China has a proud history of filmmaking. The first Chinese film was made in 1905, ten years after the birth of film in France. In the 1920s, Chinese big cities saw hundreds of film production companies established. Port city Shanghai played a crucial role. It was home to more than 140 production companies and also the birth place of China’s first feature drama.
In the 1930s and 40s, China gradually plummeted into decades of political turmoil as the country was involved in perennial wars which devastated its people. But Chinese cinema did not stop growing. Filmmakers turned their eyes to the cruel realities and started to make pictures with strong social commentaries.
Shanghai remained the creative center at that time. Some of the all-time classics of Chinese cinema were made by Shanghai-based companies during that period, like “Crossroads” (1937), “Angels on the Road” (1937) and “A Spring River Flows East” (1947). Those well-acted, thought-provoking films are still relevant today.
During the 1950s, the cinematic scenes in Chinese mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan were ushered into a new era. But the center gradually moved to Hong Kong. In the 1970s/80s a new generation of filmmakers emerged, many of them studied filmmaking from international schools. The new wavers like Ann Hui and Tsui Hark pushed the Cantonese identity and produced edgier projects.
However, the Hong Kong mainstream would eventually exploit characteristics from the new wave to revamp its appeal, resulting in fast paced action films taking over the market. Nicknamed the “Hollywood of the East,” Hong Kong developed its star system and distinctive genres, producing world famous filmmakers. Big studios like Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest made 1980s the golden age of Hong Kong cinema.
Meanwhile, the cinema in Taiwan would change drastically in the 1980s when a young group of writers and directors (Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien) would launch the nation’s first new wave. Dissociating themselves from Taiwan’s previous melodramas and Kung Fu efforts, the filmmakers aimed for a sense of naturalism and stillness. They addressed cultural and political matters that previous generations avoided.
In the 1990s, the Fifth Generation directors of Mainland China like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige began to win major awards in European film festivals, that’s the time many foreign audiences started to revalue Chinese-language cinema. The Sixth Generation directors were still going strong in the 2000s, winning big awards in Europe, but the whole movie market was swallowed by domestic commercial films and Hollywood blockbusters.
In its long history of cinema, China has produced many great filmmakers. Some of their works are timeless. Here we present 30 Chinese-language films you should know about.
Editor’s Note: We have a rule for all of our World Cinema Project lists that the writer can only pick one film from each director, so the absence of famous films like Zhang Yimou’s Hero, Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine and Edward Yang’s Yi Yi is not accidental, we believe we have chosen a more culturally significant film from each of these directors.
30. Enter The Dragon (1973) – Hong Kong
“Enter the Dragon” is a 1973 martial arts film by American filmmaker Robert Clouse. The film was Bruce Lee’s final completed feature and arguably his most well-known. Lee stars as a martial artist who agrees to infiltrate the den of a secluded crime lord by entering a fighting tournament.
It is considered to be the definitive Bruce Lee movie and a refined portrait of the martial arts sub-genre that he helped make so prominent. Unlike earlier martial arts films from studios like the Shaw Brothers, Lee conveyed a more naturalistic and non-flamboyant style. This style would go on to change audience’s expectations of the ‘typical’ martial arts action movie.
Despite being a co-American production, “Enter the dragon” was the first film to exhibit both Martial Arts and Chinese cinema to a truly international mainstream audience.
29. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) – Taiwan
“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” is a wuxia film directed by Ang Lee. The film follows two combatants searching for a stolen sword and a nomad fugitive who all encounter a beautiful yet highly skilled aristocrat’s daughter.
It achieved almost instant acclaim for its stunning cinematography by Peter Pau (“The Killer” and “The Swordsman”) and poetic martial arts choreography. Even though Ang Lee had previously made films in the USA (“Sense and sensibility” in 1995) it wasn’t until the “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” success that he would be seen as one of Hollywood’s major film directors.
It restored an appeal for Chinese movies to international mainstream audiences and influenced a renascence of King Hu-like martial arts films from the east.
28. Two Stage Sisters (1965) – Mainland China
There are two versions of this film. A shorter, less propaganda fuelled version (which is obviously the better edit) and a longer more politically overstated one.
The film is about two female friends who develop a sibling like relationship whilst living amongst a poor Chinese Opera troupe in the 1930s and 40s. As two women eventually gain fame and money, politics causes them to bitterly separate. Many enthusiasts of the film often comment on its possible homosexual undertones.
It’s easy to discredit this film for its state dabbled propaganda and how it almost seems to hijack its sense of artistic integrity. This is only an illusion, if you look past the overwhelming political influences; “Two stage sisters” is a lyrical and beautifully crafted tale about comradeship and personal integrity. What it lacks in political ambiguity, it makes up for with its elusive and delicately handled exploration of a bitter-sweet relationship.
27. A Better Tomorrow (1986) – Hong Kong
“A Better Tomorrow” was a turning point in Hong Kong action cinema; it launched John Woo and Chow Yun-Fat into instant international stardom.
Before this Chow Yun-Fat was part of a series of box office flops and was nicknamed by industry insiders as “box-office poison”. After the success of “A better tomorrow” Chow went on to be one of Hong Kong’s most marketable actors.
This film is pretty much a re-make of the 1967 classic film “Story of a Discharged Prisoner” and is about two polar opposite brothers whose contrasting life styles cause an array of explosive outcomes. One brother is a prosperous counterfeiter and the younger is a Hong Kong police academy graduate. When the younger brother finds out the other is a criminal he goes to considerable efforts to reform him. These efforts lead to some of the most iconic shoot outs and betrayal plots ever.
26. The One-Armed Swordsman (1967) – Hong Kong
“One Armed Swordsman” is still today referred to as one of the most well-crafted Kung-Fu/Sword play pieces in Asian film history. The film defined the cinematic standards of the soon to be popular ‘Wuxia’, which is a broad genre of fiction focusing on the adventures of martial artists.
It launched the careers of both the director Chang Cheh and the star Jimmy Wang Yu. Cheh’s stylized aesthetics and fluidly choreographed swordplay added a layer of sophistication that raised the bar for future filmmakers of the genre. After this he would go on to direct other legendary films like “Five Deadly Venoms” and “Five Element Ninjas”.
Wang Yu exhibits a rare balance of drama and screen martial arts ability, which was attempted by many other actors after, but only a few were able to achieve.
25. Infernal Affairs (2002) – Hong Kong
A tense crime-thriller directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, it tells a contrast story of a police officer who infiltrates a triad gang and another police officer who is covertly working for the same mob. Both the undercover cop and the gang mole dedicate ten years of their lives to their false existences; this causes them to develop complex identity disorders.
“Infernal Affairs” was hailed as a revival for mainstream Hong Kong cinema, which until then had been going through a creative dry spell. Most of the more interesting films were coming from either the underground or mainland.
Not only was it a popular international hit, but it was even remade by Martin Scorsese in the form of “The Departed”. Despite the majority of critics branding “Infernal Affairs” as the better film, it was actually rejected an Academy Awards nomination, and as many of you know “The Departed” went on to take best picture in 2007.
24. The Butterfly Murders (1979) – Hong Kong
“The Butterfly Murders” marked a new age in Hong Kong cinema and was a benchmark that changed how we now view the action film genre. It was also the film that Tsui Hark immediately made his name with in the east and placed him as one of the most important figures within Hong Kong’s New Wave.
The film blends traditional Wuxia, with science fiction and noiresque murder mystery conventions. Its incredible use of complex cinematography and creative effects makes it hardly surprising that Tsui would later be labelled as one of the masters of Asian cinematography.
Regarding the plot, it follows a journalist who is bidding to solve a mystery; he recruits a martial arts master and a woman to aid his endeavours. The trio travel to an enigmatic castle where they are attacked by deadly butterflies and a mysterious killer in black leather.