During the DVD era, the availability of Chinese language cinema in the UK was broadly divided between furious kung fu flicks and critically acclaimed arthouse titles. Many of the best examples of both camps have made the transfer to streaming platforms, but the chasm in between has also been addressed. Indeed, it’s now possible to stream the classics of China’s golden age, recent local crowd-pleasers and the socially incisive dramas that are being produced in Taiwan. Here are some recommendations to get started.
When it comes to acquiring the latest Chinese-language titles, Netflix inevitably leads the charge. Frant Gwo’s sci-fi blockbuster The Wandering Earth (2019) sees the sun dying, necessitating a mission to turn the planet into a giant spaceship so it can be powered to another solar system with giant thrusters. It’s very much a Chinese take on global crisis, which extols a deeply rooted attachment to the homeland amid impressive large-scale production design and state-of-the-art special effects.
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Less cataclysmic, but in its own way just as turbulent, Rene Liu’s bittersweet romance Us and Them (2018) focuses on a young couple (Jing Boran and Zhou Dongyu) striving to realise their dreams in Beijing circa the late 2000s. Time-spanning tearjerkers are a staple of China’s popular cinema, and this affecting drama captures the experience of a generation swept up in the promise of the nation’s economic boom.
Set during the Three Kingdoms era, Zhang Yimou’s wuxia Shadow (2018) is a tale of palace intrigue concerning a military commander and the double who assumes his responsibilities during an extended period of recuperation (both essayed by Deng Chao). The theme of yin and yang is emphasised by Lao Zai’s minimalist flutes-and-lutes score, while a battle sequence with soldiers wielding umbrella swords is Zhang at his most thrillingly imaginative.
Contemporary Taiwanese cinema is well-represented on Netflix with Chung Mong-hong’s heartbreaking family drama A Sun (2019) being a must-see. Over 156 minutes, this intimate epic runs the gamut of emotions yet derives much of its resonance from entrancing visual metaphors. In addition, Mag Hsu and Hsu Chih-yen’s poignant comedy Dear Ex (2018) and Wi Ding Ho’s stylised triptych Cities of Last Things (2018) are well worth checking out.
Some of the collaborations between Zhang Yimou and iconic actress Gong Li can be rented from Amazon Prime, of which the visually ravishing Raise the Red Lantern (1991) pits her rebellious concubine against the patriarchal structure of traditional Chinese society. Ang Lee’s celebrated ‘Father Knows Best’ trilogy of Pushing Hands (1991), The Wedding Banquet (1993) and Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) is always ripe for discovery (or revisits), with the final entry featuring some of cinema’s most mouth-watering food preparation sequences.
Ann Hui remains comparatively overlooked in the UK, but Amazon Prime offers her sumptuous melodrama Love in a Fallen City (1984). Adapted from a novella by Eileen Chang, it chronicles the romance between a reserved divorcee (Cora Miao) and a flirtatious playboy (Chow Yun-fat) against the backdrop of 1940s Hong Kong.
A current critical favourite is Bi Gan, whose Long Day’s Journey into Night (2018) starts as a slow-burn underworld romance only to enter a dreamlike realm in a second half consisting of a spellbinding 59-minute extended take. For more linear pleasures, Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014) is a fiendish whodunit by Diao Yinan in which a slovenly ex-cop (Liao Fan) tries to solve a murder from years before.
Action aficionados can get their kicks from Bruce Lee’s quest for vengeance in Fist of Fury (1972), the jaw-dropping training rituals of Lau Kar-leung’s cult favourite The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978) or Jackie Chan’s acrobatic feats in Police Story (1985).
As an acerbic homage to vintage Hong Kong martial arts films, Kung Fu Hustle (2004) is a hyperkinetic treat, while those who spark to director-star Stephen Chow’s unique brand of humour should enjoy his earlier slapstick comedies Love on Delivery (1994), Out of the Dark (1995) and Shaolin Soccer (2001).
BFI Player offers the stunning restoration of Fei Mu’s classic Spring in a Small Town (1948), a lyrical drama concerning a married woman (Wei Wei) torn between her ailing husband and former lover in the aftermath of the Sino-Japanese War. It’s a profoundly intimate affair that delicately navigates complex emotions and desires while using symbolism (the ruined family home) to evoke the damaged national spirit of the time.
Best known for scatological comedies, Feng Xiaogang has tried his hand at serious fare, such as the unflinching war drama Assembly (2007). Intertwining harrowing battle scenes with a quest for redemption, this stirring true story follows the valiant efforts of a disgraced captain (Zhang Hanyu) to recover the missing bodies of fallen comrades who have been unfairly erased from the history of the Chinese civil war. Feng’s extravagant period piece The Banquet (2006) and powerful family drama Aftershock (2010) are also available.
Richly designed in the tradition of Chinese scroll painting, The Assassin (2015) is a supremely elegant distillation of the wuxia genre by Hou Hsiao-hsien, wherein the titular heroine (an exquisitely poised, black-clad Shu Qi) defies an order to kill a prominent official (Chang Chen). Taking a typically elliptical approach to storytelling, Hou weaves an absolutely captivating tale of destiny, which is photographed in lush tones by his regular collaborator Mark Lee Ping-bin.
Also taking inspiration from wuxia tropes, Jia Zhangke’s searing true crime drama A Touch of Sin (2013) consists of 4 vignettes wherein individual frustration with corruption and injustice erupt in flourishes of graphic violence. Jia returned to the underworld for the altogether more melancholic Ash Is Purest White (2018), which charts China’s accelerated development since 2001 from the perspective of a fiercely loyal gangster’s moll (Zhao Tao).
Throughout February 2021, a Wong Kar Wai retrospective is screening on BFI Player and the ICA’s new online platform ‘Cinema 3’. It’s an ideal opportunity to revel in the eagerly anticipated 4K restorations of such intoxicating masterpieces as Chungking Express (1994), Happy Together (1997) and In the Mood for Love (2000), not to mention Wong’s extended cut of The Hand from the anthology Eros (2004).
For an introduction to China’s golden age, visit the Chinese Film Classics channel on YouTube. Established by the Department of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia, it includes Daybreak (1933), The Goddess (1934), Street Angel (1937) and Princess Iron Fan (1941), the first Chinese animated feature film.
Although the films of Taiwanese master Edward Yang have received limited exposure in the UK, his third feature, The Terrorizers (1986), can be rented through Mubi. It’s a postmodern examination of urban malaise in which the lives of an unhappily married couple, an amateur photographer and bored teenage girl, intersect. Although there are echoes of Michelangelo Antonioni, the pervading sense of alienation is specific to the pressurised environment of 1980s Taipei, presented here as a city of glacial surfaces and troublingly empty spaces.
Filmdoo has an appreciably eclectic selection of Chinese language titles. Donnie Yen demonstrates his physical prowess in Ip Man (2008) and Ip Man 2 (2010), which are the best entries in this series about the titular wing chun grandmaster. Johnnie To’s graceful crime thriller Sparrow (2008) pays tribute to Hong Kong’s traditional spaces, while Wong Chun’s compassionate drama Mad World (2016) addresses the city’s current social issues through the travails of a bipolar patient (an excellent Eric Tsang).
Finally, Yee Chih-yen’s absurdist heist movie Salute! Sun Yat-Sen (2014) mines sly political commentary from a group of impoverished teenagers plotting to steal a bronze statue of the father of Republican China.