Although Netflix is known for its originals and blockbusters, it is also home to many international art-house and indie culture films, including many hidden gems on Asian culture.
In the past few decades, the economic centres of Asia have grown at such a pace that it can be hard to keep up with their ever-changing customs and culture. Girl bands have come and gone, skyscrapers thrust ever taller into the sky, paper bills and wallets have virtually disappeared.
Although confined to the limits of our borders during the pandemic, we can still celebrate and appreciate the pluralism and diversity inside and outside of New Zealand through the lens of these filmmakers.
Here are eight of the best Asian cultural films and TV shows on Netflix NZ to take you into the buzzing metropolises of Asia.
Between the flashing neon signs and the forever rolling advertisement screens of Tokyo, are streets filled with a most diverse crowd. Crowded as it is, Tokyo is a city that manages to find space for every type of inhabitant with all sorts of jobs and interests. Midnight Diner tells the tale of the owner, known as “the Master”, of a small, unassuming diner in Tokyo. Tucked in the backstreet alley of a red-light district, the diner opens from 12am to 7am and only serves three traditional Japanese home-cooked dishes. However, the Master has a policy to serve whatever dish his customers request, as long as he has the ingredients. With a calm and endearing pace, Midnight Diner follows colourful characters of Tokyo's nightlife with their snippets of loneliness, love, companionship, and the small joys of people trying to make a living in a big city.
Written and directed by Asian American filmmaker Alan Yang, Tigertail is a touching tale that explores the disparity between the aspiration and reality of Asian immigrants in the promised land of America. A tender childhood first-love, an unfortunate yet necessary marriage, two strangers in a strange land, a broken father-daughter relationship, a rendezvous decades too late: Tigertail takes you across time and space to tell the story of a first-generation immigrant family’s journey from Taiwan to the United States. It’s a multifaceted story of struggle, love, longing, misunderstanding, and missed connections. The complexity gives it authenticity in the struggle of navigating heritage, race, and the burden of past memories and an impossible love. Add this to your watch list stat.
While kung fu has been disproportionately enlarged into a stereotype for Chinese films in the Western cinematic world, there’s no denying that these films occupy a unique role in the Chinese and Cantonese film world. The action-packed movie Ip Man tells the tale of a quiet, unassuming kungfu master whose passion is to teach the ways of Wing Chun, his school of martial arts. Ip Man is one of the most well-known kungfu films based on the true story of the grandmaster Ip Man - the man who taught Bruce Lee kungfu. What better kungfu movie can you ask for?
A Sun is not an easy movie to watch – it’s sombre and complex, if not disquieting. Yet it is also a rewarding masterpiece that captures the essence of Taipei city with its subtle depiction of the characters and artful cinematography. A Sun tells the struggles of a dysfunctional family that has to send a problematic son away to a youth detention camp. It is a sobering reflection of mental health issues and toxic family relationships. Through the lens of the youths as well as the parents, it’s a story of a family of strangers, who are now trying to reconnect and find words for emotions and problems left unspoken for too long. However, it is not just a social critique, but a symphony of clashing emotions and family dynamics. It’s personal: the love, the expectations, resentments, sacrifices, and grief calls to our most basic empathetic instincts.
The Half Of It
The Half of It is a heartwarming story of an Asian-American girl’s confrontation with her sexual identity in a majority white and Christian town. Written and directed by Asian American filmmaker Alice Wu, the film is a close reflection of Wu’s own sexuality and heritage. It’s a film that starts with stereotypes—the smart Asian girl with glasses, the football quarterback jock, and the rich, nice, and pretty girl that every boy in high school has a secret crush on—but moves beyond them and shatters the stereotypes with messy, unexpected blasts of reality. It’s not a film that tries to tick all the politically correct, racially diverse boxes. It’s simply Wu trying to tell her own story. Wrap yourself in a comfy blanket and hit play.
Blackpink: Light Up The Sky
Even if you’re not a K-pop fan, surely you have heard of the most popular girl group in the world. Discover the story behind Blackpink, the band that swept the East and the West away with their singing, dancing, fashion, and music videos. Follow their rise to fame and the personal lives of the individual members with this new documentary Blackpink: Light Up The Sky. The film features their artistic process, as well as intimate conversations and interview clips on the band members’ relationship with the Korean entertainment scene. Looking past all the fame and glory, the documentary brings out an endearing reality as members open up about their love for music and their struggles in a highly competitive, if not toxic, industry.
Korean drama TV show White Nights depicts a sinister version of the wealthy upper class. Exposing the greed, lust, and manipulation that goes on behind the facade of a luxurious lifestyle, the film makes a mockery of their designer brands, impeccable chandeliers, and marble floors. The show follows the thrilling clashes of three ruthlessly ambitious characters, who are determined to climb to the top of the social ladder or cling to their existing wealth and power by all means possible. It’s a breathtaking, fast-paced show that will get you clicking on the “next” button right after the end of each episode.
My Neighbour Totoro
While Western cartoons are usually exclusively for children, Japanese animes are often geared towards both young and old. Studio Ghibli and its bright blue Totoro logo have become an unfading icon in the Japanese animation world. There is something inexplicably calming and healing about its classic animated movie My Neighbour Totoro, which tells the story of two children’s encounters with forest spirits and gods in a rural Japanese town. Founded on the beliefs of Shinto—a popular Japanese religion that emphasizes respect for and awareness of nature—the film features a naturalistic lifestyle that reconnects the people with its land. With its relaxing piano soundtrack and pastel watercolour tones, My Neighbour Totoro takes us to a time and place where people’s needs are fewer, lives simpler, and laughs louder.
Up for watching more great movies? Browse our picks of the latest movies on Netflix NZ.
Image credit: Netflix