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The 10 greatest Chinese films of the 21st century


Whilst China has long been established as a country well-known for its filmmaking capabilities, it was the creative cultures of fellow surrounding countries South Korea and Japan that would gain a better foothold in the world of intentional cinema. Whilst the likes of films such as Seven Samurai, Tokyo Story and Oldboy were thriving in the western world, Chinese cinema was often left to wonder what it was missing. 

Despite this, the Chinese film industry was thriving within its own borders for many generations, with the country only recently inviting American cinema into its cinemas, with their audiences since becoming pivotal to the Hollywood model of moviemaking. Along with the domestic run of Hollywood films, a film’s release in China has now become a significant moment in their release, particularly as the likes of Transformers: The Last Knight, Avatar and Furious 9 (among others) saw great financial success there.

With a healthy film industry of its own with celebrated filmmakers including Jia Zhangke, Li Yang, Lu Chuan, Diao Yinan, Meng Zhang and Ann Hui, Chinese cinema is now growing into a lethal cinematic force in its own right.

Having created some of the finest films of the modern era, let’s take a look back at the top 10 greatest Chinese films of the 21st century.

The 10 greatest Chinese films of the 21st century:

10. Blind Shaft (Li Yang, 2003)

A pitch-black comedy, crime story, Blind Shaft starring Yixiang Li, Baoqiang Wang, Shuangbao Wang, Jing Ai, Zhenjiang Bao and Sun Wei, is a gripping, tense drama directed by Yang Li.

Authentic and damning of contemporary culture, the film follows two Chinese coal workers who plan a scam to murder one of the fellow workers, make it look like an accident and then extort money from the boss in order to keep the tragic incident from the gaze of the media. Infused with a drive for social change, Blind Shaft is both a call for industrial action as well as a thrilling, surprisingly hilarious drama.

9. A Touch of Sin (Zhangke Jia, 2013)

Celebrated for his multiple modern cinematic triumphs, director Zhangke Jia is known for bringing such classics as Ash is Purest White, Platform, 24 City and The World to the big screen. 

His 2013 film tells the story of four independent incidents of random violence that occur throughout modern China. Starring Wu Jiang alongside Baoqiang Wang, Tao Zhao, Lanshan Luo and Jia-yi Zhang, A Touch of Sin is a wild action drama that demonstrates just why Zhangke Jia is considered one of the greatest working Chinese filmmakers, keeping up an intense tone until the film’s thrilling climax. 

8. Piano in a Factory (Meng Zhang, 2011)

Though Chinese cinema is not particularly known for its comedy, the somewhat occasional foray into the cinematic genre often yields great results, with Meng Zhang’s Piano in a Factory being a prime example.

Fighting for custody of his daughter who loves to play the piano, Meng Zhang’s film follows a steel factory worker who vows to forge a piano from scratch. Featuring the likes of Qianyuan Wang, Yongzhen Guo and Shin-yeong Jang, this heartwarming comedy-drama presents one of the most creative, ambitious and heartwarming films of modern Chinese cinema. 

7. ‘Til Madness Do Us Part (Wang Bing, 2013)

This epic documentary, directed by Wang Bing, that exceeds three hours in length, observes the daily activity on one floor of a Chinese mental institution situated in Yunnan, Southwest of the country. 

Low-budget yet powerful independent filmmaking, Bing captures the lives of such vulnerable and marginalised people with a compassionate approach that places their existence within a specific point in time and place. Quiet and observational, Wang Bing is less interested in the history of the patients than in their current existence, filming them in all their living glory as they navigate the struggles of daily life. 

6. Summer Palace (Ye Lou, 2006)

A coming-of-age classic from Ye Lou, this heart-wrenching drama features a fierce central performance from the young Hao Lei, featuring alongside the likes of Xiaodong Guo, Lin Cui and Xueyun Bai. 

An emotional, restless tale of youthful ambition, Lou’s film follows a young girl who leaves her home village to start university in Beijing where she develops a passionate relationship with another student, all amid the riots of 1989. Leaving her physically and emotionally exhausted, Ye Lou’s film subtly explores themes of tragedy and lasting trauma in an uncompromising account of young love.

5. Black Coal, Thin Ice (Diao Yinan, 2014)

This intense, crime thriller from Diao Yinan found almost instant success with overseas audiences due to its intricate murder-mystery storyline that kept viewers guessing until the frantic conclusion. 

Starring the likes of Fan Liao, Gwei Lun-Mei, Jingchun Wang and Xuebing Wang, Black Coal, Thin Ice follows an ex-cop and his ex-partner who decide to team up for an investigation on a series of murders that reflect the same killings that ended their careers many years ago. Capturing the dark despair of such a chilling situation, director Diao Yinan sets up a thrilling, haunting neo-noir

4. City of Life and Death (Lu Chuan, 2010)

A rare Chinese epic makes the fourth film on the list, with Lu Chuan’s war film City of Life and Death starring Ye Liu, Wei Fan, Yuanyuan Gao, Hideo Nakaizumi and Lan Qin showing off the true scope of the country’s filmmaking capabilities. 

A grand film set in 1937, City of Life and Death follows the Japanese occupation of the Chinese capital of Nanjing, depicting the battle between the two nations along with the atrocities that followed the fighting’s end. A harrowing tale sparse in dialogue, Lu Chuan’s film presents a compelling moral dilemma in the midst of the panic, violence and bloodshed of war.

3. Still Life (Zhangke Jia, 2006)

The second film from Zhangke Jia on this list, this wistful emotional drama stars Tao Zhao in a romantic tale that sees her feature alongside Zhou Lan, Lizhen Ma, Sanming Han and Hongwei Wang.

In Zhangke Jia’s ethereal modern drama, a man and woman visit a town in Fengjie county that is gradually being demolished and flooded to make way for a new development. Going to the town to locate their estranged spouses, the two individuals witness the societal changes in contemporary China that are seeing the country change from its traditional roots. It’s a rousing, emotional experience.

2. A Simple Life (Ann Hui, 2011)

Breaking the international film circuit, A Simple Life from director Ann Hui grabbed audiences thanks to several compelling lead performances from the likes of Andy Lau, Deannie Ip and Hailu Qin. 

A harrowing emotional drama, A Simple Life tells the story of an altruistic maid who announces that she wants to move into an old people’s home after suffering a stroke. Lauded by critics across the world for good reason, A Simple Life spoke to a gentle inherent truth about the hope of human nature, a particularly pertinent truth given the tumultuous politics of contemporary life. 

1. The World (Zhangke Jia, 2004)

For its sheer imagination and creative audacity, the greatest Chinese film of the current century has to be The World from Zhangke Jia, a wild deconstruction of modern society at the turn of the new millennium. 

Experiencing a cultural revolution toward the end of the 20th century, Zhangke Jia’s 2004 film The World was the perfect illustration of the country’s urbanisation and globalisation, expanding into the wider western world. Starring Tao Zhao, with Taishen Cheng, Jue Jing, Zhongwei Jiang and Yiqun Huang supporting, The World takes you to a new reality of modern thought and makes you question your own role within its wild system.