“Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films”, said Parasite Director Bong Joon Ho at the 2020 Oscars, when his was the first non-English film to win Best Picture. His resounding call for a wider acceptance of international cinema shone a particular spotlight on the Asian film canon.
Now that we’re all going stir crazy from weeks on lockdown-social-distancing-self-isolating, why not try and explore new horizons? At least from our couch, if we can't from 30,000 ft.
Relieve your cabin fever with our diverse assortment of Chinese movie recommendations:
1 For an edge-of-your-seat-thriller: "Infernal Affairs" (2002)
If you like: Martin Scorsese; the Godfather
A lesser known fact: that Scorsese’s four-Oscar-winning-The Departed was in fact a remake of this stylish Hong Kong crime thriller. Switching between the police force and the Triad, two parallel hunts for moles mirror each other.
As a genre-movie, Infernal Affairs is gripping, fast-paced and dynamically shot. It immerses you in the action and keeps you guessing. It's also a compelling exploration of loyalty, sacrifice and moral ambiguity. What makes a “good” person? Why is someone "bad"? Can they ever be redeemed?
Watch on: Netflix
See also: the prequel Infernal Affairs II (2003); the sequel Infernal Affairs III (2003); Jia Zhangke’s gang drama Ash is the Purest White (2019)
2 To see retribution for injustice: "A Touch of Sin" (2013)
If you like: Quentin Tarantino; Todd Haynes; Gone Girl
From one of China’s master directors, Jia Zhangke, is a “modern wuxia” - for which he won Best Screenplay at Cannes. Like Jia’s other movies, A Touch of Sin is socially and economically urgent, and politically critical. The film follows four impoverished, exploited protagonists as they find violent relief against their oppressors.
Although aesthetically considerably less stylized and stylish than a Tarantino picture, the slower-paced virtue of A Touch of Sin is its realism. We can relate to the anger against corrupt officials, exploitative factory owners, or entitled male aggressors - even more now, it seems, as most struggle during this crisis of a pandemic. And the realism only underscores when the wuxia elements explode in well-choreographed violence.
Watch on: MUBI, kanopy
3 For a thoughtful romance drama: "In the Mood For Love" (2000)
If you like: When Harry Met Sally; A Streetcar Named Desire
Nominated for the Palme d’Or, In the Mood for Love is one of renowned auteur Wong Kar-Wai’s most iconic pictures. Set in 1960s Hong Kong, it’s a sumptuously shot romantic drama about two neighbours who gradually grow closer as they realize their spouses are having an affair with each other.
This movie is just beautiful simply to stare at: aesthetically lush, boudoir-like, intimate, even voyeuristic. The chemistry between Tony Leung (who won Best Actor at Cannes) and Maggie Chieung sizzles. But there's a deeper, underlying exploration of feeling suffocated by a traditionalist society - and especially as a modern woman.
Watch on: Criterion Channel
See also: Wong’s other two films in the informal trilogy, Days of Being Wild (1990) and 2046 (2004); Palme d’Or winning Farewell my Concubine (1993)
4 Cry and laugh to something heartwarming: "The Farewell" (2019)
If you like: A24
Director Lulu Wang won Best Feature at the Indie Spirit Awards for this story, drawn from her experiences as an Asian American immigrant. The heartwarming tale - tenderly played out by Golden Globe-winning Awkwafina and Zhao Shuzhen - centers around a lie told to the matriarchal grandmother, that she does not have cancer.
The Farewell is uncannily perceptive: if you come from an immigrant family, you'll recognize almost every single character and moment in your own experiences. And it manages to do so without reducing anyone to caricatures. If you don't, it's a movie that's full of warmth, heart and family - and unexpectedly hilarious.
Watch on: Amazon Prime
5 For a weird dark tragicomedy: "Free and Easy" (2017)
If you like: Yorgos Lanthimos; The Coen Brothers; In Bruges
Shown at Sundance, this dark comedy features an ensemble of peculiar crooks in a dilapidated village in Northern China. The story begins when a travelling soap salesman arrives at the village, with a special soap that knocks his clients unconscious.
Free and Easy is weird. It's not for everyone: it’s niche, slow-moving and not much happens. But fans of a particular absurdist black humor will enjoy this. It’s very funny in a dry, deadpan and nonsensical way. It's full of long awkward pauses and surreal dialogue. And its cinematography is stunning in a desolate Wes Anderson sort of way.
Watch on: Amazon Prime (US only), YouTube Movies
6 For a casual comedy: "The Wedding Banquet" (1993)
If you like: John Hughes; My Big Fat Greek Wedding
Before Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Ang Lee made three lesser known Taiwanese-American comedies: about the friction between an older traditional Asian generation and their progressive children. The Wedding Banquet concerns the marriage of convenience between a gay Taiwanese man and a Chinese girl in need of a green card in the US.
Admittedly, there are elements of this film which have not aged well, but The Wedding Banquet remains entertaining - especially for anyone with strict parents. And as a movie which explores LGBTQ and women's rights themes, it is surprisingly progressive for the 90s. It's not laugh-out-loud, but there are wry comedic easter eggs for anyone from the Asian diaspora.
Watch on: Google Play, YouTube Movies
See also: Lee’s other two movies in the informal trilogy, Pushing Hands (1991) and Eat Drink Man Woman (1994); Chinese-American LGBT romcom Saving Face (2004); light chick flick Suddenly Seventeen (2016)