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100 Films to Understand China: Opening Up

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The list below is part of RADII’s 100 Films to Understand China.

Opening Up

New generations of filmmakers began to emerge after the end of the Cultural Revolution and the beginning of “Reform and Opening Up,” a series of sweeping economic reforms led by Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, beginning in the late ’70s. These filmmakers asked new questions, told new stories, and participated in China’s gradual emergence into a broader global order, in both economic and cultural terms.

The films on this list reflect China’s rapid development in recent decades, as it’s seen successive waves of internationalization, unprecedented market growth, the sudden swelling of a young middle class and dramatic, if uneven, urban development across the country.

Dislocation (Huang Jianxin, 1986)

As Xueting Christine Ni has written for RADII before, Dislocation “tells the story of a scientist who, so bored with the academic protocol of endless meetings, creates a perfect android replicant of himself to attend the functions that he feels rob him of his time. Unfortunately, the android develops so quickly in its artificial intelligence that it tries to replace its creator.”

Xueting Christine Ni, author and speaker: The Black Cannon Incident (1985) and Dislocation (1986), also one of the first Chinese science fiction films), [give] an insight into the impact of the modernization and Westernization of China in the 1980s. Urban films of this time are frequently overlooked by Western media.

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Related:

Forgotten Planets: Exploring China’s Long-Running Sci-Fi Film Tradition

Back to Back, Face to Face (Huang Jianxin, Yang Yazhou, 1994)

A movie that takes aim at petty bureaucracy, Back to Back, Face to Face is a film about disappointments, ambition and the pressures of work life and familial life in tandem.

Phoebe Long, screenwriter: The excellent work of fifth-generation director Huang Jianxin truly reflects Chinese officialdom — [the way the film depicts] bureaucratic systems, human relations, society, and the world is bleak. Among the many films exploring the dynamic changes brought about by China’s rapid development, this film presents a quiet satire. The film places a mirror to the Culture Bureau of a small town that’s trapped in some kind of old stereotype of the past, incompatible with this world world where everything is being renewed.

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Dirt (Guan Hu, 1994)

Guan Hu is now one of the most famous directors in China, but it was this early movie that helped establish his cult status, with the movie taking Beijing’s rock subculture as its focus, as a young nurse explores the scene.

Xueting Christine Ni: The rise of China’s indie rock scene was closely associated with post-June 4th political awakening. Dirt by Guan Hu tells the story of a woman having to choose between two partners who represent the stability of her past and the kindred outsider who offers excitement and validation.

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Ermo (Zhou Xiaowen, 1994)

A paradoxical film that takes the growing trend of consumerism in China as its focus, Ermo is cuttingly insightful and critical of how an era of reform encouraged capitalism in rural China.

Daniel Weaver, writer: A marvel of satire that nonetheless feels remarkably human at its core. Ermo’s story hits all the notes of 1990s China: accelerating collisions between new and old, the market’s destructive effects on the “traditional” family structure” without leaving the confines of Ermo’s Hebei village, where life strikes a remarkable contrast, goings-on in the nearby town.

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Related:

China’s American Beauty: Zhou Xiaowen’s Tragicomic ‘Ermo’

On the Beat (Ning Ying, 1995)

The second in Sixth Generation director Ning Ying’s Beijing Trilogy, which explores the changes that the city went through during the Reform and Opening Up period, On the Beat explores the lives of police officers in the city.

Xueting Christine Ni: With urbanization and migration across the country, the role of the police became a focal point. Ning Ying’s mockumentary On the Beat examines the idea of policing.

Frozen (Wang Xiaoshuai, 1996)

Frozen tackles the story of an artist whose latest performance work is broken into three parts, with the final part an attempt at suicide by way of hypothermia. The story is often compared to the artistic chill after the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989, and was filmed by Wang Xiaoshuai using a pseudonym.

Muhe Chen, filmmaker: An artist trying to commit suicide during one of his performance pieces. A great film that addresses the early Beijing contemporary art scene during the 1990s.

Pickpocket (Jia Zhangke, 1997)

Jia Zhangke’s debut is a riveting account of petty crime in the director’s home city, Fenyang in Shanxi province, detailing the crack down on crime that accompanied China’s Reform and Opening Up period.

Michael Berry, Professor of Contemporary Chinese Cultural Studies and Director of the Center for Chinese Studies, UCLA: Jia Zhangke’s feature film debut, and it is a masterpiece. A powerful and probing exploration of China in transition through the lens of a small town pickpocket. Jia masterfully mirrors the collapse of Xiao Wu’s personal relationship with the environment around him, which is, quite literally, being torn down before his eyes.

Xueting Christine Ni: Jia Zhangke’s early film about the life of a pickpocket highlights the moral dilemmas within China’s migration and class problems.

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Blind Shaft (Li Yang, 2003)

A riveting film about con artists working in the coal mines of Hebei province and Shanxi province, Li Yang’s Blind Shaft was filmed for the most part 700 meters below ground.

Michael Berry: A dark film that combines a gritty documentary style with a gripping edge-of-your-seat story, Blind Shaft also features a star-making debut for actor Wang Baoqiang.

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Old Dog (Pema Tseden, 2011)

Set in the Tibet Autonomous Region, Pema Tseden’s Old Dog depicts the conflict between commerce and emotion, with the country’s burgeoning trade industry for mastiff dogs the backdrop.

Samantha Culp, writer, curator and producer: It’s a Shakespeare-level, ancient mythological allegory, in the form of an everyday, semi-rural, developing landscape. It’s a tale that feels as epic as Beowulf, but rendered in small-town contemporary, grimy, third- or fourth-tier city Tibet, and the connection between animals and humans is both very real, and intimate and direct, and also operates operates on these deep mythological levels. It’s such a stunning political critique packaged in such a simple story, that it just blew my mind. It’s heartbreaking on a human and animal, visceral level.

WATCH IT Amazon Prime

Related: 

Tibetan Director Pema Tseden’s “Balloon” Deconstructs China’s Stringent Birth Control Laws

Ever Since We Love (Li Yu, 2015)

Fan Bingbing stars in this film set in a Beijing Medical School in the ’00s. Adapted from a bestselling book, Ever Since We Love by director Li Yu, it captures the fearlessness of youth that have grew up during China’s Opening Up period.

Yalin Chi, Cheng Cheng Films: Award-winning director Li Yu’s film adaption of bestselling writer Feng Tang’s novel about a male medical school student’s coming of age through romances with different women explores how economic imbalance and disparity in social rankings brought by China’s soaring economy along with changing gender roles intervene today’s romantic relationships. Li Yu enriches the original story with a female perspective, arguing modern Chinese working women have to cope with being sexually objectified when trying to rise in male-dominated world, which engages with the high exposure and controversial media persona of mega-star Fan Bingbing, the film’s female lead and Li Yu’s long-time collaborator.

More Films to Understand China

100 films to watch

RADII Staff
RADII (rā'dē-ī') is an independent platform of artists, writers and creators dedicated to sharing vibrant stories from the rarely explored sides of new China.