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