February 3 marked the beginning of the Year of the Rabbit. Hope everyone that does celebrate it enjoyed themselves. I hope the festivities that are still to come are up to par.
Chinese New Year is the one day every year set aside for everyone to take notice of China. It’s like St. Patrick’s Day, but the parade is cooler.
Since everyone is taking notice of China, it seems like a good time to mention that Chinese film is good. Sometimes, very good. Remember that movie that got Scorsese an Oscar, “The Departed?” That was based on a Chinese flick called “Infernal Affairs.” This week, a Chinese version of “What Women Want” opened fairly well in Asia. Anyone interested in world film knows of “Memoirs of a Geisha” and “Farewell, My Concubine” unless they’ve been living in a cave somewhere or are intentionally obtuse.
Here’s five flicks that aren’t as well known as many, but may be worth a look if reading dialogue doesn’t strain the brain too awful much.
Prison on Fire (監獄風雲)
Chow Yun-fat is one of the most well-known Chinese stars in existence for a very good reason – he’s been in over 80 films and a lot of them were good. But his marvelous modern roles in films like “Shanghai” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” lend themselves to the acting chops built on films like “Prison on Fire.”
Co-starring another great Chinese actor, Tony Leung Ka-fai, this Hong Kong prison drama made Chinese authority’s heads explode because of the edgy and violent look at a prison system already being criticized by the world. The film spawned a less-than-stellar sequel that it won’t hurt to overlook, but the original is definitely worth the 98 minutes.
Summer Palace (颐和园)
This is the hip film on the list, but that doesn’t make it any less worthy. The other film festival darling I was considering was “Beijing Bicycle (十七岁的单车),” but I didn’t enjoy that film nearly as much as I did this one. Besides, this one has a better story.
Screened at Cannes in 2006 without the Chinese government’s permission, “Summer Palace” was to be the last film from Lou Ye until his five year ban was up. That didn’t really work.
“Summer Palace” is a love story set in front of a Tian’an’men Square protest that many Chinese still don’t know much about and find talking about difficult. The film didn’t grab any awards at the festival, but it’s a solid piece from a controversial director and it shouldn’t be missed. If it suits the taste, check out Lou Ye’s other work as well.
A World Without Thieves (天下无贼)
I’m surprised that more people haven’t seen this movie, and so it makes the list in the it-should-have-been-obvious slot set aside for people that haven’t really gotten past the “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon”/”Hero” section of cinema.
“A World Without Thieves” is a story about humanity. A young man puts everything he owns, including a substantial amount of cash, into a backpack and sets out to make it in the city. He believes that the world will not do him harm and the two thieves he falls in with see something in him that makes them take him in.
René Liu (刘若英) gets the distinction of being in two films on this list, but while the other is an ensemble cast, her acting in this film is one of the reasons the film made the list. In particular, the final scene of the film is one-hundred percent hers and without it, the movie wouldn’t have the impact it does.
Eat Drink Man Woman (饮食男女)
Ang Lee may be most famous for “Brokeback Mountain” and “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.” Or perhaps the debacle that was a comic book movie. Ang Lee should be well known for this movie above all others.
“Eat Drink Man Woman” is a story about a chef that is finally growing old and his three daughters that are finally growing up. As much a story about a family as it is a story about individuality, Ang Lee had a hand in writing and producing this work of art.
The point that spills from the movie without becoming overwhelming is that romantic relationships are as important to life as food. The romantic relationships that evolve seem natural, including the surprise love affair the old chef has. The fact that it was passed over for an Oscar by the same voters that decided “Forrest Gump” was a better movie than both “The Shawshank Redemption,” “Pulp Fiction” or even “Bullets Over Broadway” isn’t easily overlooked.
Hot Summer Days (全城热恋热辣辣)
Chinese cinema is most well-known for martial arts movies and period pieces, but this film proves that every genre has something to offer. “Hot Summer Days” is a romantic-comedy that has story and substance enough to rival “Love, Actually.”
This movie is full of Chinese stars, including a young lady mentioned earlier. The script is highly polished, which means a fast-paced, cliche-filled, no-reason-to-be-serious funfest that has only one purpose – make people feel good. The purpose is fulfilled admirably and the end of the movie comes before the spastic acting gets on the nerves. All of the actors are clearly having fun, and the characters are identifiable enough that we want to have fun with them.
Now, I have to find five more excellent Chinese films to cover before next Chinese New Year. Any suggestions?