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The 10 Best Chinese Film Directors: Trendsetters & Pioneers

The 10 Best Chinese Film Directors: Trendsetters & Pioneers

Picture of Angela Lee
Updated: 15 November 2016
From Oscar-winners to local heroes, we profile ten of the greatest directors from China.

Ang Lee

One of the greatest contemporary filmmakers, Ang Lee has produced many award-winning works such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), which won the Oscar award for ‘Best Foreign Language Film’; The Wedding Banquet (1993), which won a Golden Bear award at the Berlin Film Festival; and Life of Pi (2012), which was the first family film to win the Academy Award for Best Director since 1969. The secret that marks Lee’s works as distinct from other productions are his special trademarks. Lee heavily focuses on modern issues related to cultural differences, gender roles and sexuality, topics that are becoming more apparent in news and discussions. Skillfully using CGI action scenes, he emphasizes the characters’ internal and psychological struggles with their identity, their role in society and their culture.

Chen Kaige

A central figure among China’s Fifth Generation filmmakers, Chen Kaige is a cinematic artist whose works question notions of Chinese nationalism, politics and identity – a critique that the Chinese government strongly disapproves of. Risking the possibility of losing his career, Kaige hopes to express China’s cultural richness and examine the government’s influence on the lives of commonplace citizens, drawing largely from his personal experience during the Cultural Revolution. His films Yellow Earth (1984) and Da yue bing (1985) reveal the diversity of Chinese culture as well as the true nature of China’s idea of patriotism, raising awareness of the controversy of Chinese politics. Other examples representative of Chen’s style are Farewell My Concubine (1993) and Together with You (2002).

Feng Xiaogang

A master of family-friendly comedies, Feng Xiaogang consistently conquers the box office as the most successful and popular filmmaker of mainstream motion pictures in China. During his career, he has tried to add a high-quality twist to the realm of entertainment by developing productions with bigger budgets. Due to an increased critique of Chinese politics and social structure in his works however, many of his pieces were censored and removed from the markets. In response to the ban, Feng changed his focus to urban life and created comedies that displayed dark humor and were equally acclaimed. Today, his black comedies are among the most popular pieces of cinema in China, particularly Cell Phone (2003), Assembly (2007), and If You Are The One (2008).

Hou Hsiao-hsien

Praised for being one of the most fundamentally important directors in the evolution of modern Chinese cinema, Hou Hsiao-hsien presents social and political turmoil during the transitional period of the 1950s, when migrant families from mainland China fled to Taiwan, moving from here to a focus on the 1960s, when most social modifications and Western industrialization in Taiwan commenced. By designing intricate compositions, protracting production processes and depicting opposed societies, Hou accurately portrays the difficult hardships suffered by citizens in Taiwan during the switch from a traditional Taiwanese society to a more Westernized notion of civilization. This is particularly evident in works such as The Time to Live and the Time to Die (1985), A City of Sadness (1989), Flowers of Shanghai (1998), and The Puppetmaster (1993).

Jia Zhangke

Leading the Sixth Generation directors, Jia Zhangke continues the cinematic revolution of the Fifth Generation. His works focus on political, economic, moral and social changes that have influenced the lives of individuals at grassroots levels. By using digital video, Zhangke creates a fusion of fantasy and realism that distorts the distinctions between the two, broadening the aesthetic visuals of films such as Xiao Wu (1997). In addition to scrutinizing the influences and consequences of social changes upon individuals, Zhangke also targets issues related to globalization in order to assess the universal impact on individuals as well as the country at large. Some of Zhangke’s most renowned documentary works involving all elements of his style include The World (2004), Still Life (2006), and Dong (2006).

John Woo

The first Asian producer in history to make a widespread, globally popular Hollywood film, John Woo is internationally respected for his depictions of extreme violence and edge-of-your-seat thrillers. By shooting intricate, choreographed action scenes, he creates stunning episodes of intense hand-to-hand combat, often developing into heated bloodshed with the use of dangerous weapons. To add to the intensity, he emphasizes fight scenes with a use of slow motion pictures. A few of his original works demonstrating his unique filming techniques are A Better Tomorrow (1986), which was ranked second best of the top 100 Chinese Motion Pictures in 2005; The Killer (1989), which instigated Hollywood’s offer to form a contract with Woo; and Hard Boiled (1992), a bloodthirsty gangster film that features actors Chow Yun-fat and Tony Leung.

Tian Zhuangzhuang

As one of the greatest contributors to China’s ‘New Wave’ cinema, Tian Zhuangzhuang challenges the authority of the Chinese Communist party by showing the destruction it has caused in the past. One of his internationally praised works evoking criticism towards Communist policies is The Blue Kite (1993), which ignores local and governmental censors and illuminates the adverse consequences resulting from the Hundred Flowers Campaign, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. In response, the government forbade him from directing for several years, during which time he mentored Sixth Generation filmmakers. After the prohibition was lifted, Tian began directing the drama Springtime in a Small Town (2002), a production that lacked a direct political message but still maintained implicit critiques.

Tsui Hark

Nicknamed the ‘Steven Spielberg of Asia,’ Tsui Hark is a filmmaking visionary, artistically combining elements of kung-fu action, Chinese storytelling and Hollywood-style special effects to create a new genre known as ‘wuxia,’ which has developed into a prominent cinematic style. Using all three components, Hark relates stories of China’s history in a fantasy world filled with stunning and unimaginable movements and scenes. Exemplary models that portray his unique style are Peking Opera Blues (1986), addressing the democratic revolution of the 1910s; Once upon a Time in China (1991), which beautifully illustrates protagonist Wong Fei-hung’s journey; Seven Swords (2005), which recalls the era of the Qing dynasty; and Hark’s greatest masterpiece of all time – The Blade (1995).

Wong Kar-wai

The first Chinese filmmaker ever to win the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1997, Wong Kar-wai is a cinematic genius famous for his lengthy production process, often lasting over a year. To amplify the curiosity of viewers, he uses a large amount of symbolism as well as metaphorical scenes to illustrate the various moods of individual characters, utilizing quick freeze frames to underline significant scenes throughout his works. The latter is particularly true of 2046 (2004), In the Mood for Love (2000), and Chungking Express (1994). Furthermore, with Australian film director Christopher Doyle’s influence and Chinese actors Tony Leung, Leslie Cheung, Maggie Cheung and Faye Wong’s assistance, Wong has created melancholic romantic productions that have brought millions to tears.

Zhang Yimou

One of the core members of China’s Fifth Generation – those who created films subsequent to the Cultural Revolution – Zhang Yimou is highly praised internationally for his aesthetically detailed visuals. He creates a form of live-action storytelling on the theme of rural communities as well as detailing the struggles of individuals who are invisible within a chaotic, urban society. As he reveals the true conditions and environments of rustic areas, he reprimands state policies within historical context. Some of his most renowned and original works that best demonstrate his style include Hero (2002); Raise the Red Lantern (1991); House of Flying Daggers (2004) and To Live (1994).