When Film4 published a list of their “100 Must-See Films of the 21st Century” and only bothered to include two Chinese films (Yi yi and In the Mood for Love, of course), I countered with this list on letterboxd of 100 Must-See Chinese Language Films of the 21st Century. Almost two years have passed since then, and I’ve been wanting to update that list, since honestly I was kind of stretching the limits of what I’d recommend when I got into the nineties. Well, yesterday came The Playlist’s list of The 50 Best Foreign Language Films of the 21st Century. Five of the films on their list are Chinese Language (the same obvious Edward Yang and Wong Kar-wai picks, along with Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Millennium Mambo, Tsai Ming-liang’s What Time is It There? and Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. That’s right: no Johnnie To.), and while they’re somewhat hampered by their self-imposed one-film-per-director rules, that, to me, is still an unacceptably low number for what has been and continues to be the most vibrant and fascinating film culture in the world. And today, Richard Brody’s response in the New Yorker, while an improvement in making room for Jia Zhangke and Wang Bing (and Korean director Hong Sangsoo), still has only seven Chinese titles.

So here are my 50 Best Chinese Language Films of the 21st Century. I’m limited in making this list by the movies I’ve seen, and there are still many, many Chinese films I haven’t watched yet. I’m also sticking with The Playlist’s rule and limiting myself to one film per director (in the case of collaborations, I’m counting them as separate directors: Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai together is a different director from either Johnnie To or Wai Ka-fai individually. This is arbitrary of course). The movies are ranked in order of my current preference, with links to where I’ve written about or discussed them, along with, in some cases, no more than five other recommended films by the director.


1. Millennium Mambo (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2001)
Also: Café Lumière, Three Times, Flight of the Red Balloon, The Assassin


2. Running on Karma (Johnnie To & Wai Ka-fai, 2003)
Also: Needing You, Fat Choi Spirit, My Left Eye Sees Ghosts, Turn Left Turn Right, Mad Detective


3. Platform (Jia Zhangke, 2000)
Also: Unknown Pleasures, The World, Still Life, A Touch of Sin, Mountains May Depart


4. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000)
Also: Lust Caution


5. Oxhide II (Liu Jiaxin, 2009)
Also: Oxhide, 607


6. 2046 (Wong Kar-wai, 2004)
Also: In the Mood for Love, The Grandmaster

The Midnight After

7. The Midnight After (Fruit Chan, 2014)


8. Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Tsai Ming-liang, 2003)
Also: What Time is It There?, I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, Visage, Stray Dogs, Journey to the West


9. Throw Down (Johnnie To, 2004)
Also: PTU, Exiled, Sparrow, Romancing in Thin Air, Blind Detective


10. Kung Fu Hustle (Stephen Chow, 2004)
Also: Shaolin Soccer, Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, The Mermaid


11. Yi yi (Edward Yang, 2000)


12. Red Cliff (John Woo, 2008)
Also: The Crossing


13. Golden Chicken (Samson Chiu, 2002)
Also: Golden Chicken 2


14. Let the Bullets Fly (Jiang Wen, 2010)
Also: Devils on the Doorstep, The Sun Also Rises


15. Love in a Puff (Pang Ho-cheung, 2010)
Also: You Shoot I Shoot, Isabella, Exodus, Love in the Buff, Aberdeen


16. Kaili Blues (Bi Gan, 2015)


17. Chinese Odyssey 2002 (Jeffrey Lau, 2002)
Also: East Meets West


18. Hero (Zhang Yimou, 2002)
Also: House of Flying Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower


19. Accident (Soi Cheang, 2009)
Also: Love Battlefield, Motorway, The Monkey King, SPL 2: A Time for Consequences


20. Wuxia (Peter Chan, 2011)
Also: Perhaps Love, Dearest


21. The Shopaholics (Wai Ka-fai, 2006)
Also: Fantasia, Himalaya Singh, Written By


22. Murmur of the Hearts (Sylvia Chang, 2015)
Also: 20, 30, 40


23. Thomas Mao (Zhu Wen, 2010)


24. When Night Falls (Ying Liang, 2012)
Also: Good Cats


25. One Night in Mongkok (Derek Yee, 2004)


26. Yumen (JP Sniadecki, Huang Xiang, Xu Routao, 2013)
Also: People’s Park, The Iron Ministry


27. Four Ways to Die in My Hometown (Chai Chunya, 2012)


28. Three Sisters (Wang Bing, 2012)
Also: The fact that I haven’t seen more Wang Bing movies is one of my great failures as a cinephile.


29. Li Wen at East Lake (Luo Li, 2015)
Also: Emperor Visits the Hell


30. Infernal Affairs (Andrew Lau & Alan Mak, 2002)


31. Port of Call (Philip Yung, 2015)


32. The Taking of Tiger Mountain (Tsui Hark, 2014)
Also: Time and Tide, Seven Swords, The two Detective Dee movies, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate


33. Ex (Heiward Mak, 2009)
Also: High Noon, Diva, Uncertain Relationships Society


34. Tai Chi Zero (Stephen Fung, 2012)
Also: Tai Chi Hero


35. Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen (Andrew Lau, 2010)


36. The Coffin in the Mountain (Xin Yukon, 2014)


37. Memories Look at Me (Song Fang, 2012)


38. SPL: Sha po lang (Wilson Yip, 2005)
Also: Flash Point, The Ip Man series


39. Jade Goddess of Mercy (Ann Hui, 2003)
Also: The Post-Modern Life of My Aunt, My Way, The Golden Era


40. Trivisa (Jevons Au, Vicky Wong & Frank Hui, 2016)


41. Ip Man: The Final Fight (Herman Yau, 2013)
Also: Cocktail, The Legend is Born: Ip Man, The Mobfathers


42. Gallants (Derek Kwok & Clement Cheng, 2010)


43. A Tale of Three Cities (Mabel Cheung, 2015)


44. Drunken Monkey (Lau Kar-leung, 2003)


45. Go Away, Mr. Tumor (Han Yan, 2015)


46. Jiang Hu: The Triad Zone (Dante Lam, 2000)
Also: Unbeatable


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


48. Eye in the Sky (Yau Na-hoi, 2007)


49. Wild City (Ringo Lam, 2015)


50. Temporary Family (Cheuk Wan-chi, 2014)

And here are some titles I feel bad about leaving out: Distant (Yang Zhengfan, 2013), Trap Street (Vivian Qu, 2013), After This, Our Exile (Patrick Tam, 2006), Fearless, (Ronny Yu, 2006), My Beloved Bodyguard (Sammo Hung, 2016), So Young (Zhao Wei, 2013), The Equation of Love and Death (Cao Baoping, 2008), Kung Fu Jungle (Teddy Chan, 2015), Chongqing Hot Pot (Yang Qing, 2016), and Zhou Yu’s Train (Sun Zhou, 2002).

3 thoughts on “The 50 Best Chinese Language Films of the 21st Century

  1. Even better would have been a list that took in all of Asian cinema, since it’s not just Chinese cinema that gets ignore. BBC Culture’s recent top 100 left off a great many Asian films, including J-Horror classics Kairo/Pulse, Ju-On and The Ring; the Korean sci-fi allegory Snowpiercer, the Korean horror films Thirst and The Host; the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs, etc.


    • Oh for sure all of those cinemas deserve more coverage. I’m reasonably comfortable making a list like this for Chinese language film, but I simply haven’t seen enough from those other countries to really advocate beyond the big names.


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