Geek, gamer, writer, graphic artist. KL Yong's favorite shows and adventures are those that allow him to enjoy the world from his bedroom.
When thinking about awesome Chinese movies, Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger immediately comes to mind. But other than Ang Lee’s atmospheric masterpiece, what other great Chinese productions are there to consider? Here are seven wonderful titles for you to check out.
1. Hero (英雄)
For some viewers, Chinese Director Zhang Yimou’s Rashamon-like bid for an Oscar could come across as somewhat too desperate to impress. Nonetheless, Hero is still hands-down one of the most visually stunning Chinese movies filmed in recent years. The entire extravaganza is also drenched with color metaphors, as well as full of thrilling martial arts duels.
The story itself revolves around an attempted assassination of Qin Shihuang, the notorious and brutal first emperor of China. Following the trend of newer Chinese historical movies, Hero it alsoalattempts to justify the notorious brutality of the first emperor by explaining such acts were necessary to ensure China’s sustained unification and growth as an empire.
At the same time, this lavish production also hints at the various political philosophies in contest during that era of Chinese imperial history, something that would surely give much food for thought. If you enjoy thoughtful, enigmatic storytelling, as well as eye-popping Chinese backdrops, Hero is without a doubt, one of the most awesome Chinese movies to watch. Needless to say, it is also an invaluable tutorial in cinematic visual communication for students of that discipline.
2. The Last Emperor
Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1987 masterpiece isn’t a Chinese production, of course. Some Chinese audiences also hated it during its release, mainly because it was directed by a European and contained several contentious scenes, such as a young Puyi suckling his nanny.
Having watched this epic production numerous times and read about Puyi’s life, though, I can confidently say the movie is overall, a most reasonable interpretation of the last emperor’s life. I doubt anyone, not even his wives, ever understood how Puyi truly thought or felt. Bertolucci might have been a little too blunt in his expression, but it’s only fair to say he’s neither wrong nor deliberately provocative.
Historical details aside, The Last Emperor is a visual documentation of the Forbidden City. It doesn’t delve into the history of the palace, but there are numerous extended shots, as well as the implicit statement that the Forbidden City was in truth, the world’s largest prison for those doomed to be emperor.
Today, tourists could visit the palace grounds and be at a noisy restaurant an hour later. Yet, just over a century ago, this was the only place the disgruntled teenage ruler of China could ever hope to stroll. The Last Emperor constantly reiterates this grim fact before exploring the sheer irony of Puyi craving to return once liberated from his ancestral prison.
Simply put, this intriguing contrast makes the movie a must-watch for anyone curious about Chinese pre-modern history and imperial life. The unforgettable soundtrack and John Lone’s depiction of the conflicted ruler are additional reasons why you should not miss this splendid masterpiece.
3. Red Cliff (赤壁)
Red Cliff is based on one of the most significant battles in Chinese history, the outcome of which led to the formation of the Three Kingdoms (AD 220 to 280).
Split into two parts and featuring tens of historical characters, this historical movie could be confusing at times, especially to viewers unused to oriental names. That said, it is still an effective introduction for those curious about Three Kingdoms history. It is certainly also thrilling, and full of numerous awe-inspiring battle scenes.
During an interview, director John Woo notoriously admitted the movie is only 50 percent factual. For this reason, Red Cliff should not in any way be regarded as a history lesson; there are other far more accurate depictions.
As cultural insight into the Chinese mentality, however, the movie is an invaluable gem. Why are Liu Bei and his sworn brothers still regarded by the Chinese as embodiments of honor? Why is Shu strategist Zhuge Liang a synonym for resourcefulness and wittiness
Knowing the reasons would benefit anyone preparing for any sort of interaction with the Chinese people, or just curious about Chinese culture in general. There is also, of course, John Woo’s distinctive cinematic style. Lots of memorable and evocative combat posturing. Loads of tragically heroic moments too.
4. Farewell My Concubine (霸王别姬)
The decades prior to the Second World War were tragic and tumultuous for China, with the entire country strangled by western imperialism, internal strife, and remnants of appalling medieval beliefs.
This 1993 production, which earned an Oscar nomination, highlights one of the worst tragedies of those times i.e. boys trained/forced to play feminine roles (花旦, huadan) roles in Chinese opera. By following the life of one such character, the lifelong identity conflicts that result are starkly laid bare. Hauntingly dissected too.
Conditioned homosexuality is correspondingly heavy in this movie, though worry not, like most Chinese movies, Farewell My Concubine has no explicit homosexual scenes. Instead, the story revolves around the haplessness of the protagonists as they live through different historical periods. Always as victims, always defenseless against the powerful and unscrupulous, and always lacking the courage to retaliate.
Of note, the title itself is a famous scene in Chinese opera, one involving the final hours of Xiangyu (项羽), the Chu general who committed suicide after losing to the founding emperor of the Han Dynasty. It is an obvious metaphor for the fate of the protagonists. All are characters doomed to drown in the unforgiving tides of time. All deserve your sympathy, and at the same time, your scorn too.
5. Lai Shi, China’s Last Eunuch (中国最后一个太监)
A phenomenon in Chinese history is that of eunuchs often dominating the imperial court. From the Qin Dynasty right till the final days of the Qing Dynasty, there were numerous cases of eunuchs manipulating imperial politics, if not downright seizing power. Little wonder, therefore, that the Chinese terms for eunuchs, taijian (太监) and huanguan (宦官), still carry extremely negative connotations in spoken Mandarin. These connotations include being sycophantic, scheming, or downright spiteful.
This 1988 Hong Kong production, however, paints a completely different picture from other Chinese movies about these emasculated ones, one in which eunuchs are depicted as hapless victims of a brutally feudalistic society. In doing so, the movie tells a greater truth, which is the fact that for every emperor-controlling, powerful “gong gong,” there were thousands of others who spent their entire lives in servitude and humiliation.
At the same time, the opening chapter depicts one of the most horrific phenomena in Chinese history. Ghastly as the entry requirement was, there were times when many Chinese peasants were more than eager for their sons to become imperial eunuchs.
For them, it was a surefire way to escape poverty, with few peasants giving any serious thought to what actually happens within the imperial court. The subsequent tragedy then becomes a spiraling trap. It is a trap that none could hope to escape from.
Warning! The uncensored version has a pretty gruesome scene in the first half-hour. One involving a minor.
Note: This movie is based on a novel written by Hong Kong writer Ni Kuang. There is another novel on the same eunuch by Chinese writer Jia Yinghua, for which there is an English translation.
6. Swordsman 1990 (笑傲江湖)
The dazzling world of sword fighting and spectacular martial arts i.e. Wuxia is an integral part of modern Chinese culture. Hong Kong alone has produced hundreds of Wuxia movies and television series since the 1960s. The problem though, for the uninitiated, which Wuxia movie is a great introduction? Which would be a suitable watch for those fresh to concepts of medieval Chinese chivalry and honor?
I recommend this Hong Kong production from the 90s, which was released at the start of a brief revival of Wuxia films in Chinese cinemas. Based on excerpts from Wuxia writer Jin Yong’s most political novel, The Smiling Proud Wanderer, Swordsman 1990 is neither too dated in its effects nor too convoluted in its story – in fact, the effects have aged well and look fantastic even today.
Furthermore, the movie is also an effective summary of what to expect from a Wuxia movie, these elements being incredible acrobatics, complicated conspiracies for power, and honor in the face of deadly odds.
Watch it and if you enjoyed the experience, continue to the hundreds of other Wuxia films made over the last half a century. There is a rich and bewitching world within. Swordsman 1990 itself also has two fascinating, if somewhat over-the-top sequels.
7. Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain (蜀山)
Hong Kong director Tsui Hark’s 1983 supernatural adventure is notable for two things.
- It was groundbreaking with its use of special effects.
- It also revitalized a genre that was then much overshadowed by Wuxia. Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain effectively reintroduced Chinese audiences to the Xianxia (仙侠) genre.
To explain, Xianxia is much like Wuxia or martial arts films, except magic is involved. Xianxia also incorporates a major trope from the classic Chinese novel, Investiture of the Gods, which is that of protagonists wielding distinctive artifacts of power. These artifacts could be traditional weapons like swords, or more exotic items like mirrors, parasols, and spindles. Very often, it is these relics that are the most fascinating to watch. A Xianxia fan might forget the protagonist’s name, but it is unlikely he would forget the name of the protagonist’s artifact.
Coming back to the movie, why is Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain a must-watch for anyone interested in Chinese movies or China? Firstly, the magic mountain in the title refers to the mountain ranges of Sichuan, a remote area rich with myths and oriental legends. Secondly, Xianxia draws heavily from Buddhism and Taoism, with names of artifacts often using exotic religious terminology.
To put it in another way, this is one of the most fascinating and awesome Chinese movies to watch if you are seeking to enter the fascinating world of Chinese mythical fiction. Best of all, if you like it, there are many Xianxia games, novels, and movies for you to move onto. Many of these are available online, including translated versions. Many Xianxia games are also available as free smartphone apps.
© 2016 Yong Kuan Leong
Yong Kuan Leong (author) from Singapore on April 04, 2020:
Hey Rob, thanks for your comment. I'm not sure what's the movie you're referring to though, children of the emperor etc is a common trope in Chinese movies. Hope you check out more such movies too.
Rob on April 04, 2020:
Thanks for this list you put together. I'll have to check them out. I watched a Chinese movie with english subtitles in the mid to late 90's on PBS here in the states. I dont remember the name, but it was excellent. All i remember is the main characters were a man and his sister, adult children of the emperor.
Yong Kuan Leong (author) from Singapore on April 19, 2018:
If you don't mind DVD, yesasia.com has quite a selection. Otherwise, try searching in YouTube, Youku, etc, but with chinese words. (武侠)( 仙侠). The movies I listed probably wouldn't be on them. But you would find other genre clips. Helps a lot if you search for the specific show name, the more popular ones for Wuxia which I listed in
cathycat1954 on April 19, 2018:
Where to find these movies? Only a few of this sort are on netflix or other services. Public library has hardly any. Are there any websites that stream these and others wuxia and xianxia?
Yong Kuan Leong (author) from Singapore on August 15, 2017:
Hey J, thanks for commenting. Coincidentally, I recently wrote about Mr. Vampire elsewhere. Have a look: http://wp.me/p7CNLq-XG . It's with regards to games, though.
And yes, it was a groundbreaking movie.
J on August 14, 2017:
Highly recommend Mr. Vampire, a Chinese ghost story that is also hilarious. Must see!!!
Yong Kuan Leong (author) from Singapore on November 29, 2016:
That I have to agree. Most of Wong Kar Wai's movies are atmospheric.
Sam Dreiberg from India on November 29, 2016:
Well.. I am not a big fan of love stories myself... but In the Mood would still be in my top 5 Chinese movies just for the superb acting by all the lead cast... And yes, Wong Kar Wai is kinda pretentious but this movie is beautifully crafted...
Yong Kuan Leong (author) from Singapore on November 29, 2016:
Hey Sam. I definitely considered Red Lantern when preparing this hub. It being a classic and the mansion itself nowadays a travel hotspot. However, I didn't want to feature a director twice and overall, I felt Hero was more accessible and appealing, esp to those new to the Chinese genre.
In the mood ... erm, no. LOL. I'm one of those who firmly thinks Wong Kar Wai is the director to watch when you really need help falling asleep. I know he's critically acclaimed and all that, but honestly I always felt he's kinda pretentious and too unnecessarily ponderous.
Sam Dreiberg from India on November 29, 2016:
What about 'Raise the Red Lantern' and 'In the Mood for love'?