Immigrants to the West, who grew up under the brain-damaging effects of modern Hollywood cinema, would probably enjoy this list of Four Great Asian Movies. This is far from being a “best of all time” list; it’s more like a starter kit containing a wide variety of flavors from which to pick and choose. Thematic highlights include: the depth of one’s principles, change and transformation, and relationships (supporting and opposing) with Western culture.
To Live (1994)
You can’t have an Asian movie starter pack without Zhang Yimou‘s To Live. Anyone who has any sincere curiosity about modern Chinese history, as well as the fortitude, spirits, and hearts of its common people, would benefit from watching this movie to the very end. It is more educational than reading 10,000 New York Times articles.
The story follows a somewhat average Chinese man who struggles to adapt to social changes through various decades of national reforms. In a sort of Daoist fashion, his plans and expectations are never fully aligned with reality, and he is constantly being swept away by the tides of history. His humility and personal transformations, as he introspects through tremendous surprises and sufferings, serves as an inspiration to any watcher.
Chasing the Dragon (2017)
Chasing the Dragon is a classic Hong Kong gangster movie focused on chivalry, honor, and camaraderie in the chaotic world of colonial Hong Kong. The storyline moves quickly, with relatively interesting banter, and a very realistic depiction of factionalism, in-fighting, and corruption — without any narrow one-dimensional villains. Watching the story unfold in a studio-replicated Kowloon Walled City is a delight. The settings, conversations, and objectives are thoroughly entrenched with East Asian values, with “mian-zi” and precedent taking extreme importance.
Even though Chasing the Dragon was somewhat panned by Hong Kong mainstream critics for being a “rehash” of old gangster stories, I think that there’s a huge benefit to bringing modern techniques to add new life to old stories, especially for first-time viewers. (Also, I am not very impressed by Hong Kong cinema critics who thumb their noses in self-superiority to gain praise from neo-colonial western magazines.)
After the Storm (2016)
Kore’eda Hirokazu loves to create Japanese films about broken families and social subversion. His storylines are generally brilliant, although their widespread acclaim by western critics is probably helped in no small part by a fetishistic orientalist trend of exposing social ugliness in East Asian societies.
Keeping all this in mind, After the Storm is nevertheless a heartwarming story of fatherhood and ancestral legacy in a crisis-stricken modern Japan. It is inspiring, produces some interesting perspectives, and is exceedingly real. Just as the protagonist of To Live suffers from social upheaval due to Communist morality, the lead character of After the Storm suffers from his outcast status within Japanese neoliberalism.
The Legend of Bhagat Singh (2002)
A great Indian movie about the almost-legendary Bhagat Singh who risked everything to free his homeland of India from British oppressors. Highly critical of Gandhi (as anyone who cares about India should be), the movie shows the action-oriented Bhagat Singh as well as his party affiliates who orchestrate political acts both within university circles and during public demonstrations.
This is a great “normal” movie that illustrates the courage and personality type required to pursue true political change — at the risk of one’s own livelihood — and the movie is not so radical as to cause discord at the family dinner table.