In preparation for the holidays, Netflix has been adding to their collection of Hallmark-esque Christmas flicks — everything from royal weddings, to magical advent calendars, to swapping places with your newly-discovered doppelganger who happens to be (you guessed it) royalty.
But if this isn’t your cup of hot cocoa, the streaming service has also been bulking up on Chinese-language content. Last year, the entertainment giant acquired its first mainland China drama series, Day and Night, after securing a distribution deal with Alibaba’s flagship video platform Youku. At its first-ever content showcase in Asia last month, Netflix announced 17 new original productions in the making, including a mafia-themed Taiwanese rom-dram. But even without such new projects, a quick browse through the site’s international movie and TV sections reveals dozens of Chinese stories to match any mood.
While film aficionados may be disappointed to find some major hits missing from the online library — where is Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern or Han Han’s Duckweed? — Netflix is still a good starting point for delving into the world of Asian entertainment. As our gift to you, RADII’s Julienna Law has uncovered some of the gems worth checking out this break:
Nothing says “holidays” quite like broken promises and bittersweet romance, amirite?
Starring Zhou Dongyu, who snagged a Golden Horse Award for her performance in Soul Mate, and Monster Hunt’s lead actor Jing Boran, Us and Them tracks the evolution of one couple’s relationship as they try to make a name for themselves in late 2000s Beijing. After meeting on a train heading home for Chinese New Year, aspiring game designer Jing Qing quickly becomes taken with Xiao Xiao despite her insistence on finding and marrying a Beijinger with property. Over the span of a decade, the protagonists’ attitudes toward life and love change as they realize how difficult it is to make it in the big city, the daily grind sucking the passion out of their relationship. The movie juxtaposes scenes of the past with their present-day cathartic reunion, where they reconnect and reflect on their thwarted romance.
Perhaps that sounds depressing, but there are plenty of sweet moments shared between the two. Plus, the film was a hit in China, earning 191 million USD in two weeks and making director Rene Liu the first female Chinese director to pass the 1 billion RMB mark at the domestic box office. If the friends-to-lovers plot doesn’t pull at your heartstrings, maybe the moving-to-a-big-city-to-pursue-your-dreams theme will strike a chord.
After seeing Jing Boran in Us and Them, you’d be forgiven for wanting more.
Monster Hunt is like if someone took the exaggerated martial arts choreography of Journey to the West and sprinkled in the cuteness of CJ7, like if the cast of Monsters, Inc. opened a door to a Stephen Chow kung fu film instead of Boo’s room, or Bruce Lee somehow crash landed on the Ewoks’ moon of Endor. It’s cutesy with a kick, is what we’re saying.
The story kicks off with a civil war that has broken out in the Monster Realm, where a treacherous minister has usurped the throne and wants the Monster Queen and her unborn child dead. The 3D fantasy adventure film features real-life actors and computer-animated monsters battling it out for the Monster Queen’s baby, who she entrusts to the care of bumbling village mayor Song Tianyin (played by Jing). Along the way, he meets aspiring monster-hunter Huo Xiaolan, and together they embark upon a journey to protect the baby from monsters, humans, and sometimes even monsters in human disguise.
Coupled with a musical number, a pregnant man, and a radish-like baby monster that will make you aww, Monster Hunt is a movie you can enjoy with the whole family.
I didn’t keep a tally of the number of limbs blown off in this one, but let’s just say this probably isn’t a movie to watch with young kids.
Hong Kong director Dante Lam’s 2018 blockbuster is the second highest grossing film of all time in China, taking home 576 million USD and earning a contender’s spot for Best Foreign Language Film in February’s Oscars. The military drama is about an elite division of Chinese special forces who are sent to a fictional African country to evacuate Chinese nationals after a civil war erupts. (The story is loosely based on the evacuation of Chinese citizens and foreign nationals from Yemen during the 2015 Yemeni Civil War.) As Variety put it, Operation Red Sea “is war propaganda that comes off as anti-war, a patriotic film so carried away by its own visceral, pulverizing violence that patriotism almost becomes an afterthought.”
It’s a bit like if Michael Bay or Ridley Scott wrote a love letter to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. Lots of explosions, good fight sequences, and a couple of one-liners that will make you tear up (“吃糖不疼” — if you know, you know). Yes, it’s a ridiculous PLA propaganda piece, but keep that in mind when you’re watching and it’s at least an intriguing piece of blockbuster fluff.
Full disclosure: I’m a sucker for rom-coms.
When it comes to Asian dramas, there’s a vault of tropes to draw from. You know the ones: Rich Boy falls in love with Poor Girl; his mom slides over a fat envelope of cash to make her leave; someone ends up hospitalized.
While A Love So Beautiful manages to avoid some of these tropes (you’ll have to find out which ones for yourself), there are just enough conventional plot devices to make the story seem familiar and heartwarming. The popular drama, which surpassed 5.5 billion views on Tencent Video, is a coming-of-age tale in which a bubbly and clumsy girl, Chen Xiaoxi, pursues her smart and aloof classmate/next-door neighbor, Jiang Chen. The drama follows the two protagonists and their three friends as they navigate their way through high school, first love, and early adulthood. It’s one of those feel-good shows that almost makes you miss being sixteen.
Some have described this film as “like if Black Mirror had Tiger Moms,” and after watching a few episodes such reference points become clear.
Directed by Taiwan Golden Bell Awards winner Chen Hui-ling, On Children is a sci-fi anthology series that explores how parental oppression and social pressure can have tragic, even fatal, consequences. The episodes include stories like a mother who uses technology to enter her recently deceased daughter’s mind; a mother who takes drastic action to make sure her child’s bad grades don’t affect their family’s status in the community; and a mother who uses a magic remote to rewind her son’s life so he can make the “right” choices.
Each episode is over 90 minutes long, and deals with some dark themes, so it’s far from light and breezy. It may be Taiwanese-made, but there are plenty of issues and messages here that are relevant across the Straits and beyond. If you appreciate social commentary and unsettling uses of new technology, this is for you.
Of course, this list isn’t exhaustive. If you have any recs, leave a comment and I’ll add it to my watch list.
Cover photo: Still from Us and Them
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