I love classes that make you do out-of-class activities. I have a routine to doing these: I complain and whine about having to do something outside required class boundaries, then dread doing them, and then finally do them and end up finding them enjoying and fulfilling. It’s like clockwork.
So, I did this cycle with my world cultures class about East Asia, and boy, am I glad that I watched the movies I did. I actually ended up watching more than the required amount of movies! Anybody that knows me knows that I try not to do anything above and beyond the bare minimum required of anything, so it follows that these must be some pretty good films. And they are! The two that I most recommend, though, are “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” and “In the Mood for Love.”
I first learned about “In the Mood for Love” from the website Theyshootpictures.com, a review aggregator that tracks film critics’ “best of all time lists.” They have two lists, actually–one for all movies and one for movies made in the twenty-first century. The former is filled with movies like Yasujiro Ozu’s “Tokyo Story” and a ton of Akira Kurosawa movies, but I had no idea how vibrant East Asian cinema had become in recent years, because the most highly rated movie of the last thirteen years is Wong Kar-Wai’s “In the Mood For Love,” and there are plenty other Asian films on the list, too.
The movie, starring Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, is about two neighbors–a man and a woman–who come to the realization that their spouses are cheating on them with each other. Just as their spouses begin a new relationship, a new relationship between the two develops. It’s very slow, very deliberate, and it features both subtle and explicit imagery. There’s a repetitive scene where a haunting violin plays a waltz over images of the non-couple. It’s dazzling and a gut punch to the viewer. I really loved this movie. It’s on Netflix right now, so go watch it. It deserves the hype.
“Jiro Dreams of Sushi” is also fantastic. Often the best documentaries are those that simply show someone doing something that they love, and this is a great example of one. The film is shot in the vein of an Errol Morris documentary, who is best known for “The Thin Blue Line” and “The Fog of War,” with a score by Philip Glass and a narrative that lets images and the interviewee’s words tell the story.
The craft with which Jiro Ono and his employees and family make sushi is insane and inspiring. Ono is 85 years old during the movie and still a workaholic. He has devoted his life to the art of sushi and subsequently had his restaurant awarded three Michelin stars, being among the first sushi restaurants to do so.
The director simply relates, through Jiro, his idea of practice, simplicity and honesty in pursuit of perfection. Even at the tail end of his career, Ono doesn’t feel like he’s attained perfection, and that he is still learning every day. One of the great anecdotes relayed in the movie is that new apprentices must spend two or three years working with one item (like cleaning octopus), so that they can achieve mastery over all parts of that particular ingredient. Then, they graduate on to something else, and so it repeats with the next wave.
This one should still be on Netflix, so give this a go as well. And start looking for more East Asian films. You won’t regret it.