The age of cheesy, sugar-sweet romantic comedies is still going strong in China – which doesn’t bode well for those planning a trip to the cinema this Valentine’s Day. To avoid giving yourself a toothache this year, try one of these less-than-conventional romantic Chinese films, which range from the hilarious to the heart-wrenching.
1. Lust, Caution (色·戒)
Dir Ang Lee US/China/Taiwan/Hong Kong, 2007
This celebrated historical spy thriller made headlines after its release, mostly for the graphic sex scenes that earned it an NC-17 rating in the US and heavy censorship in China. Based on Eileen Zhang’s 1979 novella of the same name, the story focuses on a group of university students in Japanese-occupied China bent on assassinating special agent Mr Yee (Tony Leung) as an act of resistance against the Japanese puppet government.
Serving as the bait is Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei), an inexperienced but beautiful member of the group who is chosen to seduce him. But as the affair develops, Chia Chi’s growing emotional entanglement threatens to derail the students’ plot. A tragic end is inevitable here, but the ride along the way is intense, seductive and dangerous... however, it’s definitely for couples, not groups – it may be kiiiind of awkward to watch with friends.
Watch Lust, Caution
2. Secret (不能说的秘密)
Dir Jay Chou Taiwan, 2007.
If you need a fix of sweetness and whimsy, pick up this high-school fairytale from Taiwanese heartthrob Jay Chou, who both directs and stars. Set at a prestigious high-school music conservatory, the story follows piano major Ye Xianglun (Chou) as he falls for Lu Xiaoyu (Kwai Lun-mei), a cute pianist whom he overhears on the first day of term playing a beguiling tune, the name of which, she says, ‘is a secret that cannot be spoken’.
Drama follows, when a misunderstanding leads to Xianglun kissing another girl, and Xiaoyu disappears for nearly half a year. It’s in her absence that Xianglun discovers Xiaoyu isn’t who he thinks she is, and that he must make a choice in order to be with her. Though Chou’s acting leaves something to be desired, the plot is magical and the film beautifully shot, perfect for the sentimental school-girl in you.
Watch Trailer for Secret
3. If You Are the One (非诚勿扰)
Dir Feng Xiaogang China, 2008
If you only see one Chinese romcom, let this be the one. A blockbuster hit, If You Are the One stars acclaimed Beijing actor Ge You (To Live, Farewell My Concubine, The Founding of a Republic) as new-money millionaire Qin Fen, who, in his forties, has decided he’s ready to settle down. Qin puts a personal ad online, which leads him through a string of increasingly absurd blind dates that include a gay former colleague and a cemetery saleswoman, among others.
In the end, of course, Qin meets Liang Xiaoxiao (Shu Qi), a hot but damaged airline stewardess, whom he ends up befriending and eventually bedding. We know, we know – predictable, right? The film is nevertheless hilarious, with sharp, ironic wit and finely tuned characters.
Watch If You are the One
4. In the Mood for Love (花样年华)
Dir Wong Kar-wai Hong Kong, 2000
For broken hearts, there’s no better (or, perhaps, worse) director than Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-wai, a man who specialises in melancholy films steeped in a moody haze of missed connections, unconsummated desire and quiet sorrow. If that sounds depressing... well, it is, but his films are also nuanced, sweet and shot through with the electrifying chemistry of punch-drunk love. Arguably the pinnacle of Wong’s besotted oeuvre is In the Mood for Love, the centrepiece of a loose romance trilogy that also includes Days of Being Wild and 2046. Starring Wong regulars Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, the movie takes place in 1960s Hong Kong, where Chow Mo-wan (Leung) and Su Li-zhen (Cheung) are neighbours who each discover separately that their spouses are cheating with one another. Taking comfort together, the two soon begin to fall for each other – though the wounds from the recent infidelity make love harder than they expect. More mood than narrative, this film is longing distilled on celluloid.
Watch the trailer of In the Mood for Love
Dir Stanley Kwan Hong Kong/China, 2001
Based on a gay erotic novel published anonymously online, this film tells the story of Lan Yu (Liu Ye), a young architecture student who comes to Beijing in the late ’80s and soon falls into an affair with successful older businessman Handong (Hu Jun). It’s all fun and games at first, with Handong serving as sugar daddy to Lan Yu, who has already begun working as a prostitute to make ends meet. But despite Handong’s warnings that the relationship is merely a dalliance, Lan Yu falls head over heels for the businessman – something he comes to regret when Handong suddenly decides to go straight and marries a female colleague.
Handong soon gets his comeuppance when the marriage predictably falls apart and he winds up in serious trouble from which only Lan Yu can save him. Alas, there are few Chinese romantic dramas – much less gay ones – that don’t end in tragedy, and this is no exception. Nevertheless, the film is among the best of China’s growing collection of LGBT dramas, and one that earned praise at both the Sundance and Cannes film festivals.
Watch Lan Yu
All films are also available to buy on DVD.