Curated by Katherine Chu and Kaitlin Solimine from a course taught by USC Professor Stan Rosen

You’ve seen the American blockbusters—like Star Wars and Spiderman—and the classics—like Casablanca and The Godfather. Maybe you’ve seen some of the most renowned European films, those by Fellini and Bergman. But China, with its population of 1.35 billion and annual box office revenues for Hollywood predicted to reach $5 billion USD in 2017, has somehow eluded your grasp. You know of Jackie Chan and have heard of Raise the Red Lantern—yet Chinese cinema extends much deeper than these internationally popular films and their stars.

University of Southern California Professor Stan Rosen is a specialist on Chinese film. He has shared with Hippo Reads some of his introductory required viewings and readings for students of Chinese cinema. This list includes the more mainstream Chinese productions as well as those from the Chinese “underground” (a term scholar Paul Pickowicz explains in From Underground to Independent: Alternative Film Culture in Contemporary China).

Chinese film matters and here’s why: an understanding of Chinese film allows a deeper examination of the ways globalization carries risks for China in terms of heightened interdependence and weakening of sovereign autonomy. Chinese culture, and in particular China’s film industry, is finding audiences around the world, with the side effect of maximizing the benefits and minimizing the risks of China’s globalization. By watching a range of Chinese films, viewers can begin to understand how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) struggles to control what information, ideas, and opinions can be publicly articulated within its borders. Viewership of Chinese films also allows a more global examination of the role China’s domestic political system plays in the exercise of power that might affect the CCP’s activities outside China.

Consider this list a jumping off point into a much deeper engagement with the diversity and complexities of historical and contemporary Chinese film [note: this list is certainly not exhaustive]. What’s important to recognize is that the questions and themes addressed by these films are as diverse as the multiplicity of narratives found in the sprawling nation itself. As Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhang-ke has said:

We’re living in a globalised age, in a world saturated by mass media, in an international city, as it were. But despite all that, the problems we’re facing are our own problems.

Just as Jia notes, these films bring the individual and national problems faced to the fore—doing so in dramatic, comedic, romantic, and, as always, poignant ways.

Pre-1949 China on Film

Recommended Readings:

The Mao Years (Post-1949) and The Cultural Revolution

  • Hibiscus Town” (1986) [Fourth Generation Representative Film by Xie Jin]
  • The Blue Kite” (1993) [Fifth Generation Representative Film by Tian Zhuangzhuang]
  • Farewell My Concubine” (1993) [Fifth Generation Representative Film by Chen Kaige]
  • To Live” (1994) [Fifth Generation Representative Film by Zhang Yimou]
  • The Red Lantern” (1970) [Revolutionary Model Opera]
  • Serfs” (1963) [Chinese view of the Liberation of Tibet]

Recommended Readings:

China under Reform, including negative consequences of the post-1978 reforms:

Recent Box Office Blockbusters

Recommended Readings:

Image credit: davjdavies via flickr

  • Zeke Anders

    Fascinating article! As of recent years (probably starting in ’05) I’ve been getting into contemporary Asian cinema – especially Japanese cinema. It’s exciting that the (Korean and) Chinese film markets are moving to the forefront of “Hollywood”. Now I’m going to have to watch all these films. Ready. Set. GO!

  • Kaitlin Solimine

    Although not on Prof. Rosen’s syllabus, I’d like to also recommend Up The Yangtze, a compelling look at China’s rapid changes:

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