Classic Chinese New Year films to binge watch this holiday

Get in the spirit with these cult CNY flicks

Image: courtesy Eye Steel Film
Dir Zhang Shichuan, China 1937

A black and white classic from the 1930s, this endearing slice of Shanghai cinema tried to break through class boundaries by using the spirit of Chinese New Year. The plot is simple: a New Year’s coin (yasuiqian), usually given by the eldest member of the family to the youngest as a gift, gets passed around characters of different social standing in Shanghai, each one forming a part of the story. Nowadays, a yasuiqian doesn’t come in coin form anymore, but rather a cool 100RMB bill. Sometimes we miss the good old days.

Dir Huang Jianzhong, China 1991

Set in a bleak, snowy village in northeastern China, The Spring Festival takes places on the cusp of China’s economic boom. It tells the story of an elderly couple spending the break with their returning children, each of whom are either too troubled or too busy to be in the mood for a family reunion. The film sees early turns from some of China’s movie nobility, including Beijing’s own Ge You, Li Baotian and the late Zhao Lirong. Their impressive performances and the film’s vivid reflection of modernity meets tradition makes this one of the hidden gems of Chinese cinema.

Dir Fan Lixin, Canada/China/UK 2009

This powerful documentary revolves around a young couple, the Zhangs, and their journey home alongside the millions of other migrant workers doing exactly the same during the annual Spring Festival migration (chunyun). The family travel from Guangzhou to their native village in Sichuan province, but unlike other films on this subject, director Fan Lixin widens his lens to encompass a broader social spectrum. Along the way, he brings in the stories of other factory workers, giving a face to a people who are more than just the backbone of the ‘Made in China’ powerhouse. Instead of pointing towards the ‘better future’ that one might have expected, Fan leaves a lot of his subjects’ stories unfinished, leaving it open to the audience to fill in the blanks in what is one of the more poignant films on this list.

Dir Teng Yung-Shing, Taiwan/China 2011

Set in contemporary Shanghai, Teng Yung-Shing’s second directorial feature brings to life a simple human story of an outsider in a big city. In the film, bankrupted clothing entrepreneur Cao Li (Qin Hailu) teams up with her fellow Anhui natives to turn an old vehicle into a coach bus. The idea is to sell tickets to transport migrant workers back to her hometown of Fuyang, which lies just 300km away (considered a comparatively short journey in chunyun terms), for Chinese New Year. The film questions the idea of ‘home’ and shows off Shanghai’s colonial architecture beautifully along the way, but its star turn is the impressive performance of lead actress Qin Hailu, who also co-wrote the script.

Dir Zhang Yuan, China 2000

Known for his 1993 quasi-documentary Beijing Bastards (charting the capital’s early rock scene) and 1997 classic East Palace, West Palace, Zhang Yuan has long been a leading light in China’s first generation of indie filmmakers.

A story of forgiveness, Seventeen Years begins by travelling back in time with the marriage of two divorcees, each with a daughter of their own. The children, Xiaolan and Xiaoqin, constantly squabble, leading to an incident where Xiaolan hits her stepsister over the head, only for Xiaoqin to collapse and die. Guilt-ridden, young Xiaolan is sentenced to jail, only to return seventeen years later (now played by Li Bingbing in her big-screen debut) on compassionate leave for Chinese New Year and in search of her parents’ forgiveness. A truly moving piece of cinema.

Dir Raymond Yip Wai-Man, China 2010

Another chunyun film, but a rarity on this list because, for once, it is not a bleak drama tugging on the social conscience of ‘new money’ China, but a comedy. Heading back home for Chinese New Year (and to divorce his wife), a wealthy businessman has his journey ruined when he accidentally joins forces with a stranger (think of it as a Chinese version of Planes, Trains and Automobiles). Everything that could possibly go wrong does go wrong, and they have to race home on any transportation they can get.

Dir Ning Ying, China 2005

Known for her classic drama Beijing Trilogy, Ning Ying’s realistic depiction of life in the capital has always been unique among Chinese filmmakers. This effort stars four successful women (including entrepreneur and former Time Out Beijing owner Hung Huang), who arguably play themselves. Expect some funny lines and harsh satire as Ning delves into the subjects of midlife crisis, chauvinism and feminism through the story of four old friends gathering on the eve of Chinese New Year.