Amazing Chinese films that are not kung fu films*

To mark the release of The Assassin – a massive martial arts epic – here are some films which show there is more to Chinese cinema than blokes punching blokes

Amazing Chinese films that are not kung fu films*


Austere. Restrained. Tense. A woman in turn-of-the-century China is sent off to marry a rich guy in a big house. She never really sees the rich guy. He’s too busy doing rich guy stuff. But she does see a lot of his other wives, all holed up in different parts of said big house. Thus begins a torturous, silent scream of a film. Director Zhang Yimou is the most prominent member of the so-called “Fifth Generation” – a bunch of Chinese film-makers who graduated together in 1982, full of ideas about how to criticise the oppressive Chinese state without, y’know, criticising the oppressive Chinese state.

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Mid-90s Shanghai was not the sterile, glass and steel business hub you see today. It was a shady place, teeming with sadness and gangsters. Suzhou River captures the smoky, seedy soul of a port city in transition. Half-built skyscrapers loom over cobbled, dilapidated back alleys and everything seems to be lit by the flickering light of busted neon. A moody, stylish love story that owes more than a little to the nicotine-infused, romantic nihilism of French new-wave directors like Jean-Luc Godard.

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Director Jia Zhangke (who made this “grassroots epic” aged 27) is a fan of stillness, often putting the camera somewhere and then not moving it for what feels like ages. Sounds awful – and it would be, if Jia didn’t also happen to be one of the most gifted film-makers in the world. Platform isn’t really about its characters (a gormless, provincial theatre troupe). It’s not about how they fall in and out of love with each other over the course of the film’s 10-year timeline. It’s about their homeland, silently morphing, growing, developing beyond recognition in the background.

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In 2008 the mountainous Sichuan province was rocked by a devastating earthquake. This documentary follows a working-class couple whose young daughter was killed in the tragedy. Despite being 40 years old (decidedly “well past it” by rural Chinese standards) they decide to try to have another child. A lot of people have compared the film – about honourable, benighted people on a desperate quest against a backdrop of rubble and ruin – to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Watch (the whole of) this trailer and try not to well up at the dignified spectacle of true love in a cruel world.

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Directed by another one of the vaunted class of ’82. Unlike the bombastic Zhang Yimou, Yellow Earth director Chen Kaige’s output is generally a lot more lo-fi, a lot more soulful. The first time we saw this film we were quite unwell, flitting in and out of consciousness on a grubby Chinese hotel bed. For some reason this was on telly at about 6am. Viewed through the prism of fever delirium it seemed like an absolute masterpiece. We’re pretty sure it still is.

Films from Hong Kong and Taiwan were not eligible. Mainland or bust, baby!* Oh wait, you actually want a kung fu film? Can’t beat Young Master – early Jackie Chan at his slapstick best

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