1 Springtime in a Small Town (1948) China FEI Mu
The tone of this 1948 romantic drama, Xiao Cheng zhi Chun, is set by the very title itself. By using the classical “zhi” (pronounced “jr”) to indicate that this spring “belongs” to the small town, director Fei Mu exchanges the normal colloquial language for the literary. The heroine Wei Wei (Zhou Yuwen) is married to a VIP landowner who seems to be suffering from severe depression. World War II has just ended and no one would fault him for his morose temperament. But when a charming doctor comes to visit the family, Wei Wei is thrown into turmoil. She was in love with this doctor before marrying her husband and now he clearly wants her back. Torn between her real love and her duty to her husband, Wei Wei’s dilemma is heightened when her spouse takes a turn for the worse and the doctor has to try to save him.
2 A Better Tomorrow (1986) Hong Kong John WOO
John Woo established himself as one of Hong Kong’s premiere action directors with this ultra-hip, ultra-violent action classic. The film centers around the complex relationship between two brothers: Sung Tse-kit (Leslie Cheung) is a recent graduate of the police academy while Tse-ho (Ti Lung) runs a massive counterfeiting ring along with his gangland associate, Mark Lee (Chow Yun-fat). Tension between the two brothers comes to a head when their father is murdered after a crime deal goes sour and Tse-ho lands in jail after being double-crossed. In perhaps the most influential scene in Hong Kong cinema in the 1980s, Mark avenges his friend by staging a dinner table assassination. As Mark tries to shoot his way out of the restaurant, pulling a series of hidden pistols from potted plants and alcoves, he gets horribly injured. With both founding members of the counterfeiting syndicate incapacitated, the operation falls into the hands of Shing (Waise Lee Chi-hung), Tse-ho’s former underling who has little of his boss’ ?lan or experience. When Tse-ho gets out of jail, he reunites with his now-crippled comrade, Mark, to take out Shing and to protect Tse-kit whose life is in danger for investigating their former subordinate.
3 Days of Being Wild (1990) Hong Kong WONG Kar-Wai
Following up on his debut As Tears Go By, master filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai directs this dark, brooding tale about identity and unrequited love. Set in 1960, the film center of the young, boyishly handsome Yuddy (Leslie Cheung), who learns from the drunken ex-prostitute who raised him that she is not his real mother. Hoping to hold onto him, she refuses to divulge the name of his real birth mother. The revelation shakes Yuddy to his very core, unleashing a cascade of conflicting emotions. Two women have the bad luck to fall for Yuddy. One is a quiet lass who works at a sport arena named Su Lizhen (Maggie Cheung), while the other is a glitzy showgirl named Mimi (Carina Lau). Perhaps due to his unresolved Oedipal issues, he passively lets the two compete for him, unable or unwilling to make a choice. As Lizhen slowly confides her frustration to a cop named Tide (Andy Lau), he falls for her. The same is true for Yuddy’s friend Zeb (Jacky Cheung), who falls for Mimi. Later, Yuddy learns of his birth mother’s whereabouts and heads out to the Philippines. This film won a armful of trophies at the Hong Kong Film Awards, including Best Director, Best Actor for Leslie Cheung, and Best Picture
4 Yellow Earth (1984) China CHEN Kaige
Young Red Army soldier Gu Qing is sent to the northern Shaanxi region of China to learn local folk songs in 1939. He stays with a poor grumpy widower, along with his son Hanhan and his precocious teenage daughter Cuiqiao. The three are initially suspicious of the stranger, but they warm to him after hearing of the new ideas of the Communist party. Soon he teaches the silent Hanhan a song with the line, “Only the Communists can save the poor,” but it is with Cuiqiao — who will soon be sold into marriage to an older man who she has been betrothed to since infancy — that Gu’s talk of a new society has the most effect. She is no longer willing to accept her fate; she wants to join the Communist party where women are given the same treatment as men. When Gu leaves the village, he tells her that he will return to take her to Yan’an, the Communist party stronghold. Unfortunately the officer arrives too late and the results are tragic.
5 City of Sadness (1989) Taiwan HOU Hsiao-Hsien
Seen through the prism of the Lin family, this complex family drama from Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao Hsien details a brief but crucial moment in Taiwanese history between 1945, when 50 years of Japanese colonial rule came to an end, and 1949, when Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Kuomintang forces established a government-in-exile after the Communist army captured mainland China. The film opens with the reedy voice of Emperor Hirohito announcing Japan’s surrender as the eldest of the Lin clan’s four sons awaits the birth of his child in a coastal town not far from Taipei. Soon afterward, he changes the name of his Japanese decorated bar to “Little Shanghai” and begins trading in the post-war black market. The second son has died in Philippines during the war. The third son, who had a nervous breakdown in Shanghai, starts to consort with Shanghaiese drug dealers upon his return to Taiwan. Once the eldest learns of the third’s dealings, he forces him to stop. In retaliation, the Shanghaiese mob arranges for the third son to be imprisoned on trumped up charges of collaboration with the Japanese. The youngest son, Wen-ching, is a gentle deaf-mute photographer who has leftist leanings. The film climaxes with the notorious Incident of February 28, 1947, a Tiananmen Square-style massacre of native Taiwanese committed by Kuomintang troops resulting in between 18,000 to 28,000 causalities. The wounded pour into the neighbor clinic as Wen-ching and his friend Hinoe get arrested. After his release, Hinoe heads for the mountains to join the leftist guerillas while Wen-ching promises to look after his friend’s sister Hinomi. Soon after, Wen-ching and Hinomi marry. Just as she is about to bear a child, however, the Kuomintang arrests Wen-ching for his involvement with the guerillas.
6 Long Arm of the Law (1984) Hong Kong Johnny MAK
Producer turned director Johnny Mak spins this groundbreaking heist film, using documentary shooting devices and a cast full of first-time actors. A band of mainland thugs are plotting to jump the border into Hong Kong, hold up a jewelry store, and flee back into China before they are caught. Straight from the start, though, the plan goes horribly wrong when one of their ranks is mauled to death by a guard dog as they try to scale the fence to Hong Kong. Once in the colony, they realize that their mark is not only swarming with police, but had been already held up. When the cops see the mainlanders skulking around the crime scene, they immediately take them as suspects. In the resulting chase and gunfight, one cop winds up dead. As the gang regroups, they sample some of the fruits of capitalism like bar girls and Big Macs. As they plot another heist, their fence is making a deal with the cops who are hungry for revenge.
7 Dragon Inn (1967) Taiwan King HU
A diverse group of heroes and villains gather at the Dragon Inn. Located near the border, the inn serves as a station for those passing into political exile. Shadowy figures exchange secrets and information in a background of intrigue and danger. When poison wine is served, the swordplay begins. An evil eunuch seems to be the one who knows everyone’s business as the mountain retreat becomes the setting for diabolical political wrangling.
8 Boat People (1982) Hong Kong Ann HUI
A landmark of the nascent Hong Kong New Wave of the early ’80s, this melodrama — directed by Ann Hui — concerns the plight of Vietnamese peasants shortly after the fall of Saigon. The film centers on a Japanese photojournalist named Shiomi Akutagawa (George Lam Chi-cheung) who ventures to Danang to document Vietnam’s attempts at rebuilding after the war. At first he’s bussed around by government officials showing off quaint villages and happy, healthy children. Later, he manages to get permission to wander about the countryside without a government chaperon. Soon he happens upon a young lass named Cam Nuong (Season Ma Si-san) who is from a desperately poor family. At first she is suspicious and even hostile towards the foreigner but quickly they develop a bond of sorts. As Akutagawa starts seeing Vietnam through Cam Nuong’s eyes, he starts to realize that everyday life is far different from the state propaganda. Villagers live in constant terror of marauding soldiers, and children scavenge the bodies of executed prisoners for valuables. This film, which was shot in Mainland China, garnered armloads of Hong Kong Film Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. This film also launched the career of future pop icon and movie star Andy Lau.
9 A Touch of Zen (1971) Taiwan King HU
An influential martial arts film and an acknowledged influence on Ang Lee’s amazing Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, King Hu’s A Touch of Zen opens with young scholar Ku Shen-chai working at his portraiture stand in a small frontier town. He lives with his nagging mother in a supposedly haunted, rundown house at the edge of the abandoned Ching Liu estate. One day, a stranger named Ou-Yang Yin asks for his picture to be painted, and then suddenly leaves. Soon, another stranger — this time a beautiful woman named Yang Hui-Ching — suddenly moves into the complex next door. The presence of these strangers has an increasingly unnerving effect on Ku, and he rightfully comes to believe that the entire town is involved in some bizarre political intrigue. After a night of passion between Ku and Yang, Ou-Yang Yin stages a surprise attack on the compound, which Yang surprisingly thwarts with dazzling aplomb. Yang reveals to him that her father was an honorable general executed due to the nefarious doings of the powerful Eunuch Wei. With the aid of General Shih and Lu (who pose as the town’s blind beggar and herb vendor respectively), Yang was spirited away first to a monastery where she learned martial arts and then to Ku’s remote corner of China. Ou-Yang Yin, Eunuch Wei’s henchman, has in turn vowed to pursue her to the ends of the earth. As Ou-Yang Yin rallies Wei’s army to the walled estate, Ku — having spent a lifetime researching military history — devises a brilliant strategy to crush the siege and win the heart of this most unusual woman. Though his plan works, he fails to win the loyalty of Yang; she flees into the night as Ku slept. After searching desperately, Ku finds her in the same monastery where she learned kung-fu. Now a Buddhist nun, she hands over their child to him and sends him packing. Realizing that Ku is in danger, Yang and her mentor — a saintly abbot — then set out to protect him. Suddenly out of nowhere, Hsu Hsien-Chen — the profoundly evil army commander of Eunuch Wei — confronts the abbot and an all-out battle between good and evil ensues. Screened at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival and winning a technical prize, this was the first Chinese language film ever to win a major western film festival award.
10 Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) Taiwan / Hong Kong Ang LEE
Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee took a break from making Western period dramas to fashion this wild and woolly martial arts spectacular featuring special effects and action sequences courtesy of the choreographer of The Matrix (1999), Yuen Woo Ping. In the early 19th century, martial arts master Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) is about to retire and enter a life of meditation, though he quietly longs to avenge the death of his master, who was killed by Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei). He gives his sword, a fabled 400-year-old weapon known as Green Destiny, to his friend, fellow martial arts wizard and secret love Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), so that she may deliver it to Sir Te (Sihung Lung). Upon arrival in Peking, Yu happens upon Jen (Zhang Ziyi), a vivacious, willful politician’s daughter. That night, a mysterious masked thief swipes Green Destiny, with Yu in hot pursuit — resulting in the first of several martial arts action set pieces during the film. Li arrives in Beijing and eventually discovers that Jen is not only the masked thief but is also in cahoots with the evil Jade. In spite of this, Li sees great talent in Jen as a fighter and offers to school her in the finer points of martial arts and selflessness, an offer that Jen promptly rebukes. This film was first screened to much acclaim at the 2000 Cannes, Toronto, and New York film festivals and became a favorite when Academy Awards nominations were announced in 2001: Tiger snagged ten nods and later secured four wins for Best Cinematography, Score, Art Direction, and Foreign Language Film.