70. Third Sister Liu: 刘三姐
Dir Su Li, China, 1960; Musical
Hailed as the ‘first and most influential’ musical post-1949, Third Sister Liu is a retelling of the classic folktake of the same name. It was among just a handful of films from the period notable for quality storytelling, along with Red Detachment of Women and Two Stage Sisters.
69. The Missing Gun: 寻枪
Dir Lu Chuan, 2002; Drama/Crime
A loose adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog, starring the magnetic Jiang Wen as a small-town cop who finds his gun missing after a night of drunken revelry at his sister’s wedding banquet.
The cinematic debut of Lu Chuan, the film was a massive box office smash in China, and has been credited with bringing the marginality and social alienation of the Sixth Generation of Chinese filmmakers (such as Jia Zhangke and Wang Xiaoshuai) to the mainstream.
68. The Search: 寻找智美更登
Dir Pema Tseden, 2007; Drama
Contemporary films in Tibetan language don’t surface too often. The second feature film from Pema Tseden, the first filmmaker to film in Tibetan dialect using an all-Tibetan cast and crew, The Search focuses on a production crew's quest to find people to take part in a traditional Tibetan opera, bringing the preservation of Tibetan heritage to a personal level.
Drawing on the ancient Tibetan art form thangkas (richly-symbolic embroidered silk paintings), the cinematography is lush, imbued with metaphor and at times painstakingly slow. The Shanghai International Film Festival jury (who awarded the film the Grand Jury prize in 2009), said The Search is ‘almost a meditation in patience'.
67. On the Beat: 民警故事
Dir Ning Ying, 1995; Comedy
Arguably China’s most prominent female director, Ning Ying’s On the Beat is the second installment in her Beijing Trilogy, each of which bears witness to the vast changes undergone by China through the eyes of different generations.
Absurdly comic, this film is a series of slyly wry vignettes following a precinct of middle-aged policemen who treat the most minor calamities with deadly seriousness (apprehending a rabid dog, interrogating a man selling pictures of woman in bathing suits) – perhaps out of diligent devotion to the letter of the law, or perhaps simply to stave off boredom. Casting actual policemen to play her bumbling cops, the film brims with life.
66. Purple Butterfly: 紫蝴蝶
Dir Lou Ye, China, 2003; Drama/History/War
Purple Butterfly is set in Shanghai in the early ’30s, with a 1928 prologue in Manchuria and newsreel of the Nanjing massacre in 1937 forming a coda. Ding Hui is a member of Purple Butterfly, an anti-Japanese resistance group, preparing to assassinate a Japanese spymaster. Itami, her former lover, works for the intended victim. Szeto is an innocent bystander mistaken for a hitman, drawn into the plot when his fiancée is killed in crossfire.
65. Woman Basketball Player No 5: 女篮五号
Dir Xie Tieli, 1957; Sport/Drama
Made in 1957, renowned filmmaker Xie Tieli’s directorial debut boasts all the cinematic staples that we now associate with the most beloved sports movies: a down-on-her-luck underdog, a curmudgeonly coach with a shady past, stirring training montages, and the obligatory inspirational speech that will leave audiences reaching for the Kleenex.
The first sports film to be shot in colour in China, Xie’s maiden movie is a stirring shanty to the fleeting ephemerality of youth, and the first in a long and illustrious career of films with strong female protagonists
64. Keep Cool: 有话好好说
Dir Zhang Yimou, China, 1997; Comedy
Cut off from foreign financing by new film regulations, Zhang did the smart thing by making this low budget quickie primarily for domestic release. It’s his first contemporary urban movie, his first comedy and his first without Gong Li.
The great Jiang Wen plays a bookseller who won’t accept that his hip young girlfriend has left him for someone richer. The first half details his attempts to confront her (he can’t remember which of a thousand identical apartments she lives in); the second his wait with murderous intent in a restaurant, refusing to be pacified by a stranger whose new laptop he has broken.
63. Oxhide II: 牛皮2
Dir Liu Jiayin, 2009; Experimental/Drama
Festival darling Liu Jiayin's oblique follow-up to the much adored, Berlin FIPRESCI Award winner Oxhide (Number 27). In the first film – which depicted the slow unravelling of a working-class family struggling against the harsh economic realities of modern China – Liu’s revelatory stroke was her decision to restrict space, confining the narrative only to those things that occurred in the claustrophobic rooms of the family home.
In Oxhide II, Liu goes even further in her microscopic examination of family life, by restricting time. Taking place in ‘real time’, the 132 minutes of film cover a single conversation between the three family members as they make dumplings. As the film progresses, personal problems and conflicting views threaten to tear father, mother and daughter apart, but the simple act of making dumplings holds them together. In this way, the minute becomes momentous.
62. Taking Father Home: 背鸭子的男孩
Dir Ying Liang, China, 2005; Drama
Melancholy and ostensibly amateurish in some of its DV imagery – it was made on a shoe-string with much help from friends and family – this filial quest story still offers some pertinent insights into contemporary western Chinese life.
Urbanisation is the subtext, as headstrong teenage villager Xu Yun strikes out for the big city to which his father absconded six years earlier, armed only with a dubious address on a scrap of paper and a basket of ducks.
61. For Fun: 找乐
Dir Ning Ying, 1993; Comedy
Ning Ying hit the jackpot with this, her second feature, financed from Hong Kong but shot entirely in Beijing. The story, about retired old codgers who team up to form an amateur Peking opera troupe and enter a talent contest, is warm, funny and extremely likeable.
It's also quite sharp politically, since it pricks the bubble of pomposity associated with Chinese officialdom – incarnated in the story by a former stage-doorman who sees himself as a natural leader. Wonderful performances from the two queens in the troupe, and from Huang Zongluo as the petty tyrant.