Must-Watch Chinese Historical Movies

Inspired by events both real and reel, China has made several iconic historical movies spanning eras. Here's a list of must-watch films to get...

China has had a glorious past, spanning eras of peace and war, alternating between warring dynasties to precisely planned sieges. Luckily for us, directors like John Woo and Huang Jianxin have worked tirelessly to give us some amazing movies about the varied and colourful history of China. Inspired by events, both real and fictitious, this list of movies is a must-watch even if you're new to the genre. The costume design, mannerisms and cinematography are sure to keep any movie-buff riveted to their seat.

Here's a list of movies - one from each era - to brush up on your Chinese history!

1. The Eight Hundred, 2020

Till now the highest earner of 2020, The Eight Hundred is a film set in 1937 during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Amidst the Battle of Shanghai, a Chinese army struggles to fight against the Imperial Japanese army. As the Chinese army retreated, a single unit was left behind to defend a warehouse. They are heavily outnumbered. They are destined to fail. And yet, as a show of patriotic morale, the soldiers remain behind. We watch as they fight for their lives, form intimate bonds and deal with the acceptance of the inevitable.

Their growth on the field from apathy to camaraderie to strength is contrasted against the bleak outdoors, where smoke and dust fill every other frame. In an interview, Guan Hu revealed that the movie had been in the works for over 10 years, and it certainly shows. A set with over 68 standing buildings was built to shoot the scenes. Whether the soldiers live or die at the end, is immaterial. Huan Gu built a movie that is larger than just the people inhabiting the frame - it leaves behind a certain feeling behind. Nationalism? Heroism? You decide.

2. Farewell My Concubine, 1993

An adaptation from a novel of the same name, Farewell My Concubine is one of the most iconic and heartbreaking historical films, that help put China on the map in this genre. Dealing with several controversial themes like homosexuality, prostitution and suicide, the movie faced extreme criticism and was even banned from theatres for two months! Director Chen Kaige created a world full of political turmoil, social perversities and of course, the individual desire for freedom and love. The movie went on to win a Palme d'Or at Cannes as well.

The story talks of three boys who met at different times of their lives and their resulting friendship. Douzi is the child of a prostitute. Due to his feminine features, his mother abandoned him with a troupe. However, as the movie spans 70 years across his life, we see him form bonds, end up with a broken heart, deal with jealousy, betrayal, the death of a dear friend, to become a famous opera star, all against the backdrop of a politically-disturbed China. Apart from the rich storyline, you're surely going to be entranced by the amazing costumes, which have now become a prominent museum display!

3. Hero, 2002

When Hero came out in 2002, it was one the most expensive films ever made in China till 2002. As a half-fictionalised attempt of Jing Ke's attempt to assassinate the then King, Hero is a martial-art film that makes use of a stunning colour palette. Every scene of two warring characters is worth a second watch, simply due to all the elements within the frame, each with their own lives. With flashy swords, long sleeves, dark hair and autumn leaves dancing together - this movie is a delight for lovers of historical fiction and action movies alike.

The plot follows a nameless protagonist who arrives at the King's palace to recount the tale of how he killed all the King's assassins. As he recounts the story, the colour palette changes and we're transported to the past. Using the trap of an unreliable and identity-less narrator, this film is going to make you think over what the term "hero" actually means. 

4. The Curse of the Golden Flower, 2006

Another movie by the same director of Hero - Zhang Yimou. Set during Imperial China, one might watch this movie solely to see Gong Li steal every scene she appears in. As with Hero, Zhang Yimou spared no expense and the movie became the most expensive movie ever made in China till then. And this is apparent in the extremely rich sets, stunning costume design, intricate hairstyles and a soundtrack by Jay Chou.

With red and gold being the predominant colour in almost every scene (even featuring golden flowers), the movie is a delight for the eyes. The storyline takes place within the Imperial Palace, and deals with the intricate relationships between the Emperor, Emperess, their children and stepchildren. If you're into tales of the court, full of intrigue, back-stabbing, gossip and illicit relationships, then this could be the movie for you!

5. The Warlords, 2007

The Warlords is a film set in the 1860s amidst the Taiping Rebellion. While based loosely on some real events, several events and character names were changed beyond recognition in order to not attract wrath from the descendants of those featured. This is an extremely graphic war film that deals with its effects on the survivors. After a battle with a group of rebels, General Qingyun remains as the only survivor. He is nursed back to health by two men in a village he comes across. As their bond grows, the three 'brothers' make a pact - if any one of them is harmed or killed, the others will avenge his death. 

And thus begins the tale. Director Peter Chan set forth a new standard with his brilliant panoramic shots and close-ups of the horrors of war. Despite a limited budget (at least for a movie of this calibre), the plot never falls flat, every scene is carefully structured, and the story weaves effortlessly between action, betrayals, friendship and terror.

Which of these iconic movies have you watched already? Let us know in the comments below!