How to Impress an Asian Studies Student Without Trying

SOPHIE WILLIAMS tells you how to blag your way into the heart of students of Chinese/Japanese/Korean by watching films.

China Cinema Film Japan Korea

As we learnt last time, it can sometimes be very difficult trying to impress someone who studies a subject you know nothing about. You can try and avoid the topic, but since our lives here are 95.5% work/avoiding work by claiming that you’re “just thinking about my work for a few days”, the subject of your romantic interest’s subject is bound to come up (see what I did there?). And you don’t want to seem like an ignorant rookie. And you certainly don’t have time to go on Wikipedia and find out an entire nation’s history or try to work out just what makes sociology different from anthropology. Furthermore, as we all well know, it’s so tempting when you’re on Wikipedia to start playing the 5-clicks-to-Jesus game. Or, if you are that way inclined, you could end up playing this game’s less wholesome variation, the 5-clicks-to-Hitler game. So the only option is to watch films relating to your belovèd’s subject (it’s not, but this is the film section, so please pretend that it is). This time, I will guide you through the world of AMES.

AMES: a beginner’s guide

So you’ve met a fit AMES student on a night out. They tell you they study AMES. You say, “What’s AMES?” They sigh, shake their head and say matter-of-factly, as if they have been saying it since the dawn of time and still no one gets it, “Asian and Middle Eastern Studies.” Now, there are five possible routes that your conversation/cinematic stalking can go now, for there are five (or six) different languages that an AMES student can study: Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. Since students have to choose either the Middle Eastern or Asian pathway, I will consider them separately (the Middle East in the next article) but, naturally, feel free to mix and match in order to really convey that ‘pretentious cinephile’/’man-or-woman of the world’ vibe.

Part 1 – Asian studies: Chinese, Japanese, Korean

These Asian nations each have prolific national cinemas but unless, like me, you had a friend harping on at you for years about how I ‘omg really need to watch Oldboy omg’ then you may not have seen any films made by these countries, only films made about these countries by Westerners. And I’m afraid that singing “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” from Disney’s Mulan will do little to impress your Asian Studies love interest. Go niche and win their heart.

Disney's Mulan: a great film but not likely to impress a student of Chinese

Disney’s Mulan: a great film but not likely to impress a student of Chinese

Chinese: You may have seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (it’s always on Film4) but since that’s the highest-grossing foreign film at the U.S. box office ever, it’s a bit of a mainstream choice. Go for something like Farewell My Concubine which follows two members of the Peking Opera, or a meandering coming-of-age story in the form of The Time To Live, The Time To Die, or learn about some Chinese history from an alarmingly good/sensitive Western perspective with The Last Emperor. In the Mood for Love from Hong Kong director Kar Wai Wong also deserves a mention: it’s a sumptuous portrayal of a man and woman who discover their spouses are having an affair with each other (and, FYI, it’s one of my favourite films.) (I hope you care).

Toshiro Mifune, one of Japan's greatest ever actors and certified stud

Toshiro Mifune, one of Japan’s greatest ever actors and certified stud

Japanese: There’s a good chance that your beloved student of Japanese got into the subject through anime, but anime is, like, so passé and barely scratches the surface of Japanese culture. Leave your Studio Ghibli DVDs at the door. Japanese national cinema is perhaps the most acclaimed in the West of the three Asian-AMES countries, with director Akira Kurosawa dominating “top 10 best director” lists and Seven Samurai always being considered a cinematic classic, forever ranking among the likes of Citizen Kane. (Win nerd points for watching The Hidden Fortress and pointing out how George Lucas clearly ripped it off for Star Wars.) Branch out from Kurosawa with Yasujirō Ozu, whose films such as Late Spring and Tokyo Story are elliptical, unusual, slow masterpieces.

Don't even bother with the American remake

Don’t even bother with the American remake

Korean: No North Korea/Team America jokes, alright? The aforementioned Oldboy (and the rest of the Vengeance trilogy) are probably South Korea’s most internationally-famous cultural output, but the country produces a vast amount of films every year (fun fact to impress your love with: South Korea is one of few nations to watch more domestic than imported films in cinemas) so your options are practically limitless. Get some history in you by watching Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War about two brothers forced to fight in the Korean War, or go a bit weirder with The Housemaid, a film from 1960 that clearly inspired some of the country’s more recent and well-known output, described as a tale of “sexual obsession, revenge, and betrayal.” Saucy.

Casually drop in references to these films while you express your awe for your love interest’s ability to read a language in a completely different script to ours, and their intellectual ego will be so inflated that they will definitely, certainly fall in love with you. Sayonara, guys.

 Part 2 – Middle Eastern Studies to come soon…