psychopath responsible for the airborne peril.


Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, 2021 (Ryûsuke Hamaguchi)

Festivals like the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme, the BFI London Film Festival, and LEAFF were responsible for a slew of highlights from Japan reaching UK cinemas this year. They included an urban coming-of-age romantic drama in Colorless (Takashi Koyama); a tender drama about a deaf-mute boxer in Small, Slow But Steady (Shô Miyake); and Missing, a film about a kidnapping and a serial killer, directed by former Bong Joon-ho assistant director Shinzô Katayama.

But 2022 was really the year of Ryûsuke Hamaguchi – who built on success at Cannes and Berlin in 2021 to win an Oscar for Drive My Car in March. His three-hour meditation on life and grief, inspired by the Haruki Murakami short story of the same name, remained the biggest talking point of Japanese cinema in 2022, though he arguably reached greater heights with Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy – a delicate triptych exploring fate and desire that was released in UK cinemas in February.

School in the Crosshairs, 1981 (Nobuhiko Obayashi)

It was also an outstanding year for classic Japanese cinema in 2022. Criterion released Juzo Itami’s black comedy The Funeral in May. The BFI hosted a full season on Kinuyo Tanaka – one of the country’s first female auteurs – in August. And in September, Arrow Films released Tomu Uchida’s epic 1965 crime mystery A Fugitive From The Past – a film once ranked the third greatest Japanese film of the 20th century by the country’s leading film criticism magazine.

Third Window’s second box set on psychedelic storyteller Nobuhiko Obayashi – the man responsible for the delirious 1977 horror classic House – was another memorable release highlight. Across four films there are motorbike romances, dreamy Pacific holidays and time-travelling adventures to be found – but the most purely entertaining work is a delirious drama about a girl with psychic powers in School In The Crosshairs.

Crazy Thunder Road, 1980 (Sogo Ishii)

Also from Third Window Films in 2022 was the landmark release of one of Japan’s most important independent films. Never-before-released outside of its native country, Crazy Thunder Road was a defining film of Japan’s early 1980s jishu eiga (‘self-made film’) movement: a biker gang battle royale set in a dilapidated near-future dystopia.

In an interview with Dazed earlier this year, pioneering punk filmmaker Sogo Ishii described how the likes of Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious were inspirations for his “impulsive” style of filmmaking – which resulted in the casting of real-life bōsōzoku gang members in Crazy Thunder Road. The film’s foreshadowing of everything from Akira to Tetsuo: Iron Man led many to dub it the holy grail of the Japanese cyberpunk subgenre. It’s now finally available in the UK after decades of obscurity.


Memoria, 2021 (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s philosophical journey through the Colombian rainforest in Memoria was one of the first major arthouse movie events of the year in the UK. Released in cinemas in the second week of January 2022, this meditative, Tilda Swinton-led feature was inspired by the director’s own experiences suffering from exploding head syndrome – and features lush cinematography alongside reflexive and often downright surreal images. 

Months later, the director was in the news again this December. His 2004 mystical, otherworldly art film Tropical Malady ranked at number 95 in Sight & Sound’s influential, once-a-decade The Greatest Films of All Time poll. It was the only Thai film to make the list.


Goddamned Asura, 2021 (Yi-an Lou)

The Golden Horse Awards – Taiwan’s Oscars – saw a wealth of Chinese-language films recognised this November. They included monochrome Hong Kong cyberpunk feature Limbo; supernatural horror film Incantation (find it on Netflix); and the Seven-like serial killer noir The Abandoned – a highlight at this year’s LEAFF.

Elsewhere at LEAFF was a film that could reach even greater heights as we approach awards season in 2023. Goddamned Asura – a crime film inspired by real-life newspaper reports of killings in Taipei – features a disjointed, Sliding Doors-style structure that points to multiple possible fates for the film’s ensemble of characters. It’s the country’s official submission for the Best International Feature Film category at the 2023 Oscars.

Hong Kong

Revolution of our Times, 2021 (Kiwi Chow)

With political and social turmoil still fresh in public memory, it should be little surprise to learn that the most important films to emerge from Hong Kong in 2022 were documentaries on protest and civil unrest.

The BFI London Film Festival screened Chan Tze-woon’s crowd-funded feature Blue Island, which mixes documentary footage with fictional re-enactments. Hong Kong: City on Fire, directed by Choi Ka-yan and Lee Hiu-ling, offered a look at the lives of four young protesters. Inside the Red Brick Wall, meanwhile, focuses on the 16-day siege of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in 2019 – a climactic event that year.

Arguably the most complete document released in 2022 was exiled filmmaker Kiwi Chow’s Revolution of our Times. The 2.5-hour frontline documentary played sold-out screenings in London, Bristol, Manchester and Edinburgh this year for the inaugural Hong Kong Film Festival UK.

Infernal Affairs, 2002 (Andrew Lau and Alan Mak)

Like Japan, classic Hong Kong cinema found a new audience in 2022 through the virtue of restorations and re-releases from a breadth of tastemaker labels. 

Category III exploitation classic Ebola Syndrome – one of the great 90s Hong Kong video nasties – was released via 88 Films in the UK. The works of crime auteur Johnnie To received UK exhibition via Eureka Films and the Prince Charles Cinema in London. And Criterion restored and repackaged the influential Infernal Affairs trilogy (famously remade by Martin Scorsese as The Departed in 2006) in November – it’s arguably the greatest Hong Kong crime saga of them all.


Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash, 2021 (Edwin)

This Locarno Film Festival 2021 Best Film winner arrived in the UK via Arrow Films in 2022; their sole Indonesian release in 2022. Good job it’s a bit of a smash, then. 

The film – a genre-bending, masculinity-subverting drama that harks back to 1980s action beat-’em-ups – opens with the sounds of revving moped engines, before a dramatic fist-fight at a cement yard sets the tone for the rest of the narrative. At the centre is Ajo Kawir (Marthino Lio), a fighter with a secret: he can’t get his ‘bird’ to stand up, despite his love for fellow fighter Iteung (Ladya Cheryl).

Set in the Indonesian countryside in the late 80s, the film’s true power lies in its gorgeous greenery, lush cinematography, brilliant sense of fashion and creative storytelling. Throw in the mob, some weird sex and a ton of phallic symbols and you’ve got a real gem.