Big Fish And Begonia
Raise The Red Lantern, Amazon, from £3.49
No list of Chinese cinema would be complete without at least one film from Fifth Generation director Zhang Yimou, whose work ranges from historical dramas like this to action spectaculars including Hero and intimate dramas like Coming Home. This film from near the start of his career is a beautifully crafted and carefully colour-coded study of the simmering tensions between the concubines in a wealthy household. The director helped star Gong Li rise to fame - she had already featured in his Red Sorghum and Ju Dou, the previous two films in what, with this, would become known as his Confucian Trilogy - and she has rarely been better than as she takes her character, part-schemer/part little-girl-lost Songlian on her tragic trajectory. Beyond the claustrophobic setting and deep red colourscape that adds to the mood, the director creates a subtle soundscape where the noise of a foot massage echoes with trouble and carefully crafts the dominant patriarchy as a barely glimpsed presence that nonetheless holds sway.
Long Day's Journey into Night, Amazon, GooglePlay and other platforms, from £2.49
Jennie Kermode writes: A poet before he became a filmmaker, Gan Bi hails from Kaili City in Qiandongnan Miao and Dong, and is in many ways an outsider in the context of established Chinese filmmaking. He burst onto the scene in 2015, getting worldwide attention with Kaili Blues, but it's in this film that he was first able to obtain the budget and technical assistance necessary to bring his artistic vision to life. It's an astonishing piece of work; the last hour is shot in a single take yet carries the viewer up and down stairs, in and out of buildings, through tunnels and straight off a clifftop in a flimsy cable car. The plot, such as it is, follows a man who is obsessed with a beautiful woman who seems to change form and become somebody else halfway through, raising questions about the extent to which he is interested in a real person or in a projection of his own imagination. Narrative uncertainty combines with strong themes and a truly stunning visual experience.
The Assassin, Amazon, from £3.49
Anne-Katrin Titze writes: This is the story of Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), who returns to the province of Weibo after having been abducted as a little girl and trained by a nun, Jiaxin (Sheu Fang-yi) for many years as an assassin. She masters the sword like no other, but her head and heart are not free of pity yet. Shu Qi's movements are fantastic, her leaps nimble like a cat's, her landings on the ground without a sound. Hou Hsiao-hsien not only reveals an order, a code of behavior as the genre suggests, he goes straight to the heart, that "to overcome human sentiment," might not be so essential after all. Details capture the senses. A concubine in the palace, Huji (Hsieh Hsin-ying), might be pregnant and we see how gossip spreads before smoke seems to rise from her body. A man whose impressively long white eyebrows merge with his equally impressive wizard beard, tears paper puppets from sheets in a kind of voodoo ceremony to scare lesser men. The earliest known version of Cinderella, that includes a shoe and a fish, dates back to 9th century China. Hou Hsiao-hsien's outstandingly beautiful martial arts tale, The Assassin (Nie Yin Niang), based on the Tang Dynasty chuanqi, titled Nie Yinniang, an ancient short story by Pei Xing, takes place during the same century and although it is hardly a Cinderella story, magic is never far. The production and costume design by Huang Wen-ying combine historical accuracy with a revelation of detailed splendour, from the sturdy and elegant construction of roofs to the rope that ties the embroidered silk pouch holding two vitally important pieces of political jade - not a facet seems un-thought through, not a crimson saddle trim out of place.
24 City, Amazon, from £4.49
Docufiction hybrids are all the rage these days and, back in 2008, Sixth Generation director Jia Zhang-Ke was an one of the earlier adopters, putting it to good use in this consideration of a munitions plant that is due to be converted into luxury flats. It's hard to see the join between the real and the invented - a debate that still continues to cause controversy with the likes of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets. But by blending of conversations with actual former employees alongside actors, the director distills emotional truths about a nation that is operating at a high stress level while trying to come to terms with extremely rapid change.
Big Fish And Begonia, Amazon, from £3.49
Xuan Liang and Chun Zhang's film is an animated famly treat about a shape-shifting teenager's rite-of-passage in the body of a red dolphin, as she travels from a magical realm to the human world. While it may sometimes meander a little in its storytelling its combination of hand-drawn animation and CGI, the enterprise - 12 years in the making - is visually stunning and draws on Chinese folklore to tell a tale of mortality and sacrifice with an ecological slant.
Jennie Kermode writes: A traditional family saga breaks down narratively and structurally in Lisa Zi Xiang's powerful debut, which uses non-chronological scenes and, at one point, a car ride played out with chairs on a sound stage to explore the impact of a husband a father coming out as gay. There are larger themes around social performance and the fear people have of acknowledging the world as it is, as worried wife and mother Li Jiumei (Renhua Na) tries one thing after another to 'cure' her husband and make the family work the way she believes it's supposed to, eventually joining a cult. She's already struggling with the ignominity of her daughter marrying a foreigner (as well as failing to fit into a traditional feminine role), and the presence of that different cultural influence adds another dimension to the pressures of social change. Its weighty themes leavened by witty dialogue, this multi-award winning film builds to a powerful conclusion.
This 1934 debut by Wu Yonggang charts the life of a Shanghai sex worker trying to build a better life for her son. Economically establishing both its heroine and the city she is up against, the film has an understated but compelling social realism as the mother retains her moral core in the face of corrupting forces. The film hinges on its nuanced central performance from Ruan Lingyua - a working class youngster who would become one of the bright lights of Chinese silent cinema before she tragically took her own life, just a year after this film was made, at the age of 24.
No embedded short this week, but you could do a lot worse that check out Chinese animator Siqi Song's Oscar-nominated Sister, which sees a man reflecting on the conflicts of his childhood and which is available to rent on Vimeo.