Article by Patricia Pieterse
It’s the most wonderful time of the year. And no, I don’t mean the new year and I certainly don’t mean winter. I mean awards season. Whether you give a damn about the winners or not, this is always a fun time for movie lovers. Here are four Chinese films with festival pedigrees for all you snobs (and all you normal folk who just like quality movies).
Ju Dou (1990)
Co-directed by Xi’an-born Zhang Yimou, a man who directed most of the Chinese movies anyone can name, this is China’s first Academy Award best foreign language film nominee. Besides the Oscar nom, it was also nominated for a Palme D’Or at Cannes and won a total of four awards from various film festivals. It’s a tragic tale of an illicit romance between the wife of a brutal dye-mill owner and his adopted (grown) nephew. Despite its relatively short running time (95 minutes) and time jumps, this is a slow watch. The story is melancholy, even in its happiest moments, and feels very much like an awards-season movie. Like most of Zhang Yimou’s films, it’s beautiful to watch—he has a keen eye for visual drama, like the billowing bolts of cloth that provide the backdrop for anything happening at the dye mill.
In the Mood for Love (2000)
Another slow, atmospheric Wong Kar-Wai love story. This one, although the Oscar nom escaped its grasp, is probably the most “awardsy” of all the films in this article. According to IMDB, it won 44 awards, and was nominated for an additional 42, including a BAFTA. Set in 1960s Hong Kong, this is a platonic love story about a cuckolded man and woman who find solace in each other after their respective spouses go away (with each other) for a while. It’s full of meaningful glances, loaded moments and meandering shots of Maggie Cheung’s impeccably clothed rear. It’s stylistically beautiful – characters are framed by corridors and doorways, giving it a voyeuristic feel. It’s also a lesson in economy of dialogue and plot. Not much happens, and not much is said, but every encounter is so pregnant you could fill a book of essays.
Farewell, My Concubine (1993)
This one’s a double Oscar nominee (best cinematography and best foreign language film), and a BAFTA and Golden Globe winner. Directed by Kaige Chen, it’s considered by some to be the best Chinese film ever made. It’s about love, friendship and hardship in an ever-changing China, telling the story of two young boys who became friends when they were training in the Beijing Opera. It spans 50 years, starting in the Warlord era and ending after the Cultural Revolution. At over 150 minutes, it’s pretty long, but totally worth it. The sincerity and complexity of the lead performances make this one infinitely watchable, despite the runtime, occasional weird time jumps and unexplained interludes.
Eat Drink Man Woman (1994)
After all those heavy period pieces, a modern-day family drama full of Chinese food-porn felt positively indulgent. This film joins Farewell My Concubine and Ju Dou in being nominated for the best foreign language Oscar, and like all the other movies in this article, was made by an iconic filmmaker (this one’s from Ang Lee). It’s a tale about an ageing chef who’s losing his sense of taste, and his three daughters – the prim reborn Christian, the go-getter career woman and the well-intentioned student. Add to the mix a friendly neighbour, her daughter and her mother. In fact, there are so many women in this film it would barely pass a reverse Bechdel test. It’s definitely an easier watch than the others, choosing smaller family issues and moments of lightness over heart-rending emotionality. The ‘90s, it seems, was a good time for Chinese cinema (whether Mainland or otherwise).