The Mermaid (2016)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

When playboy businessman Liu Xuan purchases the Green Gulf Wildlife Reserve, he uses a sonar device to clear the area of fish. Unbeknownst to him, the Gulf is actually home to a small community of mer people, many of whom have been made sick by his company’s activities. To save themselves, the mer people send one of their own, Shan, a mermaid who can walk on her fins, to assassinate him. But, as is always the case with such stories, Shan ends up falling in love with Liu, and things get complicated from there.

The Mermaid is a very weird film, with very many aspects to it. It’s got romance. It’s got fantasy. It’s got cartoonish, slapstick comedy. It’s got very blatant environmental messages, and its got surprisingly horrific violence. When I first saw it back in 2016, I really didn’t know what to think. On the one hand, I appreciated what the filmmakers were going for, as far as messages were concerned, and I liked the fact that a Chinese picture had become a global hit, with it actually out-grossing Hollywood blockbusters like X-Men: Apocalypse and Batman V Superman. On the other hand, I wasn’t a fan of the over-the-top acting, cartoonish slapstick comedy, and surprisingly gory climax. When I expressed my confusion to Chinese friends, they told me that all these things–the clashing tones, big acting, broad comedy–were just part of the director, Stephen Chow’s, style. Maybe so, but that didn’t help me make up my mind.

Well, having thought about it for a few months now, I think I can safely say that I didn’t enjoy The Mermaid. I didn’t like how silly and unrealistic the comedy got, with one character literally spending an entire scene whizzing around a room on a jet pack, and I was really turned off by the climax, which involves the gruesome murder of an entire family. And as broad as the humor might be, there are some jokes in it that really only make sense if you speak Chinese, or are well-versed in Chinese pop culture. Some movies, like In Bruges and Trainspotting, can deftly ride the line between humorous and horrifying, and even hit you with pathos when they’re done. The Mermaid is not one of those movies. It’s heavy-handed when it comes to conveying messages, and it never manages to make the transition between silly and sorrowful seem natural.

And yet, with all that said, I would, in a weird way, recommend this movie to you all. As I mentioned earlier, it was one of the highest grossing films of 2016, so, clearly, there’s enjoyment to be had in it. And I know for a fact that there are many people, like the fans of Baz Luhrman and the Tom & Jerry shorts, who like extremely cartoonish acting and humor. So, if you’re one of those people, or are a fan of Stephen Chow’s other works, give this film a look. You’ll probably have fun.

Sense8 (Season 2, 2017)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

Will and Riley are on the run. So is Nomi and her girlfriend, Neets. Lito has been publicly outed after confronting a friend’s abusive ex. Kala has gone ahead and married her fiancé, Rajan. Capheus, having done the unthinkable by standing up to a local warlord, is now hailed as a hero. Wolfgang is reunited with his best friend, Felix. And Sun, poor Sun, is still trapped in solitary confinement. But not for long. Because things are moving, and faster than you might think.

Sense8 is a show I really enjoyed when it first came out. I liked the concept of people becoming psychically linked. I liked the international cast and setting. I liked the fact that it touched upon relevant social issues, such as gender, sexuality, and identity. But, as much as I liked it, I was more than willing to admit it had problems. Hokey dialogue, underdeveloped plot threads, illogical character choices; these were just a few of the bigger flaws I noticed. And yet, I still recommended the first season to everyone, and was excited to see what the creators, Lily and Lana Wachowski, would do with the second. Well, season 2 is finally here, and this is what I have to say about it.

A lot of the problems from season 1, such as on-the-nose dialogue and stupid character choices, carry over. So does the show’s reliance on racial and national stereotypes. And yet, the funny thing is, when you’re watching the show, you don’t really care. Seriously. Maybe its because the dialogue is less hokey than before, or because the stereotypes–like the idea of the white savior and Asian martial artist–are actually addressed this time around. But, honestly, I think its because the show has so much heart, and so many great character moments, that you forgive its weaker aspects. There are so many great beats in the first episode alone –like when Sun is reassuring kala that sex is something to enjoy, and not be afraid of, or when Lito’s boyfriend, Hernando, gets outed during a lecture, and handles it with grace and dignity–that I have to recommend you all see it.

To put it bluntly, Sense8, season 2 is silly, but its the best kind of silly. Its fun, its inoffensive, and it leaves you feeling warm inside. You really love these characters, and you love following them on their journey. Does that journey make sense, or follow any kind of narrative logic? No. But who cares. The show is still beautiful, and I still think you should give it a look.

It’s Already Tomorrow In Hong Kong

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

Have you ever sat in a big, open space, and found yourself listening to someone else’s conversation? If you have, then you’ll have a pretty good idea of what to expect with It’s Already Tomorrow In Hong Kong, a romantic comedy starring real-life couple Jamie Chung and Bryan Greenberg.

The story of two American expats meeting, and hanging out, in Hong Kong, the film doesn’t really have a plot. It’s just an hour and 18 minutes of these two people walking around, taking in the sights, and getting to know each other. Twice. Now, I realize that, with a description like that, this movie probably sounds super boring. But it does have its merits. The scenery is beautiful, there’s some very good dialogue, and the performances of the two leads are very strong. I’d actually like to take a minute to talk about the acting, because, both of these people, especially Jamie Chung, are very underrated. She’s been in a ton of really crappy movies–Sucker Punch, Dragonball Evolution, Grown Ups–where she gets cast as the hot, token Asian. But even when you’re watching her in those bad movies, you can tell that she’s very talented. She’s just not being given the right material to work with. Fortunately for her, other movies and shows she’s starred in–Eden, Big Hero 6, Once Upon A Time–have given her the chance to shine. It’s Already Tomorrow In Hong Kong does so as well, and she really steps up to the plate in it.

But, as I said in my Beasts Of No Nation review, good performances and pretty visuals aren’t enough to make you love a film. And, sad to say, I don’t love It’s Already Tomorrow In Hong Kong. Yes, the acting is good. Yes, the dialogue is believable. Yes, the characters are well-developed. But nothing happens. No one has a goal. No one has an arc. It’s just two people meeting, talking, and enjoying the Hong Kong night life. That’s it. This movie is like eavesdropping on a couple–you learn a bit about them, you hear them say some funny stuff, but, in the end, you’re not given any context, or reason to care. So, overall, I don’t know if I can recommend this to you all. In terms of pure craftsmanship–acting, cinematography, dialogue– I’d say its a 7 out of 10. In terms of story, and keeping the audience engaged, though, I’d say it’s a 5 out of 10. Make of this what you will.

Young Justice (TV Review)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

You ever heard the expression “jumping the shark?” In case you haven’t, it’s an idiom used to describe the moment when a brand, design, franchise, or creative effort begins to decline in quality. The saying originated with the sitcom Happy Days, in an episode where a character jumped over a shark while on a pair of water skis. This moment was a drastic shift from the show’s previously established tone and formula, and many people saw it as a sign of desperation on the writers’ part to keep viewers interested. But, here’s the thing. Happy Days had been on for five seasons by the time it “jumped the shark.” In all likelihood, the writers had run out of ideas by that time, and were at a loss for new ways to keep audience’s engaged. There, at least, they had an excuse for why they went silly. Other properties, by contrast, aren’t on for as long, and therefore don’t have as forgivable reasons for going bad as Happy Days. Just look at the subject of today’s review, Young Justice.

For those of you who don’t know, Young Justice is an animated TV series that ran for two seasons back in 2010. It’s basic premise is that the sidekicks of the DC Universe–Robin, Kid Flash, Aqualad–have gotten tired of playing second fiddle to their adult counterparts–Batman, Flash, Aquaman–and have therefore decided to form their own team. They do so, and pick up three more members–Superboy, Artemis, Miss Martian–along the way. They then go on various missions, and have numerous run-ins with a criminal organization known as “The Light.”

The first season is simplistic, but highly entertaining, and holds an undeniable amount of charm. Because it’s a teen show, most of the drama derives from love triangles, secret crushes, and adolescent needs to get older people’s approval. But it never once feels as though it’s pandering to that demographic. There’s a fair amount of adult humor in this series, like a moment when the character Artemis says she feels naked, and “not in a good way.” And the characters themselves are very well realized. Every one of them has at least one episode devoted to their ark or backstory, and you see them grow and mature as the series progresses. To put it in basic terms, by virtue of simply being a teen superhero show, the first season of Young Justice isn’t for everyone. But, for what it is, it’s still highly entertaining.

The second season, by contrast, is everything that the first one isn’t, and not in a good way. Whereas the first season consists primarily of self-contained episodes, the second season is nothing more than a series of interrelated chapters. You don’t know what the hell’s happening unless you watch everything from the start. On top of this, whereas the first season has a relatively small number of protagonists, all of whom you get to see grow and develop as the series progresses, the second season dumps a whole lot of new characters on you–like Beast Boy, Blue Beetle, Wonder Girl, Bat Girl, Bumblebee, and Red Robin–none of whom you really get to know that well, or see mature. But perhaps worst of all, the second season drastically shifts its genre. The first season was a straight forward teen superhero show. You saw the protagonists go on adventures, fight bad guys, and so on. The second season, by contrast, is an overly convoluted sci-fi invasion thriller, which steals conventions and plot lines from franchises like The Terminator, V, and The Thing. You’ve got Aliens dressing up like people to steal our tech, evil organizations looking to harvest human beings and implant them with superpowers, dudes traveling back in time to prevent the apocalypse, and alien species coming to Earth, pretending to be friendly, but really wanting to subjugate us. It’s a mess.

And that’s disappointing to me. Because I really loved the first season of the show, and wanted to recommend it to you all. It’s animation is beautiful, the voice acting is good, and the writing, at least for the first season, is very strong. But, alas, because the second season is so bad, and the first season ends on a cliffhanger that requires you watch the next season, I can’t recommend it. I’m not going to give the show a number grade, because it’s a total mixed bag, but I think you get that I didn’t like where it went. Ah, well. Can’t have everything, I suppose.

List Of Awesome Asian-American Films

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, ANd Views Are My Game.

If you follow my blog, then you know that the inclusion and representation of Asians in mainstream media is something that’s very important to me. I’ve written at great length here about the limited roles that are available for Asian actors, and discussed the stereotypes that exist, and are still spread about us, in the West. But what I might not have mentioned is that, for all the bad that’s out there with regards to representation, there is also some good. There are films out there, made by Asians and non-Asian alike, that show us as nuanced, well-rounded individuals, and that tell our stories with respect and care. A few of them have even become critically and financially successful, and today, I’d like to share them with you all. Now, keep in mind, this list is entirely opinion based, and the films I discuss here are not being ordered from best to worst, or vice versa. Some are comedies. Some are dramas. Some are new. Some are old. Whatever their genre or time period, what’s consistent about each of them is that they tell the Asian American story with the level of respect and complexity that it deserves, and I truly believe that you all would enjoy yourselves if you gave them a look. With that said, let’s dive right in to my top 10 list of Awesome Asian-American films!

1. Advantageous, by Jennifer Phang:

A story of sacrifice, love, and the bond between mothers and daughters, this 2014 sci-fi drama is set in the near future, where human beings have developed the technology to implant their consciences into new bodies. The protagonist, Gwen Ko, is the chief spokesperson for a cosmetics company. Due to the fact that she’s now in her 40s, the company decides that she’s too old to be their face, even though she’s better at the job than any other candidate. Gwen tries to find work elsewhere, but quickly discovers that this is a future where women are expected to stay in the house. So, to maintain her affluent lifestyle, and pay for her daughter’s expensive private school, Gwen decides to undergo a procedure in which her conscience will be transferred into a younger body. In this way, she’ll be able to keep acting as the chief spokesperson for the company, and her daughter will be able to get a good education, and thus be able to avoid being abused by men. But not all is what it seems to be, as Gwen quickly discovers that she risks losing a whole lot more than her face by undergoing this procedure. Advantageous is smart, touching, and highly relevant in this day and age, where so much emphasis is placed on youth and beauty. It’s also a unique film to watch, because it’s one of the few sci-fi pictures directed by an Asian person. (Nearly all the movies made about, or by, Asian people, are dramas set in the real world, so a genre piece of this nature is highly unusual). The bottom line is, Advantageous is a great, thought-provoking piece, and you all shouldn’t hesitate to give it a look.

2. White Frog, by Quentin Lee:

Nick Young is a 15-year-old Chinese-American boy with Aspergers who’s spent his whole life living in his older brother, Chaz’s, shadow. When Chaz is tragically killed by a reckless driver, however, Nick ends up discovering a number of shocking things about him, not least of which was the fact that he was secretly gay. As the story progresses, and Nick, his parents, and Chaz’s friends and lovers go through their various stages of grief, they find themselves growing closer, and learning the true meanings of love, family, and acceptance, emerging stronger and happier at the end than they were before. On the one hand, this film could easily be written off as sentimental, politically-correct propaganda. The fact that the film is not only focusing on a Chinese-American family–something you rarely see in mainstream movies–but on disability and homosexuality as well, might make it sound like the filmmakers are simply trying to not offend anybody by including as many minorities as possible. But when you actually sit down and watch the picture, see the heart and care that Quentin Lee is putting into every frame, it becomes hard not to enjoy it. None of the characters seem like tokens or cut outs. They feel like people. And with veteran actors like Law & Order SVU‘s BD Wong and The Last Emperor‘s Joan Chen lending credibility to the picture, you know it can’t all be bad.

3. Man From Reno, by Dave Boyle:

The film begins on a cold, fog-shrouded night in a town just south of San Francisco. Sheriff Paul Del Moral is making his usual rounds when, out of nowhere, an unknown man smashes into his windshield. Startled, the Sheriff brings the stranger, an unidentified Japanese man in his 20s, to the hospital, and tries to find out who he is and where he came from. We then cut to Tokyo, where successful crime-writer Aki Akahori is on tour to promote her new, and final, book. Dissatisfied with the whole affair, and suffering from depression after the death of her lover Kenji, Aki decides to run off to San Francisco to visit some friends. While there, she encounters a debonair stranger named Akira, who claims to be from Reno. The two talk, and seem to be forming a connection, when, out of nowhere, Akira vanishes. And as if this weren’t confusing enough, Sheriff DelMoral’s mystery man in the hospital disappears as well. Confused, and eager to understand just what the hell happened, the two parties begin investigating the matters, eventually crossing paths and joining forces. With its slow pacing, rich atmosphere, and ambient soundtrack, Man From Reno is a modern masterpiece of noir. But beyond its style and enthralling mystery, the film also possesses a surprising amount of dramatic heft. Ayako Fujitani, whom plays Aki, manages to bring a great deal of depth and range to the character–going from tough and cynical, to depressed and lonely, to witty and cheerful, and all while remaining very subtle with her expressions and inflections. One of the most powerful scenes in the entire movie is one that doesn’t have any dialogue at all. It takes place shortly after she arrives in San Francisco, and involves her lying in the bathtub, staring at a razor blade. She doesn’t look overly sad or angry in it–just curious. Like “What would it feel like if I slit my wrists with this blade?” The fact that she doesn’t mug, that she doesn’t try to really over sell the fact that her character is depressed and considering suicide, and plays it more like she’s become so numb that nothing really bothers her, is both terrifying and brilliant. We don’t know what she’s thinking in that scene, and that makes it all the more tension filled. But with regards to representation, the film is also great. All the Asian characters feel fleshed out and well-rounded, and this is especially satisfying to watch when you consider the fact that the film’s director/screenwriter is White. Then again, the director/writer in question, Dave Boyle, tends to make films with largely Asian casts, so I guess it’s not too surprising. But, back to my original point; Man From Reno is a stylish, well-acted, well-shot mystery with great characters, and I know that you all would enjoy it if you gave it a look.

4. The Motel, directed by Michael Kang:

Thirteen-year-old Ernest Chin’s life is devoted to working at his family’s hourly-rate motel, where a steady stream of prostitutes, johns, and various other shady characters come and go. Abandoned by his father, he lives with his mother, grandfather, and younger sister Katie. The film is a loosely assembled series of vignettes examining the difficulty of adolescence. Recurring themes include painful encounters with a bully named Roy and Ernest’s persistent feelings of being misunderstood by his family. Ernest also blindly explores his incipient sexuality, which includes nursing a crush on Christine, an older girl who works at a Chinese restaurant nearby. Ernest’s life changes after he meets the newest guest at the motel: a self-destructive yet charming KoreanAmerican man named Sam Kim, who is caught in a downward spiral after estrangement from his wife. This film is quirky, memorable, and deeply heartfelt. It’s one of the best character studies I’ve ever seen. And unlike some other indie films–cough, cough, Juno, cough, cough–which try to set themselves apart from mainstream movies by being overly ironic and hip, this film stays highly grounded. All I can say is that if you want to laugh, cry, and watch some really good acting, give this movie a look.

5. Better Luck Tomorrow, directed by Justin Lin:

Loosely inspired by the real-life murder of Oakland County teen Stuart Tay, this sleek, high intensity crime drama tells the story of four over-achieving Asian-American High School students, who turn to a life of petty crime and drug use just to feel alive again. This film is awesome, and for many different reasons. Firstly, it’s well-acted, and well-shot. Secondly, it boasts an all-star cast–including Sung Kang from the Fast & Furious franchise, and John Cho from the Star Trek and Harold & Kumar movies. Thirdly, it is helmed by Justin Lin, whom directed four of the seven Fast & Furious movies. And finally, and this is what’s most important to me, it doesn’t emasculate its male, Asian characters. So often when you watch movies or TV shows these days, Asian men are portrayed as wimpy, nerdy side-kicks. Raj in The Big Bang Theory, Hiro in Heroes–the list goes on. Asian men are never shown as strong, confident, or sexually appealing. I cannot think of a single, successful, mainstream movie or TV series in which an Asian man was the romantic lead. This film goes the exact opposite route. The guys in this film are, well, guys. They drink, swear, talk about girls, do drugs, and so on. They’re shown as regular people, and that, just by itself, is extraordinary. Why don’t we have more movies like this? It’s not like it bombed at the box office, or was panned by critics. Quite the opposite, actually. It made more than 12 times its $250,000 budget in ticket sales, and most critics, like Roger Ebert, loved it. All I can say is that if you want to watch an exciting, well-acted, well-shot movie that dares to show Asian men as men, don’t hesitate to give this movie a look.

6. Saving Face, directed by Alice Wu:

It’s a sad fact, but homosexuality is something that is often not discussed, or embraced, in the Chinese-American community. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule–when my Aunt came out to my Grandfather, he welcomed her with open arms–but, for the most part, gay and lesbian relationships are not explored in Asian-American cinema or literature. Saving Face, a 2004 romantic comedy about a young Chinese-American surgeon struggling to balance the needs of her pregnant, unwed mother, and her dancer girlfriend, is one of the few Asian films to do so. And my god is it glorious! The humor is great, the acting is superb, and the directing is astounding, especially when you consider that this film was helmed by a first-time director. Each scene is shot and choreographed with the utmost thought and care. Every single frame drips with raw, pure emotion. And lest you think I exaggerate, the stars of this film–Michelle Krusiec, Lynn Chen, and Joan Chen–have all publicly stated that they found the process of making this movie to be one of the most enjoyable and intimate experiences of their professional careers. And, well, you can’t argue with that, now can you? The bottom line is, Saving Face is definitely worth watching. Do so!

7. Chan Is Missing, directed by Wayne Wang:

This is the original Asian-American film. What I mean by that is, it is the first picture portraying us as complex, multi-faceted individuals to gain critical and commercial success outside the community, and to generate a demand for more works from Asian-American artists. And lest you think I exaggerate with that statement, in 1995, Chan is Missing was inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” It tells the story of two San Francisco Chinatown taxi drivers, Jo and Steve, trying to find a man named Chan who owes them some money. As they interview various locals about the missing man, they get a fractured, even contradictory portrait of him, mirroring the complexities of the polyglot Chinese-American community he allegorizes. Shot in black and white, and containing elements of the film noir genre, the movie manages to combine a surprising amount of heart with humor. And what makes it even better is that, while it does seek to educate its non-Asian viewers about the real lives of Chinese-Americans, it doesn’t try to tell them that we’re all alike, even in goodness. A great deal of the film contains imagery of faces being blotted, or washed out, so that you can’t actually see them, letting us know that it’s never all right to generalize, even if it is in a positive manner. All of us are individuals, and all of us should be regarded as such. Just because we have the same skin color, or ethnic background, doesn’t mean we like the same things, think the same way, or behave in the same manner. We don’t even necessarily want to be treated the same way, and the film touches upon that as well. The final shot is of a photograph of the missing Chan, with Jo’s voice-over stating, “Here’s a picture of Chan Hung, and I still can’t see him,” implying that our community is ever growing, changing and evolving, and that we don’t even know who we are or who we’re becoming some times. So, if you want to see a culturally, historically, and aesthetically unique work that is both humorous and heartfelt, put this film at the top of your Netflix queue.

8. Mississippi Masala, directed by Mira Nair:

The story of one family’s quest to find a place where they belong, Mississippi Masala begins with Ugandan dictator Idi Amin expelling all Asians from his country. One of the newly stateless thousands is a man named Jay, who decides to start a new life in America. He moves his family to rural Mississippi, and there, his wife opens a liquor store, he aimlessly sues the Ugandan government for his property, and his daughter begins an illicit romance with a local man (Denzel Washington). Needless to say, a great deal of hijinks ensue in this smart, sexy, and highly touching comedy-drama. Though its marketed as a love story, at its heart, Mississippi Masala is an exploration of identity and societal alienation. All this can be found in the character of Jay. Jay was born in Uganda, and therefore identifies first and foremost as an African. The Ugandan government, however, tells him that, being ethnically Indian, he can never truly be an African. Then, when he and his family moved to America, he tries to become American. But, once again, society tells him that, because he has the wrong skin color, he can never truly be a member of it. There’s something deeply tragic, and deeply relatable, about his plight. It’s one that many, if not all immigrants, face–not knowing where you belong. My grandfather, for instance, came to America from China in 1949, and faced a great deal of discrimination. People wouldn’t hire him. They wouldn’t serve him. They constantly reminded him that, because he wasn’t White and because he spoke with an accent, he would never truly be an American. And then, when he went back to China to visit after 20 years, people treated him like an outsider, mocking his odd American customs, and his old-fashioned manner of speaking. As I watched Jay go through all this in the film, I couldn’t help but tear up a bit, because I saw so much of my grandfather in him. That’s how you know that this is a great movie, the fact that it can effect its audience members on such a personal level. So, to sum it all up, Mississippi Masala is funny, touching, daring, and deeply relatable. And who wouldn’t want a movie to be all those things?

9. The Joy Luck Club, directed by Wayne Wang:

If Chan Is Missing was the first Asian-American film, The Joy Luck Club was the first Asian-American film to become a huge hit. Seriously. This movie, and the novel that it was based off of, made tons of money, and more or less created the standard for what other Asian-American works of art should be like. And while I don’t think either the book or the film is a perfect representation of our community, I have to admire them for what they are, a movie and a novel made by, and about, Asian people that non-Asian audiences flocked to see. That’s pretty rare, even nowadays. But, concerning plot, Four older women, all Chinese immigrants living in San Francisco, meet regularly to play mahjong, eat, and tell stories. Each of these women has an adult Chinese-American daughter. The film reveals the hidden pasts of the older women and their daughters and how their lives are shaped by the clash of Chinese and American cultures as they strive to understand their family bonds and one another. The film is well-acted, the stories are heart-wrenching, and it’s kind of cool to see a movie with an all-star Asian-American cast. Seriously! Almost everyone in this film has gone on to do other stuff. There’s Ming Na Wen, who went on to star in Mulan, ER, and Agents Of Shield. There’s Lauren Tom, who became known for voice acting in Futurama, King Of The Hill, and Codename: Kids Next Door. There’s Tamilyn Tomida, whom you all might recognize from The Karate Kid: Part 2, and The Day After Tomorrow. Even the women playing the mothers have had successful careers. Tsai Chin, for instance, whom portrays Tamilyn Tomida’s mother, has been in two Bond films, 1967’s You Only Live Twice, where she was the Bond girl, and 2006’s Casino Royale, where she had a minor role as a poker player. The bottom line is, The Joy Luck Club is a well-acted, well-written work with great actors that is guaranteed to leave you in tears, and in the best possible way.

10. The Wedding Banquet, directed by Ang Lee:

Though he’d earned critical praise with his debut feature, Pushing Hands, legendary director Ang Lee first won over the audiences of America with this hilarious and heartfelt romantic comedy. The story of a gay Taiwanese-American man who marries a mainland Chinese woman to placate his parents and get her a green card, the film mixes a surprising amount of drama with screwball comedy. As with The Joy Luck Club, The Wedding Banquet was one of the first films made by, and about, Asian people that Americans flocked to see. And while it does seem a little bit dated now, it is still a well-crafted, highly-enjoyable film to watch. There are glimpses in it of the greatness that would appear later on in Lee’s career, and as with Saving Face, it is nice to see a film that deals with homosexuality within the Asian-American community. All I can say is that if you want to watch a movie and feel good, give this film a look. It will definitely make you smile.

My Fifteen Favorite Underrated Films.

Greetings loved ones! Liu is the name, and views are my game!

Have you ever come across a movie that you just loved, but no one else around you seemed to like or understand? I have, and on multiple occasions. So many times, in fact, that I’ve decided to compile a list of my fifteen favorite underrated films. Why fifteen? Because I like to give 150%. Anyway, my hope is that, by sharing the names of these pictures with the readers of my blog, I’ll be able to expose more people to their brilliance, and subsequently aid the talented artists who made them. Just to be clear, when I say “underrated” I’m referring to a well-acted, well-written, and well-produced film that, for whatever reason, was either critically or financially unsuccessful at the time of its release. It can have a large or small budget, be directed by a Hollywood A-lister, or an obscure Art House Intellectual. All it has to be is a good movie that wasn’t appreciated when it first came out. But, why waste any more time telling you about these pictures? Let me show them to you! Here are my fifteen favorite underrated films!

Number 15: The Lady Vanishes, by Alfred Hitchcock.

The name of Alfred Hitchcock will forever be linked to such classic thrillers as Psycho, The Birds, Rear Window and North By North-West. But what many people forget is that he had quite a successful film career back in the UK before he came to America. The Lady Vanishes is just a single excerpt from that impressive earlier portfolio. A humorous and exciting tale of intrigue and espionage, it tells the story of a group of British tourists and their misadventures while on holiday in a fictional Eastern European country. Possessing many of Hitchcock’s trademark storytelling devices, including a slow, atmospheric start, constant misdirection and continuous narrative twists, Lady kept me laughing and on the edge of my seat until the very end. Considerably lighter in tone than other Hitchcock movies, Lady is a good place to start for any cinephiles out there who might be too timid to watch Psycho or The Birds. Its always enjoyable to see the early work of a genius, and with Lady, that work is both interesting and impressive. I would strongly advise any fans of Mr Hitchcock or simply of good cinema to check this one out.

Number 14: Miller’s Crossing, by Joel and Ethan Coen.

Anyone who’s familiar with the Coen Brother’s movies knows that much of their work is inspired by classic noir. The title of their first film, Blood Simple, is a reference to the Dashiell Hammett novel Red Harvest, while the classic stoner comedy The Big Lebowski is, in essence, the Coens interpreting how their real life friend, Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski, would react were he placed in the Raymond Chandler novel, The Big Sleep. Basically, the Coens are no strangers to the world of wise guys, spies, and private eyes. What’s unique about their 1990 flick Miller’s Crossing is that here, rather than simply allude to or draw inspiration from the gangster genre, they went ahead and made a full fledged mobster movie. And what a movie it is! Blessed with superb dialogue, exquisite costumes and stellar performances from its stars, Gabriel Byrne, John Torturro and Albert Finney, Miller’s Crossing was lauded by critics when it first came out, but only managed to collect a modest $5 million at the box office. I suppose that, with so many other mobster movies coming out that year–Goodfellas, The Godfather Part III–people were just weary of the gangster genre, and so didn’t find the time or energy to go see an intelligent, intricately-crafted film like Miller’s Crossing. But that doesn’t mean that you all shouldn’t! Give it a look when you’ve got the chance.

Number 13: Turtles Can Fly, by Bahman Ghobadi.

There are some movies out there that are so shocking, so eye-opening, that they change the way we look at the world. For me, Turtles Can Fly was one such movie. I doubt that any of you have ever heard of it, but this harrowing and heart-breaking Kurdish picture is the first foreign film ever to be shot in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Set in 2004, in a small refugee camp along the Turkish border, the story revolves around a group of children, many of them disabled, as they struggle to survive day after day with the threat of an American invasion looming on the horizon. It was the first war movie I’d ever seen that dealt with the suffering of the civilians, with the total squalor and penury that the dispossessed live in before and after the last shot is fired. I’d never heard of the Kurds before I watched this movie. I didn’t know about the absolutely atrocious conditions that people lived in under the HUssein regime. I never would have imagined that children would also be the victims of rape and torture until I saw this film. Turtles Can Fly sickened me, saddened me, and educated me, and allowed me to look at the War in Iraq, a conflict I’d long been opposed to, in a far more nuanced light. It’s a film that I’ll never forget, and one that I think all people who’d like to understand the Middle-East conflict and Iraq a little bit better should see.

Number 12: Riding Alone For Thousands of Miles, by Zhang Yimou.

Though he’d already won critical praise for such exquisite dramas as Raise The Red Lantern, Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou first broke into the American mainstream with the martial arts epic Hero. And for good reason. A colorful, visually-striking spectacle, it synthesized unbelievable fight choreography with strong performances from its leads–Jet Li, Zhang Ziyi, Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung–and also managed to raise some interesting questions about the role of government in ensuring stability and the point where personal loyalty must be sacrifice for the greater good. In a word, it was awesome. Another equally awesome, but considerably less well-known film from Zhang Yimou is the 2005 drama, Riding Alone For Thousands of Miles. A quiet, touching picture, it tells the story of an aging Japanese man trying to make amends with his estranged, and terminally ill son, by going to China to videotape a rare nuo opera performance. What I was most struck by when I first saw this movie was that the majority of the actors in it are amateurs. You’d never guess it to look at them, which is a testament to how good they are. Plus, I enjoyed the fact that Yimou chose to follow the grand, ostentatious extravaganza that was Hero with this gentler, more realistic piece. In my mind, Riding Alone showed the true depth and range he had as an artist, and made me that much more interested in his other films. And honestly, what could be better than watching a movie about love, reconnection and reconciliation?

Number 11: Dead Man, by Jim Jarmusch.

Thanks to directors like Sergio Leone, the Western genre will forever be associated with bar brawls, gun fights, and other such ridiculous displays of machismo. JIm Jarmusch’s slow-paced, cerebral, black and white potboiler Dead Man is about as far from all that as you can imagine, which, in my mind, is what makes it the ideal Western movie. Part poetry, part satire, part psychedelic rock, Dead Man is an intelligent, engaging and altogether unreal audio-visual experience. Anyone who’s read my early blogs knows how adamant I am about this picture, and if any of you get the time to watch it as well, you’ll understand why.

Number 10: Lake View Terrace, by Neil Labute.

Horrendous flops like 2006’s The Wicker Man have made director and playwright Neil LaBute a laughing stock. But what the people who hurl the most biting remarks often forget is that, before and after his embarrassing collaboration with the king of kabuki acting, Nicolas Cage, Mr LaBute made several financially, if not critically, successful films, the most notable of which is Lake View Terrace. A harsh, racially-charged thriller, it tells the tale of Abel Turner, a black LAPD officer, and his increasingly hostile relationship with his new neighbors, a young interracial couple. With such stars as Samuel L Jackson and Kerry Washington in the lead, it almost goes without saying that they acting in this movie is superb. The cinematography is also something to be admired. In keeping with the effect that extreme heat can have on people’s judgement, the filmmakers drained all cool colors from the movie’s images. But what I truly appreciated about Lake View Terrace is that each of its characters is realistic and well-rounded. Few films made these days can claim to have no real villain, and Lake View Terrace is one of them. People who’ve seen the movie might argue that Abel is the bad guy, but I would tend to disagree. True, he’s not the friendliest of men. He slashes his neighbors tires, and sends a burglar into their home to mess it up but, we also see him act as a loving, if strict, father, and a dedicated law enforcement officer. Hell, the first thing we see him do is look at his wife’s picture and pray. Basically, Lake View Terrace is too thoughtful, too complicated, to be categorized, trivialized or demonized. To quote the late Roger Ebert, “Some will find it exciting. Some will find it an opportunity for an examination of conscience. Some will leave feeling vaguely uneasy. Some won’t like it and will be absolutely sure why they don’t, but their reasons will not agree. Some will hate elements that others can’t even see. Some will only see a thriller. I find movies like this alive and provoking, and I’m exhilarated to have my thinking challenged at every step of the way.

Number 9: Red Belt, by David Mamat.

The first film I saw Chiwetel Ejiofor in was not, as it was for many of my classmates, 12 Years A Slave, but rather, this slick, low budget, critically-acclaimed neo-noir martial arts thriller. I enjoyed this movie so much when I saw it, and have so thoroughly associated it with Mr Ejiofor as an actor that, now, whenever someone mentions his name, my first response is usually something along the lines of “Oh! You mean the Red Belt guy?” The story of a morally stalwart, if financially insecure jujitsu instructor, this film deals with corruption and intrigue within the world of professional fighters, and is populated by a number of extremely interesting, highly unique characters, including a young lawyer recovering from the trauma of a rape, an emotionally unstable LAPD officer, and an aging movie star with anger issues. When I first saw the film, I had just begun to study Aikido, and so its fight sequences and philosophy really resonated with me. Then, three years later, when I stopped taking martial arts and reexamined the movie, I found that I enjoyed it just as much, if not more, than the first time. True, its ending is a bit abrupt, but the film more than makes up for that with plot intricacy and character development. So, whether you’re a diehard fan of the martial arts, or simply someone who likes good cinema, Red Belt should definitely be at the top of your Netflix queue.

Number 8: John Rabe, by Florian Gallenberger.

If ever there was a movie made with me in mind for an audience member, it would have to be John Rabe. A 2008 German-Sino-French film, directed by two time Oscar winner Florian Gallenberger, this modern masterpiece tells the true tale of John Rabe, a German businessman who, while living as an expatriate in China, witnesses the horrors of the Rape of Nanking first hand, and decides to get involved. Working with several other foreigners, including a French teacher, an American doctor, and a German-Jewish diplomat, Rabe establishes the Nanking Safety Zone, and saves the lives of nearly 250,000 people. When I first saw this movie, I was overcome with a multitude of emotions, foremost among them, gratitude. For three years after I moved to Maryland from Germany, all I ever heard from people was how I was a “Nazi” and how “all you krauts are evil.” This film, a true an inspiring story of a German risking his life and business to save innocent civilians, was more than refreshing. The fact that it was set in China, and revolved around the Rape of Nanking, an event that I have long been interested in and have a personal connection to, was a huge bonus. Add to that the fact that its shot in all the right languages–German, Japanese, Mandarin, English–and the fact that all the actors portraying Germans, Japanese, Chinese, French and Americans are actually from these countries, and I’m one happy camper. Now, some of you might be thinking, “okay Nathan, you’ve told us why it made you feel good, but what about us? Will we, people who don’t have personal connections to Germany or China, enjoy it? Is the movie actually any good?” YES! YES! YES! In addition to being visually striking and historically accurate, the film has a beautiful soundtrack and astounding acting. The movie’s stars, Ulrich Tukur, Daniel Bruhl, Zhang Jingchu, Anne Consigny, and Steve Buscemi (Yes! That Steve Buscemi. Reservoir Dogs, Fargo, Big Fish, The Sopranos) don’t simply portray their historical counterparts, they become them. You actually believe that they’re in a horrendous, inhumane circumstance, and that they want to help, knowing that doing so will likely just make the whole situation worse. Each character has a personality and an arc, and you feel genuine sympathy for all of them. It’s not too long, it’s very well acted, it’s historically accurate and it addresses an event and people that both merit greater attention. What can I say? It’s awesome. Check it out.

Number 7: Rosewood, by John Singleton.

Every great director has, at one point in his or her life, made a movie that, while as interesting and well crafted as his or her hits, nevertheless remains unknown to the public. For the Coen’s that movie is Miller’s Crossing, for Christopher Nolan it’s Insomnia, for the Wachowski Brothers its Bound, and for John Singleton its Rosewood. An intense, perfectly cast, beautifully shot drama, this last film gives a fictionalized account of the 1923 Rosewood Massacre, the burning of an all-black town that took place down in Florida. A rich, multi-layered movie, Rosewood was showered with praise upon its initial release back in 1997, and yet only managed to reclaim a modest $13 million from its $30 million budget. Which doesn’t make sense, if you ask me. Sure, the movie is over two hours long and it takes some serious liberties with history, but its so well acted, and has so many interesting scenes that move the plot forward, that you never get bored or really care if its inaccurate. But what really stands out to me about Rosewood is the amount of depth and internal strife that every character has. Each person that’s presented to you has a name, and some individual issue that needs to be addressed. Within the single family of Jon Voight’s character, for example, there are at least three separate conflicts–his desire to protect his black neighbors while not endangering his family; his sons’ distrust of their new step mother; his new wife’s sense of isolation in Rosewood, and so on. A truly great film is one that has several believable sub-plots that are continually addressed throughout the story and add color and texture to the overall narrative. Rosewood possesses plenty of these, and they are what truly makes this film, in my mind, an underrated masterpiece.

Number 6: Snow Falling On Cedars, by Scott Hicks.

I’m always somewhat weary when I go to see a movie adapted from a book, especially if the book in question is one I grew up loving. There’s always the fear that the picture won’t be accurate, that it won’t stay true to the events or themes of its source material. That’s why I was extremely anxious when I rented Scott Hick’s Snow Falling On Cedars. Few books have influenced, or touched me, as deeply as Snow Falling, and I didn’t want to see it get turned into Hollywood trash. Well, I’ll tell you right now, I felt more than relieved when I finished watching it. Not only did the film capture the raw emotion, sexual energy, and unforetold beauty of the original novel with its striking visuals and lyrical soundtrack, it even managed to add a new dimension to the tale which I could never have foreseen. For those of you who aren’t familiar with either the book or the movie, Snow Falling On Cedars is a rich, multi-layered story of love, murder, betrayal and prejudice. Set in a small island community off the puget sound in the years following World War 2, it centers around the murder trial of a Japanese American fisherman, Kabuo Miyamoto. Several other townspeople, including the accused man’s wife, Hatsue, a local reporter named Ishmael, and the dead man’s wife and mother, all give testimony, and in so doing ,reveal the scars that the recent war and internment have left on their island community. A slow-paced, atmospheric story, it is one that left millions, including myself, in tears, and one that I feel every fan of good literature and good cinema should be exposed to.

Number 5: The Beautiful Country, by Hans Petter Moland.

My senior year of high school, I landed a speaking part in the epic rock opera, Miss Saigon. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, the play follows the tragic romance between a young Vietnamese woman and an American GI during the final days of the Vietnam War. Among its many themes is the one of abandonment, specifically, the Americans’ abandonment of their mixed-race children, known in Vietnam as “Bui Doi,” an offensive term that means “less than dirt.” I was so touched by the plight of these children, that I decided to do some research of my own and, in so doing, came across this gem of a picture. The Beautiful Country is a bittersweet independent drama that tells the story of one “Bui Doi,” Bin’s, journey to America to find his father. Shot on a relatively low budget, it still manages to capture all the color, heartbreak and tenderness of a major hollywood movie. It’s acting is quiet and subdued, which fits the somber subject perfectly. It’s writing is simplistic, but powerful, the reason for this being, as the screenwriter said in an interview, to give depth and dignity to people who might only speak two or three words of English, and I can tell you now, it does that perfectly. The Beautiful Country might not have the flare and style of its thematic counterpart Miss Saigon, but its every bit as powerful, and every bit as touching. The last fifteen minutes are guaranteed to leave you in tears, and in the best possible way. So, don’t hesitate. Put it at the top of your Netflix queue.

Number 4: Mystery Train, by Jim Jarmusch.

One of the reasons why I enjoy watching Jim Jarmusch moviesis the music. See, unlike most filmmakers, Jarmusch doesn’t let it just play in the background or add a little flare to a moment that’s supposed to be dramatic. No. He uses it. He has it permeate every scene, every character, to the point where it almost becomes the story. From that regard, one might be able to look at every Jim Jarmusch movie as a sort of cinematic representation of a different kind of music. Dead Man has the rhythm and chords of classic rock, while Ghost Dog: The Way of The Samurai synthesizes elements of both hip-hop and jazz. Mystery Train, Jarmusch’s 1989 anthology film, has the soulful, mournful, and almost wistful feel of blues. A fascinating and genuinely funny picture, the movie is set in Memphis, Tennessee, and focuses on three separate, yet equally colorful groups, a young pair of Japanese hipsters, an Italian woman accompanying a body back to Rome, and a trio of depressed and out of work young men, all over the course of one night. Each of them encounters the legacy, and in one instance, the ghost, of Memphis’s most famous resident, Elvis Presley, and each of them manages to find their way to the same flea bag motel. The dialogue and acting both feel natural, and the movie manages to capture the quiet despair of the former American music capital beautifully. And yet, despite its warm critical response, the film failed to break even with its modest $2.8 million budget when it was first released. A shame, really. Maybe it just didn’t have enough explosions. But, then again, who knows what the public will go see?

Number 3: 13 Assassins, by Takashi Miike.

Very few people in the West have ever heard of Takashi Miike, and even fewer have heard of his 2010 samurai epic 13 Assassins. Which is too bad for them, because they’re missing out on one of the greatest motion pictures of all time. If you can imagine a movie which pays as great attention to story and character development as Seven Samurai, but is also as fast paced, visually striking and tightly choreographed as The Matrix, you’ll have some idea of what you’re in for with this film. A remake of the 1963 black-and-white epic of the same name, 13 Assassins follows a group of samurai who have been given the task of killing the shogun’s sadistic half brother, Naritsugu. An action-packed, yet oddly meditative adventure, the film is as much about friendship, loyalty and the desire of warriors to feel useful in a time without war as it is flashy fight sequences and impressive visual effects. What’s most astounding about it is that its a surprisingly un-gorey movie, and it was produced by Takashi Miike, a man who made a name for himself directing unbelievably bloody cult films. I guess every artist has got more than one side, and in the case of 13 Assassins, its a side that’s worth seeing.

Number 2: In Bruges, by Martin McDonagh.

Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges is easily one of the funniest, most mean-spirited, and deeply moving motion pictures I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing. The fact that its all of those things at once should give you an idea of how truly unique it is. A 2008 black-comedy crime thriller, the film follows a pair of Irish hit-men, Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, who, after a botched job, are told to hide out in the small medieval town of Bruges, Belgium. Having lived for several years in Europe, and visited Bruges myself, the movie offered a lot to me in terms of nostalgia. But don’t worry. It’s great for more reasons than just that. Its viciously funny to begin with–within one five minute sequence, for example, Collin Farrell manages to insult both a group of overweight tourists, describing them as “a bunch of fucking elephants,” and the town of Bruges itself, stating “If I’d grown up on a farm, and was retarded, Bruges might impress me”–but the film quickly turns down a much darker path. We learn that the reason the two are in hiding is that, on his last job, Farrell accidentally killed a child, something for which he has never forgiven himself. Had the movie been made by any other director, or starring any other actors, the transition from raunchy, biting comedy to brooding meditation on morality, personal responsibility and guilt might have been jarring or unnatural seeming. As it is, though, with McDonagh behind the camera, and Farrell and Gleeson in front of it, the movie manages to seamlessly shift from hilarity to depression in almost every scene. Some will find it too bleak, too vicious, but i personally think that it is precisely this film’s dark tone and subject matter that make its sparks of comedy shine all the brighter, and the picture as a whole an underrated masterpiece.

And my absolute favorite underrated film is…

The Flowers of War, by Zhang Yimou.

Where do I begin? This film is beautiful, in every sense of the word. Not only are its sets and costumes astounding, the vibrant color scheme is gorgeous, the lead actresses are all jaw-dropping, the performances are amazing, and the soundtrack is so hauntingly lyrical that it will stay with you for months after you hear it. As for the story, it deserves to be in a class all its own. A heartbreaking tale of redemption and ultimate sacrifice, the film gives a fictionalized account of the Rape of Nanking, and focuses on a group of people trapped inside a Catholic Cathedral, one of the few places untouched by the marauding Japanese hordes. Among those left for dead is a class of Chinese school girls, a group of local prostitutes, and a drunken American mortician (Christian Bale) who’s been sent to bury the priest. None of them likes each other to start off with, but as time passes, and conditions worsen, they all grow closer and do their best to help one another. Bale sobers up and takes the place of their fallen priest, while the prostitutes impersonate the school girls when the Japanese arrive. As the grandson of someone who survived the war in China, the film was extremely difficult to watch. Yimou doesn’t hesitate to show us all the atrocities committed by the Japanese–the worst scene, by far, is the protracted gang rape of Dou, a kind-hearted prostitute–and let me tell you, even though its all staged, he makes it look pretty damn real. And yet, in an odd sense, I’m actually quite grateful that he took such an unflinching approach to the subject matter. What happened to the inhabitants of Nanking in 1937 was more than inhumane. It was evil. Portraying it as anything less than that would be disrespectful to the hundreds of thousands who were slaughtered. Anyway, when Flowers first hit the theaters back in 2011, it gathered nearly $96 million at the box office. And yet, in spite of all the money it made, it was almost universally panned by critics. Many, like Roger Ebert, hated the fact that a Chinese movie had a white man (Bale) as one of its leads. Writing in the Chicago Sun Times, he asked, “”Can you think of any reason the character John Miller is needed to tell this story? Was any consideration given to the possibility of a Chinese priest? Would that be asking for too much?” No disrespect to the late Mr Ebert but, he clearly didn’t know what he was talking about when he wrote that review. Anyone who’s familiar with the history of the Nanking Massacre knows that foreigners played a HUGE part in protecting the civilian population. The Japanese had absolutely no respect for the Chinese, whom they viewed as sub-human. They did not, however, wish to start a war with Western nations like America or Germany, and so were willing to negotiate with people from these countries. So, if Bale’s character had, as Mr Ebert suggested, been Chinese, the Japanese would likely have shot him and then pissed on his corpse. And if Mr Ebert–who, by the way, gave such stinkers as El Topo, The Devil’s Double, and the 2011 remake of Straw Dogs positive reviews–had actually paid attention, he would have seen that all the film’s real heroes, the prostitutes, Major Li, Mr Meng, George the alter boy, are Chinese, and that Bale himself is actually quite a minor character. And honestly, is including a person from another country in your movie really so heinous an offense that it merits terrible reviews? No! Absolutely not. And that, dear friends, is why you all should have absolutely no trepidation about watching this film.

There you have it! My fifteen favorite underrated films. Hope you found this list helpful if you were looking for new stuff to watch. If you’d like to list some of your own underground idols, please leave a comment. Alright, that’s all for today. Good night and god bless.