Getting into Chinese movies can be confounding. The language barrier makes finding information on movies hard, and even seminal films can be difficult to track down. On top of that, most of the best-known Mainland film directors have huge oeuvres, making it tough to decide where to start. With that in mind, we've broken down the best and worst movies from some of Mainland China's top directors.
BEST Raise the Red Lantern
Raise the Red Lantern came out in the middle of a hot streak of collaboration between director Zhang Yimou and star Gong Li. The film boasts typically gorgeous visuals from Zhang and a great performance from Gong, but what makes it both of their best is the way that those things combine perfectly with the paranoid, twisting narrative about competition between a rich man's concubines.
WORST The Flowers of War
Here's what we haven't been dying to see: another Chinese movie about the horrors of the Japanese invasion. And yet that's what we got with Flowers of War. Even worse, in an attempt to woo international audiences, the film turned the Nanjing Massacre into a story about a white hero (played by Christian Bale).
BEST Farewell My Concubine
An obvious choice, perhaps, but that doesn't make it wrong. There's a reason this clinched the top spot on our list of the 100 best Chinese Mainland films
and won the Palme d'Or at Cannes. The performances from stars like Leslie Cheung and Gong Li are great, the cinematography is gorgeous, and the epic story effectively and emotionally dramatises decades of Chinese history.
WORST Killing Me Softly
What do you do a decade after directing one of the most well-regarded Chinese movies ever? Well, if you're Chen Kaige, you apparently make a trashy, English-language erotic thriller set in London. Chen is hardly the first or last foreign director to flounder when making a Hollywood film, but Killing Me Softly was especially poorly received. As in zero percent freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes poorly received.
BEST A Touch of Sin
Purists may prefer Jia Zhangke's earlier realist efforts, but A Touch of Sin has a gut-punch immediacy that Jia's other films lack, while still maintaining their sharply observational, complex views of Chinese life outside the first-tier cities. This is the kind of movie that can – and should – wear the fact that it's been banned in China as a badge of honour.
WORST Mountains May Depart
Jia followed A Touch of Sin with his biggest misfire to date. Mountains May Depart isn't a wholly bad film – it has some great bits – but the movie gets derailed by an awkward last third set in a very unconvincing future Australia.
BEST Devils on the Doorstep
Shot in crisp black and white, this film is without a doubt the best Chinese depiction of the country's long, brutal war with Japan. By turns comic and tragic, it never stops being utterly absorbing, with a thoroughly humanist view of war's horrors.
WORST Gone with the Bullets
Jiang Wen went all in for the semi-sequel to his entertaining 2010 action-comedy Let the Bullets Fly. The result was a bombastic melange of genres that didn't play particularly well with critics or Chinese audiences. The movie also commits the cardinal cinematic sin of setting up elaborate dance numbers and then obscuring the choreography with constant edits and camera movements.