What are the essential movies that anyone curious about Chinese cinema needs to see? The following video of 50 essential Chinese language films – and expanded list of 100 essential films also included – is my attempt at an answer.
Such a project necessarily comes with caveats. Having participated earlier this year in a roundtable post-mortem on the greatest films poll conducted by Sight & Sound, I’ve discussed the problems inherent in making such lists and canons, problems that are even more apparent when attempting to recognize Chinese cinema in its full breadth and depth. I’ve actively followed Chinese cinema for many years, but I don’t consider myself fully qualified to make a definitive list on my own. The problem is partly one of access – there are so many films that I’ve read about but as yet have found no way to see.
Eleven years ago I first came across a major attempt at forming a Chinese film canon, a list of 100 films compiled by several Chinese film experts for Asia Weekly magazine, and made available in English by Chinese film expert Shelly Kraicer. At the time I lived in no less a cinephile hub than New York City, but even the legendary Kim’s video store only carried the more popular and recent titles from the 1980s and 1990s. So I took that list on an extended safari through various branches of New York’s Public Library and Chinatowns (both the one in Lower Manhattan and in Flushing, Queens). All in all I found 21 of the 100 on the list, which attests to the degree of success that someone earnestly trying to learn all about Chinese films could achieve back then.
Fast forward to today, as I search through that same list on Chinese websites like Tudou and Youku, and even YouTube, and find over 80 of the 100 titles, though in most cases not uploaded legally—credit goes to Fandor in making their films available through a legitimate distribution channel. So people not just in New York but all over the world now have greater access to a greater number of Chinese films. We may not even be aware of just how many classic films are now available to us, which makes lists valuable as guides to discovery.
Since the publication of that Asia Weekly list, two more prominent lists of the 100 Greatest Chinese Films have been published : one by the Hong Kong Film Awards in 2005, the other by the Taiwan Golden Horse Film Festival last year. I have aggregated the three lists to produce a combined result, one that takes into account the number of times each film is mentioned, as well as its rankings (the HKFA and GHFF lists ranked their selections whereas Asia Weekly lists the films chronologically).
I’ve also opted to present the new list in chronological order, so as to de-emphasize a noticeable prejudice towards more recent films, as they tend to rank more highly than the older films in both the HKFA and GHFF lists. On the other hand, in order to bring the list up to date, I’ve also incorporated results from the dGenerate Films international poll of the greatest Chinese language films of the 2000s, plus my own personal selection of Jiang Wen’s Let the Bullets Fly, which I consider the most important Chinese film so far of this current decade.
This method of list-making is certainly far from perfect, as it relies on lists that are themselves bound by whatever limitations of viewing scope and orientation prevail among their constituents. (For example, the Hong Kong Film Awards list is glutted with Hong Kong titles, while the Taiwan Golden Horse list favors Taiwan films.) So this is by no means the last word, but more of a starting point for how to approach and further explore the world of Chinese cinema. And we can only hope to encounter more films from beyond this list that will both challenge and expand our understanding of what Chinese films are, have been and may become.
Originally published on Fandor. Read the full article and list of 100 essential Chinese films on Fandor Keyframe.