There are a lot of great films about China. But watch these six films and we guarantee you’ll start your China tour better informed about the country’s culture and history.
In no particular order…
Farewell my concubine
The story of two Peking Opera stars and their highs and lows living through the tumult of mid 20th century China. The film is directed by Chen Kaige, a huge figure in the revival of Chinese cinema during the 1980s. Heart-wrenching and bleak, the use of Peking Opera shows how China, in undergoing seismic political change, was pretty callous with some of its most treasured traditions.
Like Farewell My Concubine, director Zhang Yimou uses China’s 20th century backdrop to drive the story. This time we see this history through the eyes of one family and the impact on them of the Communist victory in 1949, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Zhang Yimou isn’t afraid to be sentimental, even a bit corny at times. But beneath the conformist veneer are some hard-hitting political messages that got past the censors.
The Last Emperor
The incredible story of Puyi, China’s last emperor. It starts with his lonely childhood as a boy emperor in the Forbidden City and ends with his life as a gardener under communist rule (no spoiler here – he was the last emperor after all). The only film on this list made by a non-Chinese director (don’t worry, it’s Bernardo Bertolucci) and the only one made in English.
In the mood for love
Hong Kong has been the setting for so many great films, especially thrillers and martial arts. But for a film that just evokes Hong Kong at a particular time, you won’t find anything better than In The Mood For Love by Wong Kar-wai. It stars two of Hong Kong’s greatest film stars, Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, as they wrestle with the prospect of infidelity and love in the confines of 1960s Hong Kong.
The greatest warts-and-all insight into China, apart from visiting the country, is to watch Still Life or any of Jia Zhangke’s films. Multiple stories around the construction of the Three Gorges Dam come together without sentimentality or pastiche. It’s gritty, documentary-style realism, blended together with great acting and cinematography. There’s plenty of ugliness in China’s rapid development and director Jia Zhangke is not afraid to show this fracture and alienation in his films. It’s not surprising he’s been described as the most important filmmaker in the world right now.
One of the sexiest thriller/love stories ever made. A group of Chinese students set out to kill a top Chinese official collaborating with the Japanese in Shanghai in the 1930s. They send their beautiful friend out to seduce him…what could possibly go wrong? The film is paced perfectly and the chemistry between the two leading actors (Tony Leung and Tang Wei) leaps off the screen. No surprises it’s directed by Taiwanese director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, Life of Pi, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon).
Have these films left you wanting to know more about China’s tumultuous past? Read our next blog post for a more in depth analysis of one of China’s oldest, most diverse and intriguing regions – Xi’an: The end of the ‘silk route‘.