Over the last twenty years, mainland China’s cinematic work has become more readily available. China has a long and well-established history of filmmaking; like many other nations that have oppressed free speech and personal expression, Chinese filmmakers with a message had to bury it under layers of content and symbolism.
You might have already seen a couple of these films, but if you haven’t, then these five films are an easy entry into a rich and cultural collection.
1. ‘Farewell My Concubine’ (1993); Drama (Mandarin with English subtitles); Director Chen Kaige (surname first in Chinese)
Available on DVD and also available on Netflix with subscription.
I’m kicking this little list off with my favourite – a sumptuous drama spanning half a century of the cultural revolution and its impact on the Chinese population. The film focuses on the lives of two men who meet when they are young boys and are enrolled in the Peking opera. Director Chen joined the Red Guards as a teenager before studying film at the Beijing Film Academy. Like many others, Chen denounced his father to the authorities – a terrible mistake which many believe has greatly influenced his artistic visual storytelling and his desire to make amends. The film was banned in China for many years as it was interpreted as a criticism of the ruling Chinese authorities. ‘Farewell my Concubine’ is a stunning, beautiful film and a 1993 Palme d’Or winner.
2. ‘Raise the Red Lantern’ (1991); Drama (Mandarin with English subtitles); Director Zhang Yimou
Available to rent from LoveFilm by post, DVD to buy at Amazon UK, Netflix with subscription and somewhere on YouTube there is a full version with English subtitles.
Set in 1920s China – sometimes referred to as the Warlord era before the Chinese Civil War – ‘Raise the Red Lantern’ is a story about tradition, enslavement and subservience. Songlian, the protagonist, is a nineteen year old girl who is taken as the fourth wife (concubine in reality) of a wealthy local warlord. The wives compete against each other for the attention of their husband; each wife has a red lantern outside her room and if her lantern is lit and raised then she has been selected to spend the night with her master. The film focuses on the duplicity of the females in the household, fighting to be the first lady and the fact that none of them can ever escape. ‘Raise The Red Lantern’ has gorgeous costumes and is another sumptuously colourful film; however, it’s the presence of the very talented Gong Li that steers this film to award winning success (BAFTA winner, Oscar nomination 1992). Gong Li also stars in ‘Farewell My Concubine’.
3. ‘House of Flying Daggers’ (2004); Drama (Mandarin with English subtitles); Director Zhang Yimou
Available on Amazon Video, DVD from pretty much anywhere and iTunes
This is an elegant and surreal all-action martial arts film with a strong love story. What you need to know is that the martial arts element in this film is in the Wuxia (pronounced woo-sha) style. This is a Chinese-specific genre that features martial arts, sorcery and features a hero with humble beginnings. The visuals in this film are the key to its success and the martial arts scenes that play out like dance moves. At a time when ‘The Matrix’ and ‘Blade’ were getting everyone talking, this was the film mopping up the international awards.
4. ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ (2000); Action/Drama (Mandarin); Director Ang Lee
Available on Sky, Netflix and Amazon to buy/watch.
This film really kicked it all off and found a huge new audience for Chinese cinema in the West. Martial arts had always been associated with the cinema of Hong Kong. This was an international production from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and US starring big recognisable names and directed by a much respected Taiwanese director, Ang Lee. Another film in the Wuxia style ‘Crouching Tiger’ delivers brilliant martial arts action scenes, magic, treachery and compelling performances from Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun-fat. Neither of these actors spoke Mandarin as a native tongue and this was heavily criticised by audiences when it was released in China. ‘Crouching Tiger’ picked up over 40 awards and became the highest-earning foreign language film in the history of American cinema.
5. ‘Blind Shaft’ (2003); Crime/Drama (Mandarin); Director Li Yang
Available on Netflix Hidden Gems.
This is a diversion from the previous, colourful and action-packed recommendations, but ‘Blind Shaft’ is a really good film with comedic moments. Gritty enough to be banned in China, the film is about a couple of con-artists working in terrible conditions in an illegal coal mine. They hatch a plot to murder a fellow worker and make it look like a work related accident in order to gain compensation. ‘Blind Shaft’ was the winner of the Silver Bear award at the 2003 Berlin Film Festival.
So there you have it; no excuses not to get into the wonderful films China has to offer now. This list was compiled by one of our World Cinema experts Wan Tyszkiewicz.