Cover Here are some of the Asian films screening at the Toronto International Film Festival 2021 (Photo: Purin Pictures)

Here are some of the Asian films taking the spotlight at the Toronto International Film Festival 2021

The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) returns this 2021 as a hybrid event combining virtual and in-person screenings, similar to last year’s edition. The festival will screen close to 150 feature films from September 9–18 and among those are plenty of Asian films.

Some of the notable highlights include recent Cannes Film Festival winners such as Drive My Car and Memoria while Are You Lonesome Tonight also enjoyed a Cannes screening. Other worthy titles include Asghar Farhadi’s A Hero and Chung Mong-Hong’s The Falls.

Whether they’re screening at TIFF this year or elsewhere, you should put these Asian movies on your watchlist.

See also: Cannes Film Festival 2021: 14 Asian Films Taking The Spotlight


1. Aloners, South Korea

Hong Sung-eun’s feature debut, Aloners examines the phenomenon in South Korea called holojok, which refers to the growing number of people who prefer to be left alone in one-person households. Hong’s indie drama draws on the various shades of solitude that colour the lives of its protagonists including Jina (Gong Seung-yeon), who lives in a small unit of an anonymous apartment building.

Jina is a loner until the arrival of new people and new events “disrupt” her solitary life, demanding her to confront close encounters with people around her. Aloners also marks Gong’s debut role in a feature-length movie and is up for a Best Newcomer award at the Asian Film Awards 2021. Hong and Gong both give an intimate portrayal of intergenerational relationships and asocial behaviour underneath feelings of fear of being alone and alienated.

See also: 7 Korean Movies to Watch on Netflix

2. Hellbound, South Korea

Yeon Sang-ho—best known as the writer and director of the smash zombie movie, Train to Busan—is paving the way for Korean dramas on the international scene. His Netflix series, Hellbound is the first Korean drama to be invited to the film festival as part of its Primetime section. The Korean visionary is tapping into the world’s collective anxiety in this upcoming series. Although Hellbound is a drama series rather than a movie, it’s still worth including in this list.

Based on the webtoon The Hell, the series tells the story of a nation coping with the growing number of “sinners” and a religious sect gaining power led by Jung Jin-soo (Yoo Ah-in). Police detective Jin Kyung-hoon (Tang Ik-june) leads the investigation on an ongoing phenomenon of “proclamations” and ritualistic murders. Meanwhile, journalist Bae Young-jae is also looking into the mysterious sect together with lawyer Min Hye-jin (Kim Hyun-joo), who represents the accused sinners.

See also: 30 Best New Korean Dramas to Binge-Watch in 2021

3. Inu-Oh, Japan

Japanese director Masaaki Yuasa is bringing some animated presence to the festival with Inu-Oh. The movie, based on the original work The Tale of Heike Inu-Oh's Episode written by Hideo Furukawa, recounts the life of a legendary figure in Japanese history, the Inu-Oh or King Dog—a dramatic performer from the 14th century. It was a time when the folk theatre of Sarugaku (monkey music) just transitioned into Noh.

Yuasa’s tale of friendship and magic leaves enough room to reimagine Inu-Oh’s life and bring to the screen the extraordinary story of a prodigy who is lost in time in stunning animation sequences. Helmed by a celebrated director of anime, Yuasa has worked on various mind-bending titles including Lu over the Wall and The Night is Short, Walk on Girl.

See also: 12 Must-Watch Japanese Dramas on Netflix in 2021

4. Drive My Car, Japan

Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s critically acclaimed adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short film, Drive My Car has already won Best Screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival. It will delight audiences again at the Toronto Film Festival. Helmed by Hamaguchi, a rising director of contemporary Japanese cinema, Drive My Car is an exploration of loneliness, loss and bereavement.

The three-hour-long adaptation revolves around Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), an ageing, widowed actor who’s in need of a chauffeur. His go-to mechanic recommends a 20-year-old girl to his driver, much to his surprise. Their first impressions of each other weren’t pleasant but a special relationship develop as they continue on their road trip.

See also: Cannes Film Festival 2021: 9 Palme D'Or-Winning Movies to Watch

5. Terrorizers, Taiwan

Taiwanese director Ho Wing-Ding makes a return to the festival with his latest work, Terrorizers, a disarmingly powerful look at the truth beyond the headlines. The movie follows the lost life of young people during pre-Covid Taipei and centres around Ming Liang (Austin Lin), a disturbed young man who has resorted to a clashing attack in public. He crosses paths with five other characters including Kiki (Pipi Yao), a high school student who's in love with Ming Liang.

Festival audiences might recognise Ho from his previous works that screened at the festival including Pinoy Sunday and Cities of Last Things, which was a recipient of the Platform Prize in 2018. This year’s Platform Prize jury is led by Oscar-nominated actor, Riz Ahmed.

See also: Riz Ahmed is the Jury Head for Toronto International Film Festival's Platform Competition

6. The Falls, Taiwan

Chung Mong-Hong, best known for his movie A Sun—which also premiered at TIFF last year and made it to the Oscar shortlist for Best International Feature Film—adds another Taiwanese entry to the festival this year with The Falls. His most ambitious film to date, it’s also Chung’s first movie to feature female characters in lead roles. The movie is about a mother and daughter’s fraught relationship while they’re in quarantine during Covid-19.

The Falls provides an unsettling look at the effects of home confinement in family relationships, highlighting the impact of Covid-19. Chung, himself shot the film and showcases his attentional to detail as the movie takes place at home.

See also: Oscars 2021: 7 Asians That Made History

7. Vengeance is Mine All Others Pay Cash, Indonesia

Based on Eka Kurniawan’s acclaimed novel, Vengeance is Mine All Others Pay Cash is the latest from Indonesian New Wave director, Edwin. Breaking from his usual arthouse style, Edwin sets into the path of martial arts, hardboiled crime and a sappy, oddball romance. The movie makes use of vibrant 16mm photography, backed by a retro score that completely nails the 70s and 80s aesthetics.

Promising to be action-packed, the movie follows the misadventures of Ajo Kawir (Marthino Lio), who hails from the streets. His macho-ness is challenged when he falls hopelessly in love with the equally brawling Iteung (Ladya Cheryl). But the happiness of the two lovers is threatened by a lot of other things beyond their control.


8. Yuni, Indonesia

Another offering from Indonesia is Kamila Andini’s coming-of-age drama, Yuni. Making her return to the festival, Andini is the first filmmaker to be presented twice in the Platform competition. Her latest work draws from Balinese mythology to tell a story of how young children deal with the mysteries of life and death.

We follow the story of Yuni, played by Arawinda Kirana, who is trying to find the balance between her filial obligations and her desire for freedom. The movie explores the escalating gender constraints on Yuni while trying not to break the closeness she has with her grandmother.

9. Whether the Weather is Fine, The Philippines

The Philippines’ lone entry to the festival is Carlo Francisco Manatad's Whether the Weather is Fine, based on the events of Typhoon Haiyan that ravaged the city of Tacloban in 2013. Among those left standing after the typhoon are Miguel (Daniel Padilla), his mother (Charo Santos) and his friend, Andrea (Rans Rifol). The three might have survived but living proves to be just as difficult as food is in short supply, the rescue centres are overflowing and everything is in absolute chaos and confusion.

What’s more, another storm seems to be on the way. Hope comes when a ship leaving for Manila takes in survivors and the three try to make their way towards a new future. Manatad’s feature has been described as evoking the same sentiment’s seen in Jia Zhangke's Still Life and reminiscent of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s work.

10. One Second, China

Zhang Yimou—a giant of international cinema and part of the fifth generation of Chinese filmmakers—will have his movie, One Second, close out the festival this year. The movie was supposed to premiere at the 2019 Berlinale but had been pulled out at the last minute. Zhang is nominated for Best Director and One Second for Best Film at the Asian Film Awards 2021.

One Second is described as the renowned director’s love letter to cinema that tells the story of a nameless hero’s escape from a labour camp to be reunited with his daughter. The movie highlights the director’s return to form as a master of intimate storytelling before his epic wuxia stories.

11. Are You Lonesome Tonight, China

Are You Lonesome Tonight, which also screened at the Cannes Film Festival, marks Wen Shipei’s directorial debut. Boasting a star-studded cast led by Eddie Peng and Sylvia Chang, the mesmerising thriller follows Xueming (Peng), a man who flees the scene when his car hits a pedestrian. Feeling guilt after the fact, he decides to meet the dead man’s wife, Mrs Liang (Chang).

However, when the man’s body is discovered, it’s covered in bullets, making the case for murder. The detective in charge becomes obsessed with the case and tries to unravel the mystery with the help of Xueming and Mrs Liang. Marking a strong debut for a newcomer, the movie is marketed as having a strikingly similar style to Wong Kar-wai’s early works.

12. Memoria, Thailand

Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize co-winner, Memoria is also screening at this year’s TIFF. This long-awaited feature from Apichatpong Weerasethakul showcases the Thai director’s mastery of storytelling and serene narrative style. For the first time in his career, the movie takes place outside of Thailand and marks his English and Spanish debuts. Starring Tilda Swinton as Jessica, we follow her as she tries to find the source of a loud sound that has haunted her for days.

But the sound is more than that, it carries a foreboding beauty that seems to be one with the landscape. She meets up with Agnes (Jeanne Balibar), a new friend and archaeologist who's researching human remains that show signs of ritual deaths. Somehow, Jessica also shares memories with Hernan (Elkin Díaz), a fish scaler who knows of the past, future and has memories of the dead.

See also: Cannes Film Festival 2021: Full Winners List

13. A Hero, Iran

Best known for his intimate portrayal of family conflicts, two-time Academy Award-winning director Asghar Farhadi and his new movie, A Hero continues his legacy. This latest from the director is about Rahim (Amir Jadidi), a man who’s now in prison because he wasn’t able to pay a debt. During his two-day leave, he tries to convince his creditor to withdraw the complaint—only things didn’t go as planned. 

Farhadi offers a rich take on today's age of the internet: gossip and social media. The director is one of the few to have won Best Foreign Language Film (now Best International Feature Film) twice.

14. Zalava, Iran

Another entry from Iran this year is Zalava, which marks Arsalan Amiri’s first feature film. The movie is set in a remote village plagued by reports of demonic possession and a sceptical military officer, Masoud (Navid Pourfaraj) attempts to investigate these strange circumstances, but it leads to a shocking death. The incident further angers the villages and draws the ire of Amardan (Puria Rahimi Sam), a shaman who claims he has the solution to the village’s supernatural problems.

Amiri’s feature debut oozes with eerie atmosphere and provides a look at the arguments about faith, tradition and modernity. Haunting, riveting and artfully photographed, Zalava is a must watch at this year’s TIFF.

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