Forget Hollywood Don’t Miss These 16 Great Chinese Movies

Before I begin, I’d like to make one point clear: Hollywood is not the be-all and end-all of movie. While it is true that Hollywood is home to some of the world’s best filmmakers, it is also true that the infatuation with Hollywood is a result of some less evident elements. To begin with, as the brilliance Satyajit Ray points out, it is difficult for filmmakers in the rest of the world to make a film like Spartacus because such an intricate set is beyond their means. As a result, they must come up with new ways to enrich their art while keeping expenditures to a minimal. The glamour associated with Hollywood frequently overshadows the works of artists from other countries, even if they are as talented as, if not better than, American filmmakers.

Although China and the surrounding East Asian nations are making enormous achievements in filmmaking, we don’t see them receiving proper credit or attention for their efforts. If Asian filmmakers wish to gain the necessary attention, they must equal the production budgets and technological breakthroughs of Western filmmakers.

In recent years, China has been a regular source of delight for cinephiles all over the world (Wong Kar-‘In Wai’s the Mood for Love’ is ranked seventh on our list of the top movies of all time). China’s filmmakers have been experimenting with diverse styles, producing innovative works that stand out from most other kinds of filmmaking. Here is a list of the best Chinese films of all time. Some of the best Chinese movies are available on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime.

 The Legend of Drunken Master (1996)

The film is a continuation of the plot of ‘Drunken Master (1978),’ but this time Jackie Chan plays the lead. Chan plays Wong Fei-hung, who is originally involved in a dispute with British expats whom he believes are taking valuable and indigenous ginseng from his nation. As the feud intensifies, Fei-hung enjoys engaging in a kind of Kung Fu known as Drunken Boxing, in which he considers himself to be fearsome. While most of the battle sequences appear to be at most amusing, they are intricately produced and executed, making ‘The Legend of Drunken Master’ one of the most experimental Kung Fu films of all time. Keep an eye out for Chan, who appears to be more younger and more agile.

 Lust, Caution (2007)

If you’ve seen Ang Lee’s critically acclaimed espionage thriller ‘Lust, Caution,’ you should also see ‘Brokeback Mountain.’ Based on events that occurred following the Japanese takeover of Shanghai, it depicts a gang of university students attempting to assassinate a prominent official of Shanghai’s Japanese-controlled administration. Lee’s second picture to win the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

  Infernal Affairs (2002)

Originally a Hong Kong-based film, any list of Chinese cinema is incomplete without ‘Infernal Affairs.’ Not only is it the picture from which Scorcese built ‘The Departed,’ which was not nearly as brilliant, but ‘Infernal Affairs’ stands out as one of the best criminal thrillers of the 2000s in its own right. This film will have you gasping for air as it follows the paths of an undercover cop and a triad member who infiltrates the police department.

 Raise the Red Lantern (1991)

‘Raise the Red Lantern,’ one of the films of the fifth generation banned in the mainland, tells the story of a young woman who becomes a concubine of a wealthy warlord during the warlord era. The film’s images, like ‘Farewell My Concubine,’ have a particular opulence that will sweep you off your feet. Although the director denies it, several critics believe that the iconography of the warring lords in this picture represents the fragmentation of society in China after the Cultural Revolution.

 House of Flying Daggers (2004)

With a shoestring budget of $12 million USD by modern standards, ‘House of Flying Daggers’ went on to gross more than 8 times its budget at the box office, thanks to an incredible cast, mind-blowing production design and editing, and some exceptional direction. The film, starring Zhang Ziyi, one of the top Chinese actresses today, is set in 8th century China, when there were several rebel factions vying for control in the middle of a corrupt government. The House of Flying Daggers is a faction that specializes in flying daggers that can kill in the blink of an eye. When the government dispatches two police officers to spy on a dancer named Mei who has ties to the respected faction, one of them falls for Mei and misleads the cops, resulting in an even more complicated turn of events. ‘House of Flying Daggers’ is a thrilling adventure with all the characteristics of a successful film.

 Still Life (2013)

‘Still Life’ tells the story of two persons looking for their spouses in a little hamlet along the Yangtze River that is slowly being destroyed due to the development of the Three Gorges Dam. After winning the award for best film at the Venice International Film Festival, Chinese officials promoted it both at home and internationally as a result of its success. Jia Zhangke’s flexibility as a director is on display in this picture. Having already dealt with a wide range of subjects, ‘Still Life’ is yet another amazing achievement to his credit.

 Not One Less (1999)

‘Not One Less,’ a film about a social issue, focuses on a time when China faced a scarcity of educated people and the numerous steps the government had to take to send the booming population to school. The film emphasizes the government’s concern about a very low number of rural people enrolling their children in schools, rather than the urban population, who has always had an affection for education. Set in the 1990s, the film begins with a teenage teacher, Wei, who has been assigned as a replacement teacher at a rural school and is tasked with retaining all of the kids within the school, as many students have defected to larger cities in search of work. The video features actual characters and was shot in a documentary format, yet it has the feel of a film with a social mission

 Summer Palace (2006)

Set against the backdrop of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, the film recounts Yu Hong’s (Hao Lei) school and subsequent university life, when she meets her lover Zhou Wei (Guo Xiaodong). They are having a passionate and abusive affair as the Tiananmen Square demonstrations are taking place. The film then follows the protagonists several years after the cold war’s end to meet up with the now embittered and disillusioned. The film is not only You Hong’s personal story, but it is also a horrifying portrayal of state-inflicted brutality.

 The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978)

‘The 36th Chamber of Shaolin,’ a rags-to-riches story that is possibly one of the most renowned Chinese films outside of China, is the story of Yude, who eventually becomes Monk San Te, and it is Yude’s journey to become San Te that is worthwhile. Yude is persuaded by his teacher to join a rebellion against the government, but the government easily crushes the rebellion and kills many, prompting Yude to flee and seek refuge at a Shaolin temple, where he is accepted as a disciple after much persuasion and trains in all 35 chambers of the temple to master the craft of Kung Fu. He defeats the evil general and constructs a 36th chamber allowing laymen to readily acquire Kung Fu after mustering a great deal of strength and knowledge of the old art form. The film ‘The 36th Chamber of Shaolin’ is widely regarded as the best Kung Fu film ever filmed.

 Red Sorghum (1987)

Adapted from Nobel Prize-winning novelist Mo Yan’s novel ‘Red Sorghum Clan,’ this film follows the life of a lady who works in a distillery that produces sorghum whiskey. What distinguishes this picture from others is its lack of refinement and stylization, which successfully keeps the essence of peasant life.

 Eat Man Drink Woman (1994)

‘Eat Man Drink Woman,’ one of Ang Lee’s earliest works, is the “father knows best” recipe that went on to earn a cult following and excellent reviews. Starting with Mr Chu, a cook who is also the father of three spinster daughters — the eldest, Jia-Jen, is a chemistry teacher, the second, Jia-Chien, works at an airline, and the youngest, Jia-Ning, works at a restaurant and is also a student. As the weekend approached, Mr Chu would prepare a lavish dinner for himself and his three daughters, and the dinner table would be the site of their heated debates about their love lives and the future, much to the chagrin of the girls. Things take a surprising turn when Mr Chu declares that he is going to marry again one fine day. ‘Eat Man Drink Woman’ showcases the good aspects of a dysfunctional family while they eat delectable Chinese specialties.

 Kung Fu Hustle (2004)

‘Kung Fu Hustle’ takes place in 1940s China, when law and order are in disarray and cities are ruled by crime lords and legendary criminal gangs. Sum is the overlord of the Axe gang, one of the city’s most dreaded gangs. Sing and Bone, two buddies, were born and reared in Pigsty, one of the lowest urban neighborhoods that has yet to be plundered by members of various gangs due to its poverty. As the film unfolds, it becomes clear that many of the slum dwellers are actually Kung Fu masters in disguise, and Sing and Bone must pick which side they are on. The film was hailed for its flawless depiction of martial arts and humour, as well as its detailed aesthetics.

 Days of Being Wild (1990)

‘Days of Being Wild,’ another title from Wong Kar-filmography, Wai’s is his second feature when he was still on his way to becoming one of the most prominent directors of the contemporary age. Here we see a more cautious Kar-Wai, who has not yet adopted his hallmark experimental tactics. Nonetheless, the film, which follows the life of the playboy Yuddy (Leslie Cheung) and his affairs with women, paved the way for classics such as ‘Chunking Express’ and ‘In the Mood for Love.’

 Hero (2002)

Jet Li plays the Nameless ‘Hero’ in this magnificent journey, and be prepared to be stunned by plenty of surprises along the way. ‘Hero’ begins with the Kingdom of Qin, the most powerful of the seven Chinese feudal kingdoms, which, as usual, is under siege from assassination and sabotage efforts. More specifically, the King perceives a threat from three feared warriors – Broken Sword, Flying Snow, and Sky – who have purportedly been sent by the remaining six warring countries. Nameless is a provincial official in Qin’s reign who is said to have defeated all three warriors. The monarch, surprised and taken aback by the shocking revelation, summons Nameless to his palace to recount the heroic deed. But not everything is as simple and clear as it appears. Upon its initial release, ‘Hero’ received critical acclaim and was dubbed “amazing” by numerous western film journalists and reviews.

 To Live (1994)

Adapted on Yu Hua’s novel of the same name, it follows the story of Fugui (Ge You), a compulsive gambler who loses his wife and home at the roll of the dice. The plot then follows Fugui’s ordeals as the country sinks into turmoil, culminating in the May 4th Revolution. This film, also a fifth-generation gem, critically re-examines the country’s past, where party propaganda obscures ground realities that are not necessarily congruent with the party’s grand-narrative.

 The Killer (1989)

‘The Killer,’ a trademark John Woo film, tells the story of Ah Jong, a hitman who accidently damages the eye of a club singer Jennie during his final assignment. Despite the fact that Jennie’s predicament is his fault, he follows her and falls in love with her. To obtain her an eye transplant, he accepts another job for killing someone in exchange for money, but he is duped and does not get paid. As the film progresses, the police, the assassin, and the assassin’s bosses engage in a series of bloody, fast-paced encounters, all of which culminate to the assassin’s death and the removal of the terrible mob bosses. ‘The Killer’ was a tremendous hit, with a high action rating but a weak storyline. It is frequently regarded as one of the best 50 Asian films of all time.

 24 City (2008)

Jia Zhangke’s avant-garde genre, this film employs a narrative style with elements of both actuality and fiction. It seeks to demonstrate how the closure of a real state-owned firm impacts workers by employing a documentary-style technique in which actors deliver produced interviews.

 Chungking Express (1994)

‘Chungking Express,’ a film by Wong Kar-wai, the famed filmmaker known for his visually fascinating on-screen miracles, tells the story of two cops struggling with heartbreaks. The first officer, also known as Cop 223, a.k.a. Qiwu, broke up with his girlfriend May on April 1st. Cop 223 purchases pineapple cans that are about to go bad on May 1st in memory of their romance and because May was a pineapple enthusiast. On May 1st, he meets another woman with whom he quickly falls in love, not understanding what would happen to him later. The second narrative is about Cop 663, who has split up with his air hostess lover but meets another female who works as a waitress in a restaurant. ‘Chungking Express,’ like all of Kar-films, wai’s is a performance-intensive, bright, and unforgettable affair worth every second of your time.

 The Blue Kite (1993)

‘The Blue Kite,’ along with ‘Farewell My Concubine,’ is one of the most influential films of China’s Fifth Generation. Banned in China due to its anti-Communist Party attitude, this story, told in three parts from the perspective of a small kid, combines the continual sense of terror created by the presence of the party in all aspects of one’s life with the tragic state of affairs in the boy’s home.

 Red Cliff (2008)

Another masterwork by John Woo on this list, ‘Red Cliff,’ was filmed and released in two parts. The first chapter begins in 208 A.D. with the Han Dynasty. Cao Cao is Emperor Xian of Han’s erratic Prime Minister, persuading the latter to pursue war against the western and southern rebel kingdoms, altering the course of history forever. With a million-strong army and an imminent conflict that could be worth a spectacle, the rebel kingdoms band together against a common foe as the decisive showdown takes place at the Battle of Red Cliff, which is remembered as one of the most complex naval battles in human history. ‘Red Cliff’ has been acclaimed as a timeless masterpiece with enormous action, triumphant combat moments, and edge-of-your-seat intensity — everything you’d expect from a John Woo picture. The research for the centuries-old warfare techniques depicted in the film exemplifies Woo’s desire for perfection.

 Happy Together (1997)

The film that helped Wong Kar-Wai win the best director prize at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival is about two men who aim to rekindle their already dormant relationship by traveling to Argentina, expecting that the fresh atmosphere will help them re-discover themselves. Kar-daring Wai’s play with camera gives the audience a more visceral sense of the relationship’s turbulence and abuse.

 Aftershock (2010)

‘Aftershock,’ a historical catastrophe film that grossed over $100 million at the box office, is based on the Tangshan earthquake of 1976, which killed over 242,000 people in its aftermath. The story revolves around the Daqing family, who had twins, Fang Deng and Fang Da, who live in an apartment in Tangshan’s suburbs. An earthquake strikes in the early morning hours of 1976, killing the husband and trapping his wife Li and their twins beneath the rubble. In their efforts to locate the captive youngsters, they locate the boy – Fang Da and Fang Deng, who are displaced, found, and adopted by a military family. Years later, when eloping from her adoptive parents, she discovers her long-lost sibling and, finally, her mother, as well as the fact that she is pregnant, which she had not planned for. ‘Aftershock’ is one of the most successful Chinese films, receiving critical acclaim from around the world.

 In the Heat of the Sun (1994)

A heartbreaking tale of growing up intertwined with events of love, friendship, and loss, with a decidedly post-modern flavor. It follows the personal narrative of a teenager growing up in a specific territory in Beijing, into which he occasionally interjects retroactively. The film’s greatness resides in the fact that the narrator is not a demi-god-like entity who keeps track of all the events and individuals in the film, but rather a person who, like us, occasionally lies and exaggerates in order to generate false perceptions about himself in front of others. Without professing moral superiority, the film embraces human fallibility and faults.

 Mountain Patrol (2004)

The film is mostly set in Kekexii, in the Quinghai-Tibet region, and tells the story of poachers of the nearly extinct Tibetan Antelope and rangers who, in the absence of government assistance, have safeguarded the animals on their own. Ritai is the commander of the patrol unit, one of whose members was just executed. They begin on a mission to find the poachers after being joined by Ga, a journalist, with one trail leading to another. ‘Mountain Patrol’ is harsh and wild at times, and largely imitates Hollywood in terms of brutality and gore, yet it succeeds in preserving its Asian flavor.

 City of Life and Death (2009)

‘City of Life and Death’ is a brutally graphic war film about Japan’s takeover of China and the slaughter at Nanjing, China’s capital. The film is a sad tale of terrible brutality committed by mankind on each other, progressing to the point of absolute insanity when it becomes difficult to make sense of the carnage any longer. It’s one of the most realistic portrayals of combat you’ll ever see, told with absolute impartiality and almost frightening emotional dryness.

 Fearless (2006)

‘Fearless,’ a biographical film, is based on the life and times of Huo Yuanjia, a renowned Wushu martial arts genius who brought tremendous recognition to China with his publicized martial arts tournaments prior to the foundation of the Republic of China. Huo, by primarily defeating those from the West, instilled a tremendous level of nationalism among Chinese locals, and his bouts against Japanese wrestlers would undoubtedly demolish Japan in the aftermath of Japan’s invasion of China. Jet Li excels in his role as Huo, and ‘Fearless’ is one of his best films to yet. The manner the action sequences were filmed is also remarkable.

 Devils on the Doorstep (2000)

Along the Great Wall of China’s foothills, a farmer named Ma is welcomed by a rather unpleasant man carrying a gunny sack containing two men — a Japanese army man and a Chinese translator. It was the height of the Japanese invasion of China, and the mysterious man requests that Ma keep the men inside the gunny sack well-fed for a few days while interrogating them for information on enemy establishments. Ma, a fearful and timid man, agrees, but his and the villagers’ patience runs thin when the strange guy does not return for another six months. Ma chooses to conceal the prisoners in one of the Great Wall of China’s watchtowers, but when the locals find out and return one of the Japanese troops to the Japanese camp, they are not welcomed with excitement because the captives were thought to be dead and are now lauded as war heroes. Because of its political incorrectness, the picture was banned in China.

  Farewell My Concubine (1993)

You haven’t experienced grandness until you’ve seen Kaige Chen’s ‘Farewell My Concubine.’ Set against the backdrop of Chinese history, as the country is torn apart by political turmoil one after the other, from the warlord era to the May 4th Cultural Revolution, this film follows the changing relationship of two actors who are fated to be friends because of their roles in a popular indigenous play that they have been performing since childhood.

 Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Ang Lee’s masterwork remains regarded as one of the best action pictures of all time. ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ is a captivating display of skill and metaphysical-frippery wrapped in a fascinating narrative that will keep you on the edge of your seat. A sacred sword is taken from Yu Shu Lien’s hands, who herself received it from the famous Master Li. An enraged Lee goes on a journey of romantic and thrilling adventures, complete with unexpected turns. There’s no disputing that the film suffers from a lack of momentum. However, the way Ang Lee filmed the film, with symbolic and deliberate direction, is simply a delight to behold and savor.

 In the Mood for Love (2000)

There is no other film that deserves to be ranked first. The photography, narrative, plot, and background score combine to create a delectable combination that will leave you drunk for quite some time. Wong Kar-Wai is a conjurer who transforms one of cinema’s most clichéd and banal subjects, adultery, into a really timeless work of art. The unconventional usage of music from both the West and China enables the film transcend its regional specificities and become a work of art with a transnational spirit. I must remark that it utterly reinvented Nat King Cole’s “Quizas,” which was featured on the film’s soundtrack.