12 Best Modern Chinese Films3 min read

Must-watches for the China cinema connoisseur

Next up in our listicles is cinema – a dozen of the most essential films from contemporary China. As with our literature list, we are focusing on recent works, after 1980, from mainland China. That means we miss out Taiwanese films such as the work of Edward Yang, Ang Lee or Hou Hsiao-Hsien, not to mention Hong Kong directors including Wong Kar-Wai or the wacky genius of Stephen Chow. But it should be a good springboard for those looking to watch their way through the last decades of China’s cinematic history.

Farewell My Concubine (1993), dir. Chen Kaige – One of the best films to understand modern Chinese history, with the tale of two male Peking Opera performers ravaged by Red Guards in a tragedy that echoes their art

The Last Emperor (1987), dir. Bernardo Bertolucci – A foreign production, but a wonderful cinematization of the end of Imperial rule in China and how the last emperor, Puyi, joined the Japanese puppet kingdom Manchukuo

Raise the Red Lantern (1991), dir. Zhang Yimou – Another classic, shot in the old town of Pingyao, with Gong Li as the newest wife of a nobleman in 1920s China, who discovers the dark secrets underlying feudal China

Beijing Bicycle (2001), dir. Wang Xiaoshuai – A seventeen-year-old courier from the countryside has his bike stolen in Beijing, bought by a teenager trying to impress a girl, and their lives are thrown together

Shower (1999), dir. Zhang Yang – Pure delight in this film set in a Beijing bathhouse, run by an elderly father and his mentally ill son; the older son returns just as the local authorities try to demolish the bathhouse

Summer Palace (2006), dir. Lou Ye – A slice of the late 80s, with the story of university student Yu Hong’s love affair with her college boyfriend, set against the backdrop of the student protests culminating in 1989

Yellow Earth (1984), dir. Chen Kaige – Another famous film by Chen Kaige, this time pre-revolution, set in Shaanxi province in 1939, where a young peasant girl is changed forever by the arrival of a communist soldier

Red Sorghum (1987), dir. Zhang Yimou – This is one of  Zhang Yimou’s earliest and most famous films, set in a sorghum distillery during the Sino-Japanese war; also check out his other films Ju Dou and Qiu Ju

Hibiscus Town (1986), dir. Xie Jin – This film is based on a novel from Gu Hua, following the travails of Hu Yuyin, a business owner who falls from grace in the Cultural Revolution and becomes a street-sweeper

In the Heat of the Sun (1994), dir. Jiang Wen – A wonderful film, based on a novel by Wang Shuo, set in the Cultural Revolution but telling of a group of kids free to roam Beijing freely in a chaotic and nonfunctional society

Blind Shaft (2003), dir. Li Yang – Very grim and gritty cinema, and a little too close to some news items for comfort, about a pair of brutal con artists murdering their victims in the illegal coal mines of northern China

A Touch of Sin (2013), dir. Jia Zhangke – A good, if visceral, introduction to the work of Jia Zhangke, a realist director whose unflinching visions of contemporary China can be harsh but also sympathetic