The history of cinema has shadowed the history of modern China, turning a lens on more than a century of radical upheavals that have given form and substance to the People’s Republic as it stands today. In the spirit of exploring this vast and complex country through the layer of its big-screen output, RADII presents our list of 100 Films to Understand China. This is not a ranked list of 1-100 — we’re not trying to tell you the 100 “best” or “most important” films to come out of China. Our goal is to give a round and deep profile of the country through the medium of films made here in the last 100 years or so.
This list is a syllabus of movies across the spectrum of time, space and quality that, taken together, provide a snapshot of today’s China, the forces that shaped it, and the directions in which it’s moving looking forward. We’re focusing primarily on films made in mainland China, since these come from a different cultural context and industrial framework than films made in Hong Kong or Taiwan.
First introduced in the very beginning of the 20th century, mainland Chinese cinema saw its first Golden Age in the 1930s in the swinging port city of Shanghai. In the 1950s, after Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War, film was pressed (along with all other art forms) in the service of extolling the virtues of the Party led by Mao Zedong. By the ’80s, as China began a program of Reform and Opening Up initiated by Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping, filmmakers in the country had a new freedom to explore themes that were verboten under the first-wave Communist regime, including meditations on the roiling societal impact unleashed by the chaos of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).
Over the last few decades, as mainland China has opened up to economic reform and sought to integrate with the international market, cinema has been an ever-evolving index of the country’s history, progress, and global aspirations. There have been good movies; there have been great movies; there have been terrible movies. There have been box office successes and challenging arthouse fare tackling niche issues well outside China’s cultural mainstream.
To make it easier to navigate, we’ve divided the 100 films up into 10 categories, which you can explore by clicking on the images below:
In assembling the list we reached out to filmmakers, producers, distributors, curators, critics, experts and industry insiders, who gave us an eclectic mix of mainstream titles, cult classics, and deep cuts. They provided these via the category headings that we provided and therefore do not necessarily endorse all of the selections you’ll find here.
We’re immensely grateful to our panel of experts for their contributions and help in piecing this list together.
The list was compiled and edited by Josh Feola, Bryan Grogan and Jake Newby. Contributions and film suggestions were made by:
Nathanel Amar Researcher and director of the French Center for Research on Contemporary China in Taipei
Michael Berry Professor of Contemporary Chinese Cultural Studies, UCLA
Muhe Chen Independent filmmaker
Stanley Chen Science fiction author and curator
Yalin Chi Cheng Cheng Films
Karin Chien Film producer and distributor at dGenerate Films
Samantha Culp Writer, curator and producer
Rebecca Davis Variety Beijing Bureau Chief
Frankie Huang Writer, illustrator and cultural insight strategist
Cheng-Sim Lim Organizer, China Onscreen Biennial
Jason Lin Producer and former executive at Alibaba Pictures
Phoebe Long Screenwriter
Xueting Christine Ni Author and speaker
Krish Raghav Artist and writer
Maya E. Rudolph Writer, director and producer
Benny Shaffer PhD Candidate in Media Anthropology, Harvard
Peter Shiao Founder and CEO, Immortal Studios
Emma Xiaoming Sun Writer and producer
Daniel Weaver Writer
Ken Yang Director
Linda C. Zhang PhD candidate, UC Berkeley
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