10 essential modern directors from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan

Your guide to some of the greatest filmmakers to emerge in Chinese cinema since the 1980s, from Wong Kar-wai to Hou Hsiao-hsien.

21 July 2014

By John Berra

Ann Hui

A Simple Life (2011)

Essential films

Boat People (1982), The Postmodern Life of My Aunt (2006), A Simple Life (2011)

What’s special about her?

Ann Hui has amassed a considerable body of work despite often going against the popular tide of her local film industry. A prominent member of the Hong Kong New Wave, with an interest in familial strife, national identity and social issues, Hui explored cultural displacement with her Vietnam trilogy, consisting of the television episode Boy from Vietnam (1978) and the features The Story of Woo Viet (1981) and Boat People.

This concern also permeates more commercial works such as the crime thriller Zodiac Killers (1991), in which a Chinese student living in Tokyo is sucked into the dangerous world of the yakuza. Hui’s humanistic melodramas often address the ageing process: The Postmodern Life of My Aunt features a retiree who is swindled out of her savings, while A Simple Life beautifully details the relationship between a film producer and his elderly servant when the latter falls ill.

Tsui Hark

Peking Opera Blues (1986)

Essential films

Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983), Peking Opera Blues (1986), The Blade (1995)

What’s special about him?

A wild fantasist often referred to as ‘the Steven Spielberg of Asia’, Tsui Hark would become a leading purveyor of escapist fare with Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain, which mixed local ghost legend with Hollywood-style special effects. Hark is a master of mining Chinese history for crowd-pleasing storytelling: the hectic action-comedy Peking Opera Blues takes place during the democratic revolution of the 1910s while Once upon a Time in China (1991) follows the adventures of folk hero Wong Fei-hung, and the martial arts epic Seven Swords (2005) is set after the founding of the Qing dynasty.

But his stylistic masterpiece is The Blade, a near-psychedelic reimagining of One-armed Swordsman (1967). Following a run of disappointments in the 2000s, Hark has returned to form with the mainland co-productions Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010) and The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (2011).

Tian Zhuangzhuang

Springtime in a Small Town (2002)

Essential films

The Horse Thief (1986), The Blue Kite (1993), Springtime in a Small Town (2002)

What’s special about him?

Tian Zhuangzhuang graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in 1982 alongside Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou. His early work evidenced a fascination with ethnic minorities: On the Hunting Ground (1985) is a documentary-style account of life in inner Mongolia and The Horse Thief (1986) explores the rugged landscape of Tibet.

One of Tian’s most acclaimed works in the west would also stall his career as the The Blue Kite ran afoul of the local censors for illustrating the impact of the Hundred Flowers Campaign, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution on a Beijing family. Banned from directing until 1996, Tian mentored Sixth Generation filmmakers, eventually returning to the director’s chair for the contemplative drama Springtime in a Small Town. Since then, Tian has applied his consummate craftsmanship to the handsome biopic The Go Master (2004) and the ambitious historical adventure The Warrior and the Wolf (2009).

Hou Hsiao-hsien

Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996)

Essential films

A City of Sadness (1989), Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996), Flowers of Shanghai (1998)

What’s special about him?

Exquisite compositions, long takes and languid moods are characteristics of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s work, even when dealing with tragic ruptures. Many of Hou’s films take place at times of turbulent social-political transition: The Time to Live and the Time to Die (1985) follows a boy’s coming of age after his family leaves the mainland for Taiwan in 1947; A City of Sadness chronicles the post-Second World War impact of the Chinese Nationalist government on a Taiwanese family; and The Puppetmaster (1993) finds a master puppeteer being forced to use his craft as a propaganda tool under the Japanese occupation.

Hou’s recreation of the past reached a feverish peak with Flowers of Shanghai, which takes place in the brothels of the English concession in 1884. His meditations on contemporary Taiwanese society include the deceptively lackadaisical small-time crime study Goodbye, South Goodbye and the hypnotic nightlife odyssey Millennium Mambo (2001).

Edward Yang

A Brighter Summer Day (1991)

Essential films 

The Terrorisers (1986), A Brighter Summer Day (1991), Yi Yi (2000)

What’s special about him?

The films of Edward Yang were sadly little seen in the west during his lifetime because the director was not concerned with selling his work for profit. Often utilising the multi-stranded narrative format, Yang took the urbanisation of Taiwan as his subject: The Terrorisers is a mystery concerning the connections between an assortment of amoral strangers; A Brighter Summer Day follows the activities of 1960s street gangs; A Confucian Confusion (1994) critiques materialistic young professionals; Mahjong (1996) takes place in the modern underworld; and Yi Yi examines the life of a middle-class family over the course of a year.

Yang came to wider international attention when he was awarded the best director prize at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival for Yi Yi, but a lengthy battle with colon cancer meant he was unable to make another feature before his untimely passing in 2007 at the age of 59.

Zhang Yimou

Hero (2002)

Essential films

Raise the Red Lantern (1991), To Live (1994), Hero (2002)

What’s special about him?

Zhang Yimou’s enduring associations with ravishing rural landscapes and iconic leading lady Gong Li would begin with his debut feature Red Sorghum (1987) after which he collaborated with Gong on a run of celebrated period dramas. Ju Dou (1990), Raise the Red Lantern and To Live were sometimes seen as pandering to the foreign gaze with their sumptuous visuals, but very much foregrounded the struggles of the individual while criticising state policies from a historical distance.

In the 2000s, Zhang brought his painterly touch to China’s burgeoning blockbuster market with the resplendent wuxia epics Hero, House of Flying Daggers (2004) and Curse of the Golden Flower (2006). Although he is synonymous with stately drama and stirring spectacle, a more eccentric side to Zhang’s talents can be found in his frenetic urban comedy Keep Cool (1997) and slapstick farce A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop (2009).

Wong Kar-wai

Days of Being Wild (1990)

Essential films 

Days of Being Wild (1990), Chungking Express (1994), In the Mood for Love (2000)

What’s special about him?

Wong Kar-wai became an arthouse favorite in the 1990s with such aesthetically invigorating cinematic love letters to Hong Kong as Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express and Fallen Angels (1995). Famed for his protracted production process – both In the Mood for Love and 2046 (2004) would take more than a year to shoot as footage was scrapped, plot strands were dropped, and locations were changed – Wong has kept his company Jet Tone afloat by taking on various advertising assignments alongside his dream projects.

Wong’s vivid style was pioneered in partnership with the Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle with their collaboration on the melancholic romance Happy Together (1997) transforming Buenos Aires into a hyper-saturated space for unfulfilled longing. Such charismatic local stars as Tony Leung, Leslie Cheung, Maggie Cheung and pop diva Faye Wong have thrived under Wong’s idiosyncratic direction to create the memorably lovesick protagonists who populate his intoxicating universe.

Tsai Ming-liang

What Time Is It There? (2001)

Essential films

Vive l’amour (1994), What Time Is It There? (2001), The Wayward Cloud (2005)

What’s special about him?

Reflecting the fact that he was born in Malaysia of Chinese ethnic background and later relocated to Taipei, the films of Tsai Ming-Liang are often concerned with dislocation as his lonely characters lack a sense of belonging. Vive l’amour follows three alienated people who unknowingly share an apartment; What Time Is It There? alternates between the life of a Taipei street vendor and a woman who is visiting Paris, with the two people linked across time by the sale of a watch; and I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2006) concerns a homeless man who is cared for by a Bangladeshi migrant worker after being beaten by a street mob.

A master of stillness and silence – Goodbye Dragon Inn (2003) features only a dozen lines of dialogue – Tsai also has a fondness for neo-surrealist musical numbers, as seen in The Hole (1998) and The Wayward Cloud.

Jia Zhangke

Unknown Pleasures (2002)

Essential films 

Platform (2000), Unknown Pleasures (2002), Still Life (2006)

What’s special about him?

A fierce critic of China’s transformative society, Jia Zhangke’s studies of problems at grassroots levels have blurred the line between fact and fiction due to his integration of documentary elements. Jia was an early convert to digital video who extended the postmodern aesthetics of Xiao Wu (1997) and Platform when he switched formats to chronicle disenfranchised youth in Unknown Pleasures.

Since then, he has turned his attention to the encroaching effects of globalisation with The World (2004) and Still Life, the latter of which takes place against the backdrop of the transformative Three Gorge Dam project. Jia’s documentary works include Dong (2006), a portrait of the artist Liu Xiaodong that overlaps with Still Life by sharing the same setting, and I Wish I Knew (2010), a history of Shanghai that spans the 1930s to the present which was officially commissioned for the 2010 World Expo.

Lou Ye

Suzhou River (2000)

Essential films 

Suzhou River (2000), Summer Palace (2006), Spring Fever (2009)

What’s special about him?

Although his frequent clashes with China’s restrictive censorship board have cast the Sixth Generation filmmaker Lou Ye as a figure of controversy, his work is more defined by its sensuous quality. From his mesmerising noir Suzhou River to recent Bi Feiyu adaptation Blind Massage (2014), Lou has conflated sex and politics to emotionally devastating effect as alienated characters navigate eroticised urban landscapes.

Summer Palace follows the experiences of a hedonistic female student at a Beijing university in the late-1980s and the traumatic impact of the post-Tiananmen fallout on her social circle; Spring Fever concerns a gay Nanjing travel agent who casually flits between lovers to maintain his sexual freedom; and Mystery (2012) follows an upwardly mobile businessman who is leading a dangerous double life. Such films never fail to linger in the memory due to the manner in which Lou filters bold social provocation through uniquely seductive atmospherics.

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