10 great films set in Beijing

The second most populous city in the world, China’s capital is 3,000 years old and currently home to over 20 million people. Here are 10 ways that the movies have got to grips with the people and history of Beijing.

John Berra
Updated:

The World (2004)

The World (2004)

Beijing is a complex city which gives rise to complex films. China’s capital is a place where commerce, history, modernity and tradition converge, not always harmoniously, with its cinematic identity often being one of inherent tension or contradiction. As the city is the base of the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, its screen image is often subject to strict control, although independent directors have endeavoured to capture the reality behind its rapid acceleration.

While the golden age of Chinese cinema is largely synonymous with Shanghai, it was Beijing that would become a cinematic space for seismic socio-political shifts or ideological statement. The documentary The Birth of New China (1949) recorded the founding of the People’s Republic with its footage of Mao Zedong on the balcony of Tiananmen Gate, while the heartbreaking drama This Life of Mine (1950) covered 50 years of regime change from the perspective of a humble Beijing policeman.

With the screen re-emergence of Beijing in the 1980s due to China’s new economic openness, modern bureaucracy would be the subject of The Black Cannon Incident (1985), and Black Snow (1990) followed an ex-convict adjusting to the onset of capitalism. A politically volatile urban cinema later emerged due to the interest of the Sixth Generation in the city’s social fabric with such studies of alienation as Beijing Bastards (1993), The Days (1993) and Frozen (1997), a concern that would, in turn, be adopted by the New Documentary Movement.

Yet for all this rupture, Beijing evidences an enduring sense of humour, as seen in The Dream Factory (1997), Spicy Love Soup (1997) or Shower (1999). The romantic potential of modernised Beijing has been tapped by Spring Subway (2002) and Green Tea (2003), while its grand history has served the historical spectacle of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Curse of the Golden Flower (2006).

Here are 10 landmark titles that illustrate the growth of this ever-evolving capital and capture the lives of its resilient inhabitants.

Chung Kuo – China (1972)

Director Michelangelo Antonioni

Sometimes the most unlikely commissions can result in the most remarkable socio-political records. In the early-1970s, Michelangelo Antonioni was invited by the Chinese government to make a documentary about the post-Cultural Revolution landscape, although it was made clear to the filmmaker that he would be operating under strict official supervision throughout his stay.

Arriving in Beijing, the crew was escorted to Tiananmen Square, a cotton factory, older sections of the city, and a hospital, with the selection of these approved spaces showing that the authorities wanted a portrait of China that balanced traditional values with the emergence of modernity. Antonioni managed to sneak some street shots and also filmed Xinhuamen (the entrance gate to Zhongnanhai) while driving past, with the voice of the ever-watchful guide often heard as the director pushes the boundaries of his arrangement with the state.

Antonioni would find more freedom in the provinces, managing to sneak away from his minders to capture footage of a rural black market. Chung Kuo – China was immediately denounced by the Chinese government for its perceived anti-Communist stance and not screened in China until 2004, although it is now regularly stocked in the arthouse sections of Beijing’s bootleg DVD emporiums.

The Last Emperor (1987)

Director Bernardo Bertolucci

The Last Emperor was the first foreign production to be granted official permission to shoot in the Forbidden City, with producer Jeremy Thomas securing cooperation for Bernardo Bertolucci to bring his ravishing biopic to the screen just as China was opening up to the world. Working from Puyi’s autobiography, the film begins with the former emperor (John Lone) being thrown into Fushun Prison having been branded a war criminal due to his collaboration with the Japanese government. It then flashes back to a life of opulence, although cinematographer Vittorio Storaro frames the palace as a luxurious prison with the young Puyi repeatedly denied permission to leave due to fears for his safety.

Settling into a pampered lifestyle as a playboy ruler, Puyi revels in the indulgences afforded by his position, but later deals with political realities when captured as a prisoner of war by the Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War. The epilogue provides a glimpse of Beijing at the start of the Mao cult with Puyi now a simple citizen. His life comes full circle in the closing scene when he visits the Forbidden Palace, now a tourist attraction.

Black Snow (1990)

Director Xie Fei

The familiar narrative of an ex-convict trying to socially reintegrate while a return to bad habits is only a momentary slip of judgment away is here used to explore the working-class landscape of late-1980s Beijing by the Fifth Generation filmmaker Xie Fei. Li Huiquan (Jiang Wen) returns to his old neighbourhood after serving a prison term for helping a friend to take revenge on the woman who had wronged him.

Although initially unable to get to grips with life on the outside due to the reluctance of his family to accept him back into the fold, Li manages to make a living as a street trader and puts his bouts of drunkenness in the past when he falls for aspiring singer Zhao Yaqui (Lin Cheng). However, just as he seems poised make the leap into the present, capitalist society – as represented by the fame-hungry Zhao – takes off in another direction, making it impossible for latecomers to keep up, and Li re-establishes his underworld ties. Shot around the backstreets of Dongcheng district, Black Snow captures a world in transition as Li, often clad in padded jacket and green fur hat, haunts the architectural remnants of the past. 

Farewell My Concubine (1993)

Director Chen Kaige

Chen Kaige’s majestic epic Farewell My Concubine encompasses 53 years in the lives of two Peking Opera School students who become stars of the stage against a tumultuous backdrop that takes in the Second World War, the Cultural Revolution, and the early days of the post-Mao political order. It opens in 1924, with young boy Dieyi being marched by his desperate mother into the school to be left under the instruction of Master Guan (Lu Qi), whose intensive training methods involve physical and verbal abuse.

The quiet Dieyi is befriended by the more assertive Xiaolou, with these students growing up to become two of the most popular opera performers of the period. By this point, Dieyi (Leslie Cheung) has become attracted to Xiaolou (Zhang Fengyi), but the latter ignores his professional partner’s affections to marry prostitute Juxian (Gong Li). Away from the stage, events in their relationship begin to mirror those of the tragic opera that they frequently perform. Chen utilises lavish sets, striking costumes, and the power struggles of the opera school to create a hothouse atmosphere that ultimately implodes when the troupe turn on one another under the duress of interrogation from the Red Guards.

East Palace, West Palace (1996)

Director Zhang Yuan

East Palace, West Palace uses theatrical staging to illustrate the oppressive political atmosphere of 1990s Beijing. Largely confined to a small police station, Zhang Yuan’s controversial character study focuses on the interrogation of gay writer A-Lan (Si Han) by an increasingly conflicted police officer Xiao Shi (Hu Jun). After arresting A-Lan for loitering in a public park, Xiao Shi’s line of questioning gradually reveals his repressed yearnings, although he frequently expresses disgust at the young man’s lifestyle.

Aside from flashbacks to A-Lan’s childhood, its essentially two men circling one another in a room, a power game that reveals the detainee to be a free spirit while the officer is trapped in his role of state servant. With his history of abuse and penchant for erotic fantasy, A-Lan embodies the pain that was being experienced at the time by many socially marginalised friends of director Zhang Yuan, a reservoir of emotion that enables the provocateur to not only understand but also manipulate Xiao Shi. The film takes its title from the public toilets that flank the Forbidden Palace, where gay men are reported to cruise, but was actually shot surreptitiously on the campus of Beijing Normal University.

Shower (1999)

Director Zhang Yang

Located in Fengtai District, the Beijing bathhouse Shuangxingtang has not only changed hands between numerous owners since its opening in 1916, but has recently managed to evade the wrecking balls of various demolition crews. It received a much-needed publicity boost from Shower, a gentle comedy-drama by Zhang Yang that concerns the family dynamics behind the establishment.

Proprietor Old Liu (Zhu Xu) has two sons, Erming (Jiang Wu) who has learning difficulties and works with his father, and Daming (Pu Cunxin), who lives in Shenzhen. Daming is prompted to visit after receiving a postcard from his brother, and undertakes daily chores at the bathhouse when Old Liu falls ill, thereby restoring the fractured family unit. However, many of the pleasures here are incidental, with Old Liu providing assistance to his appreciative customers, who are mostly retired Beijingers, that often goes beyond the standard services of such a spa: he arranges a bathhouse reconciliation between a patron and his wife that saves their failing marriage, and enables another regular to overcome his fear of singing in public. Shower is a warm celebration of community spirit that pays tribute to a fading aspect of Beijing’s history.

Beijing Bicycle (2001)

Director Wang Xiaoshuai

Beijing Bicycle finds the destinies of two teenagers – one a migrant, the other a native – intertwined by a mutual need for the titular mode of transportation, albeit for very different reasons. Seventeen-year-old Guei (Cui Lin) relocates to Beijing in search of work and is hired by a courier company. When his bicycle is stolen, he determinedly tracks it down in order to keep his job, and discovers that a second-hand dealer has sold it to schoolboy Jian (Li Bin), a student from an upwardly mobile family who wants to ride to school alongside his dream girl, Xiao (Gao Yuanyuan).

The bicycle at the centre of this landmark Sixth Generation film by Wang Xiaoshuai is very much a status symbol in that it legitimises the migrant Guei as a participant in Beijing’s economic prosperity, while providing Jian with the means of getting close to his adolescent crush, respective needs that are indicative of Beijing’s increasing economic divide. Aside from its social commentary, Beijing Bicycle also features exhilarating scenes of riding around China’s bustling capital, with Guei navigating busy roads and narrow backstreets in order to make deliveries on schedule, while the rapidly developing Central Business District often looms in the background.

Big Shot’s Funeral (2001)

Director Feng Xiaogang

Big Shot’s Funeral is a fitfully amusing send-up of commercialisation in the People’s Republic from China’s foremost popular satirist, Feng Xiaogang. When celebrated American movie director Tyler (Donald Sutherland) has a potentially fatal stroke on location in Beijing while shooting a biopic of Emperor Puyi that’s meant to be more realistic than the Bernardo Bertolucci version, his opportunistic behind-the-scenes cameraman YoYo (Ge You) plans to stage a spectacular televised funeral in the Imperial Ancestral Temple. Soon, he is inundated with offers of sponsorship, as every brand from clothing labels to electronics manufacturers wants a piece of the action. Their products begin to pile up in the Temple, transforming a sacred place into a mecca for consumerism.

Feng’s comedy is a frenetic carnival that predicts the ostentatious spectacle of the 2008 Olympic Games while positioning Beijing as a burgeoning international hub where the terms of lucrative business deals are firmly stacked in China’s favour. Yet amid all the scheming, encroaching globalisation is best exemplified by a telling cut-away to the child actor playing China’s last emperor in Tyler’s troubled production as he swigs from a bottle of coke in-between takes.

The World (2004)

Director Jia Zhangke

The appeal of Beijing World Park is often lost on foreign tourists who are bemused as to why anyone would want to wander around scaled-down replicas of various international monuments, such as the Eiffel Tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and the Taj Mahal. Chinese visitors, however, welcome the opportunity to ‘travel’ around the globe in a single day and cheerfully pose for photographs in front of these mock-ups.

Sixth Generation figurehead Jia Zhangke secured official permission to shoot in the park for his first approved production and went behind the scenes of its innocuous façade to comment on the human cost of China’s rise to superpower status: the attraction’s employees live in cramped dormitory conditions, with dreams of sharing in Beijing’s copious pleasures remaining out of reach due to income level and the relative confinement imposed by their assigned shift patterns. Migrant workers such as dancer Tao (Zhao Tao) and security guard Taisheng (Chen Taisheng) fall in and out of relationships as any sense of personal identity slips away in a space defined by its lack of authenticity, with the film’s closing line – “This is only the beginning” – suggesting that others will blindly follow into this cultureless void.

Red Light Revolution (2010)

Director Sam Voutas

A sleepy residential alley becomes a place of much hilarity when unlikely enterpriser Shunzi (Jun Zhao) swaps his job as a taxi driver for the potentially lucrative opportunity of running a sex shop. Equipped with a month’s worth of stock courtesy of Japanese adult entertainment industry pioneer Iggy (Masanobu Otsuka), Shunzi sets up shop in a small property owned by the family of no-nonsense romantic foil Lili (Vivid Wang) and makes a steady profit from selling Viagra pills to the neighbourhood’s elderly residents. But complications ensue when the business attracts the attention of the suspicious neighbourhood watch inspector, and Shunzi realises that he has forgotten to apply for the necessary business permit.

Australian writer-director Sam Voutas captures the close-knit ties that are characteristic of such communities, with the enthusiastic cast revelling in frank exchanges that are riddled with local slang. Leading man Jun, who was discovered by chance in a café following a fruitless audition process, makes the tubby Shunzi an endearingly hapless hero and embodies the stereotype of the quintessential Beijing male: outwardly confident, overly talkative, but ultimately rather lackadaisical. This riotous comedy also boasts a great soundtrack of songs by local indie bands to complement the knockabout humour. 

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