Ranking the 14 Best Chinese Movies of Our Time

Ranking the 14 Best Chinese Movies of Our Time
Image credit: Legion-Media, globallookpress, China Film Group Corporation, Seasonal Film Corporation, Xstream Pictures, The Samuel Goldwyn Company, Summit Entertainment, Orion Classics, Sony Pictures, Miramax

Some make you ponder, some make you laugh, and others make you realize you've been kind of missing out on a lot.

1. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

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A mystical jade sword, a stolen weapon, and epic martial arts fights that defy gravity itself! This film unfolds like a carefully painted ancient scroll. Li Mu Bai, martial arts legend, decides it's time to retire and bestow his famed sword to a trusted friend. Alas, the sword is stolen and thus sets off a chase through bamboo forests and vast deserts. You've got romance, you've got treachery, and of course, mind-bending combat. It's not just a martial arts film; it's a visual poem embroidered in sword strokes.

2. In the Mood for Love (2000)

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Envision this: a cramped apartment building in 1960s Hong Kong. Two neighbors, Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan, realize their spouses are having an affair. Do they fall into a whirlpool of romance themselves? Not quite. The movie dances around the possibility like a ballet dancer in slow-motion. With tight frames and a minimalist score, this film allows its characters to breathe and to find the boundaries of their unspoken desires. Their affair? Never consummated. Their yearning? Timelessly haunting.

3. Farewell My Concubine (1993)

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Two men, bound by their craft in Beijing opera, traverse through decades of Chinese history — from the Warlord Era to the Cultural Revolution. Dieyi plays the female roles, while Xiaolou performs as the male counterpart. Ah, but the real drama unfolds when a woman, Juxian, joins this duo, disrupting their complex relationship. What happens when politics, love, and artistry collide? This film tears off the masks and shows you the raw, vulnerable faces beneath.

4. Hero (2002)

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In Hero, one might say the truth is a relative concept. Nameless, a minor official, recounts his tales of defeating assassins to the King of Qin. Each tale, however, has a twist. The narrative retells itself in multiple hues, both visually and metaphorically. What is courage? What is tyranny? The film questions without delivering easy answers. A kung fu flick that philosophizes through each punch and kick. Imagine that.

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5. To Live (1994)

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Life is unpredictable, isn't it? This film is like a rich tapestry of a Chinese family navigating through the tumultuous years of civil war and Cultural Revolution. Fugui and Jiazhen lose their family fortune due to Fugui's addiction to gambling. Left to pick up the pieces, they soldier through life's unforgiving terrains.

The Chinese title directly translates to Lifetimes, signifying that life, no matter its hardships, is to be lived. The movie mirrors the unyielding spirit of its characters, showing the triumph and tragedy that form the complex fabric of life.

6. Red Cliff (2008-2009)

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Epic warfare on a colossal scale. It's the Three Kingdoms period, and alliances are as fickle as the autumn wind. This film, told in two parts, centers on the legendary Battle of Red Cliffs where three smaller states try to defend against a much larger enemy. Arrows fly, swords clash, and strategies evolve like a game of chess played at the edge of a volcano. Intricate and grandiose, this is the kind of war film where every detail has its importance, be it a feather falling or a soldier shouting.

7. Raise the Red Lantern (1991)

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What's red, symbolic, and hangs above you like a Damoclean sword? Yes, you guessed it – red lanterns. Young Songlian becomes the Fourth Mistress in a wealthy household. She soon learns that the coveted red lantern, signifying the master's favor, comes at a price: deception, jealousy, and all sorts of behind-the-scenes shenanigans. Suspense simmers throughout the film, capturing the oppressive atmosphere like a slowly tightening noose.

8. Kung Fu Hustle (2004)

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A comedy? Yes, a comedy with exaggerated fighting scenes that'll make you laugh so hard your cheeks hurt. Sing, a wannabe gangster, yearns for power and influence. But this isn't a simple crime tale; it's a roaring roller coaster of slapstick and satire. The inhabitants of Pigsty Alley, where the film mainly takes place, turn out to be martial arts masters in disguise. Cue a buffet of outlandish fight scenes that make even the most ardent action fans blink twice.

9. The Road Home (1999)

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Love is a winding road in this touching romance. When a teacher, Luo, arrives in a remote village, he finds himself enchanted by the beautiful Zhao Di. The film uses black and white cinematography for the past and switches to color for the present, amplifying the nostalgia like your grandma's old photographs. Love letters are exchanged, yet few words are spoken. It's a classic tale of love, tinged with the hues of memory and longing.

10. Not One Less (1999)

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A classroom, rural China. A 13-year-old substitute teacher, Wei Minzhi, steps up to the chalkboard. Her mission? Keep the kids in school, no matter what. The crux hits when one student leaves for the city to work. Determined, Minzhi sets off to bring him back. An odyssey of resilience and tenacity in the face of stark poverty, this film shows the lengths one goes to when driven by a singular purpose. Ah, sometimes heroism is found not in capes but in chalk dust.

11. Still Life (2006)

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Two parallel stories unfold in a town soon to be submerged by the Three Gorges Dam. One man seeks his estranged wife, while a nurse looks for her missing husband. Abandoned buildings and pending demolition set the backdrop for these separate yet eerily similar quests. It's a film built around voids, empty spaces, and missing pieces. Can they find what they're looking for before it's engulfed by water? The quest is solemn, the answers fluid.

12. Drunken Master (1978)

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Can kung fu and comedy mix? Ask Wong Fei-hung, the young martial artist with a penchant for trouble. Under the tutelage of the drunken beggar Su Hua-chi, he learns the art of Drunken Boxing. It's not merely a film; it's an uproarious adventure that flips martial arts tropes on their head. Fei-hung faces his foes not with solemn dignity but with stumbling, swaying, tipsy maneuvers.

13. Summer Palace (2006)

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The Tiananmen Square protests serve as the tumultuous backdrop for this coming-of-age tale. Yu Hong leaves her village for university in Beijing, where she falls in love, befriends rebels, and dives into a whirlwind of emotions. Then the protests happen. The movie dares to wade into the political, giving a vivid glimpse of China's complex landscape.

14. The Grandmaster (2013)

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The life of Ip Man is legendary, but The Grandmaster chooses to focus on the essence of martial arts itself. It's a journey through China's tumultuous 20th century, seen through the eyes of its martial artists. Each fight isn't just a clash of fists but a clash of philosophies. Rich in visual flair and dense in thematic depth, the movie takes you through smoke-filled rooms, snow-draped courtyards, and combat styles that mirror life philosophies.