My Recommended Valentine's Day Films Part 2: Japanese, Korean and Other Asian Films

While compiling the list for part 2 of my recommended Valentine's Day films, which will focus on Korean and Japanese films, I was suddenly struck by a chilling realization that had never occurred to me before. Despite watching quite a number of Japanese films, there just doesn't seem to be an absolute romantic film that really stuck to me. Unlike the Koreans, whose amount of sentimental and melodramatic romantic films are more than enough to flood an entire nation and make everyone die of diabetes, almost every single good Japanese film I can remember isn't exactly pure love stories. Just thrillers, action films, psychodramas, sci-fi tales, horror tales with maybe a bit of subtle romance tossed in as a subplot.

I wonder why. Maybe it's because the Japanese are somewhat more cynical than the Koreans, hence they don't really make all those fullblown romantic melodrama the Koreans are so famous for? But then, to be fair, the Japanese television dramas are entirely a different story, I can remember most of the finer classic J-doramas I've watched over the years that are great romances, mostly those Takuya Kimura stuff. One something light-hearted and sweet? Go for Love Generation (simple love story between two yuppies) or Long Vacation (simple love story between a pianist and a girl who moved into his place). One something that will make you weep? Go for Beautiful Life (simple love story between a hairdresser and a dying librarian).

But this is a list of films, not television, and it won't be a long list like the previous one since it IS very difficult to come up with GOOD Japanese romance films (as I haven't exactly been exposed to that many of them) and I don't intend to let an entire list flooded by only Korean films. Once again, I'm aiming more for happier films, or at least, bittersweet ones, not the depressingly sad ones. But I'll be separating them via categories.



The 'Awesome Must-Watch Films' Category

Japanese Film: Love Letter (1995)


This, my friends, is one of the finest Japanese films of all time, and one of my all-time favourites. Poetic and contemplative, lush and beautiful, this is a story of two women, one dealing with the loss of a loved one and then trying to accept the love of another, one slowly discovering a would-be romance from a forgotten past even though it is too late. Subtle and melancholic, yet occasionally funny and sweet, this is not truly a conventional romance, yet it is still more romantic than most of the full-blown, over-the-top emo Korean films shoveled upon my face. And why do I think it is romantic? Because this movie is about the feelings you still have for a departed love, the many things you are willing to do to get a closure that can soothe your wounded heart, the discovery of an unrequited love from a once-forgotten past.

Hiroko's fiance, Itsuki, died in a mountain-climbing accident three years ago. Still grieving, she finds his old house address from his high school yearbook and sends ‘one last love letter' to him, a letter which she hopes can reach him in the heavens. To her surprise, she receives a response. She later discovers that she has accidentally sent the letter to a girl who shares the same name with her late fiancé, and not only that, the female Itsuki was a classmate of Hiroko's fiancé in high school. (Here's the craziest part, Hiroko and female Itsuki actually look alike! But only Hiroko knows this) And thus, through these letters, the female Itsuki attempts to relate her high school memories to Hiroko, of the awkward situations both Itsukis have to deal with by sharing the same name, the hate-hate relationship she has with her male counterpart.

One finally learns to let go, another is left with the bittersweet discovery of an unrealized romance.

I can't even describe how much I love this film. The subtle emotions evoked within each scene (the cinematography is absolutely stunning) and most of all, the hauntingly bittersweet ending that remains quietly powerful despite repeated viewings. Read this review, and this review, and this review, and this review, and this review.

(Interesting fact: For almost a decade, Love Letter is the top-grossing Japanese movie in Korea)

Korean Film: My Sassy Girl (2001)

This is THE ultimate Korean romantic comedy. Forget about everything else. Really, whatever Korean films that came out since this 2001 film are either influenced by this, or are just cheap knock-offs. Really, if you have watched this, you will most probably use this as a benchmark for all other Korean romantic comedies out there. And no, I have yet to watch anything that can surpass this (I'm getting increasingly frustrated and disenchanted by today's Korean rom-coms).

This has already embedded itself into Korean's pop culture (and to a lesser extent, Taiwan, China and Hong Kong too). Feisty and sassy heroines with a violent streak have become a regular staple in many Asian films because of this particular flick.
Imagine having a girlfriend who beats the shit out of you and then smiling sweetly within seconds, someone who forces you to wear her high-heel shoes because they are bothering her feet, an aspiring screenwriter with god complex who makes you read all her stuff and wants you to pitch her ideas at film studios, someone who drags you out of classes by lying to your professor that she's pregnant. It's almost a girlfriend from hell.

Yet you can still love her since you know that she is nursing a broken heart, that despite her mean streak, she can serenade you with Canon in D on piano in public (just that you have to give her a rose in front of those people), that she gets into fights with her parents because of you. Imagine that you can still love her despite her flaws (and the possibility that your life is always in danger because of her), imagine that you are still willing to wait for her despite that you may just be a replacement of a lost love, and that you will do whatever it takes to become a better person so that she can finally love you for who you are.

There isn't a single kiss in the film, and hell, I don't even remember the words ‘I Love You' being uttered at all, yet this much moving than most of the stuff I've ever seen. (I'm more into subtle stuff like this) Like many Asian films, its transition from a silly gross-out comedy to an affecting romantic drama can be rather jarring for most western viewers, yet this is Korean cinema at its best. Check out this review here.

The 'Awfully Manipulative Tearjerkers' Category

Japanese Film: Crying For Love, In The Center Of The World (2004)


This film is a box-office phenomenon back in 2004. What it does is use the formula of most Korean melodramas (young high school romance between two young carefree souls… and dum dum dum, turns out that the girl is suffering from terminal illness) and, er, Japan-ify it. Thus instead of becoming emotional in an over-the-top manner, it is understated and quiet. No syrupy pop ballad playing as a primary character is dying, no slow-mo scenes of some guy hugging his dead love while screaming into the air, no long five minute solo scenes of guy weeping like a girly man, just a matter-of-fact look on how a guy has to deal with having to say goodbye to the girl he loves just when their romance has just started to blossom, the many things he is willing to do to fulfill her last wishes.

Actually, there are two stories in this film. The high school romance is told via flashbacks from the now-adult male protagonist, who is trying to seek his disappeared fiancée when she finds out about his past romance (she realizes that she can't compete with a ghost). Like most people, I prefer the flashbacks more. Actually, I don't really like the film that much (it's a decent film, but it's not Love Letter), but it will suck the life off you after you've seen it, and if you are more sensitive, you will most probably be weeping your eyes out (like most of my Japanese friends did). Check out my review here.

Korean Film: A Moment To Remember (2004)

Here you are, a Korean melodrama that will have you holding your loved one tightly as you both cry shamelessly (just look at the screenshot). Remember The Notebook? This is The Notebook, but more emotional and tearjerking in a manipulative manner (not necessarily a better film, mind you, but this will explain why The Notebook couldn't make me cry). Right, a happy young couple's lives were shattered when the wife is diagnosed with Alzheimer's (she's only in her 20s). All kinds of angst and sadness and manly pain occur. When I watched this with Guestblogger Justin last October, I ended up all choked up and teary-eyed even though I knew perfectly well that I was being manipulated by the film's over-the-top emo scenes. I mean, it's as if the filmmakers have found a guidebook that allows them to rape me emotionally with a barrage of emo scenes. Here's a sample (possible spoilers, but then, this is just one of the many and many parts that will make people weep hysterically):

Wife has forgotten her husband completely and calls him by her ex-boyfriend's name when he is about to work.
Husband feigns a smile and leaves the house for work.
Husband starts crying when he is outside.
Wife realizes her mistake and starts crying too.
Husband returns home and finds a letter written by wife.
Wife tearfully apologizes and decides to leave him because she doesn't want to hurt him anymore.
Husband starts crying and crying, too blown away by the sheer emo-ness of the whole situation.

So, grab a box of tissues, or maybe two boxes. You'll either feel violated like Guestblogger Justin and I did, or this will be the most, er, meaningful and emotional Valentine's Day you'll ever had.

(However, a female friend of mine complained that it wasn't really as emo and tearjerking as I've warned before lending her the DVD. Maybe it's just my sensitive and loving soul.) Check out LoveHKfilm.com's review here.

The 'Local Films Tossed Into List Randomly For The Sake Of Patriotism' Category



Sepet (2005)

This is the Malaysian film that took the nation by storm. Both a commercial and critical success (it won best Asian film in the Tokyo Film Festival, and also a number of others, like Best Picture for the Malaysian equivalent of the Oscars) However, this film has never worked for me as a romance (it's the other teeny weeny little things that worked for me, but not the main romance itself), but I'm sure many others don't really think the same, so yeah, check out this interracial romance between a Chinese dude and a Malay gal, it's possibly one of the most accessible Malaysian independent films to date. So yeah, if you want to try out some Malaysian films on Valentine's Day, check this out. And as for the open-ended ending, be content that its sequel, Gubra will be coming out later this year, thus negating whatever feelings most viewers had for the ending. Check out my review here.

I would love recommending more of my local love stories, but I can't really think of one. Maybe, er, Puteri Gunung Ledang? It seemed to get more love from the western media.

The 'Critically-Acclaimed Romantic Asian Film That Most Asians Don't Love' Category



Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000)

Despite its success, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon was never that popular in Asia. Most Asian filmgoers called it boring, and I was accused of being a bandwagoner for liking the film. No, this is unlike most other testerone-charged, action-packed Wuxia films where the badass heroes would fight from beginning to end, this is more like a romance with kungfu scenes. However, while discussing with Guestblogger Justin about this film earlier today, we both have conflicting views about the film. Though we both agree that it's a good film, and very romantic, I prefer the unspoken, subtle romance between Chow Yun Fat and our Dato Michelle Yeoh's characters (her finest role), and melt during their last scene together, yet Guestblogger Justin prefers the shenanigans Zhang Ziyi and Zhang Zhen's characters were involved in during the desert scene. To Guestblogger Justin, that part was passionate, to me, it was a bore. Ah well, I'm sure some of you out there might actually enjoy this... if you haven't seen it already. But this is definitely NOT a feelgood flick, hell, it's not even bittersweet either. Bewarned. It's a sad tragic tale that will either bore you to death, or make you weep.

Yeah, just a few recommendations, although you might want to check out Train Man too, the second highest-grossing film in Japan last year (that spawned a hit TV series) about this socially inept Anime otaku (hardcore anime fan) who tries to win the girl of his dreams. I have only watched a few episodes of the TV series, and not the movie itself (I currently have the DVD of the movie with me, but my PowerDVD ain't working well, I need to download some codecs), so it will be unfair for me to recommend this (although the film is almost universally loved) And if you're complaining about my lack of recommendations for Korean romances, well, seriously, ninety percent of them just don't appeal to me that much. I tend to watch Korean rom-coms and then forget about it entirely (maybe it's because of my cynical soul that sometimes replaces my sensitive and loving soul). Guestblogger Justin can still remember My Boyfriend Is Type B, I have already forgotten every single thing about the film, no joke. Even Windstruck was made palatable because I tried to convince myself that the film's a prequel of My Sassy Gal, otherwise, it's pretty much blah.

But of course, you are allowed to give me your recommendations too. Go ahead and tell me which films, Japanese, Korean and other non-Hong Kong Asian films should've been in this list as well.

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