It’s been three years since Bong Joon-ho, director of the critically acclaimed film Parasite, said: “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” And that’s never been more true than now.
This year, so many Asian directors are coming out with new and exciting movies — not just from powerhouses like South Korea and Japan but also from countries like the Philippines and Turkey.
So whether you’re a long-time fan of foreign cinema or looking to discover new directors whose filmographies you can dive into, here are 18 Asian directors to watch out for in 2023.
Hayao Miyazaki, Japan
After a ten-year wait, Hayao Miyazaki is coming out with his first movie since The Wind Rises — and it’s also said to be his last.
Entitled How Do You Live?, the upcoming Studio Ghibli film is inspired by Genzaburo Yoshino’s 1937 novel of the same name, which follows a boy who moves in with his uncle after the death of his father. The movie is said to tell its own story, though, instead of being a direct adaptation.
For the uninitiated, Miyazaki is behind whimsical, humanist films like Castle in the Sky (1986) and the award-winning Spirited Away (2001), as well as beloved characters like Totoro. He both wrote and directed the upcoming movie, which has been in the works since 2016. Miyazaki has explained that where he used to be able to produce 10 minutes of animation in a month, he’s now only able to go at around 1 minute per month.
As for whether it will really be Miyazaki’s final film is anyone’s guess. After releasing The Wind Rises in 2013, the director announced his retirement then, too, and that he meant it that time. He said, “I know I’ve said I would retire many times in the past. Many of you must think, ‘Once again.’ But this time I am quite serious.”
How Do You Live? is set for a Japanese release on July 14 this year. While those of us who live elsewhere are still waiting for information on an international debut, I recommend giving Miyazaki’s classic movies like Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) a watch.
Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong
A critically acclaimed Hong Kong filmmaker, screenwriter, and producer, Wong Kar-wai is another big name making an exciting return to the limelight after a ten-year wait. After working on films like The Grandmaster (2013), Chungking Express (1994), and Happy Together (1997), Wong is set to debut Blossoms Shanghai, a TV series with a movie version reportedly in the works.
Starring Hu Ge, Ma Yili, Tang Yan, and Xin Zhilei, Blossoms Shanghai tells the story of a self-made millionaire in the early 1990s. It is adapted from Jin Yucheng’s novel, Blossoms.
Acclaimed screenwriter Qin Wen and Academy Award-winning cinematographer Peter Pau also worked on the project.
“Jin Yucheng’s landmark novel Blossoms has been the perfect backdrop to visualize and share my love for my birth city,” shared Wong. “With the series, I would like to invite the audience to immerse in the intrigues of Shanghai and its inhabitants in the early 1990s, an exciting time that paved the way for the prosperity of modern Shanghai.”
He has also described Blossoms Shanghai to be the third and final installment of a trilogy with In The Mood for Love (2000) and 2046 (2004). Fans of Wong’s stylish cinematography, complex characters, and non-linear narratives centering on love and loss will have plenty to enjoy in the series’ 50-minute episodes, which took more than 3 years to film.
Isabel Sandoval, Philippines
After debuting her film Lingua Franca to critical acclaim at the Venice Film Festival in 2019, trans filmmaker, producer, screenwriter, and actress Isabel Sandoval is back this year with Tropical Gothic, a surrealist, anticolonial drama set in 16th century Philippines.
The film tells the haunting of a Spanish conquistador who is tricked by a native priestess into thinking that she is possessed by the spirit of his dead bride. She hopes to manipulate him into returning farmlands to the local community.
Produced by Big Beach and with the help of the 10,000-euro VFF talent highlight award, Tropical Gothic is being shot in Cebu, Philippines, and has Cebuano as its main language.
While waiting for what’s set to be Sandoval’s most ambitious work yet, it’s worth taking the time to watch 2019’s Lingua Franca, streaming on Netflix via Ava Duvernay’s Array Now initiative.
In it, Sandoval stars as an undocumented trans-Filipina worker in Trump’s United States — a role that earned her the Best Actress award at the 18th Pacific Meridian International Film Festival. The film also won the Jury Award for Best Narrative Feature at the 2020 Bentonville Film Festival.
Zhang Yimou, China
Zhang Yimou is a living legend of Chinese cinema. With the Berlin International Film Festival’s Golden Bear and the Cannes Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize under his belt, he will be bringing his latest movie, Full River Red, to the United States this year.
The film is said to be the world’s biggest blockbuster of 2023 so far, with upwards of $644 million in box office sales in China. Full River Red is a period comedy action thriller loosely inspired by a classic Chinese poem. It is set in the late 12th century amidst a brewing rebellion against the Imperial court.
Full River Red revolves around the mysterious murder of an ambassador and the race to find both his killer and the missing document he was carrying for the emperor. The film’s balance of suspense and humor is carried by stars Shen Teng and Jackson Yee.
At 71, Zhang has had a long, prolific, and successful career both at home and abroad, garnering Oscar nominations for films like Ju Dou (1990), Raise the Red Lantern (1991), and Hero (2003). He even directed two Olympic opening ceremonies.
But he’s not slowing down at all. Full River Red seems to be the biggest film thus far in Zhang’s 35-year career, and he has at least two more films on their way to the big screen: the contemporary crime thriller Under the Light and a sequel to his 2021 film Cliff Walkers.
Woo Ming Jin, Malaysia
Woo Ming Jin, a pioneer of Malaysian New Wave Cinema, is having a busy year this 2023. Fresh off the festival run of Stone Turtle (2022), which is set to reach international cinemas this year, Woo is also aiming to release his horror film Indera.
The first Malaysian film to be picked for the main categories at the Locarno Film Festival, Stone Turtle is a folk time-travel revenge movie that follows a refugee and a researcher on the eastern coast of Malaysia. It was inspired by the time Woo spent in the area, where he learned about turtle egg poaching and the neighborhoods that subsist on it.
“I had always been drawn to the richness of Malaysian folklore and myths and felt they have not been depicted in cinema much,” Woo shared in an interview with Variety. “The original folklore of Stone Turtle is a story that mirrors the journey of [the main character], and I tried to use that as a starting point to delve deeper into the character’s quest.”
The movie is a collaboration between Malaysia’s Greenlight Pictures and Indonesia’s KawanKawan Media.
Amjad Al Rasheed, Jordan
It took six long years to bring his debut film over the line, but Jordanian director Amjad Al Rasheed is premiering Inshallah A Boy at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival this May. It is the first ever Jordanian film to be screened at the French festival.
Al-Rasheed holds an MFA in Cinematic Arts and was previously selected by Screen International as one of five “Arab Stars of Tomorrow” in 2016. His work mostly consisted of short films, which gathered recognition at film festivals in and out of the Arab region before he dove into his first full-length feature.
Co-produced by Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, Inshallah A Boy was shot in 2022 with a mostly Jordanian crew.
In it, Mouna Hawa stars as Nawal, a recently widowed woman at risk of losing the home she had paid for herself. According to the Jordanian inheritance law, her husband’s family is entitled to her belongings — all because she does not have a son. Her solution? To pretend to be pregnant.
Al-Rasheed has spoken about the “profound” personal and emotional significance of the film to him. He said, “Survival, empowerment, and hope; Inshallah A Boy is a film about living under the constraints of an oppressive patriarchal society… My dedication to telling this story was to create something that is both authentic and realistic, to resonate with audiences and provoke them to think.”
Rajkumar Hirani, India
A filmmaker, director, producer, and editor known for Hindi dramas tackling social issues with humor and empathy, Rajkumar Hirani is back this year with Dunki, a film about illegal routes — or “Donkey Flights” — that Indians use to immigrate to countries like the United States and Canada.
The new film marks Hirani’s first time working with Shah Rukh Khan, whom he describes as someone who has always been on his “wish list.” He said, “The energy, charisma, humor and charm that he brings to a film is unparalleled, and I look forward to bringing that magic to the big screen.”
The excitement to work together is mutual, and they even made a cute announcement video about the upcoming film.
Starring alongside Khan are Taapsee Pannu and Boman Irani.
While waiting for the film’s release, scheduled for December this year, audiences can get acquainted with some of Hirani’s most famous work, such as the coming-of-age drama 3 Idiots (2009) and the biography Sanju (2018), both available to stream on Netflix.
Garin Nugroho, Indonesia
From one veteran to another — the next director to watch on this list is Indonesia-based Garin Nugroho, whose career has spanned over 35 years. This year, Nugroho is back with Melodrama.
A musical film with a focus on Indonesian cultural history, the film centers on Layar, a popular actor who has become bored with his career and sets out to pursue musical theater. The story will be told through letters, photographs, artifacts, and diary-based narratives — the whole thing being Nugroho’s love letter to Indonesian creative industries.
Over the years, the director has made a name for himself with his dedication to showcasing Indonesian culture and mentoring up-and-coming filmmakers, as well as his ability to craft stylish films with a socio-political message.
Audiences interested in ancient epics might enjoy Requiem from Java (2006), Nugroho’s musical adaptation of a section of the Ramayana. Meanwhile, those looking to find a more contemporary exploration of gender and society should see Memories of My Body (2018).
Nugroho’s films have earned him recognition nationally and regionally, garnering awards from the Asia Pacific Film Festival in Seoul and the Tokyo International Film Festival.
Aparna Sen, India
Aparna Sen has been working non-stop in the world of Bengali cinema since the age of 16, first as an actress in films like Basanta Bilap (1973) and Memsaheb (1972), and later on in the writer’s room and behind the camera.
As a director, she’s released award-winning films like 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981) and Mr. and Mrs. Iyer (2002). In 1987, she was awarded the Padma Shri, the fourth-highest civilian award by the Government of India.
Sen’s sixteenth film as a director — her first in the Hindi language — is The Rapist, a hard-hitting film about how society produces rapists and follows the lives of three main characters. One of them, Naina Malik, is a rape victim played by Sen’s own daughter, Konkona Sen Sharma. The film explores themes of power, class, and the patriarchy.
Technically, The Rapist premiered at the 2021 Busan International Film Festival, where it won the Kim Jiseok Award. It later went on to win the Best Director Award for Sen at the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne in 2022. However, the film is set for public release sometime this year and is expected to make waves in and out of India.
Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan
International audiences may have first heard of Japanese director, producer, screenwriter, and editor Hirokazu Kore-eda when his film Shoplifters, a movie about a young girl welcomed into a family of petty thieves, won the coveted Palme d’Or at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival.
Since then, he’s added to his filmography with acclaimed titles like The Truth (2019), his first non-Japanese language film shot in Europe, and Broker (2021), a South Korean production that won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival.
This year, Kore-eda is back with another collaboration with Shoplifters star Sakura Ando, this time in a film entitled Monster. In it, when Saori (Ando) notices that her son Minato is behaving strangely, she decides to go to his school in search of answers.
The film is set to compete for the Palme d’Or at the 76th Cannes Film Festival in May and will be released in Japan in June this year.
The trailer currently doesn’t have English subtitles. But hopefully, its success at festivals and Japanese commercial screenings will change that. While we wait, I recommend giving Shoplifters a watch, as it’s currently available on Amazon Prime.
Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey
Another Cannes darling to watch out for this year is Nuri Bilge Ceylan, a Turkish director, screenwriter, actor, and producer known for films exploring existentialism and the human experience.
In 2014, his film Winter Sleep won the Palme d’Or at the 67th Cannes Film Festival, making it the second Turkish film to win the award.
Five of his films have represented the country for the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film, while other titles like Mayıs Sıkıntısı (1999), Climates (2006), Three Monkeys (2008), Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011), and The Wild Pear Tree (2018) also garnered awards and critical acclaim at Cannes.
In May this year, he’ll be back in Cannes with About Dry Grasses, which tells the story of a young teacher from rural eastern Anatolia hoping to land a job in Istanbul. The film will premiere in France in July.
Park Chan-wook, Korea
Sapphics may know of South Korean director, screenwriter, and producer Park Chan-Wook thanks to the fantastic WLW film The Handmaiden (2016). Meanwhile, Cannes audiences would be familiar with his films Oldboy (2003), which won that year’s Grand Prix prize, and Decision to Leave (2022), which won Park the Best Director Award.
His films and TV shows explore themes of vengeance and violence but also of humanity, told in twisting narratives and gorgeous visuals. Park’s new historical dark comedy, The Sympathizer, is looking to deliver more and better.
An adaptation of Vietnamese-American professor Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel of the same name, the miniseries follows the story of a North Vietnam plant who finds himself in the South Vietnam army and, later, with South Vietnamese refugees in the United States. The Sympathizer stars Hoa Xuande, Fred Nguyen Khan, and Toan Le, with performances from Sandra Oh and Robert Downey Jr.
This marks Park’s second foray into TV and will air on HBO via A24 and Rhombus Media. While we wait, I’d definitely recommend watching The Handmaiden — one of those rare-ish lesbian films with a happy ending.
Ryoo Seung-wan, Korea
Known as Korea’s “action kid,” Ryoo Seung-wan is booked and busy. Even as his previous film, Escape from Mogadishu (2021), was making its festival rounds and ruling the box office, Ryoo was already hard at work on the next one.
Smugglers, due for a July release this year, is his third-period film in a row but is different in that it centers on female characters. More specifically, the upcoming action thriller is about women divers (known locally as haenyeo) who get caught up in the smuggling business when factories were built by the beach in their normally peaceful village.
The cast is led by Kim Hye-soo and Yum Jung-ah, while filmmakers R&K and N.E.W. served as producers.
After training under Park Chan-wook himself, Ryoo first broke into the scene in 2020 with Die Bad, which earned him the Best New Director title at the Blue Dragon Film Awards. He’s since gathered quite a few more honors, including the Grand Prize at the 58th Baeksang Arts Awards last year and the best director nod from the Buil Film Awards.
While waiting for Smugglers, I’d recommend watching Crying Fist (2005) and The Battleship Island (2017).
Muayad Alayan, Palestine
Muayad Alayan, a Palestinian film director, producer, and cinematographer, first began work on his upcoming film A House in Jerusalem back in 2009. However, he and the Bethlehem-based production company PalCine Productions felt that it was too ambitious at the time, especially for his first full-length feature, and the project was shelved.
But now, the project is hitting theaters 14 years and a few more films later — including The Reports On Sarah And Saleem (2018), a film about an affair between a married Palestinian man and a married Israeli woman in Jerusalem, as well as Love, Theft And Other Entanglements (2015), in which a Palestinian car thief gets into the trouble when he steals the wrong car.
In A House in Jerusalem, a young Rebecca (played by BBC star Miley Locke) moves with her father from the UK to her grandfather’s home in Jerusalem after the untimely death of her mother. As she tries to heal from the loss, she finds that her new home is haunted by the ghost of a Palestinian girl.
Alayan has shared with Screen Daily that the film was inspired by his parents, who became refugees when the state of Israel was created in 1948 and had to leave their entire lives behind. He shared that he “grew up feeling that a piece of them was really stuck in time in those houses, that era, that neighborhood.”
Giddens Ko, Taiwan
Giddens Ko is a storyteller first and foremost, having started out as a novelist — who, at his peak, was publishing a book per month for 14 months — before becoming a filmmaker. He started to work behind the camera with 2008’s L-O-V-E and adapted his own book, The Girl We Chased Together in Those Years, into a film called You Are the Apple of My Eye (2010).
He has since built a name for himself with his book-to-film adaptations and garnered awards for You Are the Apple of My Eye (2010) and Mon Mon Mon Monsters (2017).
This year, Ko is back with Miss Shampoo, a gangster romance comedy based on one of his short stories. In it, a newly promoted mafia boss makes his colleagues go to the salon and have their hair done by a girl that saved his life; Visian Sung and Daniel Hong (of the hip-hop group Nine One One fame) star in this film.
Sivaroj Kongsakul, Thailand
Sivaroj Kongsakul, who goes by Karn, learned under the tutelage of fellow Thai directors Penek Ratanaruang, Aditya Assarat, and Wisit Sasanatieng before helming his own films, starting with the short films Always (2006) and Silencio (2007).
His first feature film, Eternity (2010), premiered at the Busan Film Festival before winning the prestigious Tiger Award at the 41st Rotterdam Film Festival and Best Film at Deauville Asian Film Festival.
Kongsakul is back this year with his new film Regretfully at Dawn. A meditation on life and death, the film revolves around the intertwined stories of an old man, a young girl, and a soldier.
Nicole Midori Woodford, Singapore
Nicole Midori Woodford is a Singaporean film director, writer, and editor whose short films have graced events like the Busan International Film Festival, Signes De Nuit, and the Singapore International Film Festival.
Her latest project, Last Shadow at First Light, is an ambitious supernatural arthouse drama shot in Singapore and Japan. In it, 16-year-old Ami is haunted by visions. When she discovers old recordings of her long-dead mother, she travels to Japan to find the only person who might know what happened to her — a taxi-driving uncle in Tokyo.
“This is a film borne out of darkness and loss, of a family’s frailties, set in both Singapore and Japan,” Woodford told Variety in an interview. “Shooting between two countries, I hope to capture the diverse mise-en-scene from the urban cities to the vast transformed landscapes my characters are lost within. It has been incredible to work with my actors amidst such poignant terrain.”
The cast is led by Tsutsui Mariko and Nagase Masatoshi, while Singapore’s Jeremy Chua and Japan’s Shozo Ichiyama serve as producers. The film was also supported by the SEAFIC Lab’s SEA Open Fund, TorinoFilmLab Feature Lab’s TFL Coproduction Award, and the Singapore Film Commission, among others.
Kenneth Dagatan, Philippines
Last but not least is Kenneth Dagatan, a Manila-based writer and director hailing from Cebu, Philippines. In 2018, he made waves with his debut film, Ma, which told the story of a boy who sold his soul to bring his dead mother back to life.
Dagatan is back this year with his highly anticipated sophomore film, In My Mother’s Skin. A mix of magical realism, historical allegory, and folk horror, it was the only foreign language film to screen at the Midnight section of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.
A co-production among the Philippines, Singapore, and Taiwan, In My Mother’s Skin, follows Tala, a girl who tries to protect her mother in a war-stricken Philippines under Japanese occupation. It stars Felicity Kyle Napuli, Jasmine Curtis-Smith, and Beauty Gonzalez.
Fans of Philippine cinema might recognize one of the film’s main locations: the Gaston Mansion in Negros, which was the same property featured in the classic film Oro, Plata, Mata (1982), directed by Peque Gallaga.
Amazon Prime Video will make the film ready to stream later this year. While waiting, fans of folk horror might want to try watching the first two of Dagatan’s “Mother” trilogy: The short film Sanctissima (2015), embedded above, and his debut feature Ma (2018), available on iWantTFC.