100 best Chinese Mainland Films: the countdown

Discover the best of Chinese cinema with the top 100 Mainland movies

Time Out presents the greatest Chinese Mainland films of all time. Working with our sister magazines in Beijing, we polled an auspicious 88 film experts from across the world to determine the 100 best films of all time from 1930s silent classics, blockbuster wuxia epics and independent documentaries.

See the full list of judges, including Beijing Bicycle director Wang Xiaoshuai, to discover why they voted for each film. See here for our guide to what makes a Mainland Chinese film.

Film write ups by Nicola Davison (ND), Tony Rayns (TR), Keith Ulrich (KU) and Simon Zhou (SZ).

100. The Message

1.1


Dirs Chen Kuo-Fu and Gao Qunshu, China, 2009; Drama/Crime/Thriller

It’s 1942 Nanjing. Following a series of assassination attempts, a group of suspects (an ensemble of Chinese stars including Li Bingbing) are gathered in a mansion, where a labyrinthine plot plays out as a classic whodunit while the Chinese espionage agent attempts to send out a crucial message. Based on Mai Jia’s 2007 novel, the film was a commercial hit and proved a success at festivals.

99. The September of Mine

Dir Yin Li, 1990; Family

Tender coming-of-age tale about a rhythmically-challenged boy who is left out when his elementary school’s aerobics troupe is selected to perform in the opening ceremony of the Asian Games. Bestowed the prize of Best Children’s Film at the 1990 Golden Rooster Awards.


98. Beijing Bastards

2.2

Dir Zhang Yuan, China, 1993; Drama

This is a film without precedent in Chinese cinema: a seemingly free-form portrait of rock-generation kids in the city, its own quest for a structure mirroring their search ‘for something to help them live’. One broken relationship provides the overall frame (a young guy named Karzi searches for the pregnant girlfriend who has left him), but half a dozen other characters also clamour for the film’s attention, chief among them Cui Jian (pictured), China's rock pioneer, who plays himself and contributes several songs.


97. The Swordsman in Double Flag Town

Dir He Ping, 1992; Martial Arts

Parched with thirst and jumpy from encounters on the trail, young Hai Ge rides into town (actually a walled village in the desert) to find and marry the girl he has been engaged to since birth. He discovers the place cowering in fear of two bandit brothers and their gang, and – more by accident than design – kills one of the brothers.


Facing up to swordplay skills he never knew he had, he waits nervously for the inevitable showdown with the dead man’s vengeful brother. Whether you take He Ping’s film as a sardonic commentary on American Westerns or as a new approach (in the vein of Red Sorghum, no 12) to Chinese folk-myth, it’s a show-stopper. Sergio Leone himself would have cheered.


96. Last Train Home

Dir Fan Lixin, China, 2009; Documentary

Within its first few minutes, Fan’s documentary on ‘the world’s largest human migration’ distinguishes itself as something more than your typical Dateline-ish social-issues missive. The attention to visuals is above and beyond what most are capable of; doing double duty as the film’s cinematographer, Fan demonstrates a pitch-perfect photojournalistic eye. The film’s ability to switch from a macro survey of a phenomenon to a micro case study hammers its point home. This is what capitalism has done to the country; here’s how it’s damaged the family unit.


95. Drug War

Dir Johnny To, 2012; Crime/Action

The first of Hong Kong director To’s films to have won approval from Mainland censors (the film is also entirely set in, and partially funded by, the Mainland) this drug-trafficking thriller uses the stylistic and narrative restrictions to its advantage, cannily casting Hong Kong performers as the criminals and Mainlanders as the cops to hint at the social and structural divides in contemporary Chinese culture. All roads converge in a climactic shoot-out that is as exhilarating as it is caustic – a ballet of bullets that effectively obliterates the line separating do-gooders and devils.


94. Zero Thousand Li Under the Clouds and Moon

Dir Cheng Yusu, 2013, Drama

Based on three true stories, this production from filmmaker and Buddhist scholar Cheng Yusu centres around three travellers' pilgrimage across the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. 


93. Waves Washing the Sand

4.1

Dir Wu Yonggang, 1936; Drama

Early talkie from the director of the The Goddess (no 9) that is as formally daring as it is existentially bleak. The plot of a policeman’s decade-long pursuit of a crook is just scaffolding for its interrogations into the cruelty and frailty of the human condition, which in recent years have drawn comparison to the films of French master Robert Bresson.


92. Song of the Fisherman

Dir Cai Chusheng, China, 1934; Drama

Like many silent films from the period Song of the Fisherman deals with the struggle of the underclasses, in this case a fisherman forced to sing on the street to survive. When it was released in 1934 it played for 84 days straight in Shanghai, and became the first Chinese film to win a prize at an overseas film festival at Moscow in 1935.

91. The Next Life

Dir Fan Jian, 2011; Documentary

Torturous testimony of a 40-year-old woman’s attempts to get pregnant after losing her daughter in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. The rubble of her home and the extraordinary lengths to which she goes dredge up visions of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road.


90. Erm

Dir Zhou Xiaowen, China, 1994; Comedy/Drama

This highly entertaining tragi-comedy is the best film yet about the ups and downs of ‘modernisation’ in the Chinese countryside. The heroine Ermo is a doughty noodle-maker bent on regaining her social status in the village; she sets her heart on earning and saving enough to buy the largest TV set in the country, even if it kills her - which it begins to look like doing. Wry, sexy and very wittily observed, the film sees China now as a tangle of materialism, amorality and left-overs from both feudalism and communism.


89. Cow

Dir Guan Hu, 2009; Comedy

Bleakly comedic absurdist tale set during the Japanese occupation, about a dithering peasant who takes it upon himself to care for a Dutch cow that is the sole survivor of a Japanese attack on his village. Sad and surreal, when the final credits roll one doesn’t know whether to laugh or to cry.


88. Fortune Teller

Dir Xu Tong, China, 2010; Documentary

Li Baicheng is a kindly, charismatic fortune teller whose clients include prostitutes that, like him, operate illegally in China. A police crackdown forces Li and his deaf-mute wife Pearl into exile, so they visit their hometowns to confront their troubled pasts. With Fortune Teller Xu Tong continues on his quest to restore dignity to China’s maligned and powerless.


87. Princess Iron Fan

Dirs Wan Guchan & Wan Laiming, 1941; Animation

The first ever animated feature to be produced in China, and a prequel of sorts to the more heralded Havoc in Heaven (see no 24, also directed by the Wan twins), this seminal film, adapted from 16th Century Chinese fantasy epic Journey to the West, focuses on the Monkey King’s duel with the titular villain, Princess Iron Fan. Lovingly rendered in snowy whites and coal dark blacks, its enduring influence can be seen in the dishevelled piles of three-pence children’s books about the Monkey King that can still be found in any second hand bazaar in China today, many which faithfully imitate the sparsely expressive design of the ageless character.


86. Karamay

Dir Xu Xin, China, 2010; Documentary

With a six hour running time Xu Xin’s fourth feature investigates, in astonishing detail, the tragic fire that killed 323 people, many of them children, during a performance in Xinjiang's Karamay Friendship Hall in 1994. 

Shot in frank black-and-white, the parents of the kids talk fearlessly, filling in the blanks left by official Chinese media, who swiftly dropped the appalling story when it became apparent that, after the fire broke out, the kids were told to sit tight while visiting officials exited the building.


85. The Lin Family Shop

Dir Choui Khoua, 1959; Melodrama

Caught in the moral and physical decay of Shanghai under Japanese bombardment, a bankrupt shop-keeper resorts to nefarious means and devious schemes to keep his family afloat. The overbearing hand of the censor’s pot-stirring mars the film’s final act, but it remains nevertheless an engrossing exploration of an age old conundrum: is it a sin to steal to feed one’s family?


84. Long Live the Mistress

Dir Hu Sang, China, 1947; Drama

Long Live the Mistress was produced by Wenhua Film Company, one of the era’s great studios and creator of Spring in a Small Town (no 2), and was written by a woman, Zhang Ailing. Nevertheless the film pedals a dubious message: Chen is the wife of a weak, unfaithful husband whom she remains loyal to even after he takes on a mistress.


83. Assembly

Dir Feng Xiaogang, 2007; War

Noisy epic set across the Chinese Civil War and subsequent Korean War. A PLA captain, Gu Zidi, is fighting to reclaim the honour of his fallen comrades after a calamitous battle which casts their actions in a dubious light. Winner of the 2008 Hundred Flowers Award and the 2009 Golden Rooster Awards, two of Mainland China’s most prestigious filmmaking gongs.


82. The Legend of Sealed Book

1.1

Dir Wang Shuchen, China, 1983; Animation

Based on the classic tale by Feng Menglong, this animation was produced by Shanghai Animation Film Studio soon after the country’s reform and opening. A grumpy jade emperor has decreed that the pesky Yuangong must guard the holy ‘sealed’ book for life – a penance for leaking the text to the human world, in breach of heaven’s law.

81. East Palace, West Palace

Dir Zhang Yuan, 1996; Drama/LGBT

The most daring and well-realised of all the 'illegal' independent films made in China in the '90s – and quite probably the last, since it prompted the Film Bureau to formally outlaw unauthorised production and confiscate Zhang Yuan’s passport. A-Lan, a young gay man, is arrested in a Beijing cruising park and held for overnight interrogation by Shi, a macho but latently sexually ambivalent police officer. As he describes his life since childhood and his sexual history, it becomes clear that his stories are actually expressions of his desire for the cop. This realisation makes Shi more aggressive. 


The film is an intense chamber drama with large resonances: its ultimate implication is that the bond between the people and the authorities in China is essentially a sado-masochistic one. This is the closest cinema has ever come to the spirit of French writer Jean Genet, whose explicit interrogations of the relationship between vagrancy, sexuality and authority reimagined disillusionment as a form of political dissent. 

80. Disorder

Dir HuangWeikai, China, 2009; Documentary

Amateur footage – pigs running wild on a motorway; an attempted suicidal leap from a bridge; officials swimming in polluted rivers – is woven together to form an extraordinarily dark portrait of a chaotic, urban China. The breakneck pace with which China has built its cities, Huang tells us, has caused anarchy and turmoil barely kept in check by authorities, while terror and violence seem to want to spill over at any moment.


79. Doctor Ma's Country Clinic

Dir Cong Feng, 2008; Documentary

Socially committed documentary that looks unflinchingly at the plight of China’s rural malaise through the keyhole of a shabby countryside waiting room. More than a mere critique of the unthinkable disparities between rural and urban life in China, this compassionate and uncompromising film delves into the lives of the clinic’s patients, and uncovers the existential torment of those facing death when there is so much left to live for.


78. 11 Flowers

Dir Wang Xiaoshuai, China, 2011; Drama

Coming-of-age movies: Other than any cultural specificities that are grafted onto these stories, when you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all, right? Wang Xiaoshuai’s tale of a young boy’s misadventures in rural China at the tail end of the Cultural Revolution proves that familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt. If you handle the usual elements - youthful shenanigans, an ironic big-picture history as seen through little eyes - with grace and aesthetic good taste the way this Sixth Generation filmmaker does, then it’s possible to make the material feel resonant.


77. People Mountain People Sea

Dir Cai Shangjun, 2011; Western/Thriller

A revenge tale with the languid pacing and preference for desolate desert spaces of a classic Western, People Mountain People Sea follows migrant worker Lao Tie, who tracks down his brother’s murderer on the plains of South-Western China.

There, he finds work as a miner to get closer to his target, before an unexpected incident leaves him without a purpose. Inspired by a real-life event in which five Guizhou men pursued their brother’s killer all across the country for over a year,People Mountain People Sea is a patiently smouldering affair which erupts to a perverse and potent climax.


76. If You Are The One

Dir Feng Xiaogang, China, 2008; Comedy/Romance

This low-ish budget rom-com is a return by Feng to the genre that made his name. In his late forties and fresh from his life overseas, multimillionaire Qin Fen (Ge You) decides to end his bachelor life. He puts an ad (‘If you are the one…’) online and meets a host of unsuitables. After jaunts with a cemetery saleswoman, an expectant single mother and an amnesiac, he finally meets an air stewardess. A bawdy, well-observed riot.


75. House of Flying Daggers


3.1

Dir Zhang Yimou, 2004; Martial Arts

Cloak-and-dagger martial arts epic with a sonorous romantic strain, starring Zhang Ziyi as the blind daughter of the House of Flying Daggers, a group of Ninth Century Robin Hood-style outlaws targeting the ruling Tang Dynasty.

Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro round-out the top-shelf cast as captains of the Imperial Guard are sent to apprehend her, and from there a game of amorous cat and mouse ensues. Without a doubt one of Zhang’s lesser efforts, but the lush viridians, deep ochres, and intense vermilions of its palette do not fail to seduce.


74. Winter Vacation

Dir Li Hongqi, China, 2010; Drama

It’s the dog days of the winter vacation, and a band of adolescents in a desolate northern town are idle: ‘One day after another, it seems life never ends’, says one, ruefully. Events repeat: a bully mugs one boy, a younger kid annoys his grandfather, and, again, a youth tries to convince his girlfriend not to dump him. Shot in long, static near-takes with a deadpan minimalism to emphasise their disillusionment, these are the kids China’s economic miracle forgot.


73. The Black Cannon Incident

Dir Huang Jianxin, 1985; Comedy

An inoffensive engineer comes under suspicion of industrial espionage. The Security Bureau finds plenty to worry over in his file: raised as a Catholic, never married, he'd had a mysterious argument with a visiting expert from Germany. And so he's packed off to the maintenance depot (where, of course, there is nothing to do) while a pea-brained investigation is launched.

Take the resulting chaos as comedy or tragedy; either way, there's no doubt the Chinese ruling class comes in for an unsparing hammering. What's more, the film's political daring is matched by a torrent of bright ideas in the plotting, design and colour-control departments.


72. A World Without Thieves

Dir Feng Xiaogang, China, 2004; Action/Crime/Drama

The cash savings of a naïve migrant worker on a train bound from inland Tibet attract the attention of two criminals, Wang Bo and Wang Li, who are at a career crossroads after swiping a BMW from a businessman. In time another gang boards the train, while a plainclothes detective quietly observes all from his vantage point. The film, from one of China’s more commercial directors, makes a prescient point about social morality.


71. The World

Dir Jia Zhangke, 2004; Drama/Comedy

Known for drifting wayward of the censors, Jia’s first film to gain the official approval of the powers that be is a meandering romp through the daily lives of those who live and work in Beijing’s World Park.

With its miniature replicas of the Eiffel Tower and Taj Mahal and its floating ensemble of marginalised dancers and security guards, the surreal setting allows Jia to marry his customary social commentary with what is perhaps his funniest film to date, with moments that approach the absurd tableaus of Swedish svengali Roy Andersson or Taiwanese New Wave ace Tsai Ming-Liang.

70. Third Sister Liu

Dir Su Li, China, 1960; Musical

Hailed as the 'first and most influential' musical post-1949, Third Sister Liu is a retelling of the classic folktake of the same name. It was among just a handful of films from the period notable for quality storytelling, along with red Detachment of Women and Two Stage Sisters. 


69. The Missing Gun

Dir Lu Chuan, 2002; Drama/Crime

A loose adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog, starring the magnetic Jiang Wen as a small-town cop who finds his gun missing after a night of drunken revelry at his sister’s wedding banquet.

The cinematic debut of Lu Chuan, the film was a massive box office smash in China, and has been credited with bringing the marginality and social alienation of the Sixth Generation of Chinese filmmakers (such as Jia Zhangke and Wang Xiaoshuai) to the mainstream. 


68. The Search

Dir Pema Tseden, 2007; Drama

Contemporary films in Tibetan language don’t surface too often. The second feature film from Pema Tseden, the first filmmaker to film in Tibetan dialect using an all-Tibetan cast and crew, The Search focuses on a production crew's quest to find people to take part in a traditional Tibetan opera, bringing the preservation of Tibetan heritage to a personal level.

Drawing on the ancient Tibetan art form thangkas (richly-symbolic embroidered silk paintings), the cinematography is lush, imbued with metaphor and at times painstakingly slow. The Shanghai International Film Festival jury (who awarded the film the Grand Jury prize in 2009), said The Search is ‘almost a meditation in patience'. 


67. On the Beat

Dir Ning Ying, 1995; Comedy

Arguably China’s most prominent female director, Ning Ying’s On the Beat is the second installment in her Beijing Trilogy, each of which bears witness to the vast changes undergone by China through the eyes of different generations.

Absurdly comic, this film is a series of slyly wry vignettes following a precinct of middle-aged policemen who treat the most minor calamities with deadly seriousness (apprehending a rabid dog, interrogating a man selling pictures of woman in bathing suits) – perhaps out of diligent devotion to the letter of the law, or perhaps simply to stave off boredom. Casting actual policemen to play her bumbling cops, the film brims with life. 


66. Purple Butterfly

Dir Lou Ye, China, 2003; Drama/History/War

Purple Butterfly is set in Shanghai in the early ’30s, with a 1928 prologue in Manchuria and newsreel of the Nanjing massacre in 1937 forming a coda. Ding Hui is a member of Purple Butterfly, an anti-Japanese resistance group, preparing to assassinate a Japanese spymaster. Itami, her former lover, works for the intended victim. Szeto is an innocent bystander mistaken for a hitman, drawn into the plot when his fiancée is killed in crossfire. 


65. Woman Basketball Player No 5

Dir Xie Jin, 1957; Sport/Drama

Made in 1957, renowned filmmaker Xie Jin’s directorial debut boasts all the cinematic staples that we now associate with the most beloved sports movies: a down-on-her-luck underdog, a curmudgeonly coach with a shady past, stirring training montages, and the obligatory inspirational speech that will leave audiences reaching for the Kleenex.

The first sports film to be shot in colour in China, Xie’s maiden movie is a stirring shanty to the fleeting ephemerality of youth, and the first in a long and illustrious career of films with strong female protagonists. 


64. Keep Cool

Dir Zhang Yimou, China, 1997; Comedy

Cut off from foreign financing by new film regulations, Zhang did the smart thing by making this low budget quickie primarily for domestic release. It’s his first contemporary urban movie, his first comedy and his first without Gong Li.

The great Jiang Wen plays a bookseller who won’t accept that his hip young girlfriend has left him for someone richer. The first half details his attempts to confront her (he can’t remember which of a thousand identical apartments she lives in); the second his wait with murderous intent in a restaurant, refusing to be pacified by a stranger whose new laptop he has broken. 


63. Oxhide II

4.1

Dir Liu Jiayin, China, 2009; Documentary

Festival darling Liu Jiayin's oblique follow-up to the much adored, Berlin FIPRESCI Award winner Oxhide (Number 27). In the first film – which depicted the slow unravelling of a working-class family struggling against the harsh economic realities of modern China – Liu’s revelatory stroke was her decision to restrict space, confining the narrative only to those things that occurred in the claustrophobic rooms of the family home.

In Oxhide II, Liu goes even further in her microscopic examination of family life, by restricting time. Taking place in ‘real time’, the 132 minutes of film cover a single conversation between the three family members as they make dumplings. As the film progresses, personal problems and conflicting views threaten to tear father, mother and daughter apart, but the simple act of making dumplings holds them together. In this way, the minute becomes momentous. 


62. Taking Father Home

Dir Ying Liang, China, 2005; Drama

Melancholy and ostensibly amateurish in some of its DV imagery – it was made on a shoe-string with much help from friends and family – this filial quest story still offers some pertinent insights into contemporary western Chinese life.

Urbanisation is the subtext, as headstrong teenage villager Xu Yun strikes out for the big city to which his father absconded six years earlier, armed only with a dubious address on a scrap of paper and a basket of ducks. 


61. For Fun

Dir Ning Ying, 1993; Comedy

Ning Ying hit the jackpot with this, her second feature, financed from Hong Kong but shot entirely in Beijing. The story, about retired old codgers who team up to form an amateur Peking opera troupe and enter a talent contest, is warm, funny and extremely likeable.

It's also quite sharp politically, since it pricks the bubble of pomposity associated with Chinese officialdom – incarnated in the story by a former stage-doorman who sees himself as a natural leader. Wonderful performances from the two queens in the troupe, and from Huang Zongluo as the petty tyrant. 

60. Father

Dirs Wang Shuo and Lao Yun, China, 1996; Drama


‘Bad-boy’ novelist Wang Shuo ran headlong into the brick wall of film bureau censorship with this adaptation of his own 1991 novel I'm Your Dad.


Ma Linsheng is a minor Party functionary, a recent widower sharing his old Beijing courtyard apartment with his schoolboy son Ma Che. The first hour explores the generation gap, attitude gap and emotional tensions between father and son with a fair degree of wit and sympathy for both sides. But everything falls apart after the boy pushes his father into a second marriage.


59. My Memories of Old Beijing

1.1


Dir Wu Yigong, 1982; Drama


Wu Yigong's almost dream-like re-creation of a young girl's Beijing childhood is often like memory itself: impressionistic, anecdotal and resonant in its initially disassociated detail. And because this framework eschews a direct, linear narrative, Wu neatly sidesteps the melodramatic conventions of much Chinese cinema.


The result is an immensely accessible and often tender film, sometimes betrayed by its visual and stylistic ambition but nonetheless consistently evocative, and full of a diffuse, affecting melancholy.


58. New Women

Dir Cai Chusheng, China, 1935; Drama


A visually eloquent classic in the spirit of the May 4 tradition, based on the life of actress Ai Xia, whose own suicide foreshadowed the subsequent demise of lead actress Ruan Lingyu (who took her own life after rumours of an adulterous affair). On release there was backlash from the press, who objected to the unflattering portrayal of their profession, forcing Cai Chusheng to make cuts to the film.


57. The Troubleshooters

Dir Mi Jiashan, 1989; Comedy


Adapted from a novel by the irascible Wang Shuo – whose work gave voice to the topsy-turvy discontent of youth after the Cultural Revolution – The Troubleshooters charts the journey of three friends who open an agency whose purpose is to solve other people’s problems, from cuckolded husbands to scorned wives. The film was the inspiration for Feng Xiaogang’s (dubbed in the Western press as ‘China’s Spielberg’) 2013 comedy Personal Tailor.  


56. The Days

2.2


Dir Wang Xiaoshuai, China, 1993; Drama


It begins with a sensual, languorous scene of a couple making love in a Beijing bedsit, before proceeding to chart the slow, inexorable break-up of their relationship. Dong and Chun are both unsuccessful artists-turned-tutors, but shared interests and sexual passion haven't managed to stave off boredom and petty domestic tensions, with the result that she now wants to go to America, and he hasn't the fire left in his soul to tell her he'd rather she didn’t.


The stark, elegant visuals, the music, the elliptical approach to narrative, the long takes, and the taciturn but telling performances, all work together to produce a hauntingly poetic elegy to the transience of love.


55. Miserable at Middle Age 

Dir Sang Hu, 1949; Comedy


Domestic tragicomic farce about the attempts to remarry by a widowed elementary school principal with two young kids. In its humane humour underscored with pathos, it gently examines the prejudices and shifting social values of China at the time.


54. Emperor Visits The Hell

Dir Li Luo, China, 2012; Drama


The Ming Dynasty literary classic Journey to the West provides the source for this outrageous political satire. An emperor offends a heavenly messenger and is doomed to a premature death, but is given the chance to return to earth if he can placate the ghosts of those he has killed. Reimagining courtly and divine characters as unimpressive and ordinary people in a modern Chinese city, the film is a deadpan comic achievement.


53. 24 City

Dir Jia Zhangke, 2008; Drama/Experimental/Documentary


A post-modern portrait of China in transition that mischievously blends documentary and narrative forms. An interview in which actress Joan Chen (Lust, Caution) plays a blue collar factory worker who looks like Joan Chen is audaciously playful; the final talking head, performed by Jia’s regular muse Zhao Tao about her decades long disconnect with her parents due to China’s relentless modernisation, rings heartrendingly true.


52. Beijing Bicycle

3.3


Dir Wang Xiaoshuai, China, 2001; Drama


Wang’s third ‘above-ground’ film centres on two contrasted 17-year-olds in present-day Beijing. Country kid Guei, slow-witted and awesomely stubborn, is a newly arrived economic migrant who gets a job as a bike courier and works hard to cover the cost of the bike. But his treasure is stolen and later bought from a street market by schoolkid Jian. There's plenty of good sociological observation in the background, but the best thing here is the stand-off between the two boys, on the cusp of a friendship.


51. A Touch of Sin


4.4


Dir Jia Zhangke, 2013; Drama


Touted as a return to the belligerent filmmaking of Jia’s rebellious early days, at a discussion about the film at the Asia Society in New York, the director defiantly declared, ‘I don’t have to pick up a gun, I can just pick up a camera.’


Continuing Jia’s latter-day trend of seeking to universalise the experience of suffering, A Touch of Sin is fragmented into four stories in four different parts of China. The stories are based on real events that caused a stir on Chinese social media platforms for their horrific acts of violence: a disgruntled miner wrings a bloody end to his corrupt village leaders; a migrant worker, home for the New Year, discovers the intoxicating power that comes with wielding a firearm; a pretty receptionist at a sauna takes matters into her own hands after she is assaulted by a wealthy client; and a young factory worker ends his life after seeing no other way out of his bleak situation.


The film has been described as Jia’s most mainstream effort yet – structured around Chinese Spring Festival, the acts of violence are a horrifying kind of catharsis to the indignities we see each of the characters subjected to. Jia’s point seems to be this: against the totalising structures of economic and social oppression of modern China, the only way in which one can resist, and to reclaim one’s sense of dignity, is through violence.


Winner of the Best Screenplay prize at Cannes 2013, A Touch of Sin is still waiting for a release in Chinese cinemas.

50. The Dream Factory

Dir Feng Xiaogang, 1997; Comedy

A sharp social satire that propelled Feng Xiaogang to the forefront of China’s then-budding film industry. Four working class heroes embark on a money-making scheme: for a small fee they try their silly best to make customers happy by impersonating people or helping a glitzy film star, jaded with the trappings of celebrity life, to become an ordinary person.

49. Early Spring in February

Dir Xie Tieli, 1963; Melodrama

Adapted from a short novel by Rou Shi, Xie’s unabashed tear-jerker plunges us into the bedlam of 1919’s May Fourth Movement, in which a wave of incendiary protests swept the nation after China’s perceived snubbing at the Treaty of Versailles. In its story about a teacher sent to the countryside, whose courtship of a widow sparks the lurid disapproval of the townsfolk, the melodrama champions the New China while walking the tightrope between schmaltz and political allegory.

48. Shower

5.5

Dir Zhang Yang, 1999; Comedy/Drama

It’s a bit disconcerting that this film starts with its most amusing scene – a daydream vision of the bath-house of the future as a kind of car wash for humans – but Zhang Yang’s wry lament for the public baths of yesteryear is fresh, funny and sad enough to survive playing its trump card too early. The characters, twists and sub-plots are all straight out of soap opera, but Zhang marshals them with enough skill to make the whole a credible reflection of modernisation and loss in present-day China.

47. City of Life and Death

6.6

Dir Lu Chuan, 2009; War

This big-budget blockbuster recasts the horror of the Nanjing Massacre as cinematic spectacle. Full of sound and fury, the brawn and technical brilliance of the film’s relentless action set-pieces and sentimentalising humanism have borne comparisons to Stephen Spielberg’s Schindler’s List and divided Chinese audiences for its sympathetic portrayal of a Japanese soldier.

46. In Expectation

Dir Zhang Ming, 1996; Comedy/Drama

Shot as an unauthorised indie production but eventually released by Beijing Film Studios, Ming Zhang’s excellent first feature has been in trouble with the Film Bureau ever since it began winning prizes abroad. Wushan is a small town on the Yangtze, which will be submerged when the Three Gorges Dam comes into service. In this doomed setting, Zhang traces three disparate but intersecting lives: a river-station watchman, a hotel clerk and a young cop, all single but with two expecting to marry.

"Quotes"Rao Hui Screenwriter and Novelist; Professor at Central Academy of Drama
'The small town along the Yangtze that is about to disappear, the humid and heavy air wraps around unspeakable desire, everything has already happened, but it seems as if nothing has happened.'

45. Prince Nezha’s Triumph Against Dragon King

7.7

Dirs Yan Dingxian, Wang Shuchen and Xu Jingda, 1979; Animation

A supernatural animated tale drawn from hallucinatory visions of Chinese myth. Shown at Cannes in 1980 and redubbed into English a year later for the BBC, Prince Nezha is a masterclass in draughtsmanship – from its kaleidoscopic palette and mesmeric patterns to its fluidity and economy of gesture in conveying emotion. With visual inspirations that vary from Taoist art to Japanese silk printing, this is essential viewing for animation buffs. 

44. The Story of Qiu Ju

8.8

Dir Zhang Yimou, 1992; Comedy/Drama

Zhang Yimou and muse Gong Li reinvent themselves (and Chinese social-realist cinema in the process) with this drama about a peasant woman’s dogged fight for what she thinks is justice. Qiu Ju is furious when the chief of her village refuses to apologise for kicking her husband in the balls during a fight, and takes the matter to court to demand compensation.

43. The Spring River Flows East

Dirs Cai Chusheng, Zheng Junli, 1947; Melodrama

A wartime weepy in two parts, this film’s narrative follows a working-class couple separated by the Japanese occupation, only to reunite years later, with the husband having remarried into a wealthy family. A prime example of Shanghai's second Golden Age. 

42. Back to Back, Face to Face  

Dir Huang Jianxian, 1994; Drama 

Huang Jianxian has been getting away with the sharpest political satire in China ever since he made black comedy The Black Cannon Incident in 1985, largely because he leaves viewers free to draw their own conclusions about the absurd situations he creates. In this classic film he dissects a bureaucratic power struggle for control of a cultural centre. Wang, its vice-president and a shrewd operator, assumes his political skills and connections will make him a shoo-in for the top job he covets so dearly, but unfortunately for him the local cultural bureau chief has other ideas. 

41. Crows and Sparrows 

Dir Zheng Junli, 1949; Drama 

A gentle allegorical tale of a brigade of working-class tenants who band together to stand up to their exploitative, unscrupulous landlord. In Crows, the landlord symbolises the bureaucratic corruption that festered unabated during the last days of Chang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government. 

An intriguing glimpse into the tumultuous everyday lives of ordinary folk before the formation of the People’s Republic, this Shanghai-made film is handled by director Zheng Junli with a dramatic deftness and comic levity reminiscent of Japanese master Yasujirô Ozu’s later works.

"Quotes"Jason McGrath Associate professor, University of Minnesota; author, Postsocialist Modernity: Chinese Cinema, Literature, and Criticism in the Market Age
'That rare film that gets just about everything right. An outstanding script, creative camerawork and editing, and superb performances, all while unforgettably capturing the essence of its unique historical moment.'

40. Life of a Peking Policeman

9.9

Dir Shi Hui, 1950; Drama

Shi Hui, driven to suicide in the ‘Anti-Rightist Purge’ of the late 1950s, was one of the greatest screen actors ever and a fine director. This adaptation of a short story by Lao She was probably his best work. An old man (Shi, who was 22 at the time) dying on the winter streets of Beijing, looks back over a lifetime of defeats, betrayals and humiliations, from his enlistment in the city’s police force in 1910 to his arrest and imprisonment in 1946 for trying to denounce an official who collaborated with the invading Japanese.

39. Spring Fever

Dir Lou Ye, 2009; Drama/Romance/LGBT

Made in defiance of a five-year ban slapped upon director Lou Ye by the censors after his controversial film Summer Palace (no 20) was shown at Cannes against the authorities’ wishes, this latter effort – following two overlapping love triangles of disaffected youths – features just as much man-on-man bump-and-grind as its transgressing predecessor. 

You’d need a Venn diagram to properly keep track of its many romantic entanglements, but amidst the sweaty rough-and-tumble, Lou’s indictment of today’s youth as having fallen into apathy due to disillusionment and nihilism remains astonishingly potent.

38. Kekexili: Mountain Patrol

10.1

Dir Lu Chuan, 2004; Drama/Action

This sober, gripping action drama uses the endangered Tibetan antelope’s vulnerability as the basis for a story about survival and conscience. Gratifyingly free of contrived character conflict, the film achieves emotional impact through affecting individual performance and vividly applied ethical dilemmas about vigilantism and criminality. The locations are stunning and the local colour, from sky burials to quicksand, is vivid.

37. Peacock

Dir Gu Changwei, 2005; Drama

Gu Chengwei’s directorial debut after an illustrious career as a cinematographer for some of China’s most celebrated films (including Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghumno 12, and Jiang Wen’s Devils on the Doorstep, no 3) is a life-affirming family fable told over 20 years in the wake of the Cultural Revolution. Recreating 1970s Henan with meticulous ardour, a setpiece sequence involving a young dilettante, a bicycle and a blue parachute makes the heart leap in a way that few films achieve. 

36. King of the Children

11.1

Dir Chen Kaige, 1987; Drama

An unschooled young man, one of the countless victims of the Cultural Revolution, is labouring in the countryside when he is suddenly assigned to teach in a nearby village school. Gradually, he finds the confidence to ditch the Maoist textbook and encourage the barely literate kids to write about their own lives and feelings. There are echoes here of the likes of Padre Padrone, but Chen Kaige’s film is completely free of flabby humanist sentimentality. It takes its tonality from the harsh beauty of the Yunnan landscape of soaring forests and misty valleys; a territory of the mind where hard-edged realism blurs easily into hallucination.

35. Sacrifice of Youth

Dir Zhang Nuanxin, 1985; Drama

This coming-of-age story follows an adolescent girl who, sent to a remote mountain region in Yunnan for ‘re-education’ during the Cultural Revolution, renounces her stiff-collared upbringing to revel in the earthy sensuality of peasant living. Its simultaneously seductive and critical portrayal of minority life is a precursor to the most celebrated films of the Fifth Generation filmmakers (Yellow Earth, no 7 and Red Sorghum, No 12). Arguably the piece de resistance of one of China’s most defiantly outspoken female filmmakers.

34. Woman Demon Human

Dir Huang Shuqin, 1987; Drama

Qiu Yun is the pretty daughter of two travelling actors who grows up to star in a national theatre company. She becomes known for her male roles in traditional operas, particularly for her performance as the mystical Zhong Kui, the king of ghosts. As Qiu’s real and fictional worlds merge, director Huang Shuqin questions identity and gender.

"Quotes"Kevin B Lee Co-founder and programming executive, dGenerate Films
'The Fifth Generation directors movement wasn't all a boys club; female director Huang Shuqin's portrait of a gender-bending opera singer is by far the most psychologically complex work of the period, and arguably the freshest from a present vantage point.'

33. Mr Zhao

Dir Lu Yue, 1998; Drama

An uncomfortably voyeuristic portrait of a serial philanderer whose life slowly unravels when he is caught in the act by his wife, and later discovers that his regular mistress – a former student – is pregnant. Best known for his work as a cinematographer for luminary directors Tian Zhuangzhuang and Zhang Yimou, Lu’s choice to have the actors improvise the scenes à la Ken Loach or John Cassavetes enlists the viewer in febrile complicity.

32. Unknown Pleasures

12.1

Dir Jia Zhangke, 2002; Comedy/Drama

After the historical panorama of Platform, Jia’s third feature (shot on DV) returns to the scale and style of his directorial debut, The Pickpocket. The pickpocket himself (the inimitable Wang Hongwei) even makes a couple of reappearances here, latterly as a loan shark. But the central characters are Xiao Ji and Binbin, jobless 19-year-olds typical of China’s ‘no future’ generation. Jia’s perspective is essentially spiritual: the film lays bare the tao of modern China, like a doctor taking a pulse.


Quotes

Maya Rudolph Post-production supervisor and writer, DGenerate Films

'Unknown Pleasures is the greatest example of Jia Zhangke’s incredible ability to make films in which the filmmaking style serves as an extension of the time and space of the story - bringing the characters and their world into an unnerving proximity to our own lives.'


31. Hero

13.1

Dir Zhang Yimou, 2002; Martial Arts

Released during the height of Hollywood’s fervour for epic martial arts fare, Zhang Yimou’s tale about a nameless drifter’s assassination attempt on the Emperor of Qin was, at the time, the most expensive film ever produced in China. Sumptuously shot and lavishly produced, the film’s elaborate set-pieces elevate swordplay to delirious ballet, and its impressionistic separation of chronology by colour culminates in a feverish fugue of a film.

30. The Big Road

Dir Sun Yu, 1934; Drama/Comedy/Musical

Shot as a silent film but released with music and sound effects, Sun’s classic is pitched as a call for national defence against the Japanese, unnamed for censorship reasons. Six unemployed men leave the city to work as labourers on a new national highway. The plot arrives when some of them are imprisoned and tortured by a local warlord in league with ‘the enemy’. 

29. Crazy Stone

Dir Ning Hao, 2006; Crime/Comedy

Maverick movie maker Ning Hao’s crowd-pleasing absurdist take on the heist genre pits three parties of dim-witted thugs against each other in pursuit of a precious jade stone. Intricately plotted and technically audacious, this is an enormously entertaining parodic parable about modern China’s all-consuming get-rich-quick mentality.

28. Let the Bullets Fly

14.1

Dir Jiang Wen, 2010; Action/Comedy/Western

Director and star Jiang Wen plays the bespectacled outlaw ‘Pocky’ Zhang, who has wheedled his way into the governorship of the decrepit Goose Town, with an eye to taking down evil landowner Master Huang (Chow Yun-Fat). 

Though it’s set during the 1920s, anachronisms abound: the production design borrows from just about every architectural era you could name, and the weapons range from old-style muskets to modern semi-automatics. But it’s a thoroughly enjoyable romp nonetheless and the film proved a major box office hit for Jiang, with a sequel reprising many of the main characters supposed to be on the way in 2014.

27. Oxhide

15.1

Dir Liu Jiayin, 2005; Drama/Experimental

Liu Jiayin’s Oxhide is the smallest of things. The story takes place entirely in her family’s dingy little apartment, and its characters are none other than her parents and the director herself. There are only 23 shots comprising the narrative of the film, one for each year of the director’s life at the time of its making. But in its depiction of a working-class family trying desperately to make ends meet, its very smallness says so much. Each life may be small, but, to the person living it, it is everything.

"Quotes"Kevin B Lee Co-founder and programming executive, dGenerate Films
'Then-film student Liu Jiayin put masking tape over her DV camcorder lens to shoot a super-widescreen epic in her family's tiny apartment, giving monumental treatment to private moments, a radical reinvention of cinematic topics and techniques.'

26. Petition

Dir Zhao Liang, 2009; Documentary

'Where is Petition City?’ asks a man early on in Zhao Liang’s heart-wrenching documentary. Filmed over ten years and concluding at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Zhao tells the stories of the migrants who come to Beijing for a redress of grievances by petitioning, or their last stab at justice. Some spend years in the capital in tents and shanties, waving slips of paper at policemen and being shooed away from the powers that be.

"Quotes"Kate Reidy Artistic Director, Black Movie Geneva Independent Film Festival
'One of the most important documentaries made in the underground documentary wave of mainland China. A nightmarish modern tale.'

25. The Horse Thief

Dir Tian Zhuangzhuang, 1986; Drama

A near-wordless reverie of image and sound set in the Tibetan hinterlands, Tian Zhuangzhuang’s prosaic parable of a young peasant forced into ritual penitence after stealing to support his wife and child is more poetry than plot. Throwing narrative convention to the wind, Tian’s film proceeds by suggestion rather than statement, effect rather than event. The resulting feeling is as if waking from a dream, after which you can never look at the world in the same way. Martin Scorsese declared it the best film of the decade.

24. Havoc in Heaven

20.1

Dirs Wan Laiming and Tang Cheng, 1965; Animation

Wan Laiming and his brothers were China’s pioneers in animation, but their work was suppressed after the Cultural Revolution of 1966. This ambitious animated feature is adapted from the first seven chapters of the 16th century novel Journey to the West, and it celebrates the mischievous Monkey King’s challenge to the celestial autocracy. 

Wan makes no real effort to produce ‘charming’ or sympathetic characters, and so his main appeal is to those familiar with the book – which means everyone in China. His figure animation is like simplified Disney without the sentimentality, but his backgrounds derive rather beautifully from traditional Chinese painting.

23. Two Stage Sisters

16.1


Dir Xie Jin, 1964; Melodrama 


Fortuitously finished before the tides of the Cultural Revolution could sweep it away, Two Stage Sisters plays out Marxist dialectics as a sappy show business melodrama that is every bit as emotionally and technically torrid as the best work coming out of Hollywood at the time.

Spanning two decades, from the 1930s to just after the founding of the PRC, the story follows the relationship between two female opera singers who leave their small countryside town to join a travelling troupe in Shanghai. The film is notable for its fledging feminist viewpoint, its unbridled emotion and its political perceptiveness within the melodrama mould.

22. Black Snow

Dir Xie Fei, 1990; Drama

This film was adapted by young writer Liu Heng from his own short story about an ex-con trying to go straight in the back alleys of Beijing, but finding himself dragged down by the crime and violence he encounters. Film school teacher Xie Fei keeps it all very low-key. What brings the film to life is the writing (realistic to a fault, but very sharply observed), and the superb central performance of Jiang Wen, the actor-director previously seen in films such as Red Sorghum and Hibiscus Town. Here, Jiang is in the class of Gary Oldman: a young actor capable of inhabiting a role in a way that makes his smallest gesture count.

21. Ju Dou

17.1

Dirs Zhang Yimou and Yang Fengliang, 1990; Drama/Romance

An age-old tale of misery and woe, Ju Dou tells the familiar story of furtive glances that explode in adulterous passion – and end up as destructive revenge.

Set in a rural Chinese village in the 1920s, the titular heroine (played by the incomparable Gong Li) is married off to a belligerent, impotent factory owner who dyes fabrics. Each night submitted to a brutal beating for not bearing him a son, Ju Dou begins an illicit affair with her husband’s nephew, which results in the birth of a baby boy. Consumed by his humiliation, the cuckolded old man plots to have the illegitimate son carry out his revenge.

Western viewers will recognise strains of Ibsen and Oedipus in its themes, but the film was actually adapted from a popular Chinese novel, Fuxi, Fuxi. Shot with Zhang’s customary languor and eye for colour, it becomes something all his own.

20. Summer Palace

21.1

Dir Lou Ye, 2006; Drama/Romance

This is the flick that earned director Lou Ye a five-year muzzle on Mainland filmmaking following its illicit screening in competition at the Cannes Film Festival. A memoir of university life circa 1989, the film features a wide-eyed student who leaves her hometown to study at ‘Beiqing University’. There she meets a fellow idealist and falls in love (full-frontal nudity from both sexes may have compounded the film’s ensuing ban). 

Almost as an afterthought, Lou’s students are on their way to Tiananmen Square when the violence erupts but, excepting one sad scene in a demoralised dorm room, the moment seems oddly devoid of rage. Yet as a tale about a country girl getting an education in urban life and love, the film offers a touching dénouement.

19. Hibiscus Town

22.1

Dir Xie Jin, 1986; Drama

A hard-grafting bean curd seller and his pretty wife manage to scrape together enough money to build a house, only to be labelled by leftist cadres as ‘new rich peasants’ during the upheaval of Cultural Revolution. Heartbroken with despair, the husband decides to end his life, leaving his still-young widow to tremulously live on alone. 

Later, she encounters a desultory poet and collector of folk songs who was also denounced during the turmoil. Branded a rightist and later imprisoned for Two Stage Sisters (no 23), director Xie Jin made Hibiscus Town after his tentative rehabilitation, and the film has obvious parallels to his own treacherous life story. Noticeably more muted than his earlier work, the film is a trembling, triumphant testimony of trying to hold on to one’s humanity in the midst of ideological dogmatism.

18. The Sun Also Rises

23.1

Dir Jiang Wen, 2007; Drama

Of all Jiang Wen’s films, The Sun Also Rises is one of his most challenging, with high-octane visuals and labyrinthine plots overlaid by fractured narration. The storytelling is not at odds with the turbulent nature of the times: we start in 1976 at the tailwind of the Cultural Revolution. The film’s four narratives (in order: ‘Madness’, ‘Love’, ‘Rifle’ and ‘Dream’) begin with a young widow in a Yunnanese village driven to the brink, while her problematic son questions his paternity. 

In the second segment we meet the characters that populate the rest of the film at a campus in eastern China, where teacher Liang falls for a doctor, Lin, the mistress of his friend Tang. In the third vignette Tang is ‘sent down to the countryside’ to the Yunnanese village, while the final act fills in the gaps in a dream-like sequence of characters in earlier times. The threads hang loose, the visuals are both sumptuous and distracting, but the film casts a wry yet not too harsh eye on Puritan principles and the mob justice of the period.

17. Suzhou River

24.1

Dir Lou Ye, 2000; Drama/Romance

A lunatic love story and existential film noir in one, Suzhou River jitters with yearning and virility with its roaming handheld camera, impetuous jump-cuts and quixotic twists on petty mobsters and elusive broads.

Chronicling two separate love affairs, each involving a take on the hardboiled hero, and a woman who may or may not be the same person in both, its aesthetic debt to Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express is unavoidable. 

The long-winded voice-over storytelling, movie poster close-ups and self-conscious glee in deploying a number of unreliable narrators to prevent the audience from being able to pin down a single version of events are certainly reminiscent of Wong’s film. Its device of doubling has precedents from Shakespeare to Dostoyevsky, but the film’s many derivations do nothing to detract from the fact that it pulses with an ecstatic romantic derring-do that has been missing from Chinese cinema for years.

"Quotes"Maya Rudolph Post-production supervisor and writer, dGenerate Films 

'A terrific romantic-dramatic landscape, great exploratory urban filmmaking, and my favorite of Zhou Xun’s performances.'


16. Platform

25.1

Dir Jia Zhangke, 2000; Drama

Fenyang in Shanxi province – Jia’s hometown and also the setting for his 1997 film The Pickpocket – provides the anchor for an epic account of the changes in China’s pop culture in the 1980s, as seen across the lives of four friends. 

In 1979 all four are members of a state-run variety troupe, presenting Maoist propaganda shows to passive audiences out in the sticks. By the mid-1980s, when state support is withdrawn and the troupe tries to reform as a private enterprise, everything is different: the Maoist repertoire is buried, Taiwanese pop is ubiquitous, ideas of personal wealth and independence are on the rise and old friendships are under strain. 

By the end of the decade the couple seemingly made for each other have gone separate ways, while the joker/live wire Mingliang has become a languid husband and father. Jia uses large-scale vignettes, filmed in sequence shots, to chart ten years of far-reaching social changes and their psychological repercussions.

15. Blind Shaft

26.1

Dir Li Yang, 2003; Drama/Thriller

Trapped by a life of meagre compensation and daily brutality in the mines, two migrant workers concoct a grisly scheme to get rich. They prey on the gullible: taking desperate kids, offering them jobs, then murdering them in faked mining accidents. Subsequently, and without remorse, they pose as the dead miners’ relatives to demand payouts from the mining company. But when a new boy who happens to bear an uncanny resemblance to their first victim comes along, one of the two swindlers begins to have second thoughts.

A seething indictment of the way that the ravenous appetite for getting rich in this country has displaced anything else that might give life meaning, Blind Shaft is elevated to the status of art by being, above all things, necessary. Claustrophobic to the point of asphyxiation, what is at stake in the film is no more or less than a boy’s life – and in it, the symbolic struggle of capital’s enslavement over humanity.

"Quotes"Mia Zheng Creative Producer, Walt Disney China
'A first-time director’s feature that leaves everyone awed and dazed. It makes Li Yang a true master of cinematic tension. The Chinese Hitchcock. 

14. The Blue Kite 

26.1

Dir Tian Zhuangzhuang, 1993; Drama

Tian’s epic domestic drama is a direct, honest account of how Mao’s policies affected the lives of ordinary people. The film follows the experiences of a Beijing family – seen largely through the eyes of its youngest member, Tietou – between the death of Stalin in 1953 and the wind-up of the Cultural Revolution in 1967.

While the steadily darkening tale makes for a film at least partly about death and absence, it focuses not on those who are exiled or die, but on those left behind. Tian’s method is understatement, with the result that the trials faced by Shujuan, her brothers and sister, her three husbands and her son Tietou – ordinary people battered by the crosswinds of the era – become all the more plausible and affecting. ‘The more I think about it,’ says Shujuan, ‘the less I understand.’ There’s an immense amount of telling detail, and Tian manages to express both sympathy and righteous anger without once resorting to bombast or sentimentality.

13. Raise the Red Lantern

28.1

Dir Zhang Yimou, 1991; Drama

This film cemented Zhang Yimou’s reputation in the West as one of China’s leading auteurs. Raise the Red Lantern is – on the surface – a formally austere affair, constraining itself to a strict aesthetic programme in the same way that Chinese women had to submit to the excruciating process of binding their feet for centuries (a practice that left many unable to walk more than a few steps), all for the ornamental pleasure of a man.

The comparison is apt. Beneath Zhang’s meticulously composed frames is the blood-curdling shriek of protest against China’s history of systematic exploitation of women. Raise the Red Lantern paints a picture in which the best a woman can hope for in life is to be the pretty plaything of a wealthy man, wantonly used for pleasure, and just as easily discarded. The 1920s-set story of a young woman married into servitude and forced to compete with the other three wives for the sexual favours of the estate’s elderly master – in which victory is symbolised by having red lanterns raised outside her room – is as harrowing today as it was when it was first released.

12. Red Sorghum

30.1

Dir Zhang Yimou, 1987; Drama/War

The stuff of legend, Zhang Yimou’s directorial debut satisfies both as a straight folk tale and as a subversive tribute to the vitality and endurance of Chinese peasant culture. 

Set in a remote northern province in the ’20s and ’30s, the story is narrated by a man who remembers the lives and times of his grandparents. A girl is waylaid and ravished in a field en route to an arranged marriage with an elderly, leprous winemaker. The winemaker mysteriously dies, allowing her ravisher to eventually live and make red sorghum wine with her. 

As the film develops, the tone shifts from light to dark, humour giving way to horror with the arrival of Japanese forces. Formerly a cameraman, Zhang fills the screen with rich, sensuous images that illuminate and celebrate peasant life (waving sorghum fields, an eclipse of the sun) and uses actors, music and colour in a deeply expressive way.

11. Still Life

31.1

Dir Jia Zhangke, 2006; Drama

Winner of the Golden Lion for Best Film at the 2006 Venice Film Festival, Jia Zhangke’s Still Life is not so much a film as it is a philosophical treatise, one that gazes at the impossible transformation of China in the past decade with such languid intensity that it is impossible to look away. 

Set in Fengjie, one of the areas most affected by the building of the Three Gorges Dam, the narrative follows two wandering interlopers from Shanxi – a coalminer and a housewife – who are separately looking for their long-lost spouses: a mail-order bride and a budding property developer. Jia’s lingering representations are an effigy of a city in the process of its own destruction, and an ode to memory against a changing landscape. To hold on to the past, Jia suggests, is not an act of defiance but simply a human need.

"Quotes"Raymond Zhou Columist and film writer, China Daily
'An indisputable masterpiece of humanity and compassion. Still Life has a light touch of surrealism on top of its highly realistic approach.'


10. Street Angel

33.1

Dir Yuan Muzhi, 1937; Drama/Comedy/Musical

This glimpse of the Chinese left-wing cinema of the ’30s is a revelation. Loosely based on director Frank Borzage’s 1927 silent classic Seventh Heaven, the film maturely assimilates various lessons from Hollywood. 

Street Angel sketches the street life of the poorest quarter of Shanghai in the wild collective mood swings just before the city’s fall to the Japanese. The main characters are a street musician, a hooker, a news vendor and a ‘sing-song’ girl. At times melodrama, at others musical slapstick, its conclusions are inevitably pessimistic, but both the script and performances are warmly humorous. The attitude to issues such as prostitution makes Western cinema of the ’60s seem positively antiquated by comparison.

"Quotes"

Jason McGrath Associate professor, University of Minnesota; author, Postsocialist Modernity: Chinese Cinema, Literature, and Criticism in the Market Age
'No film better captures the odd mix of formal experimentation, social criticism, and deployment of classical Hollywood conventions of the 1930s Shanghai left-wing film movement.'

9. The Goddess

34.1

Dir Wu Yonggang, 1934; Melodrama

This gut-wrenching silent film classic depicts a mother forced into prostitution in order to support her young son. The ‘goddess’ (a euphemism for prostitute) of the film’s title is played by the luminous Ruan Lingyu in a superlative performance, flitting between smouldering reluctant temptress and devoted mother. Filling the screen with puckered-nosed scowls of contempt and fidgety ticks of self-loathing, some critics have made the case that her performance alone embodies the manifold hypocrisies of a Confucian China on the brink of modernity.

In a case, perhaps, of life imitating art, Ruan’s name was later dragged through the mud amid rumours of an adulterous affair – an event that led her to take her own life. The Goddess – which in its questioning of traditional ideals of womanhood anticipates revered Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Life of Oharu – remains the apogee of her radiant career.

8. To Live

36.1

Dir Zhang Yimou, 1994; Drama/War

A straight synopsis may make Zhang Yimou’s film, based on Yu Hua’s novel of the same name, sound similar to The Blue Kite or even, perhaps, Farewell My Concubine. Certainly it shares with these films both a mix of the personal and the political, and a panoramic view of Chinese life. 

In the mid-’40s Xu Fugui (Ge You) is relatively well off until his gambling results in the loss of the family house, and he is temporarily abandoned by his pregnant wife Jiazhen (Gong Li) and their deaf-mute daughter Fengxia. Poverty, however, brings him to his senses and, when working as a travelling shadow-puppeteer, he finds himself embroiled in the Civil War. 

But as Mao’s regime tightens its grip with ever sterner strictures, it becomes harder and harder merely to survive. Zhang’s purpose is less to show the oppressive iniquities of Mao’s era than to evoke the optimistic spirit that allowed people to survive it. Accordingly, the film is lighter in tone, less provocative, complex and tough than its counterparts, even lifting scenes of misfortune with surprising incursions of black comedy.

7. Yellow Earth

7-Yellow-earthDir 

Chen Kaige, 1984; Drama

The pioneering film of the revered Fifth Generation of Chinese directors – a term applied to the 1982 graduating class from Beijing Film Academy, after ten long years in which university examinations were suspended – Yellow Earth was to Chinese cinema like rain to a desert. 

Set in 1939, a young cadre from the then-fledgling Communist Party travels through Shaanxi to collect peasant folk songs and rewrite them with Communist lyrics. Taking up lodgings with an impoverished family in the countryside, his buoyant rhetoric about how the Party will improve their living conditions is earnestly lapped up by the pubescent daughter of the household, but the cadre’s own confidence is slowly eroded by the harsh reality of their lives. 

Shot with waning beauty by fellow Fifth Generation stalwart Zhang Yimou, who handled cinematographic duties on the film, Chen Kaige’s debut startles for its ambivalence towards the Communist Party, and its tender outrage at the indifference shown for human life in the name of a cause.

6. West of the Tracks

Dir Wang Bing, 2003; Documentary

Wang Bing’s monumental documentary West of the Tracks is a poetic summation of the painful, slow death of the heavy industries (copper smelting, sheet metal production and cable manufacture) in Shenyang, northeast China. It could have been made in virtually any post-industrial zone anywhere in the world, but the fact that these failed corporations were State enterprises and supposed pillars of the Maoist economy gives the film a particular poignancy. 

Shot mostly between 1999 and 2001, the film is presented in three parts: Rust (245 min), on the closure of three factories; Remnants (178 min), on the impact of unemployment on ex-workers in condemned housing and their teenage kids; and Rails (133 min), on the vestigial railway system, with a particular focus on the figure of cook/security guard/scavenger Old Du and his clearly screwed-up son Du Yang. The overriding image is one of forward movement – along railway tracks, alleys and corridors, through factories – but the ultimate destination is always a dead end.

Quotes

Kevin B Lee Co-founder and programming executive, dGenerate Films
'Another personal landmark of overlooked lives, Wang Bing's nine-hour trek through a post-industrial northeastern wasteland unlocked the possibilities for an epic documentary in the digital era.' 

5. The Pickpocket (aka Xiao Wu)

5.-xiao-wu

Dir Jia Zhangke, 1997; Drama

Today lauded as China’s most important director, Jia Zhangke’s first film, The Pickpocket, arrived unaccompanied by fanfare, but remains as trenchant a critique of the human cost of China’s modernisation as any in this country’s cinematic history.

Xiao Wu, the eponymous pickpocket of the story, finds it increasingly difficult to peddle his trade as the Government cracks down on his petty criminality. His closest childhood buddy, now a small-time businessman, refuses to invite Xiao Wu to his wedding, so as to not remind people of his own dubious past. The KTV girl with whom Xiao Wu falls in love turns away at the first beckoning of a wealthy Shanxi bureaucrat. Xiao Wu is the one ‘honest’ man remaining.

This sense of perversity is Jia’s very point. In a society that has been systematically corrupted by the abrupt wealth manufactured by accelerated modernity, it is the little person – whose corruption is not sanctioned by the authorities – who suffers most.


QuotesMichael Berry Professor, University of California; Author, A History of Pain: Trauma in Modern Chinese Literature and Film
'Xiao Wu re-wrote the rules for independent filmmaking in China and introduced the world to one of the most dynamic filmmakers working today.'              

4. In the Heat of the Sun

4.-In-the-Heat-of-the-Sun-0

Dir Jiang Wen, 1994; Drama

Actor Jiang Wen’s first feature as a director is an archetypal rites-of-passage film about a group of boys entering puberty one hot summer in 1970s Beijing: fooling around, showing off and bonding, spying on girls, clashing with other gangs, dealing with pesky erections. 

Jiang’s alter ego ‘Monkey’ is infatuated by the elusive local beauty Mi Lan, and there is room for romance even during political upheaval. Two things distinguish the film. One is Jiang’s own wry voice-over: ‘Change has wiped out my memories, I can’t tell what’s imagined from what’s real’, runs the prologue. He admits that these are romanticised and sometimes wished-for episodes from his own childhood, and like other Chinese directors of the 1990s he is preoccupied with temporality and the fallibility of memory. 

The other is the setting. It is the dog days of the Cultural Revolution, and the boys occupy a Beijing in which adults, presumably in the throes of Maoist frenzy elsewhere, are scarce. Still, the film’s politics lingers at the fringes.

QuotesConrad Clark Director, Soul Carriage, A Fallible Girl 

'Jiang Wen's three establishing feature films (In the Heat of the Sun, Devils on the Doorstep and The Sun Also Rises) mark him out as the strongest voice in Mainland Chinese Cinema - a risk taker without seeking to be controversial as such; a craftsman of the cinematic form; and a director with a distant enough perspective to show the absurdities within historical tragedies of his country. '                     

3. Devils on the Doorstep

3.-Devils-at-the-Doorstep

Dir Jiang Wen, 2000; Comedy/War

Jiang Wen is known as an actor who can fill the most mundane dialogue with the ribald brashness of peeing into a ditch. The Cannes Grand Prix-winning Devils on the Doorstep showed that he knows a thing or two about exasperating audience expectations from behind the camera too. Set in 1945 in a backwater Chinese village held captive by the Japanese army, the film begins with its bumbling protagonist, Ma Dashan (played by the director), interrupted mid-tryst by a seemingly familiar voice. Upon opening the door, Dashan is met with an unknown intruder who persuades him at gunpoint to stash two captives in his basement cellar until New Year.

It’s a satirical black comedy that deploys farce to divulge the horror of war, and mockingly reproduces the feeling of old-timey, black-and-white 1940s propaganda reels in sight and sound. 

The captives Dashan is saddled with turn out to be a churlish Japanese sergeant who tries to goad the villagers into executing him and his Chinese translator who, rather more keen on the idea of living, deliberately and hilariously mistranslates his fanatically nationalistic companion’s seething rants into words of flowery flattery. When Dashan’s mysterious visitor does not arrive to reclaim the detainees, it is up to the troupe of misfit villagers to figure out what to do next.

The experience of watching the film is like flying by the seat of your pants on a rickety WWII-era biplane. The scenes of botched schemes that follow seesaw from tawdry satirical silliness to unflinching tragedy.

Devils on the Doorstep portrays war from the point of view of the working man, cutting through the nationalistic nonsense to reveal the unenviable position of those unwittingly caught in the bombs and bluster – people who are merely trying to make it out alive. War is, in this film, not only something horrific, but also patently ludicrous and absurd. When the shenanigans of the film’s affable fools finally explode in stomach-turning tragedy, it is treated with the same laconic irony as the earlier scenes of buffoonery. In this comic indifference to the indiscriminate slaughter of human life, we come to recognise the true face of war.

As with a number of films on this list, Devils on the Doorstep was banned on its initial release, and a delegation was sent to the Cannes film festival to try to prevent it from being screened. The reasons offered were that the film portrays its Chinese protagonists as being too dim-witted, and lacking in sufficient amounts of patriotism and hatred towards the Japanese. They may as well have said they banned the film because its characters are all too human.

Quotes

Huang Lu Actress, She, A Chinese (Golden Leopard Winner Locarno Film Festival)
'While I was still in school, I saw a pirated version of this morally ambiguous film Devils on the Doorstep. The room was filled with the sound of everyone’s laughter and it continued for over an hour. Then, when the massacre scene started, the entire classroom was silent. A real movie is one that can induce emotions in everyone.'

Clifford Coonan Asia Bureau Chief, The Hollywood Reporter
'I love this sensitive, intelligent reading of China's relationship with Japan, and with its own demons.'                     

2. Spring in a Small Town

2.-Spring-in-a-Small-Town-(2)

Dir Fei Mu, 1948; Melodrama

In a small town maimed beyond recognition by war, a housewife ambles along the ruined city walls every day. Clasped between the woman’s fingers is a basket filled with medicines for her ill husband, though the mere sight of him makes her sick, so fixated is he on the past. But it is spring, and for once, the distant wail of the train does not signal someone leaving, but the arrival of a face not yet forgotten: a doctor in Western medicine, her husband’s childhood classmate and – unbeknown to her husband – the woman’s first and only love.

Today revered as the pinnacle of Shanghai’s Golden Age of filmmaking, Spring in a Small Town seemed, upon its release in 1948, as if it would be relegated to the dustbin of history by State censors. Its portrayal of individuals as psychologically tormented and morally conflicted, rather than as part of an ideologically enlightened mass that had transcended banalities like human suffering, was deemed reactionary and bourgeois. For perhaps the first and only time in the history of such things, the censors likely got it right. 

The husband’s ailments, the Western-trained doctor making things superficially better but ultimately worse, and the ruined city walls that bind the characters to a traumatic past and act as an impediment to a better future, could all be read as a comment on the condition of China. Withdrawn from cinemas by censors after just a handful of screenings, Spring in a Small Town was rediscovered in the 1980s with the reopening of the China Film Archive. Watching the film today, one is struck by how acutely it managed to diagnose the then-historical condition of China, and its daring formal experimentation. Emotional skirmishes are made all the more discordant by director Fei Mu’s choice to dissolve between shots within a scene rather than cutting conventionally.

Though unmistakably of its time, the film also in this sense transcends it. Like the wife’s narration, which seems to belong to no place and no specific time – as if she, too, died with Old China and is recounting the events from some distant future – the film positions itself as inhabiting the condition of a haunting spectre. 

In those impertinent dissolves that sever the film’s most achingly romantic scenes, we sense a suppressed and traumatic past that is both personal and public, erupting into the fabric of the present from some unknowable future. A swoon has never seemed so irredeemably sad.

Spring in a Small Town wears its veil of mourning like a widow whose spirit has departed along with her beloved spouse. Though its characters accept that they may never truly live in this life, they persist in trying to find dignity in being alive.


Quotes

'Spring in a Small Town... transcended the concept of film from every previous era. The pioneering concepts of such films are comparable to that of the great European film directors. They broke free of the restrictions of that time period and, even today, they still have a unique artistic allure.'


Rao Hui Screenwriter and Novelist; Professor, Central Academy of Drama

'A frightened woman standing on the ruins of war.'


Jason Mcgrath Associate professor, University of Minnesota; author, Postsocialist Modernity: Chinese Cinema, Literature, and Criticism in the Market Age

'The film just gets more fascinating with repeated viewings, and so many of its features - the subtle circular structure, the disturbing yet intimate voice over narration, the elliptical editing, the simultaneous evocation and suppression of an almost frightening erotic passion - all seem to have little precedent nor few successors in Chinese cinema.'                     

1. Farewell My Concubine

1.-Farewell-My-Concubine-(02)-0

Dir Chen Kaige, 1993; Drama

Usually reticent about discussing his most famous work, director Chen Kaige gives a rare interview to Time Out about our number one film, Farewell My Concubine

At the 1988 Cannes Film Festival Chen Kaige was given a copy of a book by Lilian Lee, a Hong Kong-based writer. Chen found the novel, about two Peking opera stars living through decades of political upheaval in China, a bit thin. Lee didn’t have an emotional grasp on the Cultural Revolution, he thought. She hadn’t lived through it. But the story was compelling, and after a meeting with Lee the pair recruited a Mainland screenwriter, Lu Wei. In 1991 they completed the first draft of Farewell My Concubine. The resulting film remains the only Chinese-language movie to have won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, a prize it shared with Jane Campion’s The Piano in 1993.

In Chen’s previous films, King of the Children and Life on a String, allegory, elliptical narratives and poetic but enigmatic images convey socio-political undercurrents. In contrast, Farewell My Concubine is a vivid, even brash examination of the personal cost of China’s troubled decades, a subject that haunts much of Chen’s canon. Is it possible, Farewell My Concubine posits, to remain faithful to your ideals – to your family, friends, to your art – in times that demand a constant reinterpretation of values? Can humanity trump the direst of circumstance?

‘To us the Cultural Revolution was worse than the Second World War, because we lost a sense of respect, of human dignity,’ says Chen, who is now 61. When he was 16, Chen was sent to the countryside in Yunnan province as part of the mass movement that uprooted the country’s urban youth. It left a deep impression. ‘I’m not trying to criticise anyone,’ Chen continues, ‘I’m saying this is history and if you know nothing about history you don’t have a future. That’s clear but no one listened to me, unfortunately. My generation’s voice is weak.’

Farewell My Concubine charts the troubled relationship of two Peking opera actors, Cheng Dieyi (Leslie Cheung) and Duan Xiaolou (Zhang Fengyi) from 1925 to 1977. In an opening scene a prostitute and her son watch a troupe of child performers in the street. Master Guan, their leader, refuses to enroll the boy Dieyi because he has six fingers on one hand. The mother disposes of the handicap with a butcher’s knife, signs a contract with the bloodied stump and abandons her son to his fate.

To survive the rough justice and leg-snapping disciplines of the academy, Dieyi relies on his close friend, Xiaolou. When a powerful patron arrives to examine the troupe, Dieyi, who plays female roles, fumbles his line, ‘I am by nature a girl, not a boy’, substituting ‘boy’ for ‘girl’. Only after Xiaolou forces a pipe down his throat – in one of many phallic references – does Dieyi say it correctly. Time passes and the friends become celebrities; in their most vaunted performance, Dieyi plays a concubine devoted to Xiaolou’s king, mirroring their offstage dynamic. Xiaolou’s marriage to a prostitute, Juxian (Gong Li), devastates Dieyi. As the trio becomes ensnared in bigger events their mutual jealously, deceit, betrayals and desperation chime with the real-life drama that ravaged China at the time.

‘Every film, whether it’s a historical story or not, reflects what’s happening in society,’ says Chen. ‘I don’t want to tell people what is the truth and where to find the truth. But the [Chinese film] market is growing and we are not touched by many films that are huge box office successes. Why? Money is not the final goal, this is more than clear. This market, let me tell you, is blind.’

Chen-Kaige_-crop
Chen Kaige

Farewell My Concubine is one of the defining works of the crop of directors who graduated from the Beijing Film Academy around 1982, China’s so-called Fifth Generation. (Chen uses the term with caution.) Like his classmates Zhang Yimou and Tian Zhaungzhuang, Chen had a rhapsodic vision of cinema and blended the personal and political with a nuance at odds with the staid propagandic films of previous decades. But Chen says that in Farewell My Concubine, society and politics are secondary. At the forefront is the blurred distinction between life and stage and the confusion of identity.

‘I always create characters that I can relate to and that can represent me,’ Chen says. ‘Life is not perfect but you should allow yourself to create a perfect world and perfect characters. I believe Dieyi was me.’

Dieyi is a misfit. A boy born with too many fingers, he is coaxed into female roles, suffers sexual assault and, in a maternal act befitting his befuddled sense of gender, adopts a baby from the street. When Dieyi plays the concubine he inhabits his female self and is free to adore Xiaolou. Offstage he must relinquish that role.

For Chen, Dieyi’s integrity is the soul of the film: ‘He is the one who refused to grow up, he doesn’t want to tell lies to the world in order to protect himself.’ In the film’s final act the duo rehearse their old opera, but Dieyi again fumbles his line. ‘Dieyi can’t find his true self until the last,’ says Chen. ‘In it he tells Xiaolou: you are my king and I am your concubine. I think that in this sense, people should admire Dieyi because he is able to love,’ he says. ‘I think that a lot of social problems that we see today came from the Cultural Revolution. Because during that time our leader called on us to have something called class struggle, and then we had to learn to hate, not to love. But to love is everything.’ Appropriately operatic, Chen’s Farewell My Concubine is sumptuous in every respect. Intelligent, enthralling, epic


Quotes

Raymond Zhou Columnist and film writer, China Daily
'A historic sweep, rich texture and great performances all around. Leslie Cheung delivers what many consider one of the greatest screen performances in China’s film history.' Read more

Ben Sin Film editor, Time Out Hong Kong
'Arguably the most important Mainland Chinese film of all time.' Read more

Kevin Niu Editor, Time Out Beijing (Chinese edition)
'A flawless work. There is no better cinematic reflection on that time period.' Read more

Yung Chang Director, Up the Yangtze and China Heavyweight 
'As a first generation, huayi (ethnic Chinese), Farewell My Concubine started to shape my investigation into my Chinese heritage.' Read more                     

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