10 Classic Chinese Films That Everyone Should Watch

January 20, 2022

The first ever Chinese film, Dingjun Mountain (定军山), was made in 1905 by Beijing's Fengtai Photography Studio and consisted of a recording of Peking opera star Tan Xinpei.

In the decades that followed, Chinese cinema would go through two golden ages (the 1930s and 1944-1951) before entering a period of restriction, then rise again with the critically acclaimed works of the Fifth and Sixth Generation, the emergence of New Documentary and dGeneration filmmakers, and the technically sophisticated blockbusters which now attract multiplex audiences in record numbers.

It’s impossible to provide a definitive guide to classic Chinese films with a relatively limited list, but the following selection of ten titles spanning the first golden age to recent international prize winners should serve as a useful introduction.

The Goddess (神女) (Dir. Wu Yonggang, 1934)

Goddess The Goddess (神女) © 1934 Lianhua Film Company

This film is a landmark from the first golden age of Chinese cinema starring Ruan Lingyu as a devoted mother who turns to prostitution to ensure that her son receives an education, but becomes trapped in an arrangement with a degenerate gambler. Produced by the leftist Lianhua Film Company, this is a heart-wrenching indictment of social inequality with an iconic performance at its centre.

Where to watch: Streaming on the Modern Chinese Studies YouTube Channel

Queen of Sports (體育皇后) (Dir. Sun Yu, 1934)

Queen of Sports Queen of Sports (體育皇后) © 1934 Lianhua Film Company

This charming tale of a rural girl (Li Lili) attending athletics college in Shanghai promoted fitness as being essential to China’s future during a time of Japanese militarism. Perfectly tailored to the irrepressible spirit of its energetic star, it also extolls the virtues of sportsmanship since the talented heroine must resist copious cosmopolitan temptations if she is to stay on track.

Where to watch: Streaming on the Modern Chinese Studies YouTube Channel

Princess Iron Fan (鐵扇公主) (Dirs. Wan Guchan and Wan Laiming, 1941)

Princess of the Iron Fan Princess Iron Fan (鐵扇公主) © 1941 Xinhua Film Company

China’s first animated feature is an adaptation of a section of the sixteenth-century mythology novel Journey to the West (西遊記) which finds the Monkey King and his merry companions sparring with the temperamental titular princess. Juggling abundant cheeky slapstick humour with a sincere message about working together at times of crisis, this is a truly delightful fantasy.

Where to watch: Streaming on the Modern Chinese Studies YouTube Channel

Spring in a Small Town (小城之春) (Dir. Fei Mu, 1948)

Spring Small Town Spring in a Small Town (小城之春) © 1948 Wenhua Film Company

Fei Mu’s lyrical chamber piece takes place in a ruined town after the Second Sino-Japanese War where a married couple (Wei Wei and Shi Yu) find their emotionally distant relationship further troubled by a visit from a childhood friend. An empathic psychological exploration of the trauma caused by war which also poignantly emphasizes the repressed desires of its dutiful female protagonist.

Where to watch: Streaming on the Modern Chinese Studies YouTube Channel

Yellow Earth (黄土地) (Dir. Chen Kaige, 1984)

Yellow Earth Yellow Earth (黄土地) © 1984 Guangxi Film Studio

Fifth Generation figurehead Chen Kaige made his directorial debut with this visually impactful, if politically ambiguous, depiction of provincial life which emphasizes the vast surrounding landscape over dialogue. Set in 1939, it follows a Communist soldier who comes to a backward village to collect folk songs only to strike up a friendship with a young peasant girl who yearns to escape.

Raise the Red Lantern (大红灯笼高高挂) (Dir. Zhang Yimou, 1991)

Raise the Red Lantern Raise the Red Lantern (大红灯笼高高挂) © 1991 ERA International, China Film Co-Production Corporation

Zhang Yimou’s ravishing adaptation of Su Tong’s novella revolves around a staggering performance from Gong Li as the fourth wife of a Republican era lord gradually losing her sanity as the walls of the opulent estate close in around her. The third entry in Zhang’s celebrated ‘Red trilogy’, this film is a powerful allegory for oppressive hierarchies and makes unrivalled use of colour and shadow.

Where to watch: Streaming on Amazon Prime Video

The Dream Factory (甲方乙方) (Dir. Feng Xiaogang, 1997)

Dream Factory The Dream Factory (甲方乙方) © 1997 Beijing Film, Beijing Forbidden City Film Co.

Feng Xiaogang established the “Chinese New Year Film” with this episodic rib-tickler about four friends (including the director’s frequent star Ge You) who start a company specializing in fulfilling individual dreams by impersonating whatever characters are required. It also proved to be an enduring template for Feng’s signature brand of popular comedy which addresses current social issues through light hearted catharsis.

Beijing Bicycle (十七岁的单车) (Wang Xiaoshuai, 2001)

Beijing Bicycle Beijing Bicycle (十七岁的单车) © 2001 Arc Light Films, Pyramide Productions

Wang Xiaoshuai drew on Italian neo-realism for this naturalistic commentary on social mobility which sees two teenagers of contrasting economic backgrounds clashing over ownership of a bicycle. This key work in Sixth Generation urban cinema sees Wang navigating the transforming city’s traditional and modern areas via a mode of transportation which is representative of both hard-earned income and consumer status.

Still Life (三峡好人) (Dir. Jia Zhangke, 2006)

Still Life Still Life (三峡好人) © 2006 Xstream Pictures

A coal-miner and a nurse arrive in a town on the Yangtze River to search for their respective estranged partners only to find a place in the throes of demolition due to the seismic Three Gorges Damn Project. Masterfully blending roving extended takes with tableau images of labourers’ bodies and even fleeting magical-realism, Jia provides an entrancing record of unprecedented development.

Where to watch: Streaming on Kanopy

Black Coal, Thin Ice (白日焰火) (Diao Yinan, 2014)

Black Coal Thin Ice Black Coal, Thin Ice (白日焰火) © 2014 Omnijoi Media, Boneyard Entertainment China, China Film Group Corporation (CFGC)

Winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival, this twisty neo-noir takes place in wintery Heilongjiang Province where a washed-up ex-cop (a terrific Liao Fan) endeavours to solve a series of grisly murders. Diao Yinan crafts a starkly atmospheric and uniquely caustic mystery by slyly transposing genre tropes to an industrial backdrop commonly associated with gritty social realism.

Where to watch: Streaming on Amazon Prime Video

About the Author

John Berra is a lecturer in Film and Language Studies at Renmin University of China. He is a film critic for Screen Daily and has also contributed to BFI Online, China Pictorial and The Chinese Film Market.