Written by Ivan Sison
Edited by Jo Prieto Ng and Leanne Sy
Family is a central part of Filipino life, especially in Chinese-Filipino culture. Confucian philosophy states that “a man should alienate the king for his parents’ sake, but never alienate parents for the king.” Nowhere is the essence of the Chinese family more exemplified than in the Chinese word for “home” and “family” (家), which are one and the same.
Despite its rich and varied history, family is precisely the one theme that Chinese cinema always returns to—whether it be from Mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, or the Chinese diaspora. In February’s Elements Certified article, we will be taking you through a journey through the finest Chinese family movies. From familiar animation blockbusters to quiet family dramas, there are plenty of movies here for you and your families to enjoy.
Turning Red (2022)
Keywords: Coming-of-age, Animated, Comedy
There is much to love about Turning Red. At the foreground is its unique premise: third-generation immigrant Meilin Lee discovers she has a hereditary curse that turns her into a red panda whenever she has intense emotions. But it’s the world that makes us stay. The 90s kids in particular will find it nostalgic to revisit the mid-2000s, a simpler time marked by boy bands, middle school squabbles, and adjusting to our changing bodies. Director Domee Shi brings her Canadian childhood to life with her MTV music video aesthetics, distinctive character designs and animation style, and an unapologetic love for the time period. For the Chinese-Filipino audience, the uniquely diasporic elements (i.e., helpful yet nosy relatives, tight-knit ethnic communities, etc.) add an extra layer of relatability.
However, under the yang of the film’s nostalgia is the yin of its various tensions. Turning Red perfectly encapsulates the Chinese diasporic desire to maintain one’s identity overseas––through the Lee family temple and Meilin’s well-meaning but occasionally overbearing mother. This sets up the cross-cultural conflicts central to Turning Red and many other diasporic Chinese films. The struggle to remain a filial daughter, while carving out one’s place in foreign society, is explored through Meilin Lee’s teenage lens. As a result, generational trauma is a running theme. All the film’s central women are nursing wounds from their own upbringings, which burst open as they try to rid the rebellious Meilin of her red panda.
Turning Red is firmly rooted in the Chinese diasporic experience and driven almost entirely by a female cast, making it unique in Hollywood animation. It is an entertaining, eye-opening film about living true to yourself while balancing the various tensions of the hyphenated around the world.
Eat Drink Man Woman (1994)
Keywords: Drama, Family, Lighthearted, Sumptuous
The title of Eat Drink Man Woman is a Confucian maxim that states the basic human desires: food and sex/romance. But like many things in Chinese culture, these contradict each other. Sex is a taboo topic on the dinner table which is supposed to bond families together, and romance tears asunder the Taiwanese nuclear family as children move out with their lovers. This is the dilemma that the Chu family faces, as Chef Chu watches his three daughters slowly find love of their own.
Eat Drink Man Woman is a very casual yet contemplative film following the individual lives of the family. Whether portraying a family dinner, a school romance, or an office conflict, the film’s effortless wit and depth make it easily digested by all viewers. But for those looking for more complex flavors, Eat Drink Man Woman provides plenty to chew on. Director Ang Lee, who was raised in Taiwan and educated in America, was in a perfect position to observe how his homeland clung tightly to its Chinese traditions while living in an increasingly Westernized society. Through the Chu household’s long and winding pursuit of individual happiness, Eat Drink Man Woman navigates Taiwan’s cultural tensions and defines the image of the modern nuclear family.
Given that conservative and progressive beliefs constantly clash not just within Filipino households, but in families all over the globe, Eat Drink Man Woman is a relevant, timeless viewing for everyone at home.
The Mission (1999)
Tags: Brotherhood, Action, Gangster
The Mission is arguably the peak of the suave, silent swagger that has shaped current perceptions of Hong Kong triads. The premise is simple (five bodyguards protect a triad boss during a gang war), but it’s director Johnnie To’s style that makes it so unique. Unlike the usual guns-blazing, everything-explodes bombast of John Woo’s gangster films or FPJ blockbusters, every shot counts. Action scenes are built up slowly, introducing the characters, their motives, and their weapons. Tensions rise as every participant in the oncoming violence falls into position––and when everything boils over, carnage unfolds. Nowhere is this more apparent than in The Mission’s iconic mall shootout scene. Through intelligent blocking, masterful camerawork, and a heart-pounding electronic soundtrack, To delivers one of the best fight scene twists in action movie history––all without firing a single bullet.
But underneath the tough exterior of this film runs the theme of deep fraternity. Other triad films paint a very different image of the criminal underbelly: a tight-knit yet distrustful place full of hierarchies, faux courtesy, and facades of honor. In contrast, The Mission’s five bodyguards are simply contractors, city-dwelling loners whose pasts are unknown to each other. Yet, through the pressures of the job and unexpectedly wholesome displays of play and camaraderie, they become close as brothers. Even a hell full of remorseless psychopaths and boundless greed cannot prevent strangers from forging bonds as strong as family.
If you’ve got family members who don’t like dramas and kids’ movies, The Mission is perfect for bonding with them.
To Live (1994)
Keywords: Historical, Drama, Award-winning
Mainland Chinese cinema is the ugly duckling of Chinese filmography on the international stage. People are quick to recommend movies from Taiwan’s Edward Yang or Hong Kong’s Wong Kar-wai, but would be hard-pressed to name more than five classic Mainland films. It doesn’t help either that censorship from the Chinese government is diluting the quality of contemporary works. However, To Live is one of the beautiful swans that China has to offer.
To Live is a decades-spanning portrait of the people under Mao-era China which captures the joy of the Xu household’s several milestones, the tragedies that befall it, and everything in between. Director Zhang Yimou himself lived through this era, giving his film extraordinary amounts of historical fidelity to all its aspects––from the architecture of rural Northern China, to the community dynamics of the time. More than a critique of the heavy-handedness of the Mao government, it is also a celebration of the resilience and hope of the Chinese people in spite of hardships. The film was barred from theatrical release in China, but thanks to its stellar cast (especially Ge You as the Xu patriarch) and Zhang’s expert hand, it received international recognition, being nominated for the Palme D’Or and winning Best Film Not in the English Language at BAFTA.
If you’re into Chinese history, this is a film you should watch as historical context makes every milestone more poignant, and every injustice suffered more infuriating. If you aren’t, To Live is a great movie to start with. Because of the aforementioned censorship of the Chinese government, films like these are becoming rarer by the year, making To Live especially important.
Yi Yi (2000)
Keywords: Drama, Generational, Minimalistic
Yi Yi is a film that notoriously defies categorization—all efforts to describe it end up short of grasping its essence, because its essence is so much. But an image we can use to understand this ineffable movie is its youngest character, Yang-Yang. The story follows three main plotlines (plus some subplots) revolving around the Jian family, where all the grown-ups try to navigate their conflict. The father NJ Jian grapples with his feelings after he reconnects with his lost first love, his sister Ting-Ting navigates the tensions of her first love, and his mother Min-min cannot cope with their grandmother falling into a coma. All of their efforts end in vain, but in his wisdom, little Yang-yang tries to help them by taking pictures of the back of their heads, and giving them the photographs so they can see truths that are invisible to them. Yi Yi is director Edward Yang showing us the backs of our heads.
The movie has several clear themes: dealing with the ones that got away, the universality of several human experiences, the tenuous relationships between humans and urban spaces, and so on. However, Yi Yi captures so much of the spirit and details the Jian family’s everyday life in Taiwan. It uses every minute of its three-hour runtime to allow its characters to reveal themselves in all their complexity with such grace, wisdom and warmth. The movie thus becomes more than just a great family drama, more than just several social commentaries about Taiwan (which was undergoing cultural changes at the turn of the millennium), but a reflection of countless truths about our contemporary human condition. Everyone who watches this movie will come out with different interpretations and lessons learned.
With such a large cast of characters (for which I had to draw a family tree to keep track of), interwoven storylines, and a long and understated narrative, Yi Yi is easily the most challenging film in this list for casual viewers. But for those who want a deeply enriching movie that meditates on modern life, Yi Yi illuminates the mind with every viewing.