7 Awesome Chinese Movies You Do Not Want to Miss
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 titles for you to check out.
1. Hero (英雄)
Director Zhang Yimou’s Rashamon-like bid for an Oscar could come across as somewhat too desperate to impress. Nonetheless, it is hands-down one of the most visually stunning Chinese movies filmed in recent years. The entire extravaganza is drenched with color metaphors, as well as full of thrilling martial arts duels.
The story revolves around an attempted assassination of Qin Shihuang, the first emperor of China. Following the trend of newer Chinese historical movies, it then attempts to justify the notorious brutality of the first emperor by explaining such acts were necessary to ensure China’s unification and growth as an empire. At the same time, the movie 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, this 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. 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 many extended shots, as well as the implicit message 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, then explores 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 interested in pre-modern Chinese 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 production.
3. Red Cliff (赤壁)
Red Cliff is based on one of the most famous 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 Chinese movie could be confusing at times, particularly to viewers unused to Chinese names. That said, it is still an effective introduction for those curious about Three Kingdoms history. It is certainly also thrilling, full of numerous awe-inspiring battle scenes.
In an interview, director John Woo 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 resource. 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. It tells the story of 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, hauntingly, depicted.
Conditioned homosexuality is thus heavy in this movie, though worry not, like most Chinese movies, there are 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 yet 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 simply 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, it 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 also reveals one of the most horrific truths about Chinese eunuchs. Ghastly as the entry requirement was, there were times when many Chinese peasants dreamed about their sons becoming imperial eunuchs. For them, it was a way to escape poverty. Few gave any serious thought to what actually happens within the imperial court too. The resulting tragedy then becomes a spiraling trap 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. Problem though, for the uninitiated, which wuxia movie is a great introduction? Which would be a suitable watch for those fresh to concepts of Chinese chivalry and honor?
I suggest 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 Louis Cha’s 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. At the same time, 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 on 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 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 ground-breaking 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 looking to enter into the world of Chinese pulp fiction culture. 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.
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© 2016 Kuan Leong Yong