Given the strikingly devastating attacks on Asian Americans that have taken place this month. I wanted to highlight four films that showcase directors and writers from that region. All of the films listed here are some of my personal favorites, and audiences owe it to themselves to expand their cinematic libraries with these visionary writers and directors’ work.
Ang Lee’s Oscar-winning Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon from 2000 is the first film I saw involving Asian people. The story is simple. A kind and noble warrior named Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat) is assigned to protect the green Sword of Destiny from an evil person who killed someone close to Li Mu Bai. The sword is stolen by a princess (Zhang Ziyi) who is in love with a thief (Chang Chen), and it’s up to Li Mu Bai and his fierce female friend Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) to retrieve the sword and defeat the villains involved. Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon features the most amazing fight and wire choreography that I have ever seen. Choreographed by Yuen Woo-Ping, the fights are literally a balletic dance of action. As visually pleasing as the fights are, the character work by Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh, and breakout star Zhang Ziyi is nothing short of phenomenal. This movie is poetic and because of the way it illustrates how love and hope endure even through suffering great loss. Ultimately this movie proves that the heart is a warrior’s greatest weapon, and how he or she uses it defines the joy they get from life itself.
Alice Wu’s 2004 debut film, Saving Face, is a remarkable story of how difficult it can be to accept your orientation and share it with others. Saving Face is about how two women (Michelle Krusiec and Lynn Chen) meet and grow to love one another but cannot openly acknowledge their feelings, as it would, unfortunately, bring dishonor and disappointment to the family, due to old traditions. Saving Face demonstrates just how difficult it is to be who you are when your culture and its traditions do not wish to acknowledge or accept what or who you value. This movie is powerful because of the many ways the central couple tackle this subject and how the protagonist’s family viewers their daughter, and how responsible she needs to be to keep the honor of the family alive. This story is such a tricky tightrope based on the issues it has to address, and Wu handles it so masterfully that it is a crime she had to wait almost a decade to make her next feature (The Half of It, now on Netflix).
Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone In Love from 2012 is a series of interconnected vignettes of happenstance meetings of individuals in Tokyo, Japan, and the ripple impact on everyone involved. To be honest, I love this film based purely on how it doesn’t overstate its intentions. The interactions of the characters feel natural and earned. The ending even features a twist even M. Night Shyamalan would have trouble predicting. This is the last film Kiarostami made before his death, and it is the one I often come back to because of its rich depiction of its characters and that shocking ending that still leaves me reeling every time I see it.
The last film on my list is Shūsuke Kaneko’s Death Note from 2006. The story involves student Light Yagami (Tatsuya Fujiwara) finding a book that has fallen from the demon world. This book allows him to kill anyone whose name has been written in it. This newfound power causes Light, a brilliant boy already, to start playing God with people’s lives. The results are both disastrous and disturbingly intriguing. Make no mistake, Death Note is a guilty pleasure. Being watchable comes down to the characters and how they interact with each other, specifically Light versus L (Kenichi Matsuyama). I love this movie specifically because it’s a cat and mouse game where either side has the possibility to win, and even though it’s science fiction, there’s so much planning that goes into these deaths that are written into his notebook that it’s just masterful mystery at work. I highly recommend giving this a shot.
All of these movies are important because they speak to the diverse kinds of stories that can be told by brilliant Asian and Asian-American creators alike. Absolutely no one should be physically harmed in the way these Asian-Americans were in recent weeks. I stand in solidarity with all those suffering, and through these films, I hope the voices of those connected in some way to those communities continue to be heard and appreciated.