13 Movies to Help You Understand Mainland Chinese Culture

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
Monica Liau

Starting in the 1980s, Chinese cinema has gone through several phases trying to understand the tumultuous time in China’s history between the reign of the last emperor and the rise of Modern China. From the crazy years of China’s Cultural Revolution to its frenetic industrial rise, films have tried to make sense of it all. Here are 13 movies that will help you understand China, its history and its people a bit better.

Category: The fall of the emperor and the rise of Modern China

The Last Emperor – 1987

This sweeping biopic, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, documents the rise and fall of Puyi, China’s last emperor before the rise of Modern China. The 1987 film is told from the perspective of Puyi after he has been jailed by Mao’s communists. It tells of his rise to power at the age of three, after the death of the Empress Dowager Cixi, then it follows his story through the next few decades ending with his fall. The film won nine Oscars in 1988, including Best Picture and Best Director. It was filmed in English.

Raise the Red Lantern (Dàhóng dēnglóng gāo gāo guà, 大红灯笼高高挂) – 1991

Stunning visuals and a tense narrative work together in this film of intrigue and tragedy. Directed by the famed Zhang Yimou, the story follows Songlian through Northern China in the 1920s after she agrees to become the fourth wife of an ageing clan leader.

Inside the leader’s complex, a red lantern is hung outside the rooms of the wife with whom the patriarch presently favors, and the competition for attention is fierce between the wives. The concubines are pitted against each other, which inevitably leads to deception, dark secrets and tragedy. The inner chaos of the complex reflects the outer turmoil China was embroiled in. The movie was filmed in Chinese with English subtitles available.


Red Sorghum (Hóng gāoliang, 红高粱) – 1987

Based on a novel by Nobel Laureate Mo Yan, this film takes place in the rural village of Shandong during the Second Sino-Japanese War. The story follows the protagonist Jiu’er (九兒) as she is married off to the aging owner of an alcohol plant. As the film goes on, a complicated love story with a local peasant arises, as well as resistance against the Japanese, who march into town. This is one of Zhang Yimou’s earlier films, and is a tear jerker. Be ready. It was filmed in Chinese with English subtitles.

Category: Communism and The Cultural Revolution:

In the Heat of the Sun (Yángguāng cànlàn de rìzi, 阳光灿烂的日子) – 1994

This is a coming of age story in which the thrill-seeking Monkey and his friends run wild through the streets of Beijing at the height of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. It is a story of chaos and nostalgia wrapped in youthful exuberance. Directed by Jiang Wen, the film’s wash of hazy imagery, circuitous plot and dynamic camera work make this a challenging viewing for the casual observer, but it’s a pivotal work of Chinese filmmaking. It is filmed in Chinese with English subtitles.

Farewell My Concubine (Bàwáng bié jī, 霸王别姬) – 1993

Delving into the lush, hard world of Peking opera and nearly 50 years of political turmoil, this film by Chen Kaige casts a brutal eye on the fragility and strength of human relationships in the face of intrigue, romance, and incredible hardship. The film follows the story of opera actors Shitou and Douzi from their humble beginnings to their rise in fame during the Nationalist reign. It also documents their unfortunate fall when the communists come to power. There is plenty of heartbreak to go around in this drama, but Chen keeps your eye on the screen with his detailed lens into the customs and beauty of Beijing Opera. Filmed in Chinese, this movie has English subtitles.

To Live (Huózhe, 活着) – 1994

This is director Zhang Yimou’s sixth and perhaps finest feature film. Based on a book by the same title, the story outlines the struggles of a married couple during the tumultuous rule of Mao Zedong. Tragedy follows the couple, played by Ge You and Gong Li, at every turn, from the Sino-Japanese War to the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. However, among the sadness, there are also moments of joy and compassion that help illustrate how people continued on with their lives. Make sure to keep tissues close at hand. This film is in Chinese with English subtitles.


Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Bā’ěr zhā kè yǔ xiǎo cáiféng, 巴尔扎克与小裁缝) – 2002

This Franco-Chinese romanctic drama is based on the semi-autobiographical novel of the same title, written by Dai Sijie 戴思杰 (who also directed the film). The story follows two young Chinese men with a bourgeois background, who are sent to a remote village in Sichuan for re-education during the Cultural Revolution. In the village, they work manual labor and navigate the tensions of the peasant community during the cultural upheaval. Both also fall in love with a beautiful local girl, the granddaughter of an old tailor. The men also find solace in a collection of banned translated novels by Western authors (Balzac being a favorite). It’s a story that melds beauty, brutality and nostalgia, and demonstrates how people navigate a changing world.

Language: Chinese, English subtitles.

Category: Reform and Opening Up and the rural/urban split

Not One Less (Yīgè dōu bùnéng shǎo, 一个都不能少) – 1999

When the only teacher in town must leave for a month from his remote mountain village, the only person he can find to replace him is a 13 year old girl, Wei Minzhu. The teacher leaves her one stick of chalk for each day and promises her an extra 10 yuan if all the students are still there when he returns. Within days, poverty forces the class troublemaker, Zhang Huike, to leave for the city to work. Wei Minzhu, however, is particularly stubborn and hitches a ride to the city to search for him. This film addresses education reform in China, the economic gap between urban and rural populations, and the prevalence of bureaucracy and authority figures in everyday life.

Language: Chinese, English subtitles

Beijing Bicycle (Shíqī suì de dānchē, 十七岁的单车) – 2001

For a look at the relationship between rural migrants moving to big cities and wealthy urbanites, look no further than this film by Wang Xiaoshuai. A poor country boy, Gui Liangui, has just migrated to Beijing, where he works as a courier. The bike that is given to him is symbolic of both his livelihood and perceived upward mobility. When the bike is stolen, the story follows Gui on his quest to get the bike back, which leads him to Jian, a city boy experiencing his own growing pains. This small portrait of the struggles of two young men from different backgrounds also illustrates a broader picture of China’s unique, rapid development and the clash of cultures.
Language: Chinese, English subtitles.

Summer Palace (Yíhéyuán, 颐和园) – 2008

Set in Beijing during the heady late 1980s, this powerful movie by Lou Ye follows a young student, who leaves her hometown to study in the capital. There she begins an intense romance with Zhou Wei, and their relationship plays out as the Tiananmen protests build up and explode in the background. The film also follows the eventual disillusionment of these young idealists after the crackdown, as the years progress through the 1990s and into the 2000s.
Language: Chinese, English subtitles (some German)

A now, for some comedy

Ok, you made it through some seriously heart wrenching stuff. Watch these movies to lighten the load, and maybe even crack a smile.

Wedding Banquet (Xǐyàn, 喜宴) – 1993

Wedding Banquet is Ang Lee’s first movie about a gay couple, and it is perhaps his most fun. Wedding Banquet explores the relationship between a Taiwanese man, Wai-Tung Gao, and his American partner. The couple live happily together in Manhattan, but in order to get Gao’s parents off his back, they arrange an elaborate sham marriage with his artist friend (also Chinese), who needs citizenship. Hilarity ensues. In addition to just being plain fun, the film goes on an interesting exploration of cultures and their differences.

Language: English and Chinese.

Lost in Thailand (Rén zài jiǒng tú zhī tài jiǒng, 人再囧途之泰囧) – 2012

This is a silly rollicking romp of a movie about three Chinese men traveling in Thailand: two competing businessmen and a tourist eager to explore the country. This marks the directorial debut of comedian Xu Zheng, and he made quite a splash. The film grossed more than $200 million (nearly £150 million) at the Chinese box office becoming the highest grossing movie of all time during release. While certainly not a cinematic masterpiece, it is what many Chinese comedies strive to achieve.

Language: Chinese, Thai, English subtitles.

I Am Not Madame Bovary (Wǒ bùshì pān jīnlián, 我不是潘金莲) – 2016

This film, by Feng Xiaogang, gives viewers a satirical peek into the confusing world of Chinese bureaucracy. Actress Fan Bingbing plays a woman working tirelessly to get her sham divorce overturned, so that she can re-divorce her scumbag husband properly and clear her name (he has also accused her of being promiscuous). It’s complicated, but stay with us. To do so, she must incessantly go up against government officials, who are either too lazy or too selfish to listen to her pleas. Little do they know, they are dealing with a stubborn woman, who will not stop until she is heard by The System or rid of her husband.

Language: Chinese, English subtitles.

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