Chinese-language films can be a tough nut to crack if you’re from the other side of the Great Wall. The culture can seem forbiddingly complex, and for Millennials or older Americans, it’s likely little emphasis was put on Asian history back in school.
Lately, everyone has indulged in K-pop and Korean culture, while Japanese culture has long furnished itself worldwide in the form of anime, video games, and other pop artifacts.
Chinese culture, the original East Asian dynamo, somehow gets the short shrift too often — and at exactly the moment when it’s crucial we best understand it.
Western viewers too easily dismiss the cinematic offerings of China in recent years — for example, the execrable Wolf Warrior series of nationalistic tentpole films — as the desperate ravings of a Communist propaganda department that somehow happened upon first-class special effects.
This would not be a mistake, but it would be to abandon the investigation there. China used to have a flourishing scene of world-renowned film directors in the 1980s and 1990s and even into this century. It still does; it’s just gone underground for now.
To understand the Chinese cinematic landscape, widen the aperture as far as possible, taking in the best of the Sinosphere wherever it can be found, whether in Mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, or even beyond.
1. In the Mood for Love
Wong Kar-wai is high in the running for the greatest Chinese-language filmmaker of all time, which puts him high in the running for greatest filmmaker of all time. With a prime that spanned the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, he has well over half a dozen movies that can be unhesitatingly recommended to just about anyone. Probably the one that best distills his appeal is In the Mood For Love, which the Sight & Sound poll put at 5th in its 2022 rankings of the greatest films ever made.
In the Mood for Love, set in 1960s Hong Kong, trains its eye on a romance between two married neighbors, played by Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung. It’s all about the quick looks shot across rooms and then pulled back, the overt gestures made and second-guessed, and the other tics and longings characteristic of hamstrung love stories.
The visuals match the restrained elegance of the narrative, which paints a portrait of a long-since departed Hong Kong, where Chinese couples in starched white shirts danced the Cha-Cha and drank tea in silk-screened drawing rooms.
2. A Brighter Summer Day (1991)
Edward Yang’s somber rendering of Taiwanese youth in the late 1950s, A Brighter Summer Day, outranked his other classic, YiYi, in the 2022 edition of the Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time poll at 78th.
Like Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s City of Sadness, the film begins in the tumultuous years following the massive wave of Mainlander immigration to Taiwan on the heels of the Chinese Civil War; unlike the other film, A Brighter Summer Day does not focus so much on the interplay of government and citizenry as it does on what it was like to be a kid in those years when the children of recent arrivals often banded together into gangs that clashed in the streets of Taipei and other cities.
The story focuses on a doomed romance between two such children, following the dark contours of their relationship over nearly four hours. In the view of many, it’s one of the greatest films of all time.
3. City of Sadness (1989)
When Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek retreated to Taiwan in 1949, he was joined by somewhere between one and two million Chinese immigrants, most of them either Kuomintang (KMT) soldiers and their families or affiliated with the nationalist side of the civil war in some form. These new arrivals often came into conflict with the local Taiwanese population, composed of people who had come in a steady trickle across the Straits over the recent centuries, in addition to the aboriginal population.
The KMT ruled Taiwan with brutal despotism for many decades — including a period known as the White Terror, where intellectuals and others were rounded up, tortured, and murdered by the tens of thousands — and resentments ran high among the native-born. Director Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s film City of Sadness tells the story of one local family in the picturesque mountainside city of Jiufen during this period. It’s a must-watch epic for anyone interested in Taiwan.
4. Farewell, My Concubine (1993)
It may seem impossible now, but in the 1990s, it was still possible for mainland Chinese filmmakers to tackle subjects of major sensitivity to the Communist Party, such as Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. The event had upturned Chinese society a generation previous and left hundreds of thousands to millions dead, depending on how you count the toll.
Certainly, the most famous film to approach this subject matter is Chen Kaige’s Farewell, My Concubine, an epic that explores the turmoil of the era from the perspective of a pair of Peking Opera singers, one of whom is played by the tragically fated Hong Kong actor Leslie Cheung. The movie may offer the best entry into Chinese cinema and the country’s twentieth-century history for someone new to the subject.
5. Lust, Caution (2007)
The Shanghai of the 1930s enjoys a certain romantic reputation as a jazz age hotspot and playground for the decade’s ne'er-do-wells from around the world. While this concept has some basis in truth, the reality was mostly quite wretched and colonial — full of segregation, abuse, and colossal indifference to the fate of the Chinese on the part of the colonial authorities governing the various international settlements in the city. As if that state of affairs had not made life terrible enough for the locals, things only went from bad to worse after the arrival of the Japanese.
The Shanghainese writer Eileen Chang, whose life along the major axis of history sent her to Hong Kong and then later the United States, wrote one of the great novels of the era: Lust, Caution, which later became a movie directed by Ang Lee. The story, which centers on a conspiracy to assassinate a collaborator with the Japanese occupiers, is dripping with the glamor of the age and may be the most visually striking and narratively compelling film about Shanghai and Hong Kong during the war years.
6. Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale (2011)
These days, Taiwan lands in the news constantly, and its story is consistently mistold. While it’s true the Qing Dynasty ruled the island for two centuries until the Japanese gained possession in 1895, the Qing never fully subdued the jungly mountainous interior, which has been home to various Austronesian peoples for thousands of years. Indeed, the resistance of these tribes put up so fierce a resistance that the Japanese also failed to conquer Taiwan’s Central Mountain Range fully. It took until the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, when Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang forces retreated to Taiwan and colonized it, for the entirety of the island to fall under any central government’s control.
Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale tells the story of a particularly violent clash between the aboriginal Seediq tribe and the Japanese colonial authorities during the 1930s. It ranks as the highest-budget film ever made in Taiwan and makes a great choice for anyone looking to learn more about the history beyond the headlines.
7. The Killer (1989)
At the height of his powers, John Woo departed from his Hong Kong roots to enter his Hollywood run, during which he made the likes of Hard Target and Face/Off. However, among the last of his great hometown movies is The Killer, another Chow Yun-Fat star vehicle set in the 1980s glitzy grime of the great city-state on the mouth of Pearl River.
The Killer takes place in the kind of smoke-filled lounges, luncheonettes, and offices that put one instantly in the mind of ‘80s Hong Kong or Tokyo. It’s got Chow as a hitman this time, a role for which he may be too decent to be believed as, but it works nonetheless. There are speed boat chases around Causeway Bay, and a gothically lit climactic shootout in a church. It’s enough to give you shivers of joy just thinking about it.
8. Spring in a Small Town (1948)
Just one year before the end of the Chinese Civil War, when Mao Zedong’s armies were on the verge of rolling into Beijing, Nanjing, and Shanghai, the Wenhua Film Company in Shanghai produced Spring in a Small Town, a black-and-white love story set in the Chinese countryside in the aftermath of the Second Sino-Japanese War, meaning the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s. The film is considered a classic of early Chinese cinema and was expediently produced on a tiny budget to get the production company out of debt. It is notable for its near-total lack of reference to the looming Communist takeover.
9. Ash Is Purest White (2018)
Jia Zhangke may be China’s most uncompromising filmmaker who still manages to work inside the system. His recent movie, Ash Is Purest White, is a crime epic spanning two decades in the lives of an on-and-off-again underworld couple. The story begins in 2001 and ends much closer to the present day. A telling detail appears near the final credits, when a closed-circuit camera shot of the female lead, Zhao Tao, implies her character’s freewheeling criminal lifestyle will be brought to an end by the surveillance age. The gorgeously lush exterior photography of central China would be enough to recommend the movie, but a further selling point is the changes depicted in the country across the narrative arc, which mirror the transformations in the characters' lives.
10. Kung Fu Hustle (2004)
Stephen Chow’s best-in-class comic martial arts movie Kung Fu Hustle continues to enjoy popularity and influence in Asia almost twenty years after its release. Like with other Chow films, such as From Beijing with Love, younger folks across the Sinosphere can often quote snatches of dialogue verbatim. The enduring appeal of this co-production between Hong Kong and the mainland indicates that anyone who hasn’t seen it and is interested in the region’s popular culture should give it a shot.
11. Infernal Affairs (2002)
Many people know that Martin Scorsese’s 2006 film The Departed, which won Best Picture at the Oscars, is a remake of a Hong Kong classic; fewer people have actually visited the source material, Infernal Affairs. Co-directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, the film tells the story of a young gangster sent by his triad boss to infiltrate the ranks of police cadets. At the same time, a young cadet is yanked from the pool of trainees to go undercover in the same triad. Although this story will sound familiar to anyone who has seen the American film, viewing the original very much repays the time spent.
12. Stray Dogs (2013)
Taiwan’s most avant-garde filmmaker, Tsai Ming-liang, has spent his career directing eerily beautiful works of slow cinema that dare the viewer to say, “I’m bored!” Usually, those who do tap out and skip the rest will miss a subtly accumulating effect that blooms into something larger than the sum of its parts, which may announce itself hours later or even in a dream that night.
Stray Dogs is an extreme example of the Tsai style, and it’s no wonder that the country where it’s most celebrated outside of Taiwan is France. The film takes a homeless family as its subject matter, following them through empty streets and abandoned buildings as they navigate the bleak borderlands of contemporary existence. It’s a powerful work of art and should be approached by anyone who fancies themselves patient enough for this cinematic experience.
13. The Horse Thief (1986)
While not a Chinese-language movie — it’s in Tibetan — Tian Zhuangzhaung’s The Horse Thief is a Chinese production and a highly worthwhile use of an hour and a half of anyone’s time. Praised by Martin Scorsese as the best film he saw in 1990s (although it’s from the previous decade), The Horse Thief is set in the Tibetan Plateau of the 1920s, where it follows the life of equine snatcher Norbu as he traverses the grasslands going about his days as an outcast from the village. The film is light on words and earns its acclaim via a heavy immersion in the landscapes and rituals of the vanishing Tibetan rural culture. Think Baraka-style sensory filmmaking with a bit more plot.
14. Enter the Dragon (1973)
The tragically young death at 32 of the most famous martial artist of all time, Bruce Lee, came just a month before his classic film Enter the Dragon premiered. The film took the kung-fu genre to new heights and contributed to the “karate craze” of the 1970s in the United States. The movie had a major impact across almost every popular media, from video games to comics, movies, and television.
Taking cues from the spy genre, the movie places its hero in the role of a martial arts instructor recruited by British intelligence and tasked with entering a tournament so that he may help take down a crime boss. If you’ve never seen it, give the granddaddy of kung-fu films a go.
15. YiYi (2000) Chinese language films
Edward Yang, one of the leading lights of the Taiwanese New Wave Movement of the 1980s, directed one of his two widely acknowledged masterpieces in 2000 with the celebrated YiYi. The film, which is the cinematic equivalent of a 19th-century novel, focuses its epic scope on multiple generations of the same family. As it clocks in at close to three hours, the movie might lose some casual viewers with its languid pacing, but it’s hard to think of a better avenue for gaining a view into the lives of ordinary Taiwanese in the run-up to the millennium.
16. The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful (2017)
Director Yang Ya-che’s crime drama The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful cleaned up at the Golden Horse Awards, Taiwan’s equivalent of the Oscars, upon release in 2017. The film depicts a world of elegance, backstabbing, and official corruption in Taiwan in the 1980s. While at times over the top, it’s delicious light fare and an approachable entry point into the wider world of Taiwanese cinema.
17. The Legend of Drunken Master (1994)
Many Westerners who grew up enjoying the likes of Rumble in the Bronx and Rush Hour may not realize that Hong Kong star Jackie Chan is these days foremost associated in his hometown with enthusiastic support for Beijing’s policies; that said, Chan is among the greatest martial-arts actors of all time, and no one can take that away from him.
The 1994 hit Drunken Master II, directed by Lau Kar-leung, was released in the U.S. six years later as The Legend of Drunken Master. It is widely considered to be among the peaks of the kung fu genre. Set in early twentieth-century China, the film is loosely inspired by the exploits of Wong Fei-hung, a colorful folk hero tutored in the ways of drunken boxing. Chan, who plays the title character, imbibes before brawls in a Popeye-esque manner. For anyone with a taste for good-natured action movies that do not take themselves too seriously, look no further.
18. A Better Tomorrow (1986)
Hong Kong probably experienced no more iconic decade than the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping were still negotiating the territory's handover, and the extent of Beijing’s future grip over the city was still unknown. Back in the ‘80s, the city had come into its own as a major financial hub, the dazzling skyline was in place, and at least in the movies of John Woo, the fusillades of bullets were flying.
In A Better Tomorrow, the first of an eponymous trilogy, Woo began to fully showcase his genius for a specific kind of action directing — something similar to kung-fu cinema for gunplay. The film leaps between Hong Kong and Taiwan (another time-travel jaw-dropper locale), and follows the intrigues of a young Chow Yun-Fat, whose character Mark Lee works for a triad counterfeiting U.S. dollars. The intensely melodramatic plot is entirely serviceable, but let’s be real — this movie is about 1980s Hong Kong nostalgia and balletically choreographed shootouts.
19. Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014)
Director Diao Yinan is arguably China’s leading crime dramatist. His work gives off heavy neo-noir vibes, and the movies have a grimness accentuated by rusty machinery, seedy back alleys, and endless neon. China’s frigid northeast, where state-run industries predominate, is the setting for Black Coal, Thin Ice, which is Diao’s best movie by miles. The story starts with the discovery that someone has been scattering body parts around Heilongjiang province via railway cars.
20. Raise the Red Lantern (1991)
Zhang Yimou is perhaps China’s most famous living film director. In recent years, he has a reputation for preposterous flops like The Great Wall, starring Matt Damon, or his boast that the 2008 Beijing Olympics, whose synchronized opening pageantry he choreographed, was something only a country like China or North Korea could pull off. However, there was a time when Zhang put his talents to better use.
Raise the Red Lantern takes place in China’s Shanxi Province during the 1920s, not long after the fall of the Qing Dynasty. Its central character, played by Gong Li, is sent to the compound of a wealthy older man to join his ever-expanding list of wives. The ensuing drama between the concubines explores China as essentially still a feudal society. It’s a must-watch to understand the widespread misery that primed the country for the rise of Communism.
Tim Rinaldi is a journalist who spent his youth inside a video game console, occasionally emerging to read novels and watch films. After earning his degree in Literature from Fordham University, he moved to China over a decade ago to teach English and learn the language, eventually migrating to Taiwan. There, he served as an editor at the nation’s primary English-language daily, Taiwan News, contributing to coverage spanning the arts, business, finance, Chinese politics, and cross-strait relations. Today, Tim is a freelance writer reporting on entertainment, personal finance, and other topics. He also edits the digital arts newsletter 1/1 Interviews. In his spare time, he tinkers with 3D software like Blender and aspires to craft animated short films.