The five best movies set in China

Time Out film editor Aaron Fox-Lerner profiles the best films set in China

Sometimes it seems like there are almost as many movies from other countries made about China as there are actual Chinese movies. From silent films presenting the country as a heavily exoticised land of mystery to modern co-productions cashing in on China's growing global box office clout, the country occupies a unique, central place in the international cinematic imagination. With that in mind, here's five of the best movies about China.

The Last Emperor

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This is the big one – and we do mean big. Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci's historical epic runs 160 minutes, used 19,000 extras and won nine Oscars. In portraying the life of China's last emperor, the filmmakers were granted unprecedented access to shoot in the actual Forbidden City, and took full advantage of it. The film has its weak points – it never feels like anything other than a foreign look at Chinese history – but it's just as gorgeous as you would expect a Bertolucci film shot in the Forbidden City to be.

The Bird People in China

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About the last thing you'd expect from cult Japanese gore-master Takashi Miike (Audition, Ichi the Killer) is a winsome, gentle dramedy about the effects of isolation and modernity on a small Yunnan village. And yet that's exactly what Miike delivered with 1998's The Bird People in China. Shorn of his usual bodily eviscerations, the movie's one of his best, combining the comical mismatch of a yakuza and Japanese salary-man hunting a jade deposit in China with thoughtful reflections on the connection between protecting a place's charming isolation and cutting it off from the advantages of the modern world.

The Bitter Tea of General Yen

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There must be something about China that brings out exceptions in directors' oeuvres. Frank Capra's best known for works of homespun American charm like It's a Wonderful Life, but in 1933 he made this intense, expressionistic melodrama about a female missionary kidnapped by a Chinese warlord. If the title didn't tip you off, the movie is seriously steeped in Orientalism (and is a prime example of yellowface, with a white actor playing its main Chinese role). At the time of its release, though, The Bitter Tea of General Yen was controversial for a whole other reason: it's about a white woman and Asian man who really, really, really want to bone the hell out of each other. The mutual attraction between its leads killed its original box office, but now gives the film a complexity that outshines its dated views on the East.

The Human Condition trilogy

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Alright, we admit it. A nearly ten-hour trilogy about the grinding Japanese occupation of Northern China literally called The Human Condition doesn't sound like a relaxing time at the movies. It's not, but you should see it anyway. Masaki Kobayashi's film series from the late '50s and '60s is a towering piece of cinema. The trilogy is one of the starkest, most affecting looks at Japan's wartime sins, merging classic '50s humanist filmmaking and liberal moralising with lively directing and an intense sense of horror at the experience of a decent man caught in a cruel totalitarian experiment.

Shanghai Express

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Of all the classic Hollywood films about China, Shanghai Express is the most iconic. With a starring role from Marlene Dietrich and striking shadow-drenched cinematography from Josef von Sternberg, the movie's prototypical portrayal of a China as an inscrutable land of danger made it the biggest hit of 1933. While quotes like ‘You're in China now, sir, where time and life have no value!’ are perfect for when you're stuck in yet another Beijing traffic jam, the movie's more than just Orientalist kitsch. Particularly notable is the major role for Anna May Wong, an utterly badass Chinese-American film star from the '20s and '30s.

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