With every year that passes, Chinese cinema only grows in stature and influence around the world. As cultural exchange between China and the West grows, Chinese films are unearthed like long lost treasure. Politically and socially potent, as well as lush in their poesy and romance, here are five of China’s classic films.
Spring in a Small Town (1948)
If each country is required to have an equivalent to Gone with the Wind, then this film is it for China. It is not an epic, but a small, beautifully told story of emotional discord and regret. Liyan and Yuwen play the patriarch and matriarch of the once-wealthy Dai family who live in a caring but loveless marriage. Into their stagnating lives steps Zhang Zhichen, who is a childhood friend of Liyan and a former lover of Yuwen. Yuwen is drawn once again to Zhichen, but he is enamoured with Liyan’s young, carefree sister Xiu. The moving and naturalistic film is emotionally complex and deeply sorrowful, full of unresolved feelings and forgotten words.
Yellow Earth (1984)
Within the context of more widely known works of Chinese cinema, Chen Kaige’s 1984 film Yellow Earth holds a particularly important place. The moody and artful film is one of the most influential films of the Fifth Generation movement, which broke away from the state-sanctioned polemic pieces that exemplified much of prior Chinese cinema. But, this morally complex and downcast film is a world-class piece of cinema in any context. In the film soldier Gu is collecting folk songs in order to re-write them with communist lyrics in the interest of morale-boosting propaganda. He discovers, however, a sorrowful bent to all of the songs coming out of this forgotten and isolated part of China, particularly those sung by the lonely farmer’s daughter Cuiqiao (Bai Xue), causing him to question his role and his country.
Raise the Red Lantern (1991)
In Zhang Yimou’s evocative classic Raise the Red Lantern, Gong Li plays Songlian, a former university student who is forced by financial hardship to become a concubine for a wealthy man, referred to only as “the master” and live in his compound with his three other wives, their children, and a vast array of servants. This simple story becomes resonant with emotional impact and universal truths as it dissects the impact of tradition, authority and gender imbalance over the course of a year in the compound. Using symbolically rich, red-soaked imagery, and framing that seems to literally trap actors within the confines of the shot, Raise the Red Lantern is the kind of movie that is felt as well as seen.
Chungking Express (1994)
Chungking Express is actually a Hong Kong production, but Hong Kong’s culture and history is deeply entwined with that of the Chinese mainland. In the context of this list, Chungking Express also provides a fascinating counterpoint to its more stately and composed mainland brethren. This classic film, directed by Wong Kar-Wai, is a loose, flowing tale. It is essentially two love stories that take place within the strange jumble of crowded Hong Kong. Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung both appear as police officers who are each beguiled by mysterious, flirtatious women. Chinese popstar Faye Wong puts in an incredible and enduring performance that makes this one of the freshest and most fascinatingly genre-less movies ever.
As one of the most visible Chinese directors of the new millennium, Jia Zhangke’s films have proven to be massively influential throughout the world. He weaves subtle but far-reaching narratives with a light directorial touch and unique visual language. Platform slowly reveals itself as a quiet and personal response to almost imperceptible social changes. The ensemble film tells the story of a theatre troupe based in the small city of Fenyang at the end of the 1970s. Throughout the film, the material they perform, from state-approved material to more personal and creative endeavours, reflects the state of the country at a crucial time in its history.