I’ve watched hundreds of films since fleeing Italy it early 2020 and returning to months of isolation, boredom, quarantine, lockdown, and solitude in Chiang Mai. Seriously, hundreds! Armed with a 50-inch smart TV and a dedicated US IP address, I loaded up on streaming services and got far too comfortable in my La-Z-Boy. Hour after hour, I filled the lonely days binging on drama, action, comedy, fantasy, horror, mystery, romance, and thrillers. Before long, JustWatch replaced AwardWallet as my most-used app.
My film appreciation professor, Don Linder, introduced me to Asian films and they had me at ni hao. I went completely overboard and held my own little Asian film festival right in my living room. Who was I wearing? Lululemon, from their pre-pandemic collection.
Here are my top ten.
10. The Cave (2019, Tom Waller, Thailand)
I’ll bet you remember where you were during the 2018 Tham Luang cave rescue in Chiang Rai, Thailand. I was visiting friends in Florida — nervously checking my iPhone every few minutes for updates .
The Cave focuses on several people who contributed to the rescue effort, including water pump manufacturer Nopadol Niyomka, retired Thai Navy SEAL, Saman Kunan, and especially, Ireland-based cave diver Jim Warny.
Languages: Thai, English, Chinese.
Rent from Amazon or stream with Hulu.
9. Lost in Thailand (2012, Xu Zheng, China)
Chiang Mai is very, very popular with Chinese tourists. They are frequently seen in the lobby at Le Méridien Chiang Mai taking selfies with the elephant sculptures. They tuk tuk to the North Gate and queue up for braised pork knuckles and rice at Khao Kha Moo Chang Phueak — vying for selfies with the lady in the cowboy hat, made famous by Anthony Bourdain in an episode of Parts Unknown. Extra points if they’re holding a potted cactus.
A few months into the pandemic, someone told me about the highest-grossing film in China’s history, Lost in Thailand, filmed primarily in Chiang Mai. I rushed home to watch it and then I understood all those selfie sticks, the obsession with Le Méridien, the long lines at the food stall, and all those potted succulents for sale at the Night Bazaar. Now I get it! If I were Chinese, wild horses couldn’t keep me away.
Lost in Thailand is a slapstick comedy about two rival business managers who are fighting for control of their company. One must reach his destination and complete a task before the other. The critical task is to gain control of the shares of the company’s chairman, who is at a retreat in Thailand. Xu flies to Bangkok, where he meets the happy-go-lucky Wang, who becomes his annoying travel companion.
The movie sparked the craze of Chinese tourists coming to Chiang Mai to retrace the characters’ footsteps and enjoy the same activities. After the film’s release in 2012, the number of Chinese mainland tourists exceeded 4.7 million — an increase of 68.7% from the previous year. The impact on tourism was so significant that Chiang Mai’s business community adapted to the influx. Restaurant menus started to include Mandarin Chinese and a variety of Chinese-language tours sprang up, including a Lost in Thailand tour.
Rent from Apple TV or stream with Prime Video.
8. The Nightingale (2013, Philippe Muyl, China)
The Nightingale is about the bond-building journey between an elderly retiree and his petulant young granddaughter to rural, southwestern China.
The narrative arc is about teasing a kid’s open, curious inner self out her egocentric, iPad-attached shell. Along the way, Renxing tells her grandfather she needs cosmetic surgery for the “disfigurement” of mosquito bites from their hike. When he asks about her future, she tells him her objectives in life are fame, fortune, and a residence in New York.
Li Baotian (Ju Dou), as the grandfather, turns in an engaging performance and The Nightingale is technically remarkable. I love it because of it’s lavish cinematography more than the narrative. The rural landscapes of the southwestern Chinese province of Guangxi are rendered in remarkably lush, warm tones. Beijing’s new bourgeois milieu, by contrast, is rendered cold and unfriendly.
Some of my more well-traveled friends may recognize the landscapes of Guangxi, while others might add southwestern China to their bucket list after seeing the scenery in this luscious film. I’ve only visited Beijing so it’s definitely time for another look at China, my neighbor.
Languages: Mandarin, Guangxi-dialect Chinese, and French.
Stream with Hulu.
7. The Darjeeling Limited (2007, Wes Anderson, India/US)
A year after the accidental death of their father, three brothers — each suffering from depression — meet for a train trip across India. They argue, sulk, resent each other, and fight their way across India.
The Darjeeling Limited is unlike the average comedy. While not being truly laugh out loud funny, the film is clever, well written, with memorable characters and one liners that grow wittier over time. Its privileged, depressed characters with family issues are thrown together in a slightly artificial, timeless, and carefully detailed environment.
I loved the hilarious, memorable cameo by Bill Murray, trying to catch the Darjeeling Limited train in slow motion. Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman, and Owen Wilson play the three Whitman brothers, Peter, Jack, and Francis. Wilson’s character has organized a spiritual journey through India with his brothers, who have not spoken to one other since their father’s funeral a year ago.
Languages: English, Hindi, German, Punjabi, Tibetan, French.
Rent or buy from Apple TV or Amazon.
6. The Rocket (2013, Kim Mordaunt, Australia)
In the Laos mountains, a woman named Mali gives birth to twins, one of whom, Ahlo, survives. Legend has it that when twins are born, one is blessed and one is cursed. Mali and mother-in-law Taitok disagree about whether Ahlo is blessed or cursed but conspire to let him live and to keep everything from his father, Toma.
Years later, Ahlo and his family are forced to move due to the construction of a dam in his village. During their journey, Mali is killed in and accident and Taitok blames Ahlo because of her belief that he is cursed. She tells Toma that the boy is a twin.
After burying his mother, Ahlo and his family continue to their new village where Ahlo befriends a girl named Kia, an orphan who lives with her uncle, Purple. After a couple of unfortunate events in the new village, they move on to Purple’s uninhabited village. But the land there is surrounded by dangerous bombs from the war.
While traveling to yet another home, Ahlo crosses paths with a parade of travelers and hears about a rocket competition with cash prizes. The purpose of the contest is to explode rockets in the clouds to make rain. Ahlo wants to enter but Toma and Taitok won’t allow it, due to his presumed bad luck. Ahlo runs off and Purple helps him build a rocket named the Bat.
Language: Lao (English subtitled).
Rent or buy from Amazon.
5. Sweet Bean (2015, Naomi Kawase, Japan)
Sentaro is a middle-aged man who runs a small dorayaki shop in the outskirts of Tokyo. He is a man with a past, weighed down by shame and debt from an event in his past. The shop is owned by his loan shark and Sentaro is trapped and hopeless.
The shop is frequented by locals and secondary-school pupils, despite its mediocre product. Overcoming his misgivings, Sentaro hires Tokue, a woman in her mid-seventies with somewhat deformed hands, after tasting her sweet red bean paste — a key ingredient in dorayakis.
Business thrives until customers discover that the deformities to Tokue’s hands were caused by leprosy, forcing Sentaro to let her go. Wakana, a school girl whom Sentaro has befriended, suggests they visit Tokue at the sanatorium where she lives. Sentaro feels guilty that he was not able to protect Tokue against the prejudice of their customers, but she assures him that she is grateful for the time she was allowed to spend at the shop.
When Tokue dies, she leaves Sentaro her own bean paste making equipment, as well as a recorded message. In it, Tokue stresses that a person’s worth lies not in their career, but simply in their being, and also that joy comes from taking in the sensory experiences of the world that surrounds us.
Rent from Apple TV or stream with Hulu.
4. Like Father, Like Son (2013, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan)
Ryōta is a successful, workaholic architect who neglects his wife, Midori, and son, Keita. When Keita is six, the couple learn that their biological son was switched with Keita at birth. They must now make a life-changing decision to either keep Keita, the boy they raised as their own son, or exchange him for their biological son.
Ryōta and Midori soon meet with the other couple, Yukari and Yūdai Saiki, small town folks who lack Ryōta’s money and drive, but who have a better understanding of the importance of child and parent bonds. They share photos, and for the first time, Ryōta and Midori see their biological son, Ryūsei. After several meetings, they decide to exchange children for one Saturday. After several more meetings, they finally decide to exchange the children permanently.
All four parents have difficulty accepting the loss of their sons, and the absence of the parents they used to know causes both boys to shut down emotionally, culminating in Ryūsei running away from his new home. Ryōta picks up Ryūsei and brings him back home.
Ryōta and Midori begin to bond with Ryūsei, who is also warming up to them. However, while going through the photos on his camera, Ryōta discovers a cache of photos of himself, mostly sleeping, that Keita took, and he breaks down crying.
Ryōta now understands the errors of his ways. The three return to the Saiki family, but Keita runs away from Ryōta. While following him, Ryōta apologizes to Keita, and the two make amends.
Rent from Apple TV or Amazon, stream with Hulu, AMC+, or DIRECTV.
3. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (2003, Kim Ki-duk, South Korea)
The story is about the life of a Buddhist monk as he passes through the seasons of his life, from childhood to old age.
Spring – We are introduced to the life of the very young Buddhist apprentice living with his master on a small monastery that floats on a lake in a pristine forest.
Summer – The apprentice is now a teenager. He and the master are joined by a teenage girl. Problems arise when the two hook up, and the girl is forced to leave. (It’s always the girl!) The apprentice soon follows after her.
Fall – Years later the aging master learns that the apprentice is wanted for the murder of his wife. The apprentice returns to the monastery, where he is apprehended by police and taken away. The master dies.
Winter – Paroled, the now middle-age apprentice returns to his former home. He takes in an abandoned baby.
…and Spring – Returning to spring again, the cycle recommences: The new master lives in the monastery with the abandoned baby, now his apprentice.
Rent or buy from Amazon or Apple TV, stream with tubi or PLUTO.
2. Departures (2008, Yôjirô Takita, Japan)
Departures is one of the most important Japanese movies of the 21st century, having won an Oscar in 2009 for Best Foreign Language Film.
Kobayashi is a cellist whose orchestra disbands due to financial reasons. He and his wife decide to move back to his birthplace to start over. While searching for work, he stumbles upon an ad for a job “assisting departures” and believes it is a travel agency.
He soon realizes that he will be working in a funeral home. He reluctantly accepts, much to his wife’s chagrin.
Takita pays a tribute to the dead by surrounding the mystery with reverence. His directs with a slow pace, scarce dialogue, and attention to detail. Humor appears in completely unexpected moments, lightening the mood.
Rent or buy from Amazon or watch with STARZ.
1. Spirited Away (2011, Hayao Miyazaki, Japan)
“Because many adults have an irrational reluctance to see an animated film from Japan (or anywhere else), I begin with reassurances: It has been flawlessly dubbed into English…, it was co-winner of this year’s Berlin Film Festival against ‘regular’ movies, it passed Titanic to become the top-grossing film in Japanese history, and it is the first film ever to make more than $200 million before opening in America.” -Roger Ebert (2002)
Spirited Away tells the story of Chihiro Ogino, a 10-year-old girl who, with her parents, is moving to a new neighborhood. After taking a shortcut, they get lost and find a tunnel leading to what appears to be an abandoned theme park, which Chihiro’s father insists on exploring despite his daughter’s misgivings.
After her parents are turned into pigs by the witch Yubaba, Chihiro enters the world of Kami (spirits of Japanese Shinto folklore), a world ruled by gods, witches, and spirits, and where humans are changed into beasts.
Chihiro takes a job working in Yubaba’s bathhouse to find a way to free herself and her parents and return to the human world.
Stream with HBO Max.
PK (2014) – Indian satire comedy-drama (long).
Nobody Knows (2004, Japan) – Harrowing but tender story about four abandoned children.
3 Idiots (2009) – Indian Hindi-language coming-of-age comedy-drama (long).
If you love Asia and are looking forward to traveling when things are better, maybe watching these movies will ease the longing and provide inspiration for future trips. Recreate an Asian film festival in your own living room and drop a comment about it, below.
Coming next: Time Travel Films.
Thanks for stopping by!