Since the time of the Warring States until the advent of Communism, China has seen periods of bloodshed and peace, depression and prosperity. Here are some recent films that vividly depict the extremes and oddities of Chinese history.
1. Farewell My Concubine (1993)
Chen Kaige’s Farewell was a pivotal film in bringing Chinese cinema to the international stage. My Concubine is named after the opera that the protagonist frequently performs in, which lends the film its title. This is the first and only Chinese-language film to win the Cannes Palme d’Or. It tells the story of two opera singers over the course of 50 years, and how their lives are affected by the turbulent politics of the twentieth century. It’s a brilliant study of humanity in all its glory and ugliness, both tragic and uplifting.
2. The Blue Kite (1993)
In spite of its restriction in China, Tian Zhuang-The zhuang’s Blue Kite was well-received abroad. The story is portrayed from the point of view of a young child growing up in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution and the Anti-Rightist Movement in the 1950s and 1960s. The Hundred Flowers Campaign and the Great Leap Forward are depicted in great detail in the film.
3. Hero (2002)
Hero, a film by Zhang Yimou, is based on the legend of Jing Ke’s assassination attempt on the first emperor in China, which took place in the 3rd century BCE. In an attempt to gain the King of Qin’s trust, a nameless prefect describes how he executed three assassins who had attempted to assassinate the emperor. Throughout the film, the “Rashomon effect” is subtly used to emphasize how flimsy the credibility of human narration is. An expert use of color by Zhang draws attention to the nuances in each narrative’s tone. Hero is both a visual feast and a thought-provoking examination of what it means to be a true hero, as well as a powerful investigation of sovereignty and trust.
4. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (2002)
Balzac, an adaptation of Dai Si-novel jie’s and directed by him, tells the story of two “bourgeois” youths transported to a remote Sichuan Province village for “re-education” during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. Their favorite book in the collection is Balzac’s “Ursula Mirouêt,” which the lads and the seamstress both enjoy reading. The film is a wonderful study of young perseverance overcoming adversity as a coming-of-age story that touches on themes of love and intellectual enlightenment. The film’s local flavor is enhanced by its heavy reliance on the Sichuan dialect.
5. The Banquet (2006)
It’s a convoluted tale of retribution, political intrigue, and tragic ambition in The Banquet, which was inspired by Hamlet and Ibsen’s Ghosts. Conspiracies and assassination attempts plotted by his usurping uncle, the son of the dead Chinese emperor in the 10th century, put him at risk of death. In spite of its absurdity, Feng Xiaogang’s picture has some of the best dance and fight choreography ever seen in a Chinese film.
6. Fearless (2006)
In the years surrounding the establishment of the Chinese Republic in 1912, Ronny Yu’s Fearless, based on the life of martial artist Huo Yuan-jia, tells a poignant tale of grief and redemption in the Chinese countryside. By defeating foreign fighters, a man who lost everything because of his hubris and belligerence restored China’s honor in the face of humiliation and foreign dominance. Chinese masculine virtue is defined in the film as a combination of courage, fortitude, and dignity in addition to the various styles of martial arts depicted.
7. The Curse of the Golden Flower (2006)
Another Ibsen-influenced piece of work, the play Thunderstorm, was the inspiration for Zhang Yimou’s film, which was set in imperial China. As depicted in the film, a fictional Chinese Emperor’s wife attempted to overthrow him. The depravity, corruption, and degradation of the royal household are emphasized by the discoveries of adultery and incest. The lavish period aesthetic was created in part with the hefty $45 million budget. Celluloid used to shoot the film had a rich golden gloss. Despite the film’s visual splendor, critical reception was mediocre.
8. Lust, Caution (2007)
This thriller, taken from Aileen Chang’s novel and directed by Ang Lee, was controversial because of its sexually explicit scenes. This World War II film is about a group of Chinese nationalist students who attempt to kill a high-ranking Japanese government official working for the Japanese in the city of Shanghai. The movie is hailed as a near-perfect portrayal of Shanghai in the early 1940s because of its masterful blending of sensuality and suspense.
9. Red Cliff Parts 1 & 2 (2008-09)
During the 4th century, John Woo’s two-part epic depicts significant events in China’s Three Kingdoms period. Red Cliff’s combat was depicted in a very dramatic and speculative manner, and it was one of many flashpoints of contention between Cao Cao (China’s de facto ruler and prime minister) and Sun Quan and Liu Bei (established rulers of different Chinese kingdoms who had formed a splinter faction). Critics praised Red Cliff for its visually stunning cinematography as well as its entertaining plot twists and action situations on the battlefield.
10. The Grandmaster (2013)
As Hong Kong’s Oscar entry, Wong Kar-1930s wai’s historical drama failed to make the final cut due to its own box office success. A biopic of Bruce Lee’s martial arts teacher and mentor, Ip Man, it was lauded by critics for its ambitious scale, great characterization, and smart combination of physicality and philosophy.