The Greatest Chinese films: Have you seen?



BBC Culture this year polled 209 critics in 43 countries to find the best in world cinema – 100 greatest foreign-language films.

13 Chinese-language films were selected, as below. How many have you seen?


No. 98, In the Heat of the Sun/阳光灿烂的日子


A 1994 Chinese film directed and written by Jiang Wen. This was Jiang Wen’s first foray into directing after years as a leading man.

The film is set in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution. It is told from the perspective of Ma Xiaojun, nicknamed Monkey (played by Xia Yu; some of Monkey’s experiences mimic director Jiang’s during the Revolution), who is a teenage boy at the time. Monkey and his friends are free to roam the streets of Beijing day and night because the Cultural Revolution has caused their parents and most adults to be either busy or away and school system was extremely nonfunctional then.

Most of the story happens during one summer, so the main characters are even more free because there is no school. The events of that summer revolve around Monkey’s dalliances with his roguish male friends, and his subsequent angst-filled crush on one of the older female characters, Mi Lan (Ning Jing). Mi Lan falls instead for Monkey’s friend, Liu Yiku.


No. 93, Raise the Red Lantern/大红灯笼高高挂


A 1991 film directed by Zhang Yimou and starring Gong Li. It is an adaption by Ni Zhen of the 1990 novel Wives and Concubines by Su Tong. The film was later adapted into an acclaimed ballet of the same title by the National Ballet of China, also directed by Zhang.

Set in the 1920s, the film tells the story of a young woman who becomes one of the concubines of a wealthy man during the Warlord Era. It is noted for its opulent visuals and sumptuous use of colours. The film was shot in the Qiao Family Compound near the ancient city of Pingyao, in Shanxi Province. Although the screenplay was approved by Chinese censors, the final version of the film was banned in China for a period.


No. 78, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon/卧虎藏龙


A 2000 wuxia film, conceived and directed by Ang Lee. It features an international cast of Chinese actors, including Chow Yun-fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi and Chang Chen. In 19th century Qing Dynasty China, a warrior (Chow Yun-Fat) gives his sword, Green Destiny, to his lover (Michelle Yeoh) to deliver to safe keeping, but it is stolen, and the chase is on to find it. The search leads to the House of Yu where the story takes on a whole different level.


No. 71, Happy Together/春光乍泄


A 1997 Hong Kong romance film directed by Wong Kar-wai, starring Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-wai, that depicts a turbulent romance.

Lai (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) and his boyfriend, Ho (Leslie Cheung), arrive in Argentina from Hong Kong, seeking a better life. Their highly contentious relationship turns abusive and results in numerous break-ups and reconciliations. When Lai befriends another man, Chang (Chen Chang), he sees the futility of continuing with the promiscuous Ho. Chang, however, is on his own personal journey and, ultimately, both Lai and Ho find themselves far from home and desperately lonely.


No. 63, Spring in a Small Town/小城之春


A Chinese film released in 1948 and directed by Fei Mu. The film was based on a short story by Li Tianji, and was produced by the Wenhua Film Company.

Though its reputation suffered after 1949 in mainland China after the Communist revolution, within the last 20 years it had become known as one of the greatest Chinese films ever made.

Dai Liyan, the crippled patriarch of the once prosperous Dai family, lives in his ruined family compound with his wife, Liyan. Liyan’s childhood friend, Dr. Zhang Zhichen, visits and she is torn between loyalty to her family and her love for Zhang.


No. 56, Chungking Express/重庆森林


A 1994 Hong Kong drama film written and directed by Wong Kar-wai. The film consists of two stories told in sequence, each about a lovesick Hong Kong policeman mulling over his relationship with a woman. The first story stars Takeshi Kaneshiro as a cop obsessed with his breakup with a woman named May, and his encounter with a mysterious drug smuggler (Brigitte Lin). The second stars Tony Leung as a police officer roused from his gloom over the loss of his flight attendant girlfriend (Valerie Chow) by the attentions of a quirky snack bar worker (Faye Wong)


No. 54, Eat Drink Man Woman/饮食男女


A 1994 Taiwan comedy-drama film directed by Ang Lee and starring Sihung Lung, Yu-wen Wang, Chien-lien Wu, and Kuei-mei Yang.

Master Chef Chu (Sihung Lung) is semi-retired and lives at home with his three unmarried daughters, Jia-Jen (Kuei-Mei Yang), a religious chemistry teacher; Jia-Chien (Chien-Lien Wu), an airline executive; and Jia-Ning (Yu-wen Wang), an employee at a fast-food joint. Life at the family’s house revolves heavily around preparing and eating an elaborate dinner every Sunday. The stability of these meals gives them all strength as they deal with new romantic relationships and disappointments.


No. 41, To Live/活着


A Chinese film directed by Zhang Yimou in 1994, starring Ge You, Gong Li, and produced by the Shanghai Film Studio and ERA International. It is based on the novel of the same name by Yu Hua.

Fugui’s (Ge You) gambling leads him to lose everything, including his wife, Jiazhen (Gong Li), and his home. Over the following decades, he struggles to live as a peasant. He tries joining a theater troupe, and then he enlists in the Chinese army in hopes of being a good citizen. Yet, just as things get better — and Jiazhen and their baby daughter return to him — the Cultural Revolution begins and tragedy continues to strike his family. Despite numerous hardships, Fugui never gives up hope.


No. 38, A Brighter Summer Day/牯岭街少年杀人事件


A 1991 Taiwanese drama film directed by Edward Yang and is considered by most to be a masterpiece of contemporary cinema.

A young boy experiences his first love, his friendships and life’s injustices when growing up in 1960s Taiwan.


No. 25 Yi Yi/一一


A 2000 drama film written and directed by Edward Yang.

Set in Taiwan, the film follows the lives of the Jian family from the alternating perspectives of the three main family members: father N.J. (Nien-Jen Wu), teenage daughter Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee) and young son Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang). N.J., disgruntled with his current job, attempts to court the favor of a prominent video game company while Ting-Ting and Yang-Yang contend with the various trials of youth, all while caring for N.J.’s mother-in-law, who lies in a coma.


No. 18, A City of Sadness/悲情城市


A 1989 Taiwan historical drama film directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien. It tells the story of a family embroiled in the “White Terror” that was wrought on the Taiwanese people by the Kuomintang government (KMT) after their arrival from mainland China in the late 1940s.

What seem to be mundane events experienced by the four Lin brothers illustrate the pain and struggles of the people in Taiwan during the times of February 28.


No. 12, farewell my concubine/霸王别姬


A 1993 Chinese drama film directed by Chen Kaige. It is one of the central works of the Fifth Generation movement that brought Chinese film directors to world attention.

In 1924, young Cheng Dieyi (Leslie Cheung) begins training at the Beijing Opera House at the same time as Duan Xiaolou (Fengyi Zhang). Cheng specializes in playing female parts, often against Duan’s commanding male leads. While pretending to be in love with Duan onstage, Cheng begins to develop actual romantic feelings for his co-star, which are not reciprocated. Over the next 50 years, the two men maintain a complicated friendship as China undergoes turbulent changes.


No. 9, In the Mood for Love/花样年华


A 2000 Hong Kong romantic drama film written, produced, and directed by Wong Kar-wai.

In 1962, journalist Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) and his wife move into a Hong Kong apartment, but Chow’s spouse is often away on business. Before long, the lonely Chow makes the acquaintance of the alluring Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung Man-yuk), whose own significant other also seems preoccupied with work. As the two friends realize their respective partners are cheating on them, they begin to fall for one another; however, neither wants to stoop to the level of the unfaithful spouses.


3 thoughts on “The Greatest Chinese films: Have you seen?

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