Watching five Chinese films won’t make you an expert on China, but
neither will reading the latest business press book on the topic.
Watching these five films will offer you some insights into China that
you won’t find elsewhere however.
Outsiders have struggled to understand China since (at least) Marco Polo. The western appetite for information on China now exceeds the demand for Chinese food; sometimes it seems a new book promising to unlock the mysteries of China’s surging economy, political system, or society appears daily. Anyone doing business with or in China can devote as much time as she wishes to, absorbing this vast and growing literature.
A neglected way to gain insights into China today is through films. Dating back to the 1910s, Chinese-language cinema has a rich and complex history that includes many different genres, subject matters, and dialects produced in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. The kung fu action films many foreigners still associate with Chinese cinema was actually only a small part of it.
Beginning in the 1980s, Chinese-language cinema became world class in every sense, producing some of the best cinematographers, directors, and actors working anywhere. Chinese films are increasingly winning international recognition as many Chinese film artist professionals like Zhang Yimou and Wong Kar-wai won prestigious prizes and those like Ang Lee and John Woo have made commercially successful films in Hollywood.
Film provides a unique, intimate introduction to the sweeping changes in Chinese society since the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, to the ways ordinary people are responding to those changes, and to capture where China is going. Here we’ve focused on five widely acclaimed contemporary films from the last 25 years that illuminate key themes relating to the recent developments of China.
As China shifts from the closed, autarkic, centrally planned society of the 1960s and 1970s to an economic powerhouse growing by an unprecedented 8 per cent or more per year, with major population shifts from the countryside to the cities, a booming and increasingly internationalised middle class and an increasingly self-confident presence on the world stage, modern Chinese cinema offers a window onto how the Chinese are coming to terms with these rapid changes. All of the filmmakers here are wrestling with fundamental issues of rapidly changing cultural identity and social relationship in China today.