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  • Writer's pictureJamie Keyte

MMTop10 Chinese Movies

MMTop10 : Chinese Movies

Ten movies we at Manhattan Mandarin have enjoyed, found useful for improving our Mandarin, and for 了解 -ing Chinese culture and history.


10] Dangerous Liaisons

Harry's Hot Take

We often tell students a good strategy for getting rid of their lao-wai accents is to pick a certain type of Mandarin-speaking voice and imitate it. While Dangerous Liaisons may not be considered the greatest film of all time, one of its character's has a great 帅哥 Shuai Ge voice: slow, deep, and sultry, all from the shuai face of a Shuai Ge. Become a Shuai Ge; lose the valley-girl accent that is maiming your tones.

9] Journey to the West

Harry's Hot Take

Originally had Farewell My Concubine here, but that would've put one too many 'unhappy' films on the list. Journey to the West makes the list for nostalgia's sake, as this was the first movie I ever watched when beginning my own Mandarin studies. I thought I was about to watch something epic, but was pleasantly surprised to find myself laughing at the theatrical silliness of the film. The epicness can be saved for the eponymous 16th century classic novel.

8] Red Sorghum

Harry's Hot Take Zhang Yi Mo's debut as a director, and his first of many films with actress Gong Li. The humor and lightheartedness of the opening scene will all be gone by the end of the film, and for good reason. After the death of the husband her father had chosen for her, Jiu Er, played by Gong Li, takes over a distillery in Shandong. She has a child with one of those men pictured on the cover carrying her off to her yet-deceased husband. Their child will watch history bring tragedy to a place one would have thought adequately isolated to remain safe.

At its core this is a love story interrupted by the Japanese invasion. Warning: The Japanese soldiers do not treat them well. This is not the movie for you if you're looking for something light and fun. In fact, I hereby declare younger Manhattan Mandarin students banned from watching this heartbreaking movie.

Watch the whole movie here:

7] Shower

Jamie's Hot Take

I first saw the Shower in a college Chinese movie seminar (classic 2nd semester senior year course) and instantly loved it. Shower is one of those simply shot, poignant movies where the language doesn't matter. Culturally, it digs into Chinese family structure and responsibilities, while giving us a great look at the rapid development of Beijing in the 90's, as well as hutong life.

Summary: A father and son struggle to run their bathhouse in the hutongs of Beijing. One day the eldest son, Da Ming, living in Shenzhen, returns to Beijing thinking his aging father has passed only to find it was a ruse by his mentally-handicapped brother.

Shower won a bunch of awards, including Toronto and Sundance.

6] Hero

Jamie's Hot Take

Zhang Yi Mou's epic in a similar vein to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, but I think even better. Jet Li actually took a pay cut for the chance to star in Hero.

There is a bit of history, a bit of culture, and some of the best marshal arts scenes ever filmed.

The King of Qin is on the brink of conquering (uniting?!) China and is marked for assassination by many of his growing list of enemies. A hero emerges to save the day. The question remains - who he is fighting for?

5] Raise the Red Lantern

Harry's Hot Take

Another Zhang Yi Mou classic.

Songlian becomes the youngest of four concubines serving Master Chen. Instead of the camaraderie one might expect to develop among the concubines, or any efforts to jointly combat the patriarchal system in which they're trapped, jealousy, intrigue, betrayal, and relentless in-fighting proves to be the downfall of Songlian and her fellow women. At the same time, while we sympathize with their positions, their servants have it much worse. All but Master Chen are prone to tragedy.

Pulled from Youtube, but available to rent on Amazon for $1.99

As we will soon do with all films on our lists, we've prepared a vocab flashcard set for this film:

4] Fearless

Jamie's Hot Take

Harry went for the Dangerous Liaisons 帅哥 shuai ge accent, whereas I always enjoyed Jet Li's pronunciation in Fearless. This is not a movie for movie snobs. It is the timeless story of the hero's journey with some laughs, some tears, and great fighting and drinking scenes.

Watch Fearless if you need something light and entertaining but still want to passively work on your language skills.

3] Blue Kite

Harry's Hot Take Winner at the 1993 Tokyo International Film Festival, banned in China upon its release, The Blue Kite shows you The Great Leap Forward and The Cultural Revolution through the eyes of 铁头 Tietou, a young boy whose family doesn't exactly fare so well through the turbulent times.

A poignant look in particular at the Hundred Flowers Campaign and the following Anti-Rightist Movement, and a fine portrayal of the dangers of herd behavior.

A uniquely artistic film. The structure of the film's saddening sequences - titled 'Father', 'Uncle', 'Step-Father' -seems an accurate metaphor for the state's usurpation a the tyrannical, detached, Father figure.

2] In the Heat of the Sun

Jamie's Hot Take

A coming of age story set in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution as told by Xia Yu. The story reflects the director's own experience growing up in Beijing during a time when parents, teachers, and any other authoritative figures were not (physically) around.

Historically informative (although not in the way you might imagine) and beautifully shot, this is a must-watch for students of China and Mandarin.

1] To Live

Harry's Hot Take

A tear-jerker. A great look at how one family gets tossed around by the vicissitudes of late 20th century Chinese history. As with The Blue Kite, good for students interested in seeing a certain individual take on larger historical events: the civil war between the Commies and the Nationalists, The Great Leap Forward, and The Cultural Revolution. Based on the 1992 novel of the same name. My personal favorite Chinese movie.

Watch the whole movie here:


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