21 Essential Chinese Films for Summer Binge-Watching

By Erica Martin, August 9, 2017

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Too hot to leave the house, or even drag yourself out of bed? There are few better ways to fight the excruciating heat of summer in China than to hole up next to your air conditioner and spend a day getting better acquainted with Chinese cinema.

From heralded classics to art house flicks to campy horror stories, here are some of our favorite Chinese films to help pass your steamy China summer. Recommendations come via the That’s editorial team and a few of our pretentious movie buff friends (Thanks, guys!).


Drama:

Mr. Six 老炮儿

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(Guan Hu, 2015)
This thrilling crime drama was a both a festival award-winner and a major blockbuster hit, finding acclaim for turning many action movie tropes (like flashy fight scenes) on their head. The titular protagonist is an aging kingpin in Beijing who must delve back into the underworld to save his kidnapped son.


Yi Yi  一一 

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(Edward Yang, 2000)
Regularly cited as one of the best films of the 21st Century, Yang’s complex drama about three generations of a middle-class family in Taipei won him Best Director at Cannes. Critics rave about Yang’s keen camerawork and the film’s universal themes about the struggles of everyday life. 


24 City 二十四城记

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(Jia Zhangke, 2008)
This film by revered Sixth Generation filmmaker Jia Zhangke movingly depicts a building in Chengdu and the characters who frequent it over the course of 50 years. Originally a state-owned factory, the building is eventually demolished to become a luxury high-rise in a story that mirrors China’s urban development as a whole. 24 City is a real apartment complex in Chengdu, and parts of the film are shot in a documentary style.


Romance:

Days of Being Wild 阿飞正传

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(Wong Kar-wai, 1990)
Though his classic In the Mood for Love is also a must-watch, we love this loose prequel to the film for its sensual depictions of Hong Kong and the Philippines. Plus, with Maggie Cheung, Leslie Cheung, Andy Lau, Carina Lau and a cameo from Tony Leung, it probably breaks the record for the largest number of attractive people in a single film.


Farewell My Concubine 霸王别姬    

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(Chen Kaige, 1993)
This Fifth Generation classic won a raft of awards thanks to its stunning cinematography, sumptuous costume design, and a riveting performance by Leslie Cheung as a gender-bending Peking Opera singer along with Gong Li and Zhang Fengyi. It’s the only Chinese-language film to have won the Palm d’Or at Cannes.


House of Flying Daggers 十面埋伏 

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(Zhang Yimou, 2004)
The obligatory wuxia entry to this list comes in the form of House of Flying Daggers. This Academy Award-nominated film is as much a romance as a martial arts piece, with its breathtaking cinematography and showcase of superstar Zhang Ziyi, who plays a blind dancer in one of her early starring roles. 


Art House:

Kaili Blues 路边野餐 

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(Bi Gan, 2016)
Set in Guizhou, Bi Gan’s acclaimed directorial debut follows a former gangster as he travels around his home region trying to rescue his nephew. Its haunting imagery and innovative camerawork (including a 41-minute unbroken shot that takes up a third of the movie) have led critics to compare Bi to Thai indie darling Apichatpong Weerasethakul.


Suzhou River 苏州河

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(Lou Ye, 2000)
This moody, noir-like drama was praised for its depiction of the gritty underbelly of Shanghai’s rapid urban development. It tells the tragic story of a videographer and his lost love, a performer who makes a living by swimming in a tank at a bar dressed as a mermaid.


Paths of the Soul 冈仁波齐

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(Zhang Yang, 2017)
This docu-drama road movie from Beijing director Zhang Yang follows 11 religious pilgrims as they walk for seven months from their hometown to Lhasa. After debuting to much acclaim at film festivals all over the world, Paths of the Soul secured a China release date and hit domestic theaters this past June.


Horror:

Lonely Spirit in an Old Building 黑楼孤魂 

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(Ming Liang and Deyuan Mu, 1989)
China lags behind its twisted neighbor across the sea when it comes to horror, but this micro-budget film made by a group of young teachers at Beijing Film Academy is profoundly disturbing. It spent several years ranked as the number one Chinese horror movie on Douban, and tells the story of a little girl who haunts a basement after she dies there in a hanging.


The Phantom Lover 夜半歌聲

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(Ronny Yu, 1995)
Less a horror film and more of an eerie otherworldly romance, this period piece set in the 1940s stars Leslie Cheung as a Phantom of The Opera-like figure who secretly lives in a theater and terrorizes students who try and fail to sing the song he wrote for his long lost love.


The House That Never Dies 京城81号

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(Raymond Yip, 2014)
One of China’s few horror films to find success at the box office, The House That Never Dies is based on a real historic Beijing mansion that’s believed to be haunted. It’s a bit thin on actual scares, but with sumptuous art direction and feminist undertones thanks to Ruby Lin’s incredible performance as both the house’s belabored new occupant and a ghostly sex worker from the 1910s, we think it’s worth a watch. Plus, House That Never Dies II is currently playing in theaters across China. 


LGBTQ+:

Fish and Elephant 今年夏天

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(Li Yu, 2001)
One of the first mainland films to chronicle a relationship between two women, Fish and Elephant tells the story of a zookeeper and her girlfriend, who must navigate jealous exes and meddling parents as they fall in love. Quirky and low-key, it screened at over 70 film festivals and launched the career of its director, who has gone on to direct several major films that star Fan Bingbing.


East Palace, West Palace 东宫西宫

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(Zhang Yuan, 1996)
Largely considered China's first queer film, East Palace, West Palace still holds up as one of the best. Based on a short story by underground Beijing novelist Wang Xiaobo, it's a beautifully-shot sexual thriller involving an interrogation between a policeman and a man he catches cruising in a park outside the Forbidden City.


Drifting Flowers 漂浪青春

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(Zero Chou, 2008)
This film by Taiwan’s preeminent lesbian filmmaker Zero Chou explores three interlocking stories of love in different forms: a young woman falling for her masculine-presenting bandmate Diego, an elderly lesbian’s bittersweet friendship with her gay husband, and a younger version of Diego coming to grips with her sexuality and gender identity. Chou's steamy thriller Spider Lilies is also worth a watch.  


Comedy:

I Am Not Madame Bovary 我不是潘金莲 

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(Feng Xiaogang, 2016)
Fan Bingbing shines in this satirical comedy that cleaned up at the box office while also earning praise from critics both at home and abroad. The movie follows Fan as protagonist Li Xuelian, who must navigate bureaucracy and societal pressures on women as she tries to outsmart her trifling ex-husband, who is attempting to slander her good name. 


Forbidden City Cop 大内密探零零发 

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(Vincent Kok and Stephen Chow, 1996)
Stephen Chow was making quirky slapstick comedies long before he broke all of China’s film records with his smash hit The Mermaid. This James Bond parody stars Chow as an imperial bodyguard, inventor and… gynecologist living in ancient times and struggling to keep the emperor safe. 


Devils on the Doorstep 鬼子来了

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(Jiang Wen, 2000)
This black comedy directed by and starring Jiang Wen (whose latest star turn was as the lovable Baze Malbus in Star Wars: Rogue One) uses satire to comment on the futility of war. It’s set during the second Sino-Japanese War and is shot in black-and-white to mimic old-time war movies. 


Animation:

Prince Nezha’s Triumph Against Dragon King 哪吒闹海

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(Yan Dingxian, Wang Shuchen and Xu Jingda, 1979)
This classic animated film based on the mythology of warrior-diety Prince Nezha screened at Cannes in 1980 and is acclaimed for its modern, mesmerizing animation style. 


Havoc in Heaven 大闹天宫 

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(Wan Laiming, 1961)
China’s animation industry underwent a Renaissance in the 60s thanks to the work of the four trailblazing Wan Brothers. Their magnum opus is Havoc in Heaven, a Peking opera-themed interpretation of Journey to the West that’s widely considered one of the world’s best animated films. 


Big Fish & Begonia 大鱼海棠

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(Liang Xuan and Zhang Chun, 2016)
Despite its somewhat meandering plot, this blockbuster animation is one of the most successful Chinese animated films of all time thanks to its gorgeous, innovative visuals. Based on a classic Taoist story, it follows a mythical little girl named Chun who visits the human world disguised as a red dolphin.

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