Best Chinese Movies

  • During the Cultural Revolution, China's film industry was severely restricted. Almost all previous films were banned, and only a few new ones were produced, the most notable being a ballet version of the revolutionary opera The Red Detachment of Women (1971). Feature film production came almost to a standstill in the early years from 1967 to 1972. Movie production revived after 1972 under the strict jurisdiction of the Gang of Four until 1976, when they were overthrown. The post-1990 era has seen what some observers term the "return of the amateur filmmaker" as state censorship policies after the Tiananmen Square demonstrations produced an edgy underground film movement loosely referred to as the Sixth Generation. Owing to the lack of state funding and backing, these films were shot quickly and cheaply, using materials like 16mm film and digital video and mostly non-professional actors and actresses, producing a documentary feel, often with long takes, hand-held cameras, ambient sound; more akin to Italian neorealism and cinéma vérité than the often lush, far more considered productions of the Fifth Generation. Unlike the Fifth Generation, the Sixth Generation brings a more individualistic, anti-romantic life-view and pays far closer attention to contemporary urban life, especially those affected by disorientation, rebellion and dissatisfaction with China's contemporary social tensions. Many of Sixth Generation films have highlighted the negative attributes of China's entry into the modern capitalist market.

  • 1) Not One Less (1999)

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    Zhang Yimou's tale of a plucky adolescent substitute teacher in a rural Chinese village, cast entirely with nonactors and shot on location, is an astute example of censorship politics. Taking on touchy issues with a veneer of can-do spirit and happy-ending fantasy, his film is at once rousing and eye-opening. Wei Minzhi is a stubborn young woman who takes a substitute teaching job in a tiny provincial town because they can't afford anyone else. When one troublemaking boy heads off to the city to help support his starving family, it's not a sense of responsibility that drives her rescue mission, it's money: She won't receive her bonus if any students are missing.

    2) Beijing Bicycle (2001)

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    "Think of yourselves as the carrier pigeons of today!" instructs the manager of a bicycle delivery service. A young man from the country named Guei works diligently at this new job, eager to pay off the company bicycle and make it his own. But just before his last payment, the bicycle is stolen and he's fired--but if he can find it again, he'll get his job back. The emotional stakes of Beijing Bicycle become amazingly gripping: after Guei accidentally discovers that the bike now belongs to a young student who bought it used, a fight over the ownership of the bicycle becomes downright harrowing, for the student has a secret that threatens to humiliate him. Beijing Bicycle ranges from a light portrait of the kinetic poetry of a bicycle in motion to a raw examination of violence driven by envy and guilt.

    3) Blind Shaft (2004)

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    An underground film from China, in more ways than one. The writer-director Li Yang shot his vérité footage inside illegal Chinese mines and without government approval. The movie is grimy, crude, and affecting, in both its locations (as bleak as you might expect) and its plot. Two criminal drifters, Song and Tang, have developed a scam: they befriend one of the many uprooted men looking for work and tell him that they know of a job at a rural mine, but that the man must pretend to be their brother in order to be hired. Once they go down the shaft with their new relative, they stage his accidental death, and, as the dead man's nearest relations, collect payoff money from the mine's owners. The scam turns on the family connection, and it's this element that leads to an exquisite and escalating moral tension when they choose a scholarly young boy as their next mark. Song develops a misguided affection for his "nephew," taking him to a prostitute, getting him drunk. But will he kill him?

    4) The Road Home (2001)

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    At the start of the most recent film from Chinese director Zhang Yimou, a young man returns to his native village after the death of his father, the village's schoolteacher, who died while trying to raise money for a new schoolhouse. His body is in a neighboring town; the young man's mother insists that it be brought back on foot, lest his spirit not find his way home. From this starting point, the young man recounts the tale of his parents' courtship, which involved a red banner, mushroom dumplings, a colorful barrette, and a broken bowl. The Road Home is beautifully filmed, particularly the luminous face of Zhang Ziyi (from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), whose performance is a heartrending portrait of hope and yearning.

    5) To Live (1994)

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    To Live is a bold, energetic masterpiece from Zhang Yimou, the foremost director from China's influential "fifth generation" of filmmakers. Continuing his brilliant collaboration with China's best-known actress Gong Li, Zhang weaves an ambitious tapestry of personal and political events, following the struggles of an impoverished husband and wife (Ge You, Gong Li) from their heyday in the 1940s to the hardships that accompanied the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. They raise two children amidst a Communist regime, surviving numerous setbacks and yet managing, somehow, to live. Both intimate and epic, Zhang's film encompasses the simplest and most profound realities of Chinese life during this controversial period, and for their honesty, Zhang and Gong Li faced a two-year ban on future collaborations. To Live is a testament to their art, transcending politics to celebrate the tenacity of ordinary people in the wake of turbulent history.

    6) Chungking Express (1994)

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    Chungking Express tells two stories loosely connected by a Hong Kong snack bar. In one story, a cop who's been recently dumped by his girlfriend becomes obsessed with the expiration dates on cans of pineapple; he's constantly distracted as he tries to track down a drug dealer in a blond wig (played by Brigitte Lin, best known from Swordsman II and The Bride with White Hair). Meanwhile, another cop who's recently been dumped by his girlfriend (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, from John Woo's Hard-Boiled and A Bullet in the Head) mopes around his apartment, talking to his sponge and other domestic objects. He catches the eye of a shop girl (Hong Kong pop star Faye Wang) who secretly breaks in and cleans his apartment.

    7) Raise the Red Lantern (1991)

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    Zhang Yimou (Ju Dou) directed this fascinating, visually formal 1991 film about an educated woman (Gong Li) who is sent off to become the newest wife of a feudal nobleman in 1920s China. Nearly isolated in his spooky, palatial home, she develops relationships with several of the other wives and slowly becomes aware of a hideous legacy of punishment toward more willful women. The film has a brittle and dry quality that is deliberate, but also suggestive of Zhang working through various explorations of his own style (which he resolved in his next film, The Story of Qiu Ju). Gong Li, one of the world's great actresses, is superb.

    8) Farewell My Concubine (1993)

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    The panorama of 20th-century Chinese history swirls past two men, celebrated actors with their own decidedly specialized view of things. We first observe their lives as children at the Peking Opera training school, a brutal and demanding arena for future actors. While still in training, the effeminate Douzi is chosen to play the transvestite role and the masculine Shitou is chosen to play the royal role in a ritualized play about a king and a concubine. The actors are so good at this performance that they become identified with these roles for their entire careers; through World War II, through the takeover by the Communists, through the insanity of the Cultural Revolution, they are known for their famous parts. Leslie Cheung and Zhang Fengyi are powerful as the two men, and Gong Li plays the wife of the latter.

    9) Suzhou River (1994)

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    Suzhou River by Lou Ye is a tragic love story set in contemporary Shanghai. The film, though stylistically distinct, is typical of "Sixth Generation" Chinese filmmakers in its subject matter of contemporary China's gritty urban experience. The film stars Zhou Xun in a dual role as two different women and Jia Hongsheng as a man obsessed with finding a woman from his past.

    10) Lust, Caution (2007)

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    Provocative, thrilling and passionate, Lust, Caution is the daring new film from acclaimed Academy Award-winning director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). Set against the backdrop of a transforming country, a young woman finds herself swept up in a radical plot to assassinate a ruthless and secretive intelligence agent. As she immerses herself in her role as a cosmopolitan seductress, she becomes entangled in a dangerous game that will ultimately determine her fate.