7 Chinese Movies You Should Watch
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Tiger comes to mind. But other than Ang Lee’s atmospheric masterpiece, what other Chinese movies are great for learning about the Middle Kingdom? Here are seven titles to check out.
1. Hero (英雄)
Director Zhang Yimou’s bid for an Oscar could come across as somewhat too desperate to impress. Presented in a Rashamon-like storytelling style, it is nonetheless gorgeously filmed, drenched with colour metaphors and full of eye-catching martial arts scenes.
The story revolves around an attempted assassination of Qin Shihuang, the first emperor of China. Following the trend of recent movies, it attempts to justify the notorious brutality of Qin Shihuang 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 gives 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 best Chinese movies to watch. At the same time, it is also undeniably an invaluable tutorial in visual communication.
2. The Last Emperor
Alright, Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1987 masterpiece isn’t exactly a Chinese movie. Some Chinese audiences also hated it during its release, mostly because it was directed by a European and contained contentious scenes like a young Puyi suckling his nanny. Having watched this epic production numerous times and read about Puyi’s life, though, I can confidently say this movie is overall, a very reasonable interpretation of the last emperor’s life. I doubt anyone, not even his wives, ever understood how Puyi thought or felt. Bertolucci might be a little too blunt in his expression, but it’s fair to say he’s neither wrong nor deliberately provocative.
Historical presentation aside, The Last Emperor is almost a documentary about the Forbidden City. It doesn’t delve into the history of the palace, but there are many extended shots of it, as well as the implicit conclusion of what the Forbidden City actually is. I.E., the world’s largest prison for those doomed to be emperor. Today, tourists could stroll the same corridors and be at a restaurant an hour later, but a century ago, this was the only place the teenage ruler of China could hope to stroll. Ironically, Puyi, once liberated from the Forbidden City, longed to return as ruler. The movie depicts this irony grippingly, making it a must watch for anyone interested in pre-modern Chinese history.
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 (220 to 280 AD). Split into two parts, and featuring tens of historical characters, this Chinese movie could be confusing at times, especially 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 many awe-inspiring battle scenes.
In an interview, director John Woo admitted the movie is only 50 per cent factual. For this reason, Red Cliff should not in any way be regarded as a history lesson; there are other far more accurate Chinese movies. As cultural insight into the Chinese mentality, however, it is invaluable. Why are Liu Bei and his sworn brothers regarded by the Chinese as embodiments of honour? 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 China. There is, of course, also John Woo’s distinctive filming style. Plenty of memorable, evocative combat posturing.
4. Farewell My Concubine (霸王别姬)
The decades prior to the Second World War were tragic and tumultuous for China. The whole country was strangled by encroaching western imperialism, internal strife, and remnants of appalling medieval beliefs. This 1993 production, which earned an Oscar nomination, highlights one of the 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 identity conflicts that result are starkly, hauntingly, depicted.
Conditioned homosexuality is heavy in this movie, though worry not, like most Chinese movies, there are no explicit homosexual scenes. The story instead revolves around the haplessness of the protagonists as they live through different historical periods. Always as victims, always defenceless 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 regarding 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.
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 eunuch, taijian (太监) and huanguan (宦官), carry extreme negative connotations in the modern version of the language. These connotations includes being sycophantic, scheming, or just downright malicious.
This 1988 Hong Kong production paints a completely different picture from other Chinese movies about these emasculated ones, one in which eunuchs are depicted as hapless victims of a brutal feudalistic society. In doing so, it tells a greater truth, which is the fact that for every that for every emperor-controlling, powerful “gong gong,” there were thousands of others who spent their entire lives in servitude and mockery. At the same time, the opening chapter also reveals one of the most horrific misconceptions involving 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 thought to what actually happens within the imperial court. The resulting tragedy then becomes a spiralling trap few could 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 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. Problem through, for the uninitiated, which wuxia movie would be a great introduction? Which would be a suitable watch for those fresh to concepts of Chinese chivalry and honour?
I choose this Hong Kong production from the 90s, which was made 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. It is also quite an effective summary of what to expect from a Wuxia movie, these being incredible acrobatics, conspiracies for power, and honour in the face of deadly odds. Watch it and if you enjoy it, continue to the hundreds of other Wuxia films made over the last half a century. There is a rich, 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 revitalised a genre that was then much overshadowed by Wuxia. In short, Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain reintroduced Chinese audiences to the Xianxia (仙侠) genre.
To explain, Xianxia is much like Wuxia or martial arts films, except magic is involved. At the same time, Xianxia incorporates a major theme from the classic Chinese novel, Investiture of the Gods, which is that of protagonists wielding distinctive artefacts of power. These artefacts 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 fan of Xianxia might forget the protagonist’s name. But it is unlikely he would forget the name of the protagonist’s artefact.
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 artefacts often using religious terminology. Like Swordsman 1991 (see above), this makes the movie an introduction to an aspect of pop Chinese culture that could otherwise be obscure. If you enjoy it, I’m pleased to inform there are plenty of games and novels and movies from this genre for you to enjoy. Many of these are available online, including translated versions.