Since curating my last movie list, Netflix has expanded its offering of Chinese films and TV shows — and continues to do so, with six more Chinese-language licensed titles due on the streaming platform before the end of 2019. Netflix has finally acquired classics such as Kung Fu Hustle and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as well as more star-studded blockbusters and the likes of I Am Not Madame Bovary to round out its collection. And as of tomorrow, that list of Chinese-language content will include celebrated noir Cities of Last Things (see below).
But with all these options, choosing how to spend those free two hours has become a lot harder. While we continue to wait for the launch of Chinese content-focused platform Bambu and with more Mandarin-language entertainment undoubtedly to come on Netflix itself, we’ve curated a new list of recent releases we think are worth watching this summer.
For China’s first sci-fi blockbuster, The Wandering Earth has box office results that are out of this world, earning 699 million USD globally and securing a spot at No. 2 on the country’s list of highest grossing films (after war flick Wolf Warrior 2).
Set in the year 2061, a dying sun forces the nations of the world to unite and launch “The Wandering Earth” project, a 2,500-year long journey to propel the planet into the nearest solar system. However, when a gravitational spike on Jupiter disables many of the planetary thrusters and threatens to pull Earth into its orbit, a rescue mission sets out to repair the giant engines and preserve the human race.
Directed by Frant Gwo and loosely based on a novella by Liu Cixin, the movie offers an exciting, post-apocalyptic take on the future, from subterranean cities to sub-zero surfaces enveloped in ice. Beyond the CGI magic and meticulously constructed sets, The Wandering Earth’s global disasters could be interpreted as an analogy for the current environmental issues we’re facing. While The Washington Post has deemed the work “a prototype for exporting an image of China as the leader of the future,” there is a strong emphasis on international collaboration, especially at the end. In fact, noticeably absent are the Americans, which Vice points out is a refreshing change from “the Western superhero trope of one man, one country saving Earth” and possibly commentary on the US pulling out of the Paris Climate Accords.
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The film isn’t without its flaws: the apathetic artificial intelligence plot is clichéd, the drama doesn’t merit tears, and the characters, especially the females, lack depth and purpose — the most memorable of the ensemble is Tim, the biracial jokester used as comedic relief. Despite this, The Wandering Earth is an accomplishment for Chinese cinema and a taste of what’s to come, so well worth watching for that at least.
If space epics aren’t for you, maybe this food-filled, opposites-attract romantic comedy will do the trick.
The movie follows the relationship between Gu Shengnan (played by Zhou Dongyu, Us and Them), a spunky young sous-chef at a hotel, and Lu Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro, House of Flying Daggers), a business executive who wants to buy out said hotel. When he first arrives, he’s dissatisfied with everything and ready to act… until he tastes Shengnan’s cooking. To say the two have a rocky start is an understatement — at one point, Lu Jin puts a tracker on Shengnan because disaster strikes every time they’re near each other — but their mutual love of fine cuisine ultimately brings them together.
The charming rivals-to-lovers arc and beautiful close-up food shots proved a recipe for success for This is Not What I Expected, helping it take home several awards for best male and female leads and best co-production. Plus, its lightheartedness makes it perfect for a summer night in — just maybe not one to watch on an empty stomach.
Here’s another take on love — this time, centered on family.
This is actually a Taiwanese film, but as mainstream Chinese films featuring gay characters are still few and far between (with even the likes of East Palace, West Palace and A Round Trip to Love not available on Netflix), we decided to include the Chinese language Dear Ex on this list.
Released last year, this drama follows a teenage boy who has been sucked into a bitter feud between his mother, Sanlian, and his father’s gay lover, Jay. When her husband passes away, Sanlian learns that her son has been written off the insurance policy and confronts Jay who has, to his own surprise, been named beneficiary. However, Sanlian’s obsession over the money soon strains her relationship with her son, and he moves in with Jay in an attempt to escape her overbearing care — and slowly come to terms with his father’s secret second life.
This movie offers a window into Taiwanese society, showing how traditional attitudes toward sexuality still abound, despite the island being a beacon of progressiveness for the region. However, at its core, the film conveys of a more universal theme: grief. Whether through art, anger, or therapy, the three characters must cope with the loss of someone significant and accept the fact that they weren’t the only one who loved him.
My advice? Have tissues on hand.
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This story of redemption and racing isn’t the latest installment of Disney’s Cars franchise but renowned novelist and rally driver Han Han’s third action comedy.
In Pegasus, an arrogant race car champion, Zhang Chi, is hit with a five-year driving ban after illegally racing in a parking garage. Nearing the end of the ban, the disgraced driver decides he wants to return to racing, but in order to do so he must overcome several roadblocks, such as renewing his driver’s license, assembling a team, and finding a car. Interestingly, the new champion who has come up in his absence, Lin Zhendong, actually wants to help Zhang Chi get back on the track — if only to prove once and for all who is China’s best driver.
While this movie plays with some typical Han Han elements — think outrageous action scenes, clever transitions, deux ex machina cheats — it lacks some of the character arc and commentary that another of his films, Duckweed, nails. As The Guardian wrote, “It might not be the social commentary that Han Han built his reputation on, but perhaps he’s making the point that, with blandly slick professionalism like Lin’s, something is being lost in the pursuit of Chinese prosperity.”
But if you have a Netflix subscription and two hours to kill, why not get a few laughs in?
A co-production of companies from Taiwan, China, France, and the US, this film chronicles three key incidents in the protagonist’s life over three eras, leading up to his suicide. Each of the three segments dabbles in a different genre: the first paints a dystopian picture of future Taiwan; the second is a film noir focusing on the protagonist’s previous job as a rookie cop; the third a melodrama about his childhood encounter with a mob boss.
While I haven’t seen this movie yet (it drops on Netflix on Thursday!), the reviews are positive overall. Cities of Last Things scored 89% on Rotten Tomatoes, with Variety writing: “The story does reward the effort it takes to unkink it, turning into an ever-decreasing circle of broken connections, in which all the women in [protagonist] Zhang’s life end up leaving, each time denting his battered soul a little more, but finally contributing to a moment with his adult daughter, which in retrospect becomes more meaningful and moving as the film progresses/regresses.”
With summer days finite and entertainment options seemingly infinite, we hope this list serves as an entry point into Chinese-language entertainment. And when you’re done with these, here’s some more to dig into:
5 Chinese Films to Binge on Netflix This Winter Break
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