The history of cinema in China is rich, varied, and complex. Since 1905, the time when the country started making movies, there have been several Chinese flicks that manage to blow western audience away. Chinese and Hong Kong stars like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and others are famous not only in their own countries but all across the world. Before we go any further about China and its movies, it is imperative to remember that there are three distinct film industries in China — the Chinese mainland film industry, Hong Kong cinema, and Taiwanese cinema. We shall not be talking about any one industry in particular, but all of them combined.
In the 1930s began a rich period of filmmaking in China, though most of the films were either communist or nationalist propaganda films. Some of the movies even showcased the rivalry between these two ideologies. This period was known as the Golden Generation of Chinese cinema. During this time, Shanghai became the hub of Chinese films, and it was here that even western films garnered a lot of viewers. Shanghai slowly came to be regarded as the ‘Hollywood of The East’. The enormous growth and prosperity of Chinese films halted after the Japanese invasion and occupation of Shanghai and the rest of the country. It was only after the Second World War ended that the Chinese film industry began to grow and prosper once again. ‘Spring in a Small Town’ (1948) is a bright example of post-war Shanghai films.
Hong Kong is also a massive film industry, and because it was under the British rule, Hong Kong enjoyed artistic freedom which was unseen in Shanghai or Taiwan. Some of the most important films from China are Hong Kong productions. The martial arts cinema thrived in Hong Kong with the rise of production houses like Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest. It was with Golden Harvest that Bruce Lee made his first film, ‘The Big Boss’ (1971).
When the 1970s came to a close, Golden Harvest picked up another young actor who would go on to redefine martial arts cinema forever — Jackie Chan. Chan started his career playing extras and we can even see him as an extra getting beaten up by Bruce Lee in ‘Fist Of Fury’ (1972). Hong Kong crime films also became extremely popular during the 1980s and 1980s, and with the help of directors like Ringo Lam and John Woo, some absolute classics like ‘A Better Tomorrow’ (1987), ‘City On Fire’ (1987), and ‘Hard Boiled’ (1992), came out. Chow Yun-fat became an international sensation during this period. Thus, we see how vast and dense the history of films in China is. If you want to explore Chinese cinema, but do not know where to look for some easily accessible films from the country, then you have come to the right place. Here’s the list of really good Chinese movies on Netflix that are available to stream right now:
7. Us and Them (2018)
‘Us And Them’ is directed by Rene Liu and stars Jing Boran, Zhou Dongyu in leading roles. The film centers around their characters, Lin and Fang. The two of them fall in love but eventually, the harsh realities of life keep them apart. The movie uses a nonlinear format of storytelling, with jumping between the past and present. While the past is shown in color, the present is shown in black and white. This effective use of different tones for nonlinear storytelling was popularized by Christopher Nolan in ‘Memento‘ (2002).
Coming back to the film, Lin and Fang meet some days before the Chinese New Year Festival. We see that they are both struggling with their lives. Lin wants to create a video game but cannot do so because of his work and the lack of time and money. Fang, after a fight with her boyfriend’s mother, has broken off her relationship and shifted to Beijing. The two of them then start living together and earn money selling software and porn.
Later, we see that the owner of the complex where the couple live asks them to move out because a friend of the owner will be coming in. This infuriates Lin a lot. He even becomes rude to his father when he calls him to inquire about his work and health. Seeing this change in him, Fang decides to end their relationship. The two of them meet after a long time when Lin is finally successful and happily married. Though responses to the film have been mixed to positive, it must be said that considering it is the debut film of director Rene Liu, she has done a fine job in storytelling and character development.
6. Operation Red Sea (2018)
Released on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of China’s People’s Liberation Army. ‘Operation Red Sea‘ tells the story about the Chinese military’s role in rescuing civilians from a civil war which has erupted in the fictional county of Yewaire. When the film begins, we see that the Chinese military has been warned about a group of Somali pirates who are trying to invade a cargo ship. To help protect the ship, the army sends in a special squad called the Jiaolong Assault Team. The team, with expert fighters in its ranks, is easily able to take down the pirates.
Later, we see that the Chinese government has ordered the Jiaolong to go Yewaire on the Arabian peninsula and rescue all the Chinese nationals who are trapped in that country during their civil war. The Jiaolong soldiers have to find their way between the army and the rebels while guiding many Chinese civilians back home. The movie was a huge commercial success when it was released and became the highest grossing Chinese film ever to release during the Spring Festival. Critics were also pleased with the film, and it ended up winning numerous awards at international film festivals.
5. Monster Hunt (2015)
Viewers who are interested to find out how CGI and special effects were developed in Chinese films should have a look at ‘Monster Hunt’. The story is set in a mythical time period when monsters and humans co-exist till humans decide that it is time to drive off the monsters and claim the entire land for themselves. While humans are planning ways to kill the monsters, the latter is engaged in a civil war among themselves.
One of the ministers of the monster king has organized a coup and taken over the throne from the Monster King. Now the new king wants to consummate his relationship with the Queen. This makes the Queen run off into the human realm. The movie received mixed responses from critics after its release but got embroiled in a major controversy. The government investigated the film’s box office numbers and found out that the producers had inflated the ticket sale numbers from what it actually was.
4. Drunken Master II a.k.a. The Legend of Drunken Master (1994)
After the huge success of ‘Drunken Master’ in 1978, it took 14 years before a sequel was made. Jackie Chan had stopped acting in traditional martial arts films after 1982 and began experimenting with other films set in modern times. This film was his return to the genre which had propelled him to success in the first place. The story follows Chan’s character called Wong Fei-hung. He is the son of a rich Hong Kong doctor. While coming to Hong Kong in a train with his father, Wong gets embroiled in a fight with a Manchurian officer thinking that the latter has stolen a ginseng (plant roots) belonging to his father.
Unable to win in the fight, Wong later manages to take back the parcel he thinks belongs to his father, only to later realize that it is a historic artifact of immense value. When some soldiers working under the Manchurian officer begins searching the train, a high-ranking officer saves Wong from the embarrassment. We come to know later that this officer himself is the kingpin of a smuggling racket which steals Chinese antiques and sells them abroad for high profits. He now knows that a valuable item he has stolen is in Wong’s possession. To retrieve the antique, the officer sends some of his henchmen to Wong’s house. The movie received high praises from many critics for its brilliant action sequences.
3. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
The world took notice of the genius called Ang Lee after ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon’ mesmerized audiences not only in China but everywhere it released. Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu, played by the superstars Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh, respectively, are the central characters of the movie. Mu Bai is an accomplished warrior of the Wudang clan, who, on deciding to retire, asks Shu Lien to take his sword and give it to his patron. When Shu Lien arrives at the patron’s house, she comes in contact with the daughter of a rich governor. This girl, Jen Yu, has been secretly practicing Wudang techniques on her own. Her life comes under threat after meeting Shu Lien because an evil woman named the Jade Fox is after the sword Shu Lien is carrying.
The cinematography of this movie is among the finest in the history of martial arts. The themes Ang Lee touches upon include breaking of gender stereotypes, in making a woman the main villain of the story. Critical praise poured in for the film and it also received three Academy Awards including Best Foreign Film.
2. Ip Man (2008)
Donnie Yen stars in this wuxia film about one of the greatest practitioners of the wingchun form of Chinese martial arts. When the film begins, we see that despite being the best martial artist of Foshan, Ip Man does not teach his craft. But when a northerner comes to Foshan challenging them to pit their style against his, Ip Man takes up the challenge and shows the man who is the boss. His life goes well till China is occupied by Japan during the Second World War and Ip Man and his family have to give up their home and live in abject poverty.
To support his family, Ip Man takes the job of a coal miner. A Japanese high-ranking officer called General Miura comes to the coal mine to see if there are Chinese martial artists available because he himself is proficient in karate and wants to test the mettle of the Japanese soldiers by making them fight with the Chinese. During the fighting event, when Ip Man witnesses a lieutenant of Miura shooting one of his friends, he gets enraged and demands a match against ten Japanese soldiers at once. Naturally, these soldiers do not even manage to find their feet against Ip. This superior display of skills now brings Ip to the notice of the Japanese. Critical comments on the film have been ecstatic. The impeccably crafted and executed action sequences in the film received praise from all over the world.
Read More: Best French Movies on Netflix
1. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978)
‘The 36th Chamber of Shaolin’ is one of the most famous martial arts movies of all time. The lead protagonist of the movie is called San Te, who revolts against an oppressive government but knows no way in which he should fight against the cruel rulers. His kung fu teacher and many of his classmates are murdered by the government when news spreads that they are trying to overthrow the tyrant. Angered at this brutality, San Te decides to visit a Shaolin temple in order to learn martial arts. Here, he faces stiff conditions under which he has to train a lot, but his determination makes him the best student soon enough. Always carrying a soft corner in his heart for the poor, he approaches the Shaolin masters to allow him to open another chamber, called the 36th chamber, where he wants to teach poor laymen kung fu so that they can fight back against the oppressors.
Read More: Best Spanish Movies on Netflix