The 30 Best Chinese-Language Movies of All Time

23. Seventeen Years (1999) – Mainland China

Seventeen Years (1999)

“Seventeen Years” works like a parable or folk tale about forgiveness. The story and character development is incredibly complex, yet it’s formatted into an almost minimalist narrative.

The film is set in the northeast of China and focuses on a married couple who have a daughter each from previous marriages. One daughter is rebellious and the other is more academic, their differences cause them to quarrel frequently.

After a dispute over a false theft accusation between them, it results in the rebellious one accidently killing her sister via a head injury. The girl is then sent to prison for seventeen years and grows up within confinement.

Almost two decades later the disgraced sister has been released from prison for the New Year holiday. A young prison guard played by Li Bingbing in an act of charity offers to help the girl find her parents. It soon becomes apparent that girl is hesitant to return home because she does not want to face the parents she has emotionally destroyed.


22. Street Angel (1937) – Mainland China

Street Angel (1937)

“Street Angel” functions similar to a silent film, there are even scenes where no dialogue is used at all and characters say almost nothing.

Director Yuan Muzhi was famous for his slapstick comedy-dramas and like most filmmakers from the second generation, was a member of the leftist Diantong Film Company.
Despite having its physical comedy moments “Street Angel” is one of Muzhi’s more serious films. It actually begins as a comedy and develops into a tragic drama.

The film follows two sisters who escape from the war in Northeast China to Shanghai, where they were living at the mercy of their greedy landlords. Both sisters are eventually forced into prostitution and due to their lower class origins they are financially trapped in their predicament. The film stands out because of its thematic nuances and breath-taking performances (Zhou Xuan and Zhao Huishen especially).


21. Boat People (1982) – Hong Kong

Boat People (1982)

Director Ann Hui was another one of the leading figures of the Hong Kong New Wave and like Clara Law and Tang Shu Shuen she was a great example of Hong Kong’s tendency to produce exceptional female filmmakers.

The film is obviously important for its political subject matter, but historically it holds more significance for being one of the films that solidified the Hong Kong New Wave as a genuine movement. “Boat People” was the final instalment of Hui’s ‘Vietnamese Trilogy’, the previous films being “Boy from Vietnam (1978)” and “The Story of Woo Viet (1981)”.

The story is about a Japanese reporter who travels to Vietnam to gain an understanding of the effects of its Communist rule. Helped by a young Vietnamese girl, he discovers the devastating realities of post-war Vietnam.

Despite being overtly melodramatic, the film observantly utilizes long takes, creating a lyrical parallel between naturalism and dramatic tragedy.


20. Devils on the Doorstep (2000) – Mainland China

Devils on the Doorstep

A Chinese black comedy directed, co-written, produced and starring Jiang Wen. Wen is probably known more for his acting than his direction, starring in acclaimed movies like “Red Sorghum”, “Black Snow” and “The Soong Sisters”. His breakthrough film as a director was the 1994 drama “In the Heat of the Sun” which went on to win Best Picture at the Golden Horse Film Awards.

“Devils on the doorstep” was shot beautifully in black and white and is set within the final years of the Second Sino-Japanese War. It tells the story of a Chinese villager who is forced by a mysterious person to look after two prisoners from the Japanese Army.

The film initially appears to be an anti-Japanese film (which there are plenty of in the history of Chinese cinema), but as it develops you realise the film is actually criticising an attitude common in Chinese art and film. Jiang Wen famously said “I hope the film illuminates this common human psychological trait of blaming others for disasters that goes beyond Chineseness.”


19. Black Snow (1990) – Mainland China

Black Snow (1990)

Despite its esteem amongst Chinese film historians and critics, “Black Snow” has been heavily overlooked and deserves much more attention. Contemporary Chinese filmmakers like Jia Zhangke have evidentially taken a lot from this film, especially his early works like “Pickpocket” and “Unknown pleasures”.

The film captured the social impacts and political changes in China at the time. The protagonist Li Huiquan was deprived of schooling during the Cultural Revolution and ended up in a labour camp. When he was finally released and attempted to make good, it was not long until his dark past forced him back.

Like its protagonist “Black Snow” constrains its emotional output, causing the film to be fundamentally anti melodramatic and poetically monotone. This approach ironically adds more emotional impact to the scene where Li finally expresses his sorrows, resulting in one of the coolest and lyrically heart wrenching breakdown sequences in cinema history.


18. Little Cheung (2000) – Hong Kong

Little Cheung (2000)

A beautifully observed film that depicts the British-Hong Kong hand over from the perspective of a young Cantonese boy. “Little Cheung” is part of Fruit Chan’s famous ‘Hand-over trilogy’, which was made up of three films that show different perspectives of the 1997 hand-over.

Usually films like this are seen through the eyes of people directly involved with the hand-over or are at least politically conscious of it. Little Chueng is too young to really understand the significance and doesn’t have the time to concern himself with it. Despite his ignorance the effects are happening all around him, even to the extent of his young girlfriend who is a mainland refugee. Her family are constantly hiding from the police, for fears of deportation.

The heavy subtext within the film is relevant to Chueng’s naive and incoherent sensibility. From his estranged “brother” that no one speaks of apart from his grandmother, to a mysteriously bitter relationship between his Grandmother and the old barber Mr. Hoi. All these aspects hint to a quarrelsome past that has been kept as far away from Little Chueng as possible. He is the baby, the future and a symbol of a new Hong Kong.


17. West Of the Tracks (2003) – Mainland China

West Of the Tracks (2003)

“West of the Tracks” has been dubbed a nine hour Tarkovskyesque journey through the ‘rust belt of North-East China’ and depicts its bitter-sweet demise.

Director Wang Bing is one of the most prominent figures of China’s new documentary movement; known for his incredibly long and physically demanding projects. The ‘new documentary movement’ is a term coined to outline several documentaries that were made outside of China’s censorship system and illustrate the lives of everyday people. The movement took off more noticeably after 1997 when the availably of DV cameras were made more accessible.

Fellow Chinese auteur Jia Zhangke summed “West of the Tracks” up perfectly – “The film depicts a panoramic scene of the decline of China’s state-owned factories following the failures of its planned economy. Landscapes of desolate factories and portraits of people living in difficult predicament reflect a poetic sorrow.”


16. The Blue Kite (1993) – Mainland China

The Blue Kite (1993)

Directed by the Chinese auteur Tian Zhuangzhuang, the story of “The Blue Kite” is told from the perspective of a young boy growing up in Beijing during the 1950s/60s. Sharing structural similarities to Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” the film is broken up into three episodes, each one representing different stages of a family’s evolution.

The chapters focus on significant male characters in the young boy’s life, beginning with the “Father”, followed by the “Uncle” and concluding with the “Stepfather”.

Like Zhang Yimou’s film “To Live”, the film was originally banned from being screened in China due to their purported anti-rightist and Cultural Revolution accentuations. Another facet that links Yimou and Zhuangzhuang is they were both major figures within Chinese cinema’s fifth generation (mid 1980s – late 1990s). However, unlike the films of Yimou, “The Blue Kite” is much softer, applying a quieter and more meditative pace.