Chinese movies have existed pretty much since the beginning of cinema, starting with rickety black and white footage of downtown Shanghai. The country has a rich artistic heritage that goes back a century. But, all anyone ever wants to talk about is Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. Or Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee.
Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee are both great in their own ways, but I personally think Ang Lee’s sprawling Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is actually a bit boring. Sure, there are some nice-looking scenes, but there is so much more to Chinese film than just this one bloated, overrated big-budget blob of an action flick. Here are five more Chinese movies that I watched recently and liked, in order of how much I liked them.
5: The Flying Guillotine
I’m putting the most ridiculous entry on my Chinese movie list first. The Flying Guillotine, filmed in Hong Kong and released in 1975, is literally a movie about people throwing around a deadly hat. A hat that can decapitate people from far away. I first watched it on a whim, expecting some stupid martial arts violence and not much else. However, it quickly evolves from a ridiculous concept into an intriguing story about paranoia, loyalty, and revenge.
Twelve men are trained to use the emperor’s new deadly hat. They eventually start turning on each other. People get betrayed and killed for questioning the emperor’s authority. The protagonist is torn between his sense of duty and his sense of right and wrong. Also, there’s a lot of kung fu and ridiculous fake blood when people get their heads chopped off by the titular deadly hat. It sounds dumb but is really very good.
4: Blind Shaft
Blind Shaft (盲井) was released in 2003. It has won a bunch of awards internationally, but is, unfortunately, banned in China, despite it not being, necessarily, a political film. The novel it was based on actually won China’s highest literary award.
It’s very gritty, shot in a neo-realist style, and a harsh critique of greed and capitalism. It’s also pretty bleak and depressing. It might be the most brutal Chinese movie on this list. The story follows two con men who go around scamming coal mines in Northern China. Their scam? They find a third person to go in the mine with them, claiming him to be a relative. Then, when they’re all deep underground, they murder the other guy and collect the life insurance. Yeah. It’s definitely not a feel-good movie, but it’s still very good.
Unfortunately, Blind Shaft isn’t streaming anywhere at the moment.
3: Chungking Express
Not all Chinese movies are bleak, however. Chungking Express (重慶森林), by Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai, was released in 1994. It’s very good. It’s so good that Quentin Tarantino started his own film distribution company just to get it released in the United States.
The movie is split into two halves that are only very loosely connected. The first half is a crime drama involving a mysterious blonde female human smuggler, and a depressed canned pineapple-obsessed police officer. Then, all of a sudden, the movie changes into a romantic comedy about another depressed cop and a snack shop worker with enough manic-pixie dream girl energy to make Amélie seem like a bank teller.
The film bursts with color, and is filled with absolutely gorgeous cinematography. The narration and editing are descended from the French New Wave, almost as if Godard himself blessed the film. Also, it’s really funny.
It’s a big break from Wong Kar-Wai’s other films, which are also shot beautifully, but don’t seem to have the comedy or playful energy of Chungking Express. It’s very good. Go watch it.
2: Raise the Red Lantern
Raise the Red Lantern (大紅燈籠高高掛) is a film by Zhang Yimou, who you may or may not recognize as the director of the Jet Li movie Hero and many other classic Chinese movies. It was released in 1991, and is about as far from a sprawling martial arts epic as you can get.
The story follows a young girl during the 1920s who is sold off to become the fourth wife to some wealthy man. The man is almost an afterthought (you never see his face). The story revolves around the power struggles between the four wives as they fight to see who the husband will sleep with that night. The servants light a red lantern over that night’s favored wife’s room. If she has the red lantern going, she gets to choose the dinner and is treated to a rhythmic foot massage.
The movie is absolutely gorgeous, with a masterful use of color and shape. Each shot could be a photograph. It’s a long, slow, burn, with a tension that builds throughout the film until the end. I won’t spoiler it, but it isn’t a very happy ending for 四太太, or fourth wife, as she’s called.
Raise the Red Lantern is an excellent example of the art of filmmaking. It’s very good. Go watch it.
1: Beijing Bicycle
Beijing Bicycle or 十七岁的单车 (17 Year Old’s Bicycle) is often compared to the Italian classic, The Bicycle Thief. Both are stories about bicycles. Both are neo-realist dramas centered around working-class life, and the importance of said bicycle to the working-class protagonists. But, don’t let anyone tell you it’s a remake or a rip-off. It’s probably my favorite of all the Chinese movies I’ve been watching recently.
The story revolves around a migrant worker, Guei, who gets a job as a delivery driver. The company he works for loans him a bicycle, with the promise that he’ll own the bicycle outright after paying it off. The movie does a great job portraying the astonishment of a small villager coming to the big modern city of Beijing. Of course, on the day he’s set to finally pay it off, the damn bike gets stolen.
The movie also follows the life of the thief. It turns out it’s a 17-year-old school kid, who took the bike after his father wouldn’t buy him one. The kid’s really into bikes, and uses the stolen bicycle to impress a girl of course. But, the girl is really into the super-cool dyed hair, pierced ear cigarette smoking badass that does bicycle tricks down by the railroad tracks. The film ends with a climactic bike chase through one of Beijing’s famous hutongs (alleys) as Guei and the 17-year-old fight off the super-cool badass’s gang.
Okay, so maybe my description of the plot sounds dumb, but it’s overall a very moving film. I cried for like ten minutes after watching it. Another thing Beijing Bicycle has in common with The Bicycle Thief. Beijing Bicycle beautifully encapsulates the difficulties faced by China’s migrant workers. It’s very, very, good.
Unfortunately, Beijing Bicycle isn’t streaming anywhere right now either.
Watching Chinese Movies Today
Maybe you’ve noticed that most of the movies on this list are quite old. The newest being released almost two decades ago. Honestly, it’s been hard to find really good recent Chinese movies.
It seems like most of the Chinese movies I see out now are big-budget martial arts movies, or else kind of dopey romances and comedies. It’s the same thing that’s been happening for the last twenty years in America. Story, cinematography, and art are being pushed aside in favor of big dumb special effects. Original ideas are phased out in favor of remakes and superheroes.
As much as some people in Hollywood like to blame the “foreign markets” for the dumbing down of American movies the same trend is happening in China. The country once produced some very masterful, artistic, films. Now it’s making Crazy Alien. Americans love to blame foreigners for their problems, but perhaps it’s the spread of American-style capitalism that’s emphasizing box office receipts over art, and pushing an overarching homogenizing trend in film globally.
I also might be limited by my language skills. I only found out about the above Chinese movies through English online media, and most of them aren’t streaming on the big streaming services. There are probably still good Chinese movies being made, but it’s more difficult to find them with limited language skills and lack of support from Netflix or Amazon. If anyone knows of a good independent theater in Shanghai that plays movies subtitled in English, let me know.
China has a rich and creative cinematic tradition. There are a ton of very good Chinese movies out there that aren’t Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, you just have to work a little bit to watch them.