Staying at Home? Roundup of Books, Movies Featured Here For Your Quarantine

If you’re one of the millions of people around the world forced to stay at home due to the coronavirus pandemic, chances are you may have a lot more time on your hands than you bargained for this spring.

If you’re in need of something to entertain you or offer some much-needed relief from the overwhelming onslaught of often unwelcome news, books and movies do come in handy. And I’ve featured a ton of them right here on the blog.

Consider this your ultimate quarantine list of resources I’ve previously featured on the blog.

This post I put out in late 2018 contains the vast majority of the books already featured on my site.

Since then, I’ve also featured a few more books you can peruse: Hong Kong Noir, Recipes from the Garden of Contentment, Travel to China, Squeaky Wheels, Someday We Will Fly, Touching Home in China, and Spinster Kang.

Looking for movies? My list of critically acclaimed AMWF movies remains a perennial favorite on this site. But don’t miss my earlier list of movies with Chinese men/Western women in love as well as any posts I’ve tagged under movies. Some of my posts on movies over the past couple of years highlight Last Christmas, The Sun Is Also a Star, Tomb Raider and Crazy Rich Asians.

Enjoy! And wherever you are, wishing you good health and safety during this critical fight against the coronavirus.

(P.S.: Looking for more books, movies and other entertainment during a quarantine or stay-at-home order? The Boston Globe lists free streaming movies possibilities and USA Today offers links to free resources. NY Times has a weekly updated list of what to watch, listen to and read.)

Forget the Critics: ‘Last Christmas’ w/ Henry Golding, Emilia Clarke Could Still Be a Classic

The movie “Last Christmas” caught my eye earlier this year for casting the handsome Henry Golding (“Crazy Rich Asians” and “A Simple Favor”) and winsome Emilia Clarke (“Game of Thrones”) as the romantic leads. This made it one of the first major studio movies to feature an Asian man and a white woman at the heart of a holiday love story.

But the opening of “Last Christmas” in theaters on Nov 8 came with a little less holiday cheer in the mixed and slightly negative response from critics, leading to a 47% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 50 from Metacritic.

Surely, when the filmmakers put together a Christmas wish list, this wasn’t the kind of gift they were hoping for.

Yet, despite the critics, moviegoers have responded with great joy for this Christmas romantic comedy.

Just look at the numbers. To date, “Last Christmas” has grossed nearly $70 million worldwide at the box office and remained one of the top 10 films at the box office this past weekend. On Rotten Tomatoes, it earned a strong 81% approval rating among audiences and has received many passionate user reviews on IMDb (with the most popular titled “Why doesnt this have a higher rating?!”).

Even Rotten Tomatoes has already reconsidered its original take on the film, landing “Last Christmas” on its list of 20 Rotten Christmas Movies We Love with the following description:

Take the Mother of Dragons and the hot guy from Crazy Rich Asians, mix them with the music of George Michael, bring in Emma Thompson to co-write the script and Paul Feig to direct, and sprinkle a bit of holiday magic over the whole thing, and you’re looking at Last Christmas. Look, we get that the story is somewhat predictable — pretty much everyone figured out where it was going just from watching the trailer — and it’s all a tad overly sentimental, but with this kind of pedigree, it’s hard not to be charmed by its immensely likable stars and its feel-good fuzziness.

That list included other romantic comedies that drew a similarly lackluster response from the critics and have still gone on to become beloved Christmas favorites, such as “The Holiday” at 49%.

Moreover, it’s also worth remembering that the gold standard of all holiday movies – the classic 1946 film “It’s a Wonderful Life” from Frank Capra – opened to mixed reviews, and even Capra himself found the response from critics largely cold.

Clearly, first impressions, especially on Christmas movies, don’t necessarily determine which movies endear themselves into our hearts enough to merit “classic” status.

So I say, forget the critics. “Last Christmas” could easily become another classic holiday film too. It’s just a matter of time. And if that happens, it could add some much needed diversity to a world of Christmas films featuring largely white romantic leads (Yes, Hallmark, I’m looking at you).

So give “Last Christmas” a look this holiday season – and let us know what you think. Do you believe it has the potential to become a holiday classic? Why or why not?

To learn more about the romantic comedy “Last Christmas”, you can visit the film’s page at IMDb, where you can watch the trailer too (which is also available on Youtube).

‘A Simple Favor’ Mixes Up Mystery, Thrills, Fun (AMWF Movies Worth Watching)

If the coming of Halloween has you envisioning a night of mystery and thrills mixed with a twist of fun (and a lemon), then consider spending an evening with the 2018 film A Simple Favor, starring Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively and Henry Golding.

Kendrick’s Stephanie, an overachieving single mom with a popular vlog, finds herself at the center of a mystery when her new friend Emily (played by Lively), the effortlessly glamorous fashion publicist dressed in chic suits and heels, suddenly disappears, along with her mercurial personality that veers from supportive to saucy and even downright scary (such as the icy look she shoots at Stephanie when telling her to delete that photo she just snapped of her). These, and many other oddities, lead to Stephanie going into full mommy noir mode, sleuthing out the truth behind what happened as she finds herself increasingly ensnared in the wreckage Emily left behind. And revelations, such as Emily’s son claiming he saw his missing mom, only add to the “Gone Girl” oddity of it all.

Golding, as Emily’s handsome but secretive spouse Sean, reveals more of his enigmatic wife to Stephanie, along with himself, and “comforting the husband” takes on an entirely new meaning as things heat up between the two of them. After Golding’s breakout role in Crazy Rich Asians, he once again shows versatility in the movie, which also deserves kudos for opting not to cast another white guy.

And if you want to take A Simple Affair a step further by making a night of it, don’t forget to serve up some martinis (or mocktinis), which appear frequently in the film. Cheers!

The film garnered an impressive 85 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, with critics especially hailing the performances by Kendrick and Lively. You can learn more about A Simple Affair at the IMDb, which features a trailer (also available on Youtube).

Have you seen A Simple Affair? What do you think of the movie?

P.S.: Discover more AMWF movies worth watching here in this blog post.

‘Running for Grace’ Movie: Interracial Love in 1920s Hawaii Goes the Distance

If you’re looking for a fresh take on the star-crossed lovers theme, consider the indie film Running for Grace (also known as Jo, the Medicine Runner). Set in 1920s Hawaii in segregated Kona coffee fields, in a world where Japanese immigrants toil for white plantation owners, love blooms one afternoon when the mixed-race (Japanese and white) orphan boy named Jo, a medicine runner in the fields, gazes upon Grace, the young daughter of the plantation owner, through gossamer curtains. But, in that era, he’s not what her privileged (and racist) white family hoped for – and eventually the revelation of their taboo romance sparks plenty of drama, including some thrilling scenes of Jo dashing through forests and fields over his affection for Grace.

Ryan Potter, who many of you may recognize from the Oscar-winning animated film Big Hero 6 as well as the Nickeleon TV series Supah Ninjas, stars as Jo, while Olivia Ritchie plays Grace. While the plot of Running for Grace follows a relatively predictable path, the two make for a winsome couple, one that will keep you rooting for them as they go the distance to stay together.

If you’re interested in Running for Grace, you can learn more about the film at its official website or IMDb, where you can see a trailer (which is also available on Youtube).

Have you seen Running for Grace yet? What do you think of this film?

‘Made in China’ Movie: Franco-Chinese Man Dating White Woman Reconnects with His Family

The latest film from Julien Abraham that hit the theaters earlier this summer, explores many themes typical of family comedies — such as family estrangement and pending parenthood. But “Made in China” does so with a twist less often seen in the French cinema, let alone movies worldwide  — through the eyes of a 30-year-old Franco-Chinese man together in Paris with his pregnant white girlfriend. Here’s an excerpt from the synopsis on IMDb:

François, a young thirty-year-old Asian, has not been back in his family for 10 years after a violent dispute with his father Meng. Since then, he has always tried to avoid questions about his origins, until he lies to believe that he has been adopted. But when he learns that he is going to be a father, he realizes that he will have to reconnect with his past and his origins.

The film stars Frédéric Chau, a lead from the French hit Serial (Bad) Weddings series, in the main role, and Julie De Bona as his girlfriend. A review in the Hollywood Reporter praised the film, saying:

In a country where Asians have often made for easy punchlines in movies and TV shows, and where a more aggressive racism toward the Chinese population has reared its head these past years, Made in China comes as a welcome reminder of France’s evolving demographics…

It’s also a welcome reflection of the lives of many interracial and intercultural couples around the world, grappling with similar issues. The movie, in French and Mandarin, may still be in theaters in France and Germany. Otherwise, you can watch this trailer on Youtube (or this promo on QQ, if you’re in China) and then stay on the lookout to stream it online.

What do you think of “Made in China”? Have you seen it, or would you see it?

‘The Sun Is Also a Star’ Movie: Blasian Love Hits Big Screen

The movie adaptation of Nicola Yoon’s best-selling YA novel “The Sun Is Also a Star” opened last weekend in theaters across North America, with many noting its romantic leads – the Jamaican girl Natasha (played by Yara Shahidi of “Black-ish” and “Grown-ish”) and the Korean American boy Daniel (played by Charles Melton of “Riverdale”).

While I’ve yet to see the film (though read the book), it has drawn mixed reviews, putting it at a little over 50 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Still, I believe “The Sun Is Also a Star” merits a look for a number of good reasons.

Yes, we’ve got to start with the “R-word” here – representation. This modern day Romeo and Juliet tale pairs up a black girl and an Asian boy. It’s rare enough to see either black women or Asian men cast as romantic leads, let alone both together. Here’s what Charles Melton had to say about his turn as Daniel Bae in a conversation with AsAm News:

Speaking of handsome, it hasn’t been lost on Melton he’s getting the rare opportunity to play the male lead in a romance.

“To see not only that, but to see a character that embodies a full masculinity, it’s very endearing. It’s very aspirational. It’s a love story,” he told me. “The way Daniel is its like it’s great that he’s Asian. People will be able to connect to that . He’s also like the modern  man- to be open, to be a hopeless romantic. It’s an honor.”

The story also takes representation a step further with characters that eschew the usual stereotypes. Natasha is a rational young woman who aspires to become a scientist, while Daniel is creative and secretly yearns to be a poet.

Meanwhile, “The Sun Is Also a Star” puts a human face on immigration — a timely theme in this era — with Natasha. As an undocumented immigrant who came to the US as a child and must face the prospect of deportation within 24 hours, she symbolizes immigrant kids like the DREAMers as well as the ways in which the US immigration system can suddenly threaten young hopes and futures.

Do you plan to see “The Sun Is Also a Star“? Or have you seen it already? What do you think about the movie?

‘How I Became Russian’ Movie Pits Shanghainese Man Against Future Russian Father-in-Law

Years ago, when Philip Wong of Wongfu Productions cited Meet the Parents as a movie that should have starred Asians in one of the major roles, the universe must have heard his plea. That’s because a new Sino-Russian collaboration How I Became Russian (Как я стал русским), set to hit the theaters here in China on Jan 25, stands as a perfect example of a Meet the Parents-style tale, with a Sino-Russian twist.

The movie’s Chinese name Zhandou Minsu Yangchengji (战斗民族养成记), which roughly translates to “Notes on Battling Nationals”, pits a young Shanghainese man engaged to a Russian woman against his future Russian father-in-law, a nightmare of a man determined to put the newcomer through the wringer to prove his love for his fiancée.

Philip Wong would definitely approve of the casting, as he once stated “the basic premise [in Meet the Parents] of the “outsider” boyfriend meeting his fiancee’s ‘all-American’ family would be even more strengthened if said boyfriend was really ‘different’ i.e. Asian.” In this case, there’s no doubt who’s the outsider — the Shanghainese fellow met and proposed to his Russian fiancee in China, and then they travel to Russia, a foreign country, to meet the family.

And if the trailer is any measure, How I Became Russian also has lots of comedic potential with the hurdles the gun-toting Russian father throws at the Shanghai boyfriend. These include drinking duels with vodka, sweltering in saunas, shivering in the frigid cold and a showdown with an armored tank. The bottom line, like Meet the Parents, appears to be the same — it’s yet another father who doesn’t trust his daughter’s fiancee and will make him fight for the right to love her.

The movie stars Dong Chang (董畅) as the Shanghainese boyfriend, Elizaveta Kononova as the Russian girlfriend, and Vitaliy Khaev as the Russian father-in-law. Learn more about the movie in Chinese on Baidu (where you can also see trailers).

What do you think of How I Became Russian? Would you like to see this film?

‘Crazy Rich Asians’ the Movie Opens in China. How Will It Play With Audiences?

While much of the world welcomes the start of the holiday season, this weekend brings great cheer for moviegoers in China who happen to adore a certain novel by Kevin Kwan. Yes, Nov 30 marks the opening date in China for “Crazy Rich Asians” the movie.

The movie hasn’t even hit the theaters yet and many of my chat groups filled with other women with Chinese husbands and boyfriends are buzzing about the film. And why not? “Crazy Rich Asians” is the highest-grossing romantic comedy in a decade,  and it hopes to cash in on the same success in China, poised to become the world’s largest movie market.

But while “Crazy Rich Asians” could enjoy a splendid run in here in the Middle Kingdom, Chinese audiences already have a different perspective on the film.

Just consider its Chinese title, zhāijīn qíyuán (摘金奇缘), which others have translated into English as everything from “Tales of Gold-Digging” to “Gold-Picking Romance” or even “An Unexpected Gold-Digging Romance”.

It’s a bit misleading, as the character of Rachel Chu, played by Constance Wu, isn’t dating the “crazy-rich” Nick Young for his money, and doesn’t initially know he’s the scion of one of Singapore’s wealthiest families. But it does suggest that, here in China, people see “Crazy Rich Asians” through a different lens.

Look at what some Chinese have had to say about “Crazy Rich Asians” the movie on China’s movie review site Douban, including this:

One user criticized the film for its lack of authenticity, comparing it to Americanized Chinese food. “As a native Asian, I feel it’s like eating General Tso’s chicken in a Chinese restaurant” in a foreign country, chimed in someone in Los Angeles who goes by the moniker Durian Cake Brother (link in Chinese). “It looks like a film about Asians, but the spirit of it is American. The leading actress is an ABC. The story is about how Asians look in the eyes of the Americans.”

Professor Han Li, in an opinion piece for Sixth Tone, also writes in a similar vein about “Crazy Rich Asians”, singling out perceptions of the character Rachel Chu as a potential point of difference:

Despite my reservations about the movie’s portrayal of Chinese culture, there’s no doubt it struck a chord with Asian American audiences. It’s less clear, however, whether it would be met with the same reception in China, should it open here. The character of Rachel, in particular, might not be quite as popular. While some viewers may appreciate her depiction as a young, independent professional and be impressed with the way she has realized the American dream as a second-generation Chinese immigrant, others might see her not as the movie wants them to, but as Eleanor does — Chinese on the outside, American on the inside.

Jeff Yang echoes that in a piece about “Crazy Rich Asians” prospects in China, saying:

…the very thing that made “Crazy Rich Asians” so meaningful to Asians in the US might have given China’s cinematic powers-that-be pause: its focus on the global Chinese diaspora in America and Singapore.

…most Chinese don’t understand or find interest in the identity politics of more racially diverse societies like the US. The experience of Chinese Americans feels niche in China, where Chinese are the mainstream.”

Indeed, speaking of identity politics, don’t expect viewers or critics here to chime in on some of the controversies that arose in the West surrounding casting decisions (like having half-white/half-Asian Henry Golding play Nick Young, which some perceived as whitewashing). China has embraced many mixed-race celebrities (such as Fei Xiang), so it’s hard to imagine audiences having concerns about Golding.

Overall, these differences in perspective have a lot of critics uncertain about the film’s prospects in China, with some (like Victor Zheng at SupChina) even forecasting the possibility of a flop.

Nevertheless, as Jeff Yang notes, “Ultimately, of course, the biggest driver of the success of the film in China is likely to be its outsized success in America.” After all the movie topped the box offices for a record three weeks and raked in an incredible $230 million plus to date. That kind of triumph may be enough to power a strong run in China. We’ll see.

In the meantime, as for one tiny little demographic here in China — foreigners dating or married to Chinese — if the chat room conversations I’ve seen are any measure, I expect many of us will flock to the theaters in China for “Crazy Rich Asians”, success or no. Movie meetup, anyone?

What do you think about “Crazy Rich Asians” the movie in China? Do you feel audiences will embrace the movie anyhow? Or do you foresee a flop for the movie market in China?

Public Kisses in the Movies: Romantic or Embarrassing?

Whenever I watch a romantic comedy with my husband Jun, we always laugh together over that inevitable moment when the couple shares a kiss – in public.

It’s almost like a game for us – let’s see how long the movie will last before lips lock among a group of people, whether that’s a handful of their closest friends or an entire flash mob (Friends with Benefits). If it’s a love story, it invariably happens somehow, somewhere.

And the funniest thing is, I never really took note of this romantic comedy troupe until I met Jun.

He grew up in a world where public displays of affection, like kissing, were generally confined to bedrooms, closed doors and any other private corner of the world. His parents in rural China never kissed and hugged in front of him, like mine did, and neither did his relatives. That kind of intimacy was always tucked out of sight in his life, and it was the normal thing for people to do.

Hence, his fascination with kissing in the presence of other people, as depicted in all those Hollywood romantic comedies.

I’ve recognized for a long time that Hollywood stretches reality for entertainment. After all, few of us will probably ever kiss, say, in the center of a baseball field at an evening game (Never Been Kissed) or on the snowy streets of London, wearing our underwear as bewildered pedestrians walk by (Bridget Jones).

Nevertheless, I often idealized, and even loved, these public kisses in the movies, even if the reality might make me blush. The idea of having others witness your kiss in public had struck me as romantic, which outweighed the ensuing embarrassment.

Jun would come to remind me that, on the flip side, sometimes the embarrassment might outweigh the kiss, depending on your culture or perspective.

Nevertheless, we still delight in those romantic comedies. And while I know it’s a total long shot, who knows — maybe someday I might just convince Jun to give me one of those ultra-dramatic kisses, say, in front of Tian’anmen Square. 😉

Have you ever noticed how romantic comedies love to feature kisses in really public places? Do you think it’s romantic or embarrassing?

Intercultural Love Hack #108 – Movie Date Nights Can Help With Fights, Open Up Conversations

A few weeks ago, a fan wrote to me asking, “Do you and Jun ever fight?”  She mentioned fighting on occasion in her own intercultural relationship — her husband’s Chinese, she’s a non-Asian woman from a Western country — and sometimes it was not easy for her to resolve the tension because they had different ways of arguing. While she wanted to talk it out, he just stonewalled her.

She eyed my marriage with envy. While it’s true Jun and I don’t argue much these days (we’ve become“war buddies” united in our fight against injustice) like many couples, we’ve weathered our share of arguments early on in our relationship. (See Weathering Cross-Cultural Love in China and you’ll get what I mean.)

One thing I’ve never written about is that, in some ways, movies have helped us overcome fights and open up conversations, especially about cultural differences that could potentially cause a snag or too in a relationship. Call it my intercultural love hack, #108.

I’ve always been a huge fan of romantic comedies on TV and the big screen, which meant my husband and I would often watch them when we declared it a “movie night” (or “TV night”). In the early years of our relationship, we lived together in China, and at the time I was desperately missing my home country of America. Movies were a way for me to vicariously visit the US in the comfort of my own home, so I often chose titles set in America. And hey, it was great for both of us, since English is my native language and Jun’s second language.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but in choosing these English-language romantic comedies from America, I was inadvertently schooling Jun in dating and relationship culture in the US.

See, Jun and I had met in China, and while he’d studied European-American culture in college, he’d never traveled or lived outside the country before we met. Meanwhile, my two years of living in China, plus previous relationships with Chinese guys, gave me a leg up that he didn’t have when it came to my culture. (I’m the first and only woman he has ever dated, so it’s not like he had other women, or even foreign women, to compare with me.)

But movies stepped in to fill the gap, in ways I never anticipated.

The thing that first caught his eye in American movies? Kissing in public. Name me a romantic comedy from the US and there’s a more than 90 percent chance the couple ends up locking lips among a crowd of people (often their friends or family), and probably a more than 50 percent chance that said crowd showers them with applause. It was fascinating to Jun because…well…that’s not how it’s done where he grew up, where people prefer to kiss in more private places and spaces. And so it opened up a whole conversation about public displays of affection, and differences between our respective countries and cultures.

But of course, all movies – even romantic comedies – thrive on tension and drama. Which means many, many films had couples arguing about all sorts of things. Even stuff that was eerily similar to things we might have been hashing out on our own.

Here’s the thing, though. When you see people fighting about something that you’ve encountered, but it’s in a movie, it gives you a certain distance to talk about it in a more nonjudgmental way. It’s not the two of you doing it, it’s the characters.

Not everything is about culture, either. Sometimes it’s just a matter of personality too. But either way, seeing it reflected on screen can provide an opening to talk, where you’re discussing the characters instead of fingering the other person.

It’s also really helpful if you can find examples that encompass each of your respective “argument styles”, because everyone has a different approach. Bonus if they portray the fights in a humorous way, so then the two of you can laugh at them (and hopefully, later on, yourselves).

But if Jun and I were dating now, chances are I’d get even more specific and skip straight to movies about interracial and intercultural couples. They have plenty of arguments to go around, and they’re even more familiar to our lives than your average rom-com. (See Movies with Chinese Men and Western Women in Love and 11 Critically Acclaimed AMWF Movies Worth Watching for some recommendations I’ve made on this blog.)

While watching a movie won’t magically solve all your intercultural marital woes, it could raise the kind of awareness — cultural and otherwise — that opens up possibilities for resolution and understanding.  Plus, it’s fun and who wouldn’t want an additional excuse to prop up their legs, bring out the popcorn and declare it a movie night?

So maybe that old cliche should be updated to, “The couple who watches movies together, stays together”?

What do you think? Have you found movies to be a beneficial way of encouraging mutual understanding across cultural or racial lines?