China, the land that brought civilization to the world long before European powers grew into the cultural hubs they are today. China’s history is almost as vast as its beautiful landscape.
For all the incredible parts of Chinese history—laden with dynasties and Emperors who sought to rule the known world—the Asian country’s artistic expression is not to be ignored.
When it comes to cinema, the Chinese have long played their own game, ignoring the allure of Hollywood blockbusters in favor of driving stories of their own people and culture.
As in many places throughout the world, the cinematic output of China has achieved great things, with many movies that transcend their origins and deserve to be considered global classics.
Here are our picks for the best Chinese movies of all time and why they stand out, even compared to the rest of the world.
7. Fearless (2006)
Jet Li’s Fearless—a movie about a legendary martial arts fighter during the late 19th century—gained worldwide interest from moviegoes because of Jet Li’s star power in 2006.
Loosely following the real story of Huo Yuanjia, Li gives the character a real emotional depth as he depicts the story of a man who loses himself to hubris and anger in becoming a teacher of Wushu.
And while the story follows the tragedy of Yuanjia’s life, it also showcases his redemption from his wrongdoings and the iconography that the real warrior was known for in competing.
Fearless has become one of the most-watched Chinese movies abroad because of the film’s intense pacing and focused performance by Li, who has largely retired from acting in recent years.
6. Infernal Affairs (2002)
Infernal Affairs is a tense and twisted story of a cat-and-mouse war between police and mobsters. It’s the film that inspired Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning thriller, The Departed.
Many Hong Kong movies try to capture the city’s vast complexity, but Infernal Affairs does it best. It has so much more to it than your usual film about cops and robbers.
With Tony Leung and Andy Lau in the leading roles, Infernal Affairs achieves a crisp intensity that never relents, even to its final scenes—which infamously leave us in shocked limbo.
The Academy chose not to include Infernal Affairs as a final nominee for Best International Feature Film, which many look back on as a mistake. However, Scorsese’s remake proved a hit and won several Academy Awards, including Best Picture, in 2006.
5. Hero (2002)
As Hero unfolds, it reveals itself as an intimate piece that explores the perspective of those who are beset by purpose.
In this film, Jet Li’s nameless Warrior is granted passage into the Palace of the Emperor, to present him with the treasures he’s reclaimed from the three who have repeatedly tried to kill the Emperor.
However, all is not as it appears. The film not only shows us the story being told by the Warrior to the Emperor, but also the reality of the situation he’s created by being there.
Hero is a film that never reveals its hand until the narrative demands it, and that leaves us questioning the apparent inconsistencies in the story of the Warrior. That mystery pulls us in and drags us along.
The film garnered a nomination for Best International Feature Film at the 2003 Academy Awards, and has since become a shining example of Chinese cinema amongst mainstream Western audiences.
4. Mountain Patrol (2004)
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At first, the premise of Mountain Patrol sounds rather uninteresting: a journalist from Beijing arrives in Tibet to research the endangerment of wild antelope. Based on that, you’d probably skip it.
But the beauty of Mountain Patrol isn’t in its plot, but in the dense layers that elevate it far beyond the narrative premise.
Between the initial premise and the stunning visuals of Tibetan landscapes, we get a film that shines a light on the struggles of people who are trying to protect animals from those who want to poach them. It’s fully realized by the delicate narrative.
Mountain Patrol has a genuinely devastating effect on viewers, with the realization that the horrors unfolding on screen depict a real tragedy that happened in the 1990s.
3. Farewell My Concubine (1993)
Set against the backdrop of 1920s political instability, Farewell My Concubine has become one of China’s most beloved cinematic exports, anchored by two actors who have performed together since childhood.
The power of the film is in its ability to take us, the audience, on a visceral journey across decades as we witness this developing relationship between two people.
Few other films can compete with the sheer spectacle of what this film and its its director, Chen Kaige, attempted to capture. It achieved the kind of depth only associated with the likes of Citizen Kane.
Farewell My Concubine found itself nominated for Best Cinematography and Best International Feature Film at the 1994 Academy Awards, further winning a Golden Globe, a BAFTA for Best Foreign Film, and the Palmé d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
2. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was the Chinese film that put all other Chinese movies on the map, all due to its incredible box office success at release. This classic martial arts tale is actually a deeply moving and emotional romance story within.
Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh give profoundly delicate performances that bring their mutual affection to life, even as they remain largely unspoken. It gives their story an almost Shakespearean feel that peaks with the film’s climax and conclusion.
While the tale is masterfully built and guided by Ang Lee’s directorial hand, Lee never allows the audience to settle. His sharply paced twists strike blow after blow to the characters before us.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon became an international hit, both financially and critically, and went on to win four Academy Awards, four BAFTAs, and two Golden Globes.
1. In the Mood for Love (2000)
In the Mood for Love is not the kind of film that espouses traditional Chinese values, national pride, or pristine cultural history. It simply follows the story of two neighbors who find out that their respective partners are engaged in an affair.
For sheer style alone, In the Mood for Love would’ve made a mark, with its beautiful cinematography that incorporates the entire city around them to keep the pair trapped with their spouses and one another.
However, the excellent camera work is further amplified by incredible performances by Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, resulting in a film that gains dimension beyond its language and setting.
Wong Kar-Wai’s direction and screenplay ensures that we’re not only held tightly to our seats, but devastated with the characters as every twist plays out on screen.
This picture has genuine beauty in every aspect, and that’s a rare thing to experience in cinema. In the Mood for Love has earned its reputation as one of the best films ever made worldwide.