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Summer Palace (2006) I © Palm Pictures
Summer Palace (2006) I © Palm Pictures
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10 Films That Will Make You Fall in Love with Beijing

Picture of Anastasiia Ilina
Updated: 9 June 2017
Films have captured all aspects of Beijing, from the lavish palaces of the Emperors through to the simple courtyard houses of the common folk, thanks to efforts from both foreign and Chinese directors who have brought China‘s capital city to life on the big screen. For more on the city’s culture and history, check out our list of the top ten celluloid gems for an insight into the charms of Beijing.

The Last Emperor (1987)

This movie follows the turbulent years of the end of Imperial rule in China and the years of the Xinhai revolution. The last emperor, Puyi, was only a child when circumstances put him briefly on the throne of the Qing dynasty. Following a childhood of luxury spent in the forbidden city, the change of government and revolutionary events led him to be exiled, and to then be held hostage in the Japanese puppet kingdom Manchukuo before being arrested as a war criminal by the Red Army. The Last Emperor brings to life the traditions of imperial China, recreating costumes, interiors and ceremonies with great detail, and was the first non-documentary film to be granted permission to shoot inside the walls of the Forbidden City, winning nine Academy awards for its efforts.

The Last Emperor (1987) I
The Last Emperor (1987) I | © Columbia Pictures

Farewell My Concubine (1993)

A very honest movie that not only explores the beauty of Beijing and the rich traditions of Chinese culture, but also the Cultural Revolution that brought it all to a halt, Farewell My Concubine focuses on two male Peking Opera performers, who make their way to stardom to see their relationship ruined as a woman comes between them. Following humiliation by the Red Guards and unable to cope with the struggles of the time, the characters see the story come to an end that has echoes of the tragic opera that started their once-promising careers. The film offers a fascinating journey across the span of their 50-year friendship and the life-changing events of China’s history.

Farewell My Concubine (1993) I
Farewell My Concubine (1993) I | © Miramax Films

Beijing Bicycle (2001)

This story depicts the two sides of Beijing life and the ongoing inequality that permeates Chinese society. Guei, a seventeen-year-old country boy, comes to Beijing to make a living and gets a job doing deliveries on a bicycle. Shortly after, the bicycle is stolen and purchased from a second-hand dealer by Jian, who steals money for the bicycle to impress a girl at school. When the boys realise that Guei’s stolen bicycle is now in Jian’s possession, conflict unfurls on the subject of its ownership. Set against the backdrop of modern-day Beijing, the film explores the strikingly differently lifestyles of two boys of the same age living in one city.

Beijing Bicycle (2001) I
Beijing Bicycle (2001) I | © Sony Pictures Classics

Lost in Beijing (2007)

Lost in Beijing follows the life of a married couple who become engulfed in a case of rape, blackmail and jealousy. A young migrant couple, An Kun and his wife Pingguo, move to Beijing and get employed in tedious jobs. Pingguo works at a massage parlour and one drunken night is raped by her boss. Her husband discovers the truth and proceeds to blackmail the man, but the situation becomes more complicated as Pingguo discovers that she is pregnant, and realises that either of the men could be the father. The film struggled through censorship, but eventually gained international distribution. Nonetheless, it is still prohibited in mainland China.

Lost In Beijing (2007) I
Lost In Beijing (2007) I | © Laurel Films

Shower (1999)

Bathhouses in Beijing are more than just a place to get clean – people spent hours there, chatting with friends, smoking, getting a massage or having cricket fights (yes, the insect). In Shower, the bathhouse in question is run by an elderly father and his mentally ill son, who put in daily efforts to keep the bathhouse alive. As the narrative progresses, the father’s older son who left years ago to make a living in the south of China, returns home, and they attempt to rebuild their damaged relationship. Meanwhile, the local authorities are making a move to demolish the bathhouse. The family need to make a crucial decision: fight for their heritage, or accept the reality of the situation.

Shower (1999) I
Shower (1999) I | © Imar Film

The Blue Kite (1993)

Set in 1950s and 1960s Beijing, The Blue Kite is told from the point of view of a young boy Tietou (literally translated, ‘iron head’), who together with his family lives through some of the darkest pages of Chinese history. The film is divided into three chapters that symbolise the major events of the time. The first chapter depicts the Anti-Rightist Movement that brought about the persecution of the educated class, when schools were at a standstill and students recruited to pursue their teachers. The second chapter portrays the struggles of the Great Leap Forward, as the country persevered towards unrealistic economic goals, while neglect the wellbeing of the people. The third and final chapter ends the story in the era of the Cultural Revolution, at the time of labour camps and constant government surveillance.

The Blue Kite (1993) I
The Blue Kite (1993) I | © Longwick Film

Beijing Taxi (2010)

The movie is feature-length documentary that captures the rapid transformation that the city is undergoing. The three taxi drivers, the main characters of the film, continue on their journey with no destination, taking turns at various crossroads of modern-day Beijing. The film is set at a symbolic time for Beijing, the 2008 Olympics, that gave the city its first spotlight public appearance and pushed the speed of infrastructure development to the extreme. The three cab drivers, each with their intimate story, see the transformation in a different light.

Beijing Taxi (2010) I
Beijing Taxi (2010) I | © Three Waters Production

Summer Palace (2006)

Yu Hong is an ambitious student, who leaves her hometown to pursue studies at the fictional Beiqing University. She embarks on a passionate love affair with her college boyfriend, set against the backdrop of the student protests in the 1980s. Eventually Yu Hong decides to drop out of university and pursue a life elsewhere. Her college friend and now ex-boyfriend have moved to Berlin while Yu Hong lives an unfulfilling life, struggling to find happiness. Due to explicit sex scenes and its underlying political message, the film is banned in mainland China, but was screened at the 2006 Cannes Festival.

Summer Palace (2006) I
Summer Palace (2006) I | © Palm Pictures

East Palace, West Palace (1996)

One of the few movies of Chinese production to explore the topic of homosexuality, East Palace, West Palace begins when the main character, writer A-Lan, is arrested at night for hooliganism. The supposed offence is a typical cover-up for the arrest of homosexuals, who are still subject to repression though not in breach of technical legality. A- Lan is interrogated into the small hours, and as the night progresses the young policeman’s attitude towards A-Lan shifts from disgust to attraction. When the movie was made, the director Zhang Yuan was under house arrest and the tape was smuggled out of China to France. The film was completed and screened at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival.

East Palace, West Palace (1996) I
East Palace, West Palace (1996) I | © Fortissimo Films

Beijing Love Story (2014)

A film adaptation of a popular TV series, this movie intertwines the lives of five couples all facing certain struggles in their own love story. The lovers are from different generations, different social background and with various levels of commitment in their relationships. The film became very successful in mainland China, breaking box office records and achieving recognition overseas.

Beijing Love Story (2014) I
Beijing Love Story (2014) I | © Wanda Media Co.