With Chinese New Year, also known as Lunar New Year coming up, it’s a great time to celebrate Asian cinema. China, Taiwan, and other countries in southeast Asia have produced numerous films that engage with transnational themes and ideas in the contemporary era. To learn more about contemporary Chinese and Asian cinema, The Medium spoke to Cinema Studies Assistant Professor, Dr. Elizabeth Wijaya. Dr. Wijaya has a research interest in post-2008 films from South and East Asia and teaches the courses CIN210H5: Contemporary Southeast Asian Cinema and CIN305H5: Taiwan New Wave In Our Time.
Wijaya explains that saying the word “Chinese” in English can have many different meanings, the word can represent an ethnicity, something cultural, or a reference to a language. “I think in each of these possibilities, there are a lot of internal diversities,” she states.
It’s debatable what constitutes being Chinese in these contexts because some people may identify as Chinese without speaking the Cantonese, Mandarin, or any regional dialects of those languages. Mandarin and Cantonese are recognized as the official Chinese languages, but Dr. Wijaya notes that even Mandarin can “sound different when spoken in different places [which leads to various ambiguities].” Dr. Wijaya is interested in thinking about how this idea of “Chinese” is not something that should be essentialized. She points to her area of specialization, Cinema and Visual Culture, which demonstrates imaginative ideas of what “Chinese cinema, is, was, or could be.”
Dr. Wijaya notes “My job is not to say what you should [or shouldn’t think].” Instead she wants to see what can be learned by examining the historical aspects of media, identifying underlying meanings by linking cinema with a nation’s history and politics.
She also emphasizes a transnational approach to both Chinese cinema and “cinema in general,” questioning to what extent cinema from Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, or even the US can be placed under the Chinese Belt. She describes contemporary Chinese cinema as a diverse field but identifies two major categories: popular cinema and independent film festival-oriented.
“In my classes [due to] my interest, I tend to lean towards what can be considered independent films.” Dr. Wijaya believes that there are many possibilities for shared themes between these films and that calling them “common themes” would be to essentialize them. Some genres that are prevalent in East Asian films are neo-noir, romantic comedies, and family films. Meanwhile, Dr. Wijaya has an interest in demonstrating how short cinema is a film form that “reinvents itself” through new generations of filmmakers who create from their perspectives.
When asked of contemporary Chinese cinema’s connection to a global audience, Dr. Wijaya draws emphasis on the film’s method of distribution. After appearing in film festivals, these films must find distribution to be in theatres. Often, people only see these contemporary films when they are on streaming services. Dr. Wijaya notes how her exposure to films was through television when she was young. “It was my earliest introduction to East Asian cinema.”
Dr. Wijaya notes that on Lunar New Year, there is a tradition in places where Mandarin is a popular language to watch films that are “light-hearted, [comedic], and have a happy ending.” The films typically assigned in cinema classes are “too solemn,” according to Dr. Wijaya, but she notes other film recommendations that fit the Lunar New Year criteria and connect to her course’s themes.
The first is Lan Yu (2001), a Taiwanese film by famous filmmakers, but the only one fully shot in Taiwan. Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) is a feature-length film that Dr. Wijaya believes captures the spirit of the Lunar New Year due to the shots of the main character cooking. She also notes Turning Red (2022), an animated film set in Toronto, as an example of her idea of global Chinese films. While it is not set in China, Dr. Wijaya states it is family friendly and engages with progressive themes related to gender.
Another classic that Dr. Wijaya recommends is a Hong Kong film, All’s Well Ends Well (1992). She states the film captures the holiday’s spirit due to its comedy and the addition of important Hong Kong pop stars, such as Leslie Cheung. Dr. Wijaya’s final recommendation, Home Coming (2011), is a Chinese New Year film from Singapore but mostly shot in Malaysia. She notes how University of Toronto Mississauga Sessional Lecturer Weijie Lai was part of the producing team, and it was one of the first films he worked on. Similar to the previous films, it engages with the Lunar New Year themes of family and comedy.
Staff Writer (Volume 49 & 50) — Yusuf is in his fourth year completing a double major in English and Cinema Studies and a minor in History of Religions. He first joined The Medium in 2022 when he sought to get involved in the on-campus community. He has developed strong writing skills throughout the experience and enjoys learning about new topics he wouldn’t know about otherwise. You can connect with Yusuf on LinkedIn.