Mulan (2020)

No Mushu, no biggie.

While Eddie Murphy’s fast-talking mini-dragon rules the animated version, this live-action remake is much more in the vein of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Director Niki Caro unleashes all the stunt people Disney’s money can buy, with action scenes galore, both epic and intimate.

Every frame pops with color in one of the best-looking films of 2020, with lead actress Liu Yifei delivering nicely-understated work opposite a who’s-who of genre stars ranging from Gong Li to Jet Li.

I’m not generally a huge fan of the House of Mouse remaking all their films, but this one has zing.


Raise the Red Lantern

Great sadness hides behind great beauty.

Zhang Yimou’s haunting look at the life of a concubine in 1920’s China is among the most-gorgeous films of the ’90s – or any era, for that matter.

But beneath the opulence a lot of nasty things linger – death, betrayal, and ultimately, madness.

Gong Li, a subtly-powerful actress, captures every flickering emotion as a young woman essentially sold into slavery after the death of her father leaves her family bankrupt.

Her new marriage offers great rewards, at first, but crushing sadness soon becomes her constant handmaiden.

Lovely to look at, and chilling to behold.

House of Flying Daggers

A feast for the senses.

Zhang Yimou’s epically-beautiful tale centers on a love triangle which blossoms during an ongoing war between a corrupt government and a band of plucky freedom fighters.

Mixing eyeball-popping martial arts showdowns with swooning romantic moments, all captured in the most-vibrant color scheme you can imagine, it’s the sort of film which redefines the word lush.

Four years after soaring high in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Zhang Ziyi delivers another knockout performance, this time as a warrior princess seemingly overcoming blindness.

Like the film she anchors, she’s gorgeous, deadly, and tragic in equal measure.


Wham! in China: Foreign Skies

Fake it till you make it.

Wham! beat out Queen as the first Western pop act to tour China, thanks to their manager convincing authorities George Michael was “wholesome,” while Freddie Mercury was “flamboyant.”

Once in country, this mix of stage performances and behind-the-scenes documentary was crafted by director Lindsay Anderson, who had four films nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes.

He then followed it up with the Bette Davis/Lillian Gish drama The Whales of August.

My mom loved the latter, my sister the former, so back in the early VHS days, I became deeply familiar with both.


Black Coal, Thin Ice

Cold as ice.

Hearts run black in this stylish Chinese neo noir, which follows a detective as he tracks a killer, only to have his ideals shattered.

Things start in 1999, in a hail of gunfire after cops try to nab a suspect in a sting which goes bad really fast, then jump forward to 2004.

Our hero, wounded in the shootout, is off the force, working as a security guard and drinking (a lot), when new murders begin.

Intrigued by a widow connected to the ’99 shootout, and desperate for answers, he plunges back into the game.

Play at your own risk.