From The Goddess (1934) to So Long, My Son (2019), here are the best Chinese movies that should be on your watchlist.
China has a long, powerful, and tumultuous history of filmmaking. The first film in China was made in the year 1905. Port city Shanghai became the hub for Chinese cinema in the 1920s. It led to the first golden age in Chinese cinema. Unlike Hollywood, the early Chinese cinema was not interested in escapism and glamor. It strived for a sense of realism laced with melodrama. More importantly, compassion for ordinary Chinese people was the predominant focus in these films. Bu Wancang’s The Peach Girl (1931) was a familiar tale of romance and loss which packed in messages about social status and class division. The full-scale Japanese invasion and the bloody civil war brought an end to the first golden age.
After a short revival in the mid and late 1940s, Chinese cinema was nationalized. Cinema was used as a tool for ideological campaigns. But in the 1960s, there were underrated gems like Stage Sisters (1965) and the country’s first animation feature – Uproar in Heaven (1964). But it was only in the mid-1980s that Mainland Chinese cinema caught the attention of the globe as a new generation of filmmakers graduated from the revived Beijing Film Academy. Meanwhile, cinema thrived in Hong Kong and Taiwan in the 1960s and 1970s. For this list, I haven’t considered films made in these parts of China. The list is strictly confined to Mainland China where, despite the harsh censorship rules, profound and perceptive cinema is persistently made. Here’s a look at the 20 best Mainland Chinese movies:
1. The Goddess (1934)
Until the Japanese invasion and occupation of 1937, Chinese cinema enjoyed its first golden age. Shanghai was known as the hub for artistic and intellectual community, and in this multicultural city, early Chinese cinema thrived. Most of these films were about ordinary people, they were staunchly left-wing. Wu Yonggang’s The Goddess is one of the most important films of the era, which featured China’s first major star Ruan Lingyu. Shot on location, The Goddess tells the tale of a young mother who works as a prostitute to support her son and his education.
Mixing social realism with melodrama, Wu Yonggang mastered the grammar of silent cinema. The theatrical and histrionic acting of the silent era was prevalent in this film too. Yet the filmmaker and Lingyu brought upon a subtlety to the proceedings that are very much like Ozu’s works. Ruan Lingyu is absolutely spellbinding in the central character. An actress of immense talent, who passed away at an untimely 24, was immortalized for her performance here.
2. Street Angels (1937)
Yuan Muzhi’s Street Angels features the kind of melodramatic realism that reminds us of Kenji Mizoguchi’s earlier works. It opens with a brilliant montage of Shanghai. Its use of space in representing the urban lower classes as well as the usage of music and comedy was unique for the time. The street angels of the title are two sisters, Xiao Hong and Xiao Yun. They struggle to make ends meet and have fled from the Japanese invasion in north-east China. Yun works as a prostitute and Hong is a singer at a local teahouse. Throw in a low-level gangster and a capitalist into the mix and you get a poignant tale of the downtrodden.
The most interesting aspect of Street Angels is not its story, but the treatment which uses a satirical tone to look at the more serious issues. Moreover, the camera movements and sound techniques elevate the narrative’s ironic notes. In fact, sound is a significant element in the film. Street Angels more or less marks the end of the first golden age of Chinese cinema.
3. Spring in a Small Town (1948)
After the end of World War II, the conflict between the Nationalists and the Communists escalated in China. Shanghai film industry, however, saw a revival post-World War II which led to the second golden age in Chinese cinema. Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town is one of the most important Chinese films made during the post-war period. Set in a nondescript Chinese region, the film revolves around a married woman named Yuwen. The narrative offers a complex portrait of a failed marriage and thwarted hopes in the backdrop of a war-ravaged China.
Fei masterfully stages the drama as he explores the emotional turmoil between his characters through space and atmosphere. Spring in a Small Town lacks any overt leftist themes. Hence the Communist regime later called it a reactionary film, and it disappeared from public view for decades. By the early 1950s, the Communist Party took over the film industry, and the second golden age came to a halt. The Spring River Flows East, Crows and Sparrows, and Myriad of Lights are some other worth watching classics of the era.
4. Yellow Earth (1984)
Between 1966 and 1976, Mao unleashed the devastating Cultural Revolution on Chinese citizens. In 1978, Beijing Film Academy was reopened. Tian Zhuangzhuang, Chen Kaige, and Zhang Yimou were among the first batch of students, who graduated from the institute. These young cine-artists forged together a unique cinematic expression and they were known as Fifth Generation Chinese Filmmakers. One of the first major films of this movement was Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth. Zhang Yimou took over the cinematography duties. Based on Lan Ke’s novel, the narrative is set just before World War II in the arid Shaanxi province in Northern China near the Yellow River.
Yellow Earth was strikingly different from anything made before in Chinese cinema. Yimou and Chen brilliantly make use of the vibrant and expansive locations. The narrative revolves around Comrade Gu Qing, who visits the small village in the hills to collect folk songs. This leads to a clash of attitudes between Gu and a traditional father. However, Chen doesn’t go for a conventional dramatic narrative. It’s astonishingly nuanced, yet offers a heartbreaking portrait of ordinary Chinese people.
5. Hibiscus Town (1987)
Xie Jin’s poignant family drama is set in a small Chinese town and explores the adverse impacts of the Cultural Revolution. It’s based on Gu Hua’s wonderful 1981 novel Small Town Called Hibiscus. The film unfolds between the years 1964 and 1979. It revolves around a couple who work hard in the town and save money to build a new house. However, during the Four Clean-Ups Movement, the couple’s home is taken over and they are subsequently categorized as rich peasants. This leads to the husband’s suicide.
At the height of the Cultural Revolution, the wife is sentenced to sweep the streets. There she meets a man named Qin. Despite their shared misfortunes, they gradually fall in love. Hibiscus Town is a straightforward indictment of China’s inhuman political dogmas unleashed upon the common folks. It looks at the distorted nature of the Cultural Revolution which eventually led only to persecution and collective killings. Naturally, the film caused quite a stir in Mainland China when it was first released. The character Qin was played by the renowned Chinese actor and director Wen Jiang.
6. Red Sorghum (1988)
Based on Mo Yan’s novel of the same name, Red Sorghum marks the directorial debut of Zhang Yimou, a filmmaker known for his fantastic feast of colors. It’s a family story that’s being retold long after it happened. Our narrator tells us that it’s the tale of his grandparents. The ever-radiant Gong Li plays a beautiful peasant girl who is married off against her wishes to a rich leper. Wen Jiang plays the rich leper’s attendant who rescues Gong Li from an attempted kidnap. Thus begins their affair and they have a child together. The outside world soon intrudes on them as the Japanese invade China.
Similar to Zhang Yimou’s later works, Red Sorghum invites complex metaphorical readings though on the outset it’s staged as an uncommon love story. Moreover, Zhang brilliantly constructs the period by relying on his aesthetic power. Zhang’s visual language immediately caught the attention of the West and ushered in the New Wave Chinese cinema.
7. Raise the Red Lantern (1991)
Zhang Yimou’s alliance with actress Gong Li was one of the greatest artistic collaborations in the history of cinema. Raise the Red Lantern was one of the best among their collaborative efforts. On the surface, it tells the story of Songlian (Gong Li), an educated girl, who becomes the fourth concubine of a wealthy older man. She enters into a luxurious home of empty rituals and veiled attacks. The women’s worth in the household is determined by their luck to bear a son and by their ability to draw the husband’s attention.
Color once again plays an important part in Zhang’s storytelling as our tragic heroine loses her way amidst the concubines’ complex schemes. Raise the Red Lantern lays bare the vile patriarchal system of pre-Communist China, where women are pit against women. At the same time, the film allegorically indicts the unforgiving political climate of Communist China. From this perspective, women like Songlian could represent the common Chinese folks who are forced to put up with the draconian government policies. The Chinese censors, of course, understood the allegorical implications of the narrative and banned the movie for a period of time.
8. Farewell My Concubine (1993)
Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine is one of the most popular Chinese films of the 1990s. It won a Palme d’Or at Cannes. This ambitious and controversial melodrama with a running time of almost 3 hours covers the sweeping history of China between mid 1920s and mid 1970s. It revolves around a troubled friendship between two Peking (Beijing) opera actors, Dieyi and Xiaolou. Gong Li plays Juxian, a former prostitute who unwittingly drives the friends apart. Director Chen offers an expansive look at the world of Chinese opera in the backdrop of relentless political chaos.
The Japanese invasion, the Communists’ ideological imposition, and the traumatic Cultural Revolution impacted the opera, whose artistic concerns and standards were attacked from all sides. Chen’s portrayal of gender ambiguity in opera actors is another interesting theme in the narrative. Yet Farewell My Concubine falls little short of being a great masterpiece, largely due to the over melodramatic and violent portions in the narrative’s second-half.
9. The Blue Kite (1993)
Tian Zhuangzhuang is a great yet lesser-appreciated filmmaker among the Chinese Fifth Generation of Filmmakers. He made the resplendent drama The Horse Thief (1986) which revolved around a Tibetan bandit. The Blue Kite recounts the extraordinary struggles of an ordinary family during the turbulent 1950s and 1960s. The film unfolds from the perspective and narration of Tietou, who tries to make sense of what’s happening in his family and in the outside world.
From Hundred Flowers Movement, The Great Leap Forward to The Cultural Revolution, the film observes how Mao’s disruptive policies turned the lives of Chinese people upside down. Tian cleverly looks at the hardships endured by the family rather than explicitly criticizing those policies. The film is viewed as the most accurate portrayal of the era as well as the most poignant. The official response as anticipated was very severe. Director Tian was banned from filmmaking for a decade. The film was reportedly smuggled out of the country to be screened at foreign film festivals.
10. In the Heat of the Sun (1994)
Wen Jiang’s excellent directorial debut was a dreamy, exhilarating coming-of-age tale set in the backdrop of the 1970s Cultural Revolution. The film has a very meandering plot structure and revolves around four teenagers. Our hero is Ma Xiaojun, known to his friends as ‘Monkey’. The grown-up Monkey reflects upon his adolescent years. Though set in a time of great political upheaval, In the Heat of the Sun isn’t a political film.
Bolstered by a mellow and remarkable cinematography, the film is a playful look at youthful curiosity despite the chaotic socio-political climate. That’s largely because the narrative is a collection of Monkey’s memories. Monkey sees turmoil in the society and powerlessness of adults as an opportunity to run amok. Xia Yu offers an impressive performance in the central role, capturing the awkwardness, agility, and euphoria of adolescence. Overall, In the Heat of the Sun is a gently humorous, self-aware character drama which looks at an adolescent’s efforts to assert himself as an individual.
11. To Live (1994)
With To Live, Zhang Yimou more or less treads the same path as Tian’s The Blue Kite. It’s also a profoundly observational drama on the ordinary Chinese people’s struggles. Zhang as usual sketches his characters with metaphorical overtones that convey deeper social commentary. Based on Yu Hua’s 1992 novel, To Live opens in the 1930s and revolves around Master Xu Fugui, the slacker son of an aging rich merchant. He is married to Jiazhen (Gong Li). Soon, Master Xu gambles away his family fortunes. Thankfully, Xu losing his fortune aids his family’s immediate survival during the Communist regime despite its growing number of harsh policies.
To Live is often dismissed as heavy-handed and highly melodramatic. That’s largely because of its comparison with Tian’s Blue Kite. Both of them approach a similar tale in their own unique style. Zhang’s strength here is the effective use of melodrama. He employs melodrama to deeply examine underlying social issues rather than use it in a shallow manner. The dramatic portions are more so efficient because of the brilliant ensemble cast. Gong Li’s character transformation is particularly crucial to the narrative.
12. Devils on the Doorstep (2000)
It’s hard to categorize Wen Jiang’s black-and-white portrait of the Japanese Occupation of China. Though it looks at the absurdity of war, it’s not exactly a war drama. The film is largely set in a village in Northern China and the director himself plays the central role as a pacifist peasant. However, unlike Zhang and Tian’s films, Jiang doesn’t pass on a complex socio-political commentary by looking at the lives of ordinary Chinese. Jiang’s tone is grimly ironic and often surprises us with extreme dark humor. We can simply say that there’s nothing like Devils on the Doorstep which won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes.
Wen Jiang doesn’t just look at the madness of war, rather shows how the poor are swept up by the forces of history, whatever the circumstances. Interestingly, the filmmaker doesn’t paint the poor peasants as innocent, sweet-natured people. They are as indignant and cunning as they have to be to survive inhumanity. Jiang’s farcical outlook on Chinese history naturally didn’t go well with the officials. The censors swiftly banned Jiang from directing and acting for a while.
13. Suzhou River (2000)
The 1990s ushered in an era of globalization to China setting off an unprecedented Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). Shanghai in particular was turned into a megacity. Lou Ye’s enthralling feature is set in such a rapidly westernized landscape of Shanghai. The film revolves around the fate of two couples. In one a motorcycle courier falls in love with a daughter of a wealthy businessman. In the other, an anonymous videographer is in an obsessive relationship with a woman who performs as a mermaid. Lou Ye also throws in film noir conventions like a kidnapping plot, femme fatale, rainy nights, and grimy neon-lit bars.
Furthermore, the Suzhou River that flows through Shanghai and its malodorous waterways adds to the narrative’s noir-like atmosphere. Lou Ye’s film is definitely a mood piece, and its kinetic visual style reminds us of his contemporary Wong Kar-wai. It’s also concerned with those living on the social margins of Shanghai chucked away like the waste floating through the megacity’s waterways.
14. Hero (2002)
From his debut feature Red Sorghum, Zhang Yimou brilliantly uncovered the suffering of the Chinese in the 20th century. Hero marked a clear shift in his approach as he started offering epic visual banquets which belonged to the popular wuxia genre. After years of fighting against the Chinese censors, Zhang was criticized for eventually making films that pleased the censors. It’s true that Zhang never achieved the heights he scaled in the 1990s. Yet Hero is a visually exuberant action drama which offers a very unique and spellbinding cinematic experience.
Photographed by the great Christopher Doyle, the film is set in 3rd century China, where the Emperor is trying to bring together the warring factions through conquest. Jet Li plays a nameless warrior who arrives at the palace seeking an audience with the Emperor. He talks of his heroic exploits where he has supposedly killed the three warlords who swore to kill the Emperor. The film is full of magnificently choreographed stunt sequences, and some of it is absolutely jaw-dropping.
15. Blind Shaft (2003)
Mang Jing’s remarkable debut feature unflinchingly looks at China’s social underbelly where people are forced to do anything to survive. It revolves around two coal miners who come up with an unscrupulous scheme to make money from the owners of illegal coal mines. Their plan works until the duo pick up a desperate 16-year old peasant boy for their next job. Shot in cinema verite style and featuring startlingly naturalistic performances, Blind Shaft is an undeniably gripping black comedy.
Mang Jing offers a critique on China’s transition to cut-throat capitalism through its two shady central characters. Mang also builds enough suspense and momentum to gradually pave way for the ironic twist at the end. Blind Shaft was largely shot without government permission, and not surprisingly the film was immediately banned. Mang Jing followed it up with a shocking drama titled Blind Mountain (2007). This was also a critique on market-driven Chinese society, where a young college graduate is kidnapped and sold to a local farmer to be his wife.
16. Still Life (2006)
Jia Zhangke is the best known among the Chinese Sixth Generation Filmmakers whose eye for composing landscapes often reminds us of Michelangelo Antonioni. Starting from Pickpocket (1997), Jia’s films are often about the changing landscape of China and its impact on people’s values and culture. Still Life is clearly his best work, where he presents two stories that are interestingly sewn together. The events of the narrative are set in and around the town of Fengjie. The town is located on the Yangtze River, which is in the process of getting demolished to make way for the Three Gorges Dam.
Still Life doesn’t have a strong narrative drive. It rather resonates at an emotional level as we witness the trauma and displacement of the inhabitants. Jia’s striking compositions state how human lives are rendered inconsequential in the name of economic growth. The grim price paid for progress is one of the recurring themes in Jia’s works. Though I consider Still Life his best work, almost all of his feature films are brilliant in some way.
17. City of Life and Death (2009)
While examining the devastating impact of World War II, the outlook can sometimes be so Eurocentric that one can forget to address the horror experienced by the Nanking inhabitants. In December 1937 Japanese Imperial Army started invading the city of Nanking and soon engaged itself in mass killings. More than 200,000 people were killed, and the details of the army’s atrocities are hard to digest. Lu Chan’s multifaceted historic drama attempts to paint the unbelievable human suffering on a wider canvas.
Chan who has previously directed the brilliant drama Mountain Patrol (2004) doesn’t restrict himself with political concerns. He doesn’t show the invading Japanese forces as undead monsters with a hive mindset. He rather tries to make us understand the war crimes and disastrous incidents through a few individual characters. One such individual includes a naive, young Japanese soldier. There are certain conventional dramatic moments which despite Chan’s artistry come across as weak. Yet, City of Life and Death offers important history lessons with an excellent amount of visual creativity.
18. Kaili Blues (2015)
Bi Gan’s Kaili Blues has a very simple story. It revolves around a doctor, Chen Shen who is worried about his young nephew’s disappearance. He leaves his home to search for the boy in the town of Kaili. However, the 26-year old Bi Gan doesn’t follow any conventional path to narrate his story. At the outset, the film seems to be about a widowed doctor haunted by the past. Moreover, as the unforgettable road trip suggests, it’s a look at China’s rapid cultural and economic transformation.
But no words can quite describe the sublime visual experience Bi Gan bestows on us. Most bewitching of all was the 41-minute single shot that tracks over various characters with fluid camera work. Bi Gan cleverly frees his characters from a simple narrative structure, and uses the existential road trip to reflect on themes of time and memory. The visual poetry as well as the thematic concerns definitely reminds us of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s movies. Bi Gan’s debut feature is one of the best films from the last decade. He followed up Kaili Blues with the visually sumptuous Long Day’s Journey Into Night (2018).
19. An Elephant Sitting Still (2018)
An Elephant Sitting Still was the first and last film of the 29-year old Hu Bo. He took his own life in 2017 after completing the picture. Hu has also written two novels, and his works on the whole were seen as an indictment of contemporary life in China. His four-hour magnum opus is a bleak and profound drama which observes the sense of confinement and rootlessness experienced by the Chinese populace. The film revolves around four people and is set in an unnamed dilapidated industrial town in Northern China.
Though Hu Bo looks at a very despairing and violent society, the lyrical and astoundingly sensitive camerawork keeps us immersed in the narrative. Similar to the works of Jia Zhangke, Hu Bo also examines the dissolution of the larger society by intimately focusing on individual emotional state and responses. From the gray colour palette, tight framing of characters to the artistic shots conveying his characters’ inner rage, Hu Bo proved himself as a masterful visual storyteller.
20. So Long, My Son (2019)
Wang Xiaoshuai is part of the Sixth Generation of Chinese Filmmakers. He has made critically acclaimed features like Beijing Bicycle (2001) and Red Amnesia (2014). However, his sweeping sixteenth feature film So Long, My Son easily qualifies as his greatest work. Covering thirty years of Chinese history through a generation-spanning family chronicle, Wang closely looks at the tragic collision between the personal and the political. It has a tangled, non-linear narrative structure which revolves around two families recovering from the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution.
Wang examines the wider societal changes that adversely impact as well as allow the families to thrive. Most particularly, Wang looks at the long-term emotional devastation caused by China’s One-Child policy. From staging, writing to the performances, Wang keeps everything subtle and profound. There’s nothing superfluous or melodramatic about the narrative. The non-linear storytelling does wonders for the film as it gradually reveals the festering emotional wounds of the characters. The film runs just over three hours, but the deeply textured story engages our attention throughout.
The list is simply a sample of good and great Chinese cinema. It was a tough decision to exclude some of the movies. Wu Tianming’s Old Well (1987) and The King of Masks (1996), Huo Jianqi’s Postmen in the Mountains (1999), Diao Yinan’s Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014), and Lou Ye’s Summer Palace (2006) are some of the movies worth checking out if you are done watching these films. Besides, the works of Zhang Yimou and Jia Zhangke are almost always so good it’s hard to pick only a few. China also possesses a rich tradition of documentary filmmaking. Wang Bing’s unflinching observation of Chinese society is unparalleled in the world of documentary filmmaking.
In the 21st century, China has developed its market for home-grown blockbusters after Hollywood and India. Though nationalism and wars of the past are the major subjects of these blockbusters, there have been quite a few enjoyable entertainers like Detective Chinatown, Ne Zha, Dying to Survive, and The Mermaid.
An ardent cinephile, who truly believes in the transformative power and shared-dream experience of cinema. He blogs at ‘Passion for Movies.’