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Kung-Fu Fighting and a Three-Legged Elephant [Tall Drink of Nerd]

Two nights ago, someone said to me “I really don’t like most American-made cinema anymore.” I didn’t ask him to elaborate because: a. I agree and b. I’ve heard the same thing from a lot of different people.

From the Transformers franchise, Battleship-type movies and most crappy romantic comedies, a lot of the mass produced, mega-million budgeted crap that emits forth from the studio machine seems like a bunch of rehashed dog biscuits. I’m all for being entertained, and can’t wait for to go see The Three Stooges re-do, but for the most part, Hollywood blockbusters suck.

So I told this person, the guy who didn’t care for movies now-a-days, he should give Asian cinema a shot. The majority of sub-titled movies I’ve seen aren’t dumbed down for the audience. Most Chinese directors and writers know how to weave a story that is complex and relatable, while incorporating realistic, heart pounding action sequences Americans can’t seem get away with outside of Skywalker Ranch. I would point to the layered brilliance behind Infernal Affairs, which was remade by Scorcese, DiCaprio and company as The Departed (that won Scorsese his first Oscar). When I was reading The Hunger Games, I knew Suzanne Collins must have been inspired by Battle Royale, a Japanese movie that came out in 2000 about 9th graders made to hunt each other. (To cash-in on that Hunger Games cache, the Battle Royale producers are re-releasing the movie into American theatres in 3D. Or you can just borrow the DVD from me if you want.)

Actors Jet Li, Andy Lau, Tony Leung, Stephen Chow have all captured my imagination in the past decade. Right now, Donnie Yen is a huge hit in Hong Kong Cinema. He’s handsome, tiny, brilliant and has bad-ass moves. I would highly recommend starting your venture into Chinese movies with Ip Man. It’s a compelling biopic about life during the 1930s to the 1940s during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Donnie Yen plays the title character who is warm, kind, loves his family and then kicks serious bad-guy ass. (The Japanese and the British are definitely the bad guys here). In addition to being credited for starting the “Wing Chun” style of fighting, Ip Man was the guy who trained a little kid named Bruce Lee.

This foreign film fascination started in early 2000’s, my husband Seen worked with Anthony, a Chinese born movie-nut. Anthony would visit his family back in China and tote back movies that he knew we would love. Iron Monkey, Black Mask and Shaolin Soccer came to us direct from the mainland.

When Seen left that job we needed to find a new source. Enter a short, salt-and-pepper crowned Chinese lady who owns a shop in Chinatown. In a back corner, behind all stuffed Totoro toys and Hello Kitty knock-offs, is a wall of movies imported from Hong Kong. The owner knows us now. We go in every four or five months and head straight for the new releases. She saunters over to us, gives us recommendations and then gives us a free movie. With a total of only two bad movies, out of the 10 or so that she’s recommended, I trust her opinion. She is the main reason I have trouble alphabetizing my DVD collection, some of the titles are in characters which aren’t in the alphabet I use. If you have a Chinatown in your city, I recommend finding a store that sells videos, NOT bootlegs but actual videos, and journey into the storytelling of the East. My recommendation is choosing subtitles over dubbed voices and listening to the music of the original actor’s emotions in Cantonese or Mandarin. (I’ll include a list of my top 10 favs at the end of this post for you to add to your Netflix queue.)

So, having praised Asian movie-making for 10 minutes, I’m going to tell you now about an American-made movie I watched last night that blew me away. The Eyes of Thailand takes place in Asia, so we’re not going too far from the theme here. It’s a documentary set in Thailand, obviously, in an Elephant hospital. I was fortunate enough to attend the premiere screening as Seen created the website for the movie. The story follows Soraida Salwala who dedicated 10 years of her life helping two elephant land mine survivors walk again. Salwala founded Friends of Asian Elephants, which is an Elephant hospital in Lampang.

The film follows this passionate woman as she helps heal the elephants wounds and psyches. It also go deeper into the politics of landmines, which will leave you speechless. But the main focus of the movie is healing and creating prosthetic limbs for these injured creatures. I laughed, I awwwed, I cried and was very moved. As it was the premiere screening, the director, Windy Borman spoke to the audience at the end for a Q&A. An audience member asked how we could help. Windy mentioned that all the flooding in Thailand over the last 6 months has created a real need for donations and the hospital for elephants, the only one of it’s kind, may have to close it’s doors.

The subject matter moved me, as anything animal related will. This movie was also thoughtfully written, directed and edited. Windy Borman and company proved to me that good movies can be American made. If you get a chance, watch the film. You’ll end up wanting to forego a cup of coffee for a day and donate that money to the elephants.

As promised: My Asian Cinema Top 10 List!

My Sassy Girl (the Korean version) – Comedy
Shaolin Soccer – Comedy
The King of Comedy (with Stephen Chow, not the Robert DeNiro version)- Comedy
Wu Xia – Drama
Ip Man – Historical Drama
Hero – Drama
Iron Monkey – Drama
Protege – Drama
Battle Royale – Action
Infernal Affairs – Drama
BONUS – Red Cliff – Historical Drama (I thought I’d add this because it is stacked with Hong Kong stars. It’s a really good movie even though it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 4 hours long.)

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featured image credit: Annabel Nguyen