4 Best Movies to Watch by Jack Kao

Staff & contributors

The atmosphere in Millennium Mambo is magical. The opening scene alone will leave you enchanted, with long walks through a tunnel-like space and dreamy techno music playing in the background. We are misled into thinking that this will be a movie full of colors and dance, and to some degree, this is true, as it portrays Taipei and its neon colors of green, pink, and blue, featuring dance sequences in a bar that serves flashy drinks. But as the movie develops, a chilling shadow is cast as we become entangled in a brutal relationship that is as full of cruelty as it is of love and lust. Narrated from the future, the story shows how the present-day protagonist, Vicky, grapples with her identity as she looks back upon her past self from ten years ago.

Chaotic, messy, but also peppered with moments of serenity and shot with flawless camerawork and cinematography, Millennium Mambo makes time feel fluid, and serves as a reminder that no matter how rough the journey may be, everything is always okay in the end.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Chun-hao Tuan, Doze Niu Cheng-Tse, Duan Chun-hao, Jack Kao, Pauline Chan, Pauline Chan Bo-Lin, Qi Shu, Rio Peng, Shu Qi

Director: Hou Hsiao-hsien, Hsiao-Hsien Hou

Rating: R

A City of Sadness is a film set in 1945, after Japan is defeated in the war and Taiwan is subject to uncertainties of a changing sociopolitical landscape. It follows the four Lin brothers, who each struggle in this tumultuous period — from Wen-heung, the eldest who gets on the bad side of a local gang, to Wen-ching, who chooses to stand against the Chinese Kuomintang government despite being deaf-mute. 

Instead of turning to the usual machinations of a historical family drama, director Hou Hsiao-hsien shows the vast expanse of Taiwanese countryside through steady, beautiful cinematography. In urban areas, the camera moves in scenes of sudden violence, which it pans toward until it exits frame for us to only hear the screams of people offscreen. There are also quiet interludes that barely last a minute, where dynamics between characters depict the anxiety of the times. Tony Leung, who plays the deaf-mute brother, hasn't refined the craft of subtle acting with his eyes yet, but traces of brilliance are already there. 

The trauma of rapidly changing times, as a nation is exploited from one war to the next, is depicted so clearly. The authoritarian state erodes families, and Hou paints a picture of a society on the brink, a representation of 1940s Taiwan that feels more like a tragic poem than a film.

Genre: Drama, History

Actor: Chan Chung-Yung, Grace Chen Shu-Fang, Hsin Shu-Fen, Jack Kao, Kelly Ko, King Shih-Chieh, Li Tian-Lu, Mei Fang, Tai Bo, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Tsai Chen-Nan, Wu Nien-Jen, 吴念真

Director: Hou Hsiao-hsien

In this stunning coming-of-age drama, Hou Hsiao-hsien takes us to the neon-lit streets of Taiwan and the dull beige house of the Lin family. The film is centered around the eldest daughter, Lin Hsiao-yang (portrayed by the Taiwanese pop star Lin Yang), who takes care of her whole family after her mother dies and her father gains employment in another city. Her sister is too young to work, and her older brother is a petty criminal. It’s easy to empathize with her struggles—many of them are issues children shouldn’t face. But she deals with them with a silent sort of strength, with Lin Yang’s stoic face hiding some simmering resentment. Similarly, the film’s slow pace and serene framing hide the underlying violence that affects the Lin family. Juxtaposing Taiwan’s urban and suburban life, Western and Eastern aesthetics, and the film's Egyptian mythos with the struggle of Taiwan’s youth, Hou presents a contemplative view of 1980s Taiwan.

Genre: Crime, Drama

Actor: Fu-Sheng Tsui, Grace Chen Shu-Fang, Hsin Shu-Fen, Jack Kao, Li Tian-Lu, Lin Ju, Vega Tsai, Wu Nien-Jen, Yu An-Shun, 吴念真

Director: Hou Hsiao-hsien

Rating: Not Rated

Written like a stage play, directed like the viewer is a fly on the wall, and shot with a love for deep shadows and warm candlelight, Flowers of Shanghai is about as immersive a chamber drama as one could ask for. Having most of the "action" take place off screen, director Hou Hsiao-hsien draws our eye instead to how his characters (including one played by an exceptionally stoic Tony Leung) continue to negotiate for their own freedom against patriarchal norms, pushing against cultural notions of proper decorum. It's a film brimming with repressed emotion, but without ever raising its voice. The vibes, as the kids say, are immaculate.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Annie Shizuka Inoh, Carina Lau, Jack Kao, Michelle Reis, Michiko Hada, Moon Wang, Pauline Chan, Rebecca Pan, Stephanie Fong Shuan, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Vicky Wei

Director: Hou Hsiao-hsien