Ten of the best romantic movies in Asian cinema
With Valentine's Day near, Mathew Scott selects 10 of Asian cinema's best romantic movies
Asian romance films always seem to get a bad rap. In a region where the film industry's output has long been dominated by beefed-up action heroes and horror-movie monsters, the common perception is that those looking for a little love have to wade through productions that seem to focus more on pain and perversity than the simple pleasures love can bring. That or the films come so sick with saccharine as to make them indigestible.
Not that there's anything wrong with wandering over to the dark side once in a while, or to spend some time with that innocent inner child, but to think that Asian romance is only about the far reaches of the soul fails to give the genre the credit or the respect it deserves.
With a double dose of Valentine's Day just around the corner - this year the Chinese and Western varieties fall on the same date - here's a look back at 10 classic films that'll help you ponder and celebrate the true nature of love.
Comrades, Almost a Love Story (Hong Kong, 1996)
The pleasure of this film lies not only in the fact that director Peter Chan Ho-sun was able to pair Maggie Cheung Man-yuk and Leon Lai Ming as lovers thrown together by the fates. For anyone who was around before the handover of 1997, Comrades, Almost a Love Story perfectly captures the air of pure anticipation that seemed to hover over Hong Kong. The happy, unhappy, then happy again couple play immigrants looking for a better life but still tethered to pasts that threaten to destroy their dreams. It's all about grabbing chances with both hands - even if you have to wait a while to do so.
The Eel (Japan, 1997)
There's not a man out there who hasn't at some point in life been told he needs to work a little on his communication skills. And in the oddly delightful world director Shohei Imamura creates, we have a man (Koji Yakusho) who has romance thrust upon him (in the shape of Misa Shimizu) just when a few years of darkness have made him decide to retreat from making a connection with anyone but his treasured pet eel. Given the bleak circumstances our protagonists emerge from, the real joy lies in how the characters are slowly allowed to peel back the layers they have built up around their hearts.
Farewell My Concubine (China, 1993)
While the narrative of director Chen Kaige's production might be driven by 50-odd years of political turmoil and intrigue, it is smouldering passion that is the lifeblood of the tale. And there, shining ever so brightly at its core, is Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing. Framed sensuously by cinematographer Gu Changwei, Cheung gives us arguably his finest moments on film as the Peking opera star tormented by unfulfilled desire, the need to survive in an often cruel world, and the romances that swirl around him but never seem to fall his way. Chen's masterpiece remains the only Chinese film to win the Palme d'Or at Cannes.
Rouge (Hong Kong, 1988)
Lilian Lee was the author whose work inspired Farewell My Concubine, but her talent in being able to shed light on the darker, innermost workings of romance first came to full bloom through the story of Chan Chen-pang and Fleur, lovers who kid themselves into believing they can cheat death - and human nature. Director Stanley Kwan Kam-pang shapes the story by allowing Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui Yim-fong full rein in the lead roles. The sparks fly throughout, never more so than when it's revealed that only one end of their lovers' pact was honoured and Fleur shows that hell really has no wrath like a woman scorned.
In the Mood for Love (Hong Kong, 2000)
Wong Kar-wai's back catalogue seeps with romance but - as its title suggests - never has the director's work been filled with such a sense of longing. Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-wai - as the pair on the brink of illicit love - allow every look, every brush of cloth on cloth to linger, and cinematographer Christopher Doyle places the audience in the position of pure voyeur. It's an atmosphere summed up perfectly by The New Yorker's David Denby when he wrote on the film's release: "So skilfully does the director bring us to a state of breathless expectation that when he refuses to deliver the goods he almost seems to have invented a new form of perversion."
My Sassy Girl (South Korea, 2001)
There's no denying Kwak Jae-yong altered the framework of relationships across Asia when he picked up on a internet blog and made box office history. Suddenly - inspired by the fabulous Jun Ji-hyun in the lead role - one could spy legions of brow-beaten and busted-up boyfriends across the region as they trailed behind their "sassy" better halves. This is romance as equal parts torture and affection as one hapless sap (Cha Tae-hyun) chances upon a woman (Jun) who is both dream and nightmare. Beyond the laughs, though, there comes a sweet message about how true love sometimes endures through all the pain and pratfalls.
The Love Eterne (Hong Kong, 1963)
This is the film that made a superstar out of Ivy Ling Po and consolidated Betty Loh Ti among the firmament of Asian stars. All right, so it's a musical - and it's a musical from the 1960s no less - but director Li Han-hsiang leans heavily on the operatic classic The Butterfly Lovers and it proved a masterstroke as the film seduced audiences across the region. It's still impossible not to fall for the charms of the bright-eyed Ling Po playing a girl dressed up as a boy who has eyes only for "his" best friend. This is a slice of cinematic magic.
Love Letter (Japan, 1995)
Director Shunji Iwai doesn't really leave much to chance in this much-loved tear-jerker, tugging on our heart strings from its beginnings, lifting spirits with liberal doses of humour just when things start to weigh a bit too heavy, and handing the story over to a collection of picture-perfect stars, led by Miho Nakayama in the dual leads. Iwai lets his cameras roam around the stunning countryside of Hokkaido as he creates a dreamscape of memories, of longing and of loss as two women come to terms with a love that has passed them by.
Spring in a Small Town (China, 1948)
It's a rare thing that an original film and its remake could both be considered among the best their country have ever produced, but such is the case with this film and the Tian Zhuangzhuang-directed reboot ( Springtime in a Small Town, 2002). But the original, directed by the great Fei Mu and set against the backdrop of a country recovering from war, aches with a sense of quiet resignation as a couple (Wei Wei and Shi Yu) struggle to stay committed long after the flames of their initial passion have been doused. By its end, the film presents a triumph for common decency - and for commitment, no matter the cost.
You are the Apple of My Eye (Taiwan, 2011)
One for the kids? Maybe. But to dismiss Giddens Ko's debut simply because it seems to have been watched - and taken to heart - by every teenager in the region would mean missing out on a film that celebrates everything that makes young love feel so vital. An ensemble cast hovers around the girl they all want (Michelle Chen), but it's left to one boy (Ko Chen-tung) to make the move. The real surprise comes at the finale, when the characters, and the audience, are given pause to reflect on how every relationship we have leaves its mark on our lives.