Just in time for Valentine’s Day, if we go by traditions in Japan which sees romantic feelings extend to March 14th and South Korea which goes at least throughout the summer, yet another list of romantic films for you all to watch! Or not. If you’re one of the singles out there, then wait until April 14th and chow down on some black noodles.
With all the lists popping up on the net related to the “best on-screen couples,” “the best romantic comedies,” or “the best Valentine’s Day movies,” I find it odd that not one Asian film ever makes any list, despite the topics’ absence of qualifiers like “American.” Any film should qualify, right? The obvious implication is that what’s Western (European) or American is considered the standard. More than likely this is purely accidental on the part of those who create the lists, but it still reflects a closed-minded attitude toward anything foreign in popular culture. To rectify the situation, I’ve developed a list of The Best Romantic Films making the conscious decision to exclude anything Western or American. Any other qualifiers? I’ve tried to narrow it down to films about true love. No Moonlight Whispers or psycho-sexualism of Takashi Miike’s (三池 崇史) Audition (オーディション). These are films that you can safely cuddle up with your loved one and just enjoy.
1. Art Museum by the Zoo (미술관 옆 동물원) – South Korea, 1998. Ignore any review you might have read which claims that this “unoriginal” movie’s only strength comes from its two leads. Shim Eun-Ha (심은하) and Lee Seong-Jae (이성재) are indeed most excellent to watch, but they are helped by a strong, refreshing script which brings new life to an old genre while drawing heavily from modern Korean society. Unlikely lovers meet and initially detest one another, but they work through their own personal love demons by cowriting a screenplay which is more about their own blossoming love than they realize. Anyone who has ever been to the real art museum in the film, The National Museum of Contemporary Art, knows just what a romantic and beautiful area of Seoul the film portrays.
2. A Chinese Ghost Story (倩女幽魂) – Hong Kong, 1987. My personal favorite film, the quintessential supernatural love story. Directed by Ching Siu-Tung (程小東) and directed by Tsui Hark, A Chinese Ghost Story overflows with romance and longing. Traveling tax collector Ning, played by the sorely missed Leslie Cheung (張國榮), meets tragic beauty Nie (the gorgeous Joey Wong, 王祖賢) and falls head over heels in love. When he learns she died a long time ago and will be forced to marry an evil demon against her wishes, he unites with a Taoist monk and ghost slayer to save her soul – literally. This film is pure Hong Kong in nature. From its abrupt tonal shifts, inventive choreography and special effects, and fast pace, it’s an extremely enjoyable ride which is helped by the smoldering chemistry between Leslie and Joey.
3. Christmas in August (8월의 크리스마스) – South Korea, 1998. Few films have had such a lasting impact on the Korean film industry than director Hur Jin-Ho’s (허진호) debut vehicle. Han Suk-Kyu (한석규) and Shim Eun-Ha anchor a devastatingly romantic film. Han plays a terminally ill photographer, trying to wrap up his life as calmly as possible until he meets Shim, playing a parking officer. Korean film has a tendency to focus too heavily on melodrama for its own sake, but with Christmas in August, the filmmakers approach it with tenderness, humanity, and a soft touch.
4. Needing You (孤男寡女) – Hong Kong, 2000. Johnnie To (杜琪峯) proves himself to be adept at working in any genre he chooses with this unabashed romantic comedy starring Andy Lau (劉德華) and then box office queen Sammi Cheng (鄭秀文) as coworkers in an electronics firm. Office rom-coms are no stranger in Hong Kong cinema (see La Brassiere (絕世好Bra) and Beauty and the Breast (豐胸秘Cup) among others), but To and frequent co-director Wai Ka-Fai (韋家輝) really make the most of the setting and their actors. Andy is serviceable as the resident playboy, but Sammi absolutely shines as the neurotic Kinki, pressured to marry for wealth rather than love in Hong Kong’s ultra-materialistic society. Her seduction scene alone is worth the price of the DVD.
5. Shall We Dance (Shall We ダンス?) – Japan, 1996. One of the most critically and commercially successful films to come out of Japan during the 1990s, Shall We Dance is a tribute to performing arts and the necessity and power of self-expression. Shohei Sugiyama (Koji Yakusho, 役所 広司) has a stable job, a loving family, and the house he always wanted, but when he sees forlorn Mai (Tamiyo Kusakari, 草刈 民代) staring out the window of her dance studio while taking the train home after work, he is totally smitten. But what initially seems to be a tale of infidelity smartly becomes a love affair with ballroom dancing. Director Masayuki Suo (周防正行) takes the time to develop the story and characters fully while providing insight into modern Japanese society and the rather mundane life of a salaryman. Koji Yakusho, who I am convinced is one of the finest actors working anywhere today, is in top form and the amazingly animated supporting turn from Naoto Takenaka (竹中 直人) seals the deal. Not only one of the best Japanese films you are likely to see, Shall We Dance is a great film – period.
6. My Sassy Girl (엽기적인 그녀) – South Korea, 2001. What more can be said about this film that hasn’t already been said? It was a box office success all over Asia. It capatulted star Jeon Ji-Hyun (엽기적인 그녀) into orbit around the moon thanks to her vivacious, sexy, and vulnerable performance. It inspired remakes and various adaptations in Japan, India, and even the United States (in an inferior, direct-to-DVD remake). Perhaps more importantly, it allowed females to stretch their acting muscles within this traditionally confining genre while humanizing their characters and giving more credence to their relational motivations.
7. In the Mood for Love (花樣年華) – Hong Kong, 2000. Wong Kar-Wai’s (王家衛) tribute to nostalgic Hong Kong is not the most accessible film, but the evocative imagery and lush atmosphere make for required viewing. Stars Tony Leung (梁朝偉) and the gorgeous Maggie Cheung (張曼玉) are neighbors under the suspicion their spouses are having an affair with one another. Their shared pain brings them closer together until they too develop romantic feelings for each other. Despite the sympathy they garner, their fantasies about the nature of their spouses’ relationship adds a dark, lustful, and dangerous element to the film while the themes and imagery conjure up feelings such as intense longing, unfulfilled love, and a return to better times. 2046, a far inferior sequel, was filmed in 2004 with Tony Leung reprising his role of Chow Mo-Wan and lead actress Zhang Ziyi (章子怡) proving that she can’t hold a candle to Maggie Cheung.
8. Be With You (いま、会いにゆきます) – Japan, 2004. An emotionally resonant film, and soon to remade with Jennifer Garner, Be With You is a tribute to eternal love. The death of Mio (Yuko Takeuchi, 竹内 結子) leaves her husband Takumi (Shido Nakamura, 二代目 中村) and young son Yuji in a state of flux, but her promise to return from beyond the grave during the next rainy season gives Yuji hope. When they stumble upon a woman who could be Mio’s twin, but with no memory, they immediately embrace her and bring her home. It sounds very far-fetched and even a little creepy, but the apparent absurdity of the story gives the filmmakers creative freedom to embrace the audience, and it works very well. Mio’s reincarnation and memory loss allows the film to venture into the couple’s past and how they began their relationship. When it turns out her return is indeed temporary and that her days are numbered, she must adequately prepare her husband and son for live without her. Needless to say, you might need some tissues for this one.
9. C’est La Vie, Mon Cheri (新不了情) – Hong Kong, 1993. I’ve always had a soft spot for Lau Ching-Wan (劉青雲). The man is one of Hong Kong’s most versatile actors and always comes across as a likeable, personable guy. In this film, his role as a bitter musician with a failed relationship is well played without being manipulative and overstuffed with histrionics. When he meets the spunky Kit (Anita Yuen, 袁詠儀) and gets a taste of her and her family’s love of life, he begins to move on … until she is struck down with terminal cancer! Definitely a recipe for a tear-jerker, the film is saved from melodrama hell thanks to director Derek Yee’s (爾冬陞) mature and assured directing which makes sure audiences connect with the two main characters and their young love.
10. Heavenly Forest (ただ、君を愛してる) – Japan, 2006. For those who like overly sentimental romances, Heavenly Forest delivers in spades. Other reasons it made it on the list is because it represents very strongly the type of film that Hollywood has long forgotten how to make – a film about pure, young love. This is not a sex comedy and there are no gimmicks or hammy characters. This is a film that, while relying on genre conventions for foundational purposes, is about two well-written characters falling in love for the first time, plain and simple.
As you can imagine, this list is in no way complete. There are many recommendations across many genres and styles of filmmaking. A few other recommendations for films you can watch with your loved one: The Bride with White Hair (白髮魔女傳), The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (時をかける少女), July Rhapsody (男人四十), La Brassiere, One Fine Spring Day (봄날은 간다), My Left Eye Sees Ghosts (我左眼見到鬼), The Contact (접속), Midnight Sun (タイヨウのうた), Calmi Cuori Appassionati (冷静と情熱のあいだ), and And I Hate You So (小親親). Feel free to add more to the list!