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Reel Asian 2021 Features Ranked

And Exploring the Conundrums of Film Ranking and Rating

by Mathew Gene

This essay is published as part of the Youth Critics Initiative III, a collaborative mentorship incubator between the 25th Reel Asian Film Festival and TACLA.

If you don’t examine your engagement with cinema, what use does it have besides being a dopamine rush? This isn’t to say pleasure in cinema is frivolous; cinema is powerfully transformative and it’s a shame when it’s undervalued. Then to value and deepen our understanding of cinema we can look towards a simple tool that can reveal the substructure of our personal definition of quality — ranking lists.

When we dissect our tastes and preferences we create the opportunity to reveal interesting insights about ourselves and the world-at-large that might make us active participants rather than passive consumers: an exercise that makes you more thoughtful and examined. And can also open you to embrace novel ideas and experiences. This is why I believe the exercise of ranking films is a worthy one.

However, there are many issues you run into when trying to grapple with forming a coherent standard for rating films, mainly the issues of false equivalency. How can you compare the effectiveness of a comedy whose goal is to make you laugh versus a documentary whose goal is to educate? They are both films after all which means they share a common set of attributes like cinematography, sound, editing, etc. but this is far too reductive of an approach. We can all agree these fundamental elements of a film have a massive influence on the experience and joy of watching them but the genre attributes of a comedy differ completely from a documentary in the effect they intend to have on an audience. The demands of the style of acting and narrative offer no common ground for qualitative measurement. How does the landing of a joke compare to a tragic death scene in a documentary? It can’t. Furthermore, this is complicated by genre-bending films that, for example, may intermix elements of fiction and documentary. And genres are not fixed, they are malleable and permeable, further complicating matters. This leaves us with a world of rankings and ratings filled with scales and criteria that are invisible to us. However, the strange thing is that despite this paradox, people can intuit the cinematic value of films of disparate genres.

In the case of rating films, often I find that not all scores are equal and that can be for an endless number of reasons. A film I see as an 8 might differ slightly from another film I also rated as an 8.

The reality is that the stability in ratings is an illusion, they have always been extremely volatile.

My impressions toward a film can be different hour to hour, day to day, and year to year, and the idea of strict quantification of preferences remains impossible in the potential reality that there might be an infinite number of emotions to be experienced and how the folly of memory contributes to the impossibility of objectivity. Apples can’t be compared to oranges but even amongst oranges, there’s variability and subtleties that can’t be compared either.

As a side note, it’s also frustrating seeing reviewers who use a scale that is overly granular. For example, what is the difference between an 85 and an 86 or a 6.7 and 6.8? At least with scores that are less fine there’s still a chance of self-defining the difference between a score of 9 and 10. The increased granularity only leads to an appearance of precision but they are meaningless and just add confusion.

There’s also the case of films where I can absolutely recognize the reasons they are lauded as masterpieces but none of the elements resonate with me. It should be good but for an inexplicable reason, it’s not good. Something is missing. Sometimes everything I love about canonically great films is plainly visible, but I still cannot pinpoint where everything went wrong. In this case, what does a numerical rating actually mean when I try to prescribe it with one? This is where people’s rating systems can depart significantly.

Is rating a film something that occurs intrinsically or extrinsically? Depending on your answer, you can take your canon of films and find a whole new perspective if you’ve only ranked and rated according to personal preference as opposed to extrinsic factors which might be conventional standards of quality, importance to a community, how innovative to the medium it is, etc.

There can be a near-infinite number of lenses that can be applied to any system of rating invisible to you when consuming the reviews and ratings of other individuals.

In making public these types of ranking lists, inevitably a film has to be in the first position and a film has to be in the last position. This means the first place film will gain exposure but the last position film will be underexposed despite potentially being a film that still has significant merits to it. Take for example MANZANAR, DIVERTED: WHEN WATER BECOMES DUST in last year’s Reel Asian lineup. It was far from being my favourite film of the festival due to my preference bias against documentaries. That being said, it’s still an extremely worthy film to watch for its exposure to sociopolitical issues surrounding land and access to water in Manzanar, California. It’s also an opportunity for communities to understand each other, learn about the scars from the past, and heal and reconcile them. The documentary was clearly handled with tremendous sensitivity and care so it feels unfair to place it so far at the bottom of the list. This is one of the flaws of ranking films, although I still maintain that these lists are valuable despite this fact.

The task of ranking and rating films might be full of pitfalls but what remains after the attempt is a greater appreciation for the films you love. Or perhaps, an altered perspective. Regardless of the outcome, the process of determining taste always leads to self-inquiry. In other words, consciously engaging taste is a form of self-inquiry. Films you resonate with often reflect your inner self. They mold you and you mold to it. They can reflect the cultural moment and they can also be expeditions into the tacit but inarticulable. This also means cinema can give us grounds for generating the vocabulary for concepts and ideas that are floating in the collective consciousness but have yet to be made explicit.

It’s highly likely my attitude and feelings towards this set of films will change over time, making it futile to proclaim that these are the best of the Toronto Reel Asian Film Festival films for 2021. I find myself adjusting my personal rating of films years after I’ve watched them quite often. As a person changes over time, so does our reaction to cinema in the past, present, and future. New input and experiences dictate our being and character and thereby perpetually influence our tastes and preferences. Despite this piece having the illusion of permanence of written word, I say embrace impermanence! No opinions are fixed and this is an attempt to capture the zeitgeist of the present moment like a fly in amber!

And now I present to you my rankings. For some logical consistency, the following are my criteria for ranking Toronto Reel Asian Film Festival’s features:

  1. Profundity /10 — As Cameron Bailey (the current CEO of Toronto International Film Festival) once said (and I paraphrase), “films are political”. Irrespective of if a film’s intention is to be political, a film is always going to be placed within the context of the zeitgeist of the world it was birthed into. Of course, not all films need to be deeply profound to succeed as great cinema, but I myself have always gravitated to films that reveal something deep about the nature of the world we are situated in. A high number indicates the film was profound.
  2. Engaging /10 — Something happens when you’re in a dark theatre and being at the mercy of a powerful audio system. You will have no choice but to be hypnotized by the rhythmic dance of image and sound. However, this is only possible when a film is successful at engaging its audience which is contingent on a myriad of factors such as cinematography, acting performances, plot, etc. This hypnosis can also be easily broken by an odd camera angle, unskillful editing, or poor acting performances. A high number indicates the film was engaging, the audience was hypnotized and spellbound by it.
  3. Novelty /10 — Let’s not talk about Spike Lee’s remake of Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy. I think this section is self-explanatory, most people want to see something they’ve never seen before! Although I note here that what I mean by novelty is something fresh that is pulled off successfully. Failed attempts don’t count! A high number indicates the film was novel and vice versa.
  4. This could have been an email instead of a meeting /10 — There are films (like those of Terrence Malick) where image, sound, and dialogue are inseparable. The heart of his films could never be translated into a book. Meanwhile, there are films which are pure dialogue and could be, as the title of this criteria is called, an email. In these cases, reading would have sufficed. Therefore, I believe films should take advantage of the medium and if they don’t, they’re redundant. A high number indicates this film took advantage of the medium, making it impossible to translate into the written word.
An excel sheet of film rankings

Note: while this is a quantitative account of how I feel about these films, you might notice that when summing the columns the totals won’t follow the rankings! Ultimately, there is still a je ne sais quois quality that cannot be captured in numerical values, so read on below to get a full picture of how I came to these conclusions.


It’s really hard to make a time travel film. It’s doubly hard making it on a low budget. It’s triply hard to make a time travel film that’s conceptually novel and compelling. BEYOND THE INFINITE TWO MINUTES does this all with charm, comedy, and warmth. The layers of this film are complicated but not so much so that the film is lost to excessive sci-fi jargon.

It hits all my taste preferences of it being a profound, engaging, and novel film taking advantage of the medium. A complete meal! It even does so with mass appeal, as a family-friendly film that can be appreciated by children, adults, cinephiles, and sci-fi lovers.

On many technical levels, the seamless “single take” shots were slick and added to the forward momentum of the entire film. Instead of taking this sci-fi to high stakes and universal heights, we get a tastefully compact and contained story that is cohesive and with no narrative slack. Not only does it perform as sci-fi, it also quietly reminds us of the only life truly available to us: to live in the present. Dealing with anxiety about the future and the importance of being present. Not the newest concepts but the subtle way it’s been injected into chaotic consequences of time travel madness is par excellence.

Read my review of it here


Although I’m writing this review months after having watched it, I’m still left with the beautiful impressions this film left on me. It weaves the personal story of Marius Lunde, a mixed-race Japanese-Norwegian man searching for his biological Japanese mother. Intercut between the reality of the search is a weaving of fictional scenes painting the emotional landscape felt by Marius. The pain, loss, grief, anger, and entire spectrum of human emotion projected into these short sequences doubly act as an homage to the cinema both Marius and director Fredrik S. Hana loves and appreciates.

They really made use of all the film making tools available to them, shooting in varying aspect ratios, playing with different color grades, and alternating styles of different film eras. Most of all, I love this film for its intensely beautiful scenes of friendship shared between Fredrik and Marius as they both ponder how life influences art and how art influences life.


This film takes place in a f****** screen recording of a video editing software. It takes place in a screen recording where a director and hired video editor are trying to edit a film that’s been haunted by a ghost. Undoubtedly the most unorthodox feature in this list, it manages to be a commentary on the making of a film and comedy all at the same time. On top of that, it involves a ghost that keeps you on your toes, making its appearance in campy jump scares. I love this film, its vision is delicately thoughtful and purposeful in a way that is never pretentious or pedantic. Like BEYOND THE INFINITE TWO MINUTES, it is a shorter film clocking in at 40 minutes, leaving no fat to be trimmed. I am very excited to see Hong Seong-yoon’s future feature debut as there are exciting creative sparks of an auteur in this one.

4. TAIPEI SUICIDE STORY (DIR. KEFF) — Taipei Suicide Story Trailer

TAIPEI SUICIDE STORY is as depressing as the title would have you guess but the film makes clear the precious moments in time that escape us when we fail to notice them. The stuff that makes life mysteriously worth living. This film takes place in a fictional suicide hotel in Taiwan where guests come to die. It tells the story of a receptionist and a guest who find themselves finding connection in the most unexpected of places. In a short 45 minutes, TAIPEI SUICIDE STORY finds the tragedy, (dis)connection, and humanity within the deafeningly quiet frames of a bleak hotel and an indifferent neon-lit urban landscape. Very little is said but the dialogue speaks loudly. I still think about it.


HAIL DRIVER! pontificates on surviving urban isolation and the inability to escape our conditions due to external factors. This film is an honest, uncontrived look at life in modern-day Kuala Lumpur through Aman (Amerul Affendi), a rideshare driver paying off the debts of his recently deceased father. While this film questions more than answers, HAIL DRIVER! is noir cinematic candy that serves as an inquiry into the ills of modern-day city life. It languishes in detailed urban shots that are expressive like the frames want to burst out from black and white into saturated colour. Easily one of the most atmospheric films I’ve seen in 2021 thanks to an incredible aesthetic Wongian vision.


What are the thoughts of a dying man? I WAS A SIMPLE MAN is an effective meditation on the end of life. It’s about Masao (Steve Iwamoto), a man with terminal lung cancer reliving his life in dreams and flashbacks on his deathbed. It explores finding resolution in the end, reconciling with hatred, family, and dealing with the guilt of the things you did and didn’t do. All of which are universal themes that plague us with existential dread from time to time. There just isn’t enough time in life to make amends with all the loose ends. Is letting go the only option? Its merits lie in its ethereal, contemplative, and atmospheric approach that gives you a window into what it might really feel like to be near the end.


Even at 50 years old, it’s never too late to change. ISLANDS is a resonant quiet film that allows you to feel the contours of Joshua’s (Rogelio Balagtas) life as a 50-year-old Filipino taking care of his parents. Despite his age, he remains sheltered, never having made anything out of his life. His biggest hurdle: his own shyness and timidness. Transformation doesn’t come until fate knocks on the door. And it doesn’t come without battling with getting over yourself and accepting help from others to navigate the storm. ISLANDS takes a story with simple beats and treats it with sensitivity and lovingkindness. It turns the quotidian into something transcendent.


DRIFTING is a harsh portrait of the lived reality of street sleepers in Hong Kong who are systematically neglected by their socio-political landscape. The film opens with police forcibly vacating their sleeping place, and follows the group searching for recourse and finding their way in life. It’s an incredibly well-acted drama with veteran actors like Francis Ng who plays Fai, completely transforming into his role as a fresh out of jail street sleeper. It’s best viewed as a slice of life film that immerses you into the details of the lives of the homeless, humanizing those that are often forgotten. Unfortunately, the ending felt rushed and unsatisfying given the well fleshed out characters. Then again, for a complex topic, one shouldn’t expect a tidy end with compelling answers.


Generational trauma reverberates. THREE SISTERS examines the fact of being born: a bond to your family that is inescapable, in all its light and darkness. This is about three sisters; Mi-ok (Jang Yoon-ju), a brash drifter showing no respect or regard for her family and the people she meets. Mi-yeon (Jeon Mi-yeon), is a cunning two-faced snake who, deceivingly, is the most brutal sister. Lastly, there’s Hee-sook (Kim Sun-young) who is meek and the most pitiable of all, a doormat whose meekness is taken to the point of frustration.

It’s a family drama that follows the lives of these three sisters as mature adults, navigating their own unique traumas in different ways. It’s salacious, deprived, angsty, and cathartic all at the same time. While the pacing is an issue, it’s saved by stellar performances by the three sisters who all represent different reactions to a difficult childhood upbringing. All three stories of the sisters trickle down into an absolutely spellbinding finale that connects the loose threads.


“A person has to belong somewhere, has to feel somewhere is like home. Whenever that happens, then that person can go home.”

Definitively the most challenging documentary from last year’s Reel Asian lineup that investigates the distance between home, dreams, and memories through photo essays, interviews, and archival footage. It’s a documentary that fundamentally explores exile and displacement but in an energetically subconscious, poetic, and cinematic fashion. There’s also an undercurrent of Malickian-inspired abstract elements that make it a tastefully unique film. Despite this, there are editing choices that don’t fully land for me. For a film whose focus is on the loss and search for home in the aftermath of displacement, downstream of the tragedy of war, it lacked an emotional core. Rather the mood was stoic, which perhaps may have been intentional or simply the reality, given the unimaginable scenes refugees witnessed in their homes but it still left me wanting something more to grasp onto. DAMASCUS DREAMS certainly has the fingerprints of an up and coming idiosyncratic director so I look forward to new projects coming from Émilie Serrie.


It’s been nearly a decade since high school but I still love coming-of-age, high school teen dramas. Maybe it’s from an unsatisfactory childhood or a nostalgia for the perceived good times I had. The genre continues to entertain and delight me.

INBETWEEN GIRL excels at deconstructing the trauma downstream of biracial divorce. Its depiction of the collision between culture and divorce is fresh, unique, and captures the Asian-ness of 3rd culture kids. There are some superbly constructed scenes depicting the coming-of-age events Angie (Emma Galbraith) moves through as her parent’s divorce proceeds. She’s in between her parents, her adolescent and early adult years, and her Chinese and American culture. Despite the divorce not being the integral plot point for the film, it arguably does more for Asian-American cinema than what past films have only dreamt of doing.

This film may not be as polished as other diasporic Asian cinema works in the canon such as TIGERTAIL or MINARI but it does feel the most representative and salient stab at it. Most of the film centers on often used tropes in the teen coming-of-age genre (and does so reasonably well), but it’s especially successful as meditation and insight on divorce intersecting with culture. While my review is overall very positive, the film still doesn’t innovate the genre enough to push it upwards in my rankings but it’s certainly worth a watch.


WAIKIKI reminds us that we are connected to nature. It’s both ever-present and impossibly far away but it always calls us towards it. As an outsider, WAIKIKI paints a side of the urban Hawaiian life previously unseen on the big screen. It reveals to us that the icon of Hawaii in the cultural consciousness is radically different in reality. Throughout the film, we observe the juxtaposition of the purity of nature against a dilapidated metropolis. The world is moving faster than our ability to keep up with it.

Dispossession from ourselves, our friends, our family, our home, and most importantly, the natural world converge in this densely packed film. In highlighting the darkness we see the light, our heroine Kea (Danielle Zalopany), embodies the universe that is Hawaii in its cultural glory and dark underbelly. WAIKIKI is also about coming to terms with oneself. A reminder for your inner voice to speak to you gently in a non-judgemental way. It also speaks to our powerlessness to truly reach out to others in crisis. Although dark, this film still contains within it an intimate heartfelt connection to Honolulu.

What keeps it from being a higher-ranked film is its lack of narrative cohesion. It’s ambitious in trying to tackle all the issues previously mentioned but it leaves out something essential: Kea’s family background and underlying root cause of her social situation. It doesn’t go far enough in examining the tangle of the timely topics relevant to Honolulu such as housing, drug addiction, and support for mothers.


“A few people can make a real difference.”

This film takes place on a night out where two women meet up after a sudden breakup a decade prior. Since then Kris (Pooya Mohseni) has transitioned and Naomi (Lynn Chen) has married and started a family. It’s a dialogue-heavy film that feels like it should have been an email instead of a meeting, but it makes up for it by having a spectacular finale. The dialogue is dense with interesting social commentaries surrounding the complicated nature of relationships and life as a transgender woman, but the majority of it was far too on the nose and stiff, making it difficult to fully connect to.

On the positive side, it tonally captures the energy of nights out, reminiscing about the past while walking quiet college city streets until sunrise, akin to BEFORE SUNRISE. The cinematography is excellent as it feels ultra-realistic but also has dream-like undertones. Also, it’s the only film in this list shot in 4:3 aspect ratio which adds to the closeness and claustrophobia felt between the leads.


“I don’t think soulmates exist, I think they’re created.”

Not the most innovative or unique romcom, but well-executed. It’s the only film on the list that directly takes place during the current COVID-19 pandemic and is used as a plot tool to bring Rita (Geraldine Viswanathan) and Ravi (Karan Soni) together.

Geraldine and Karan have excellent on-screen chemistry despite the predictable and average script. It may not be a life-changing film revealing a deep truth but it still is a comforting film that’s like a warm hug. I love how organically the character’s relationship grows throughout the film, nothing feels excessively forced. It just lacked the novelty to make it a standout romcom.


“I need to go to one of the top 20 colleges or else I’m not going to be doing anything significant.”

What is our educational culture subjecting kids to?

I was a teaching assistant during my graduate studies in biology for two years so this film really resonated with me. Spending nearly a decade in post-secondary education gave me plenty of time to think about our culture and systems of education. I will say, an adjustment has been long overdue for how we perceive higher education.

TRY HARDER! is a documentary that follows several students at San Francisco’s top-tier high school, producing some of USA’s brightest graduates. This was quite a middle-of-the-road documentary but it sparks a conversation about the social pressures high school teens face and what success looks like (tiger moms, defining one’s worth by achievement, the flaws of modern education, etc.). It also speaks to the issues of systemic exclusion of Asians from higher education institutions across the States. For me, the larger issue is the lack of spiritual development. None of these teens have ever been asked, “What makes you happy” or “What do you want to do with your life?”

Not my favorite documentary, but one that I could talk ad nauseam about due to the immediacy and my close proximity of the subject matter.


This Taiwanese romantic comedy actually won the Golden Horse award, which is confusing because, while the film is immaculately produced, has great cinematography, and a female lead steals every scene with her sunshine, the second half is a man unapologetically stalking a woman. I think this could have actually been a film about photography and its relationship to how memories and photos intersect. But alas, it was a morally questionable romcom whose redeeming quality is its energetic direction and style.


A guerilla-style documentary on the Aurat March (women’s march) in Pakistan, protesting systemic abuse towards women by men in the forms of domestic abuse and sexual assault. It follows the organizers as they navigate the preparation for the march. As they near the day of their march, the invisible anxiety and violent energy permeating the footage is palpable.

As intense as the scenes were in this documentary, it lacked a distinct direction. It’s quite literal in being a documentary, documenting each and every moment but my issue is that it does elevate the footage in any way. It’s presented in its raw form for the viewer which might be meritorious for some audiences but for me, it felt lacking and plain in its presentation.


Much like INBETWEEN GIRL, DEFINITION PLEASE is a film that explores Asian diasporic families and their shared traumas of being raised in suburban America. The film centers around Monica (Sujata Day) who is an academically accomplished immigrant child caring for her ill mother. Her life is thrown into disarray when her brother Sonny (Rijesh Rajan) returns home and they must face the unhealed traumas of their childhood.

Unfortunately, this film suffers from too many foci. It contains themes of problematic Asian excellence, diasporic anxiety, fitting in, mental illness, and cultural/generational divides which are only superficially touched on and are never fully explored. Halfway through it makes a sharp turn to focus on bipolar disorder and disregards other developing themes previously mentioned, creating a fissure that starts an entirely new and loosely related film. There is certainly a discussion to be had about bipolar disorder, its origins, and how it can amplify existing traumas within a familial diasporic context; however, without a cohesive plot to glue the concurrent themes together, the film fails to succeed at exploring all of them.

This had the potential to be a teen-comedy focused on immigrant families, vaguely similar in tone to films like NAPOLEON DYNAMITE but without compelling leads and an emotional core, DEFINITION PLEASE does not please.


This was a straight documentary with no-frills dedicated to exploring Manzanar, a historic land in California that was a former Japanese internment camp, home to the Nüümü people, and defunct rancher community who all still maintain ties to the territory. All these communities intersect when the city of Los Angeles endangers their water supply.

As a documentary, it succeeds in being a piece for educating and informing people on a current ongoing issue. However as a film, it doesn’t contain any peaks or climaxes, it’s monotone in its delivery. In some ways, a respectable position as it refuses to take a serious matter and make it into a spectacle.


This experimental documentary tells the story of systematic police brutality endemic to Delhi that spans the history of the last 50 years.

There is an important study of the abuse of power within this film. However, it’s marred by stylistic choices that make it difficult to decipher on the first pass. The intensely experimental format and audio playback of personal accounts on black backgrounds were overly chaotic and did not resonate with me. It has a frenetic energy, mirroring the police brutality seen in the archival footage but without any anchor to ground the audience and orient them in the narrative being told, it does not do the subject matter justice.

Misc. notes

  • And of course, this is a personal opinion. My attempt to rank these films should not serve as an objective account of the best films at the Toronto Reel Asian Film Festival 2021. And nor is the act of film ranking elitist or uncaring. Rather I see what people mistakenly label as elitism to actually a form of ultimate care. To care deeply for something is to protect it wholeheartedly, at the exclusion of others as harsh as that may sound. It should not be mixed with a mindset of superiority or arrogance, this is when cinephiles can become insufferable.
  • If the reading of this ranking list piqued your interest, made you reconsider your opinions, or bolster them, then I would consider my writing of this article a success. The objective is not to persuade here, rather it’s to invite people to seek out these films and hopefully deepen their experience in the world.
  • For films to make a significant difference, they must first be compelling pieces of art (it goes without saying how we define art is debatable). If not, there simply won’t be audiences willing to use their resources of money, attention, and time to sit and watch these types of films. But then what about films that may not be cinematically compelling but are significant to a place or people? THIS STAINED DAWN, MANZANAR, DIVERTED: WHEN WATER BECOMES DUST, and THE BLIND RABBIT are specific films in last year’s lineup that serve as an example. Within a social context, these are films I believe are still worth seeing despite not being my favorites from this last year. Their subject matter couldn’t be more urgent and insightful which should theoretically make them extremely mainstream and audience capturing. It calls into question the function of film, a question perhaps for another time.
  • Generally, it’s easier to praise and speak of its merits rather than criticize a film that’s left a bad taste in your mouth. It becomes increasingly evident as the article goes on but that’s the exercise of articulating your feelings I suppose!
  • When eating something that’s been put in front of you and you don’t know what it is, how do you react to it? It is easier to say if something tastes good based on reaction and comparison to past examples when there’s a frame of reference. But without that frame, relying on instinct is actually harder than you might think.

Mathew is an emerging multidisciplinary artist producing works in creative writing, photography, music production, and film. He recently graduated with a masters degree in Cell & Systems Biology from the University of Toronto and now starting his new adventures in the film industry and creative spaces. For Mathew, the limit of science ends at that which is material. It cannot inform us how to live out our lives. So he turns to the transformative power of cinema, to learn, reconsider, and explore the nature of the world we live in.

IG: @mathewyen
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Taclanese is a publication run by TACLA, featuring critical writing on the Asian Canadian Arts community.

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