While those in the Western World are finally getting over the debaucheries and delights of the holiday period, merely six weeks later, elsewhere in the world things are just getting started for the year. Thursday is Chinese New Year, as we celebrate the beginning of another Year of the Goat. And what better way to celebrate than with a Netflix Streaming playlist of Chinese movies? (Well, aside from actually getting out the house and celebrating, that is.)
HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS (2004)
Visually spectacular — it was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Cinematography — Zhang Yimou’s period martial arts movie is as much a long story as a beat-em-up, thanks to the relationship between blind dancer Mei (Zhang Ziyi) and Takeshi Kaneshiro’s Jin. (There is, of course, a spoiler in the mix: Captain Leo, as played by Andy Lau.) Epic in a way that many movies aspire to, it’s little surprise that the movie won such acclaim at film festivals across the world ahead of its U.S. release.
ELECTRIC SHADOWS (2004)
From the sublime to the… well, “ridiculous” isn’t exactly the word, but there’s definitely a welcome air of oddness about Xiao Jiang’s love letter of sorts to the power of cinema, as a delivery boy gets attacked by a complete stranger, decides to do a good deed and ends up wrapped up in a story about obsession, tragedy and troublesome parents. Simultaneously sweet and overwrought, there’s something charming about its sincerity nonetheless.
RED CLIFF (2008)
A beast of a movie, based on the real-life events of the Battle of the Red Cliffs in 208-209 AD, Red Cliff is what happens when you give John Woo an appropriately sizable budget — reportedly the most expensive Asian-financed film so far — and a running time to properly explore the events he’s portraying (In China, the movie was released in two parts, it was so long). For those concerned that it’ll be too much of a historical drag, don’t be; Woo has said in interviews that it’s only about 50% true-to-life, with the rest the result of his own invention and desire to excite modern movie audiences.
14 BLADES (2010)
Another historical epic — this time, set in the dying days of the Ming Dynasty, when the empire is in bad shape — what deserves the attention this time around is the cast, especially Zhao Wei and Donnie Yen, playing a couple forced together by circumstance and unlikely plot contrivance as they use the blades of the title in service of an emperor who, let’s be honest, kind of deserves the treason that’s going on all around him. You might come for the action scenes, but you’ll stay for the romance between the two leads.
THE FLOWERS OF WAR (2011)
Christian Bale leads this movie, set in 1930s China during the Second Sino-Japanese War, as an American mortician who becomes the reluctant leader of a group of schoolchildren trying to escape an invading Japanese army. If you’re wondering whether the flowers of the title are a metaphor for something else entirely, you’ll be happy to know that the answer is yes, but I won’t spoil just what it truly means. (Note: yes, this movie does become more fun if you pretend that Bale is once again playing Batman.)
TAI CHI ZERO/TAI CHI HERO (2012)
Filled with extravagant visuals and over-the-top action, the fictional history of the real world t’ai chi chu’an martial art style — and specifically, the Chen style of same — is revealed in this two-part movie from director Stephen Fung. Whether by coincidence or design, the titles of the movies describe the journey of lead character Yang Lu Chan, who goes from zero to hero as he fulfills his potential as one of the greatest martial artists around. Of course, there may be love stories and villains around to complicate matters in the meantime, but you’d expect no less.
DANGEROUS LIAISONS (2012)
Yes, it’s an adaption of Les Liaisons dangereueses, a.k.a., “that book that gave us the 1988 movie starring Michelle Pfeiffer and 1999’s Cruel Intentions as well.” This version, however, re-sets everything to 1930s Shanghai and offers up a Cannes Film Festival-approved take of passions inflamed (and extinguished) with Jang Dong-gun, Cecilia Cheung and House of Flying Daggers’ Zhang Ziyi bringing an understated, but very noticeable, heat.
A TOUCH OF SIN (2013)
An ambitious movie that takes its lead from real-life events in modern China, including the suicides of employees at electronics manufacturer Foxconn and murderous career of a gunman and thief called Zhou Kehua, A Touch of Sin is violent and chilling, touching on threads about modern life and the ways in which it can dehumanize and desensitize us. The screenplay, by director Jia Zhangke, won the Best Screenplay award at Cannes in 2013, further bolstering its critical credibility.
YOUNG DETECTIVE DEE: RISE OF THE SEA DRAGON (2013)
If you need to decompress after A Touch of Sin, then this over-the-top crime movie (Yes, crime movie — spoilers: the sea dragon might not be exactly what you expect) might make the perfect palette cleanser. A prequel to Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame — also available on Netflix — it’s like watching a really, really offbeat Sherlock Holmes story in all the right ways.
JOURNEY TO THE WEST (2013)
Kung-Fu Hustle’s Stephen Chow takes on the classic Chinese tale, and… well, he’s not entirely faithful with it, but the result is entertaining enough that you’re not likely to care too much. Certainly, Chinese audiences seemed not to mind, with the movie breaking multiple box office records when it was released. It’s ludicrous, frenetic and hilarious as you might expect from Chow, but there’s a feeling that the Monkey King himself would approve of what happens to the historical tale of redemption, atonement and high adventure. (Admittedly, the original adventure somewhat downplayed that last element somewhat.)