Hollywood has begun to take the memo. Global audiences want original stories, compellingly told and with fresh twists and turns instead of the same boring remakes, thrillers or Academy-Award tearjerkers.
With this realization, Western cinema is moving into a golden age where an increasingly eclectic and diverse platter of movies (Call Me By Your Name, Loving Vincent, The Shape Of Water) has started to gain mainstream recognition and commercial success.
But there are some of us that shake our heads at the American-centric attention these movies receive and perhaps, rightfully so. It’s time we not only acknowledge but give due praise to a community of filmmakers who receive lesser recognition but still offer an alternative, unique and non-Western lens to view the world. You’ll find it’s both refreshing and grounded, and something a lot of Southeast Asian movie buffs will find themselves relating to. Our local film industry is taking note too, with Saw Teong Hin’s film You Mean The World To Me, a Penang Hokkien film, winning an award from the Festival Filem Malaysia for Best Screenplay. This Chinese New Year, we step back appreciate the treasure trove of insights and masterful storytelling left behind by our top 5 directors from all across the Chinese diaspora.
Wong Kar-Wai (Hong Kong)
Wong Kar-Wai has become synonymous with arthouse cinema for many of its fans. Working together with longtime cinematographer Christopher Doyle, Kar-Wai’s films present a vintage and nostalgic Hong Kong that most of his fans had never had the chance to live through, yet maybe, in our minds, we can pretend his character’s memories are ours too. This is the dreamy sentiment he evokes in his work, as the director creates lonely neon-noir world through colour and lighting manipulation. His work is not plot or action driven which is very different from some of the other directors on our list. Instead, they are filled with melancholy and contemplation, lonely people who dream of loss and love. Some great examples of his eccentric narrative arrangements are in films like Chungking Express (1994), stories of lost love and hopeful romances that are complemented by a sunshiny palette of bright and lovely colours. Other times, the colours are sharp and feel almost dangerous in each frame, like the use of harsh reds and greens to symbolise the futuristic landscape of 2046 (2004).
In The Mood For Love (2000)
Eric Khoo (Singapore)
On the subject of thought-provoking films, Eric Khoo has been credited with the revival of contemporary Singaporean cinema that focuses on the intricate and delicate lives of Singapore’s lost souls. Khoo makes national icons like the Singapore’s Housing Development Boards (HDB) a subject of his work, focusing on the oppressive confines of urban life and how Singapore’s displaced citizens are forced deal with that. While the HDB does feature in a lot of contemporary Singaporean films, Khoo breathes life into his movies like 12 Storeys (1997), with a wistful and realistic portrayal of its residents in trying to find their place while being useful to their country. He confronts the neglected and buried part of modern Singapore that have been pushed aside in the march of progress. Singapore’s working-class life and gritty underbelly isn’t something the world gets to see often, and it’s almost like Khoo makes it a personal mission to unveil it. Films like Mee Pok Man (1995) show a somber depiction of Singapore’s red-light district, centred between a mee pok hawker ostracised by his society and the loneliness that drives him to crave for affection from ill-fated prostitute, Bunny. Art mirrors life, and we wish it wasn’t mirrored so painfully accurate.
Mee Pok Man (1995)
Chen Kaige (China)
China’s Cultural Revolution has a history that is still considered taboo to talk about on the mainland and yet in the aftermath, have birthed some visionary directors in arthouse cinema. Chen Kaige is one of the Fifth-Generation Chinese filmmakers who made Chinese cinema popular abroad. Farewell My Concubine (1993) made him the first Chinese filmmaker to ever win the Palme d’Or, the highest prize awarded at the Cannes Film Festival. And with good reason. His strong focus on storylines that emphasise China’s cultural legacy and history make for stunning visuals and costumes of such intricate design that it made global audiences sit up in wonder. But each underlying motif in his film is political, as Chen probes the beliefs and perspective of the Chinese people post-Cultural Revolution. He has said before that his traumatic life during that era underlies all his work and insists on making his country’s legacy flourish once again. When he was 14, the Revolution destroyed his family life as he was encouraged by schoolteachers to denounce his father, film director Chen Huai’ai who was considered a maker of subversive art, to a sentence of hard labour. He has said this event was always a secret story in all his films, one that’s been trying to find its way out. And when that day comes, what a film it will be.
Farewell My Concubine (1993)
Hou Hsiao-hsien (Taiwan)
Hou Hsa-hsien is a director committed to not only documenting, but exploring the most significant moments in Taiwanese history and for fans of period drama, this one’s for you. He is a respected member of Taiwan’s New Wave cinema movement and is driven by social commentary on Taiwan’s contemporary landscape. While period recreation can be drawn out and not for everyone, it is spaced out with long takes and calm, introspective shots. Each frame is lingering and almost asks the audience to meditate on the moment the film is presenting. It’s no wonder that he is globally known as one of the forefathers of slow cinema, creating meaning in his composition. In films like The Time To Live and The Time To Die (1985), the nostalgic longing of the characters and the moments the hero spends looking back at his childhood experience is brought to life with Hou’s particular style of cinematography and movement. If you are patient enough to sit through the precise and measured rhythm of Hou’s work, you could find pleasure in its peace.
Three Times (2005)
Chiu Keng Guan (Malaysia)
And for this Chinese New Year, we come home to our very own talents, Chiu Keng Guan. Ola Bola (2016) had the nation in a patriotic fervour and is arguably the movie the public has come to know him for best. But Chiu made his mark on Malaysian cinema long before with his Chinese New Year trilogy, WooHoo! (2010), Great Day (2011) and the critically acclaimed The Journey (2014), that has revitalised the local cinema scene with a sense of sentimentality. His family-oriented movies have long captivated audiences with heartwarming stories about dreaming big, looking and loving beyond race and friendship. Yet his heartwarming tales come to life against a backdrop of gorgeous landscapes of Malaysia’s lesser known destinations that can’t help but fill local audiences with love and loyalty to their nation. Each storyline is an exploration of how we come to terms with tradition and modernity and are well-loved by Malaysians for the way he captures our daily lives, and resonate with them. For a Chinese New Year family treat, you can’t go wrong with any of Chiu’s work.
Ola Bola (2016)
Featured image Source: https://letterboxd.com/film/in-the-mood-for-love/