10 great Chinese-language films of the 21st century

What are some of the best films from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan this century?

Mountains May Depart (2015)

This century has seen the cinema of Greater China continue its rise to global prominence that started in the 1990s, with interest in new releases from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan now arguably at an all-time peak. Whether achieving multiplex success, playing the festival circuit, or satisfying genre enthusiasts via specialist DVD labels, Chinese cinema has a tantalising allure that attracts a wide international audience seeking everything from hard reality to fantastical escapism.

Since the late 2000s, the cinemas of mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan have become increasingly intertwined, largely as a result of the exponential economic growth of the People’s Republic, which has led it to become the world’s second largest film market.

Hong Kong filmmakers Fruit Chan and Pang Ho-cheung have bemoaned this inevitable development, often citing the mainland’s strict censorship system as a source of frustration, but others have utilised it to their advantage. In an interview with Deadline to discuss his martial arts biopic The Grandmaster (2013), a long-gestating project that was made possible by mainland expansion, Wong Kar-wai stated: “Films don’t just belong to the mainland or Hong Kong. They belong to all Chinese and not just to a certain place at a certain time. It’s a legacy that belongs to all of us.”

The following list presents a selection of landmark Chinese titles from this century that are readily available to UK viewers. As films made at the turn of the century are more representative of the era that has just passed, this list starts a few years into the new millennium, even if this does sadly entail the exclusion of such masterpieces as In the Mood for Love (2000), Suzhou River (2000) and Yi Yi (2000).

Blue Gate Crossing (2002)

Director: Yee Chih-yen

Blue Gate Crossing (2002)

A tender youth romance, Blue Gate Crossing revolves around the innocent love triangle that occurs when teenager Yuezhen (Liang Shu-hui) develops a crush on high school swimming star Zhang (Chen Bolin) and asks her best friend Meng (Gwei Lun-mei) for help with approaching the oblivious object of her affection. However, Zhang is more interested in Meng, while Meng actually has feelings for Yuezhen.

Many of the expected high school love story staples are found here, with the infatuated Yuezhen stalking Zhang, collecting his discarded items as love tokens, and even stealing his diary, while Meng acts as an awkward go-between for a potential coupling that she does not really want to happen. What makes Blue Gate Crossing standout from the crowd, though, is Yee Chih-yen’s sensitive handling of his characters, who do yet know how to articulate their feelings, and his use of recurrent motifs to find moments of gentle beauty in the seemingly mundane routines that are characteristic of adolescence.

After more than a decade away from features, Yee recently made a welcome return with the satirical teen caper comedy Salute! Sun Yat-sen (2015).

Infernal Affairs (2002)

Directors: Andrew Lau and Alan Mak

Infernal Affairs (2002)

An intricately plotted game of cat and mouse set against the gleaming backdrop of Hong Kong’s globalised cityscape, Infernal Affairs examines the reconfiguration of personal identity that occurs when an individual’s pay grade is insufficient to challenge a system that has already determined their role in a long-term power struggle.

The increasingly conflicted protagonists here are a pair of moles – triad member Lau Kin-ming (Andy Lau) has infiltrated the police force and is rapidly rising to the upper echelons of the department, while officer Chan Wing-yan (Tony Leung) has gone undercover to gain vital information on the criminal organisation that’s controlling the streets. Knowing little about one another, they engage in a battle of wits that culminates in an iconic rooftop confrontation.

Infernal Affairs has a significant legacy – it was remade in typically propulsive fashion by Martin Scorsese as The Departed (2006) and instigated a local trend for slick crime thrillers that included Confession of Pain (2006) and The Stool Pigeon (2010). Recently, these films have served as an example of Hong Kong cinema’s increased cooperation with – or reliance on – the mainland China market following the success of Drug War (2013) and Overheard 3 (2014).

Blind Shaft (2003)

Director: Li Yang

Blind Shaft (2003)

Equal parts social realism, film noir and pitch black comedy, Blind Shaft is a scathing indictment of the lack of moral fibre at both ends of China’s economic spectrum.

Taking aim at the insufficiently regulated mining industry, Li Yang focuses on a pair of drifters – Song (Yi Lixiang) and Tang (Wang Shuangbao) – who have perfected an insurance scam: find a migrant whom they can pass off as a family member; find work at mine; arrange for the third worker to perish in an ‘accident’; then claim compensation from site managers who want to avoid an official investigation. Blind Shaft’s rough documentary quality exudes grim authenticity, yet the film also exerts a vice-like grip as Song and Tang plot to dispose of their latest ‘relative’, naive 16-year-old Yuan (Wang Baoqiang).

Li doesn’t miss any opportunity to make his point – a scene at a seedy karaoke lounge that finds Tang singing ‘Long Live Socialism’ only for the girls to teach him a raunchier new version with references to Chairman Mao replaced by the US dollar is as damning of the free market rush as the director’s hellish depictions of underground labour.

Election / Election 2 (2005/2006)

Director: Johnnie To

Election (2005)

A bit of a cheat here, but this masterful pair of Johnnie To gangster films form one of the great epics of recent Chinese cinema. The first instalment follows the campaigns of 2 triad leaders to become the chair of Hong Kong’s powerful Wo Sing Society – Lok (Simon Yam) is a quietly assertive strategist who appeals to the traditional values of his ‘constituents’ whereas his rival Big D (Tony Leung Ka-fai) has a more aggressive approach. Lok emerges the victor, but the second film finds him struggling to hold on to his title as another election draws near, while his college-educated associate Jimmy (Louis Koo) considers going straight by establishing a legitimate business in mainland China.

These films not only serve to demystify the oft-romanticised triad underworld with acts of brutal violence depicted in an unflinching manner, but also work as political allegory for a Hong Kong in a state of transition. Election sees the society’s members making a leadership choice between virtue (Lok) and hard cash (Big D) while Election 2 emphasises the increased importance of the mainland to Hong Kong enterprises.

Three Times (2005)

Director: Hou Hsiao-hsien

Three Times (2005)

History repeats itself in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s dazzling triptych Three Times, which illustrates how social-political conditions keep people apart (regardless of the era’s level of personal freedom) by casting Shu Qi and Chang Chen as almost-lovers in stories that take place in 1966, 1911 and 2005.

These tentative relationships are strikingly linked through motifs rather than explicit narrative connectedness – correspondences (written on paper in the first and second segments, sent by email and text in the third), the lighting of private or social spaces (a pool hall, a brothel, a photographer’s studio apartment) and music (the emotive pop songs of 1966 lead to a score that evokes the chaste climate of 1911, then the pulsating club rhythms of 2005, with lyrics expressing tangled emotions being distorted by trip-hop production).

Each segment is perfectly crafted, but 1966 is particularly affecting with its tale of a soldier falling for a luminous pool hall attendant. Accompanied by Aphrodite’s Child’s rhapsodic ‘Rain and Tears’, its final moments, as they eat dinner before his long bus journey back to base, are among the most purely stirring in Hou’s compassionate oeuvre.

Still Life (2006)

Director: Jia Zhangke

Still Life (2006)

The construction of the Three Gorges Dam, which necessitated the relocation of 1.3 million people, serves as a metaphor for a transformative China in Jia Zhangke’s record of a rapidly changing landscape. He filters these seismic developments through the personal quests of 2 people who arrive in a town on the Yangtze river which is about to be flooded: coalminer Han Sanming (Han Sanming) is hoping to find the wife who ran away 16 years ago, while the comparatively middle-class Shen Hong (Zhao Tao) aims to make contact with her husband, who left home 2 years earlier to pursue business opportunities related to redevelopment.

As invested as Jia is in their efforts, he constantly frames them within the bigger picture, utilising hypnotic wide shots, long takes and slow pans that show an environment in the throes of transition. There are also surreal touches that boldly introduce elements of science fiction (men in chemical suits at demolition sites, a UFO shooting through the sky) and magical realism (a tightrope walker crossing between 2 soon-to-be-demolished buildings), thereby making abstract connections between the region’s past, present and future.

Summer Palace (2006)

Director: Lou Ye

Summer Palace (2006)

Are you ready to be heartbroken? Summer Palace is a fiercely emotional portrait of youthful discontent that thrives on Lou Ye’s restless aesthetic and the fearless central performance of Hao Lei.

She portrays student Yu Hong, who relocates from the border city of Tumen to attend Beiqing University (a fictional institution based on Peking University) in the late 1980s. Swept up in the progressive spirit of the time, she is tenuously associated with the student protest movement but prefers to seek liberation through a sexually adventurous relationship with Zhou Wei (Guo Xiaodong) that tests the very limits of body and soul.

Trauma is a frequent theme in contemporary Asian cinema and the overwhelming second half of Summer Palace focuses on sustained aftershock as Yu, Zhou and members of their once incestuous social circle drift around China and Europe following the tragic events at Tiananmen Square on 4 June 1989. An uncompromising account of lives that have been fleetingly lived to their fullest but ultimately lost to the state’s rewriting of modern history, Summer Palace is an exhilarating and deeply haunting experience.

City of Life and Death (2009)

Director: Lu Chuan

City of Life and Death (2009)

City of Life and Death depicts the 1937 decimation of Nanking, then the capital of China, by Japanese troops during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Following characters from both sides, Lu Chuan orchestrates a harrowing mosaic wherein large-scale battle recreations give way to more individual struggles that result in acts of barbarism, desperation, panic and heroism.

The principal figures include prostitute Xiao Jiang (Yiyan Jiang), missionary teacher Miss Jiang (Gao Yuanyuan) and steadfast soldier Lu Jianxiong (Ye Liu). Lu’s humanistic approach to Japanese soldiers Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi) and Ida (Ryu Kohata) prompted nationalistic outrage in China, but his emphasis on their conflicted stance on abundant acts of sadism illustrates the psychological impact of such atrocities on the aggressor. Saviour figure John Rabe (John Paisley) is here portrayed as a decent man whose conscience is compromised by a need to maintain the political connections that are necessary for his business interests.

Sparse in its use of dialogue, the film conveys its moral dilemmas through monochrome cinematography that also finds fleeting moments of hope amid the horrors of Nanking’s ravaged landscape.

The Grandmaster (2013)

Director: Wong Kar-wai

The Grandmaster (2013)

Wong Kar-wai’s martial arts saga may be one of many cinematic accounts of the trials and triumphs of the legendary Wing Chun practitioner Ip Man (here played by Tony Leung), but it’s certainly the most resplendent. On the surface, Wong is moving into new territory as his earlier wuxia Ashes of Time (1994) was more of a genre deconstruction; yet while The Grandmaster is a handsomely refined historical piece that remains largely faithful to its subject’s biography, Wong’s recurrent theme of solitude is still palpable beneath the meticulous period recreation and intermittent displays of physical prowess.

In elliptical fashion, Wong covers Ip Man’s rise to prominence and the spread of his style against the tumultuous backdrop of 20th-century China. He pays particular attention to his hero’s near-romance with Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), who represents an esoteric North China martial arts tradition and proves to be the yin to Ip Man’s yang.

Beautifully choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping, the film’s balletic fight scenes are further proof that Wong’s style is his content, with Ip Man and his challengers revealing themselves through their respective techniques.

Stray Dogs (2013)

Director: Tsai Ming-liang

Stray Dogs (2013)

In keeping with the threadbare existence depicted in his portrait of homelessness in Taipei, Tsai Ming-liang strips his already minimalist style down to its bare essentials. Stray Dogs presents circumstances rather than a narrative: a middle-aged man (Lee Kang-sheng) tries to provide for his son and daughter by scraping a meagre income from holding up a signboard promoting a real estate development at a busy intersection; the family squats in abandoned buildings; they wash in public restrooms; and the children hang around a supermarket where they can eat free food samples.

Structured as a series of long takes that sometimes exceed 10 minutes in length – the father working in a torrential downpour; his mutilation of a cabbage that his daughter has turned into a doll; a birthday celebration in a derelict space – the film offers no real beginning or end, with the family’s background remaining vague. Tsai forces the viewer to consider what these people are thinking or feeling through almost-unbearable stasis, with the director’s shift to digital technology enabling his fixed compositions to capture every squalid detail of ‘life’ on the margins of society.