Films released around the Lunar New Year often followed a certain convention, like a plotline about love and money, or the requisite traditional ‘Gong Hei Fatt Choi’ greeting by the cast at the end. But there is a slew of feel-good flicks, even without the festival element, that can be enjoyed with the family during get-togethers. Here are eight (some with a dragon theme to fete the zodiac sign this year!) to get you started.
The Eighth Happiness (1988)
Many Lunar New Year movies we consider classics or cult favourites today did not seem destined for longevity and glory when they were released. But those starring Raymond Wong, usually accompanied by a glittering cast, have become firm holiday fixtures. A trio of brothers, played by Wong, Chow Yun-fat and Jacky Cheung, are embroiled in a series of romantic misadventures following a misunderstanding over a phone call. To see a stoic and dignified Chow assume the role of a flamboyant, womanising loon is appealing, but to watch him dance to an electric variation of The Blue Danube waltz is an absolute joy. The Eighth Happiness might have spawned numerous imitators, but none quite possessed the camp and blazon of defiant cheerfulness like this one.
Spirited Away (2001)
Among Mulan’s Mushu, How to Train Your Dragon’s Toothless or Raya and the Last Dragon’s Sisu, which artist breathed life into the best animated dragon? Alas, it will be hard for them to rival Hayao Miyazaki’s protean Haku, a young boy who can morph into the mythical creature to help Chihiro brave a fantasy world where door knockers talk back and a parade of wild things crawls through a bathhouse. No one else conjures the shifting morality of dreams, from fascinating to frightening, good to evil, in the way this auteuer of children’s entertainment does. This fairytale epic charts the transformation of a bratty child into a courageous young woman, but also, in an off-handed way, imparts lessons about the power of friendship, the corrupting nature of greed and how much is possible for those who believe.
A Simple Life (2011)
This gem with an almost documentary flavour by famed director Ann Hui, which only ran for a short time in Malaysia during the festive season, deserved a bigger showing at the cinemas.
Deanie Ip plays Ah Tao, a nanny who has taken care of Andy Lau’s sombre character Roger since she was a teenager. When Ah Tao has a stroke and asks to be put in an old folks home, Roger obliges but still regularly takes her to restaurants and looks out for her as she always has for him. A tearjerker in which an ageing lady of the household is forgotten would have been predictable melodrama, but A Simple Life offers an emotional payoff one fails to anticipate — the plot is as sincere as two inward people expressing love and care in their quiet ways. Venice International Film Festival was right to name Ip Best Actress.
Kung Fu Hustle (2004)
If filmmakers of lofty reputation like Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou discovered the pleasures of wuxia and wire work, practitioner of mou lei tau (nonsense speech) comedy Stephen Chow nonchalantly knocked them off their high horses. Riotously packed with gags and stylised fight sequences, Kung Fu Hustle plucks international pop culture, ranging from Looney Tunes to The Shining, and tosses them into a high-speed blender resulting in a dizzying slapstick film with affectionate nostalgia. Apart from propelling bao zhou po (landlady) Yuen Qiu, the foul-mouthed shrew in a housedress and curlers, to international fame, Chow also pays ode to the underdogs through his character, a small-time crook who just wants to be reunited with his childhood sweetheart and stand up to the bigger forces.
Pudu, and even gritty parts of Imbi, have never looked this poignant until home-grown filmmaker Quek Shio Chuan shot his award-winning entry for the BMW Shorties in 2011 there. Seven years later, Quek rekindles his technical finesse in an expanded version of his semi-autobiographical film with the same title, training the lens once again on the autistic Wen Guang (Zhuang Zhongwei), who is compulsively drawn to objects that produce musical notes but struggles with social interactions. This full-fledged feature, with a script that has more dramatic architecture, also explores the delicate relationship between two brothers as Guang learns to stand on his two feet without burdening his younger sibling Didi.
Ip Man (2008)
Four explosive installations and countless flying fists later, the debate is still ongoing about which Ip Man rules them all. But, as they say, you never forget your first. Donnie Yen’s portrayal of the proletarian Wing Chun advocate is unflappably calm and gracefully masculine but the grandmaster can be ruthlessly unforgiving as he, in one sequence, reduces 10 Japanese karate instructors to a writhing mess in the name of justice. Ip Man is often lauded for its cinematic agility and hand-to-hand skirmishes, but subplots about honesty, family and honour will always anchor this family favourite that packs a punch as much as heart.
72 Tenants of Prosperity (2010)
No fewer than 174 famous faces appeared in this ensemble-cast comedy rife with ’70s flashbacks, cameos and pop cultural references. This box-office smash, with enough star wattage to power Hong Kong, revolves around former best friends and bitter business rivals Shek Kin (Jacky Cheung) and Ha Kung (Eric Tsang) vying for the same girl, Hung (Anita Yuen), who eventually marries the latter based on a coin toss. Those attuned to TVB dramas will be well entertained with the in-jokes, from the iconic lines by cult anti-hero Laughing Gor to Wong Cho-lam’s comedic timing and singing impersonation of — you guessed it — “Heavenly King” Cheung.
Enter the Dragon (1973)
We’d be remiss to exclude this quintessential Bruce Lee icon from the 1970s, when cinemagoers might have been more interested in a brawl between mafias (The Godfather came out in 1972) than a roundhouse kick. In this retro classic, Lee plays a Shaolin monk recruited by British intelligence to infiltrate a suspected crime empire of drugs and sex trafficking being run from a private island near Hong Kong. The image of this martial arts poster boy, quivering with muscle while flinging around his nunchucks or flaunting his (sculpted) physical prowess front and centre, is still indelibly mesmerising even when he is delivering a lethal blow.
This article first appeared on Jan 29, 2024 in The Edge Malaysia.