The hidden gems of Chinese cinema

By Tomas Babicki |

Karen Zhao / Unsplash

As a film enthusiast, nothing beats the thrill of discovering a hidden gem. Maybe you finally take a chance on a cheap looking thriller on Netflix, or pick up a DVD on a whim because you vaguely remember it receiving three stars when it was released. Though, after nearly a year of more free time than I’ve known what to do with, it starts to feel like there are no gems left to discover.

I had a desire to accelerate this process, and so my solution was to dive into a single country’s catalogue that rarely receives a wide distribution across Western platforms.

In recent years, many facets of East Asian cinema have been reaching a wider audience through productions such as South Korea’s Parasite (2019), Japan’s Shoplifters (2018) (as well as many other features from Hirokazu Kore-Eda), Taiwan’s A Sun (2020), Thailand’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) and even Indonesia’s Welsh-directed The Raid series. However, outside of a few major successes on the festival circuit with films like The Assassin (2015), The Farewell (2019) and A Touch of Sin (2013), Chinese cinema has been vastly underrepresented in the mainstream.

Since the spate of poetic martial arts films of the early 2000s, such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), House of Flying Daggers (2004) and Hero (2002), it seems Chinese cinema has fallen out of favour with Western audiences.

One of the main causes behind this could be China’s own stringent restrictions that it enforces on the arts, which are especially particular around the export (and import) of films. Though it could also be a result of the Chinese governments many controversial policies of the past few years, such as the widely reported struggle for Hong Kong’s independence, and even more recently, the persecution of the Uighur Muslims by the state. This negative press may have led to hesitation from Western distributors or perhaps even a collective subconscious rejection of Chinese films by the cinema-going populous.

Politics aside, I’d like to share a few lesser-known films to come out of China in the past decade that, in my opinion, deserve to be seen by a wider audience.

An Elephant Sitting Still (2018) – dir. Hu Bo

An Elephant Sitting Still is a four-hour-long masterpiece of slow cinema, and the story behind its release is both tragic and powerful. A few days after the film’s completion, director Hu Bo committed suicide following pressures from producers to cut the film down to a far more palatable 2-hour runtime. In turn, the young filmmaker’s death assured the release of the film in its full, raw, unflinching glory, as he intended.

The film is a gloomy portrait of four characters at different stages of their lives, yet all seemingly facing a similar intersection. It is set against the smoggy backdrop of the industrial city of Shijiazhuang, though each character is captivated by the city of Manzhouli, where it is fabled that there is an elephant that sits still all day long for the masses to come and witness.

The story is told through a string of drawn out encounters across one day and, despite it’s lengthy runtime, not a single moment feels wasted (I was so invested in the film that I watched it without intermission). The camera hugs the actors’ backs in a style akin to the cinematography of Son of Saul (2015), and perspectives are masterfully manipulated to emphasise the role we play in our own and others’ stories.

Despite the film’s dismal tagline ‘the world is a wasteland’ and its matter of fact illustration of life in central China, there is an indescribable atmosphere of hope and beauty that hangs over the film, all but heightened by the devastating sacrifice made by Hu Bo.

Drug War (2012) – dir. Johnnie To

On the opposite end of the spectrum, however, is this overblown cop thriller from Hong Kong legend Johnnie To. Drug War, in spite of it’s less than creative title, is fast paced, funny, and evokes the energy of John Woo’s early directorial career. The film is littered with unrelenting set pieces which refuse to conform to the clichés of Hollywood action.

Following a chemical explosion at a drug manufacturing plant, career criminal Choi (Louis Koo) is enlisted by the cool and charismatic Captain Zhang (Sun Honglei) to set up a meeting with the figureheads of Hong Kong’s drug empire. However, a mutual distrust and constant misdirection keeps the pursuit on a path that twists and turns all the way to the film’s climax.

Drug War provides an original spin on the classic tale of the criminal hierarchy, and culminates with a shootout to rival The Wild Bunch.

Black Coal, Thin Ice – dir. Diao Yinan

I was fortunate enough to catch Black Coal, Thin Ice on a two-day run at my local cinema back in 2015, though since its release this neo-noir has flown completely under the radar. Yinan delivers a dark, introspective evaluation of devastating crimes and the police who become consumed by their morbid allure.

The film begins in 1999, as detective Zhiang (Liao Fan) is tasked with solving the grizzly murder of a man whose dismembered body parts are being turned up across Heilongjiang Province. Following a traumatic event, the story then leaps forward to

2004 where a retired and alcoholic Zhiang begins investigating a captivating woman who he believes is connected to the 1999 murder.

Black Coal, Thin Ice creates an inescapable, claustrophobic atmosphere and presents a genuinely layered mystery that unfolds with unbearable tension. It features several white-knuckling set pieces which are both concise and breathtakingly realistic, and ends on a final note that left me with goose bumps.

These films are available to stream or rent on most major platforms.