Chinese Films and Shows for Every Occasion

So many amazing films have come out of China, and many have made their way into my list of favourites. From kung-fu films and gangster flicks, to romantic melodramas and studies of everyday life, Chinese cinema has something for everyone. Here’s something to watch for whatever emotion you may be feeling:

For a good, cathartic cry:

If you’re looking for a sob-inducing film to watch during your late-night emo-hours (which for me, is more often than you think), then you’ve come to the right place. Here are three of my favourites:

Secret

Secret Trailer

Starting off on a lighter note, Secret is cute, romantic, and boasts a happy ending (which, you’ll soon find, is a trait that the next two films don’t share).

Secret is musician Jay Chou’s directorial debut, in which he also stars as the male lead. Secret tells the story of a romance between two piano students, but with a supernatural twist — a piano piece (also called Secret) that, when played on the oldest piano in the school, allows the player to travel through time.

I was introduced to this film in my high school Chinese class. It was one of the most memorable films I’d seen at school — probably because I dreaded Chinese class and this was one of the rare times that I didn’t have to struggle with not knowing how to express my thoughts or stutter while reading from the textbook.

Secret is a laid-back film with an intriguing plot (and it’s available on Netflix). Although part of the reason I enjoy this film is because of the memories I attach to it, I think it’ll find its way into your heart as well.

In The Mood For Love

In The Mood For Love Trailer

I first saw In The Mood For Love for a high school film assignment. I didn’t love it at first, but after watching it again multiple times, it began to grow on me.

Directed by Wong Kar Wai, In The Mood For Love follows the story of a man and a woman who move into the same apartment building, find out that their spouses are having an affair, and develop a romance of their own. The film’s cinematography is impeccable, almost phantasmagorical, and the underlying themes (including loss, time, and memory) are profound and add depth to what may seem like just another forbidden love story. In The Mood For Love is also considered an iconic work of Hong Kong (and more generally, Asian) cinema.

Admittedly, In The Mood For Love is difficult to emotionally connect to, especially if you’re not aware of the nuances in the film. The cinematography and framing makes the characters feel distant, but are also symbolic and create a unique, voyeuristic effect.

One of my favourite parts of the film is the leitmotif of Shigeru Umebayashi’s Yumeji’s Theme that accompanies the couple on their strolls in the rain and their late-night noodle runs. Wong Kar Wai implements the score to heighten the loneliness and desire that the couple feels.

In The Mood For Love is also part of an informal trilogy, preceded by Days of Being Wild (1990) and 2046 (2004). Although I have yet to see the other two installations in the trilogy, In The Mood For Love has piqued my interest and I’m excited to see what else Wong Kar Wai has to offer.

Us and Them

Us And Them Trailer

Beautifully filmed and paired with a gorgeous soundtrack, Us And Them is a film about love, family, apologies, time, and most importantly, home. Us And Them was directed by Rene Liu, and tracks the evolution of a young couple’s relationship. The story is set in the late 2000s in Beijing, and switches between the present (shot in black and white) and the past (shot in colour).

The story itself is touching and emotional — we learn about the different forms of love and care that exist between the main characters, we see the struggles of trying to succeed in a ruthless, competitive world, and we relate to a depiction of youth and passion and a later disillusionment as a result of cold, harsh reality.

I especially loved Rene Liu’s use of motif, metaphor, and colour in the film. Objects in Us And Them hold quite a bit of significance. Liu metaphorically links various objects to different stages in the couple’s relationship, and repeats these metaphors later in the film, powerfully revealing meaning and alluding to recurring themes. Liu’s manipulation of colour not only differentiates the present from the past, but also serves a metaphorical purpose (which I won’t reveal because of spoilers!). The dialogue is impactful (and sometimes poetic) and the structure is incredible. Liu interlaces present conversation with past occurrences by writing retrospective dialogue, said in the present, that connects to past events portrayed in the film.

Released (on Netflix!) just recently in 2018, Us And Them has already become one of my favourite films. If you’re up for a large helping of emotions with an equally large side of tears, Us And Them is definitely a film for you. Make sure you watch all the way through the credits for some extra scenes (that might make you cry a little extra too)!

For when your life is lacking drama:

Sometimes, life gets monotonous and dull, and you just need something to spice it up. If you’re in need of a little drama, here’s where to look:

The Rap of China

PG One and Kris Wu – 以父之名

Rap of China is a competition show focused on showcasing Chinese hip-hop talents. If you’ve seen the Korean rap competition show, Show Me The Money (SMTM), Rap of China is like SMTM’s Chinese cousin (and suspiciously so). Contestants audition, get sorted into producer teams (led by the show’s ‘producers’, who are really just judges), then compete against each other and face elimination until someone is deemed the winner. The producer lineups for both seasons one and two are quite the star-studded bunch. Season one featured rapper-singer Kris Wu (of Antares vs thank u, next and “你有freestyle嗎?” fame), singer Will Pan, rapper MC HotDog, and rock musician Chang Chen-yue. Hong Kong pop star G.E.M was added to the lineup in season two.

Honestly, I’m a sucker for competition/survival shows, which is probably a huge reason why I like Rap of China. Aside from my personal tv show preferences though, Rap of China showcases so much Chinese talent that I vibe with and otherwise wouldn’t have known about. As someone that listens to music for (likely) more time than is healthy for my ears (around 50,000 minutes, according to Spotify Wrapped), I’m constantly getting bored of my current rotations — which means I’m constantly looking for new music. Rap of China has exposed me to a whole class of artists, both new and old, that I probably wouldn’t have looked into myself.

Meteor Garden (2018)

Meteor Garden Trailer

Meteor Garden (2018) is an adaptation of the iconic Japanese manga, Boys Over Flowers. The manga was originally written in the early 90s to the late 2000s, but the story has proven timeless — since its release, 14 different TV and film adaptations of the manga have been made. The plot is, admittedly, cliché and melodramatic (guilty pleasure material). It centers around a middle class girl, Dong Shancai, who gets accepted into a prestigious university, where she meets the insanely popular F4 — a group of the four most popular boys in the university. Shancai clashes with the boys at first, but gradually befriends them, then falls in love with one of them.

I watched Meteor Garden after hearing my friends rave about the show — I spent night after night laying in bed (with the lights off for maximum effect) streaming the show from Netflix. Although I liked it overall, there were some parts that I felt were strange or didn’t fit the mood of the show. Sometimes, I felt like they tried to do too much with the plot, and I also didn’t really like Shancai’s character. But hey, I still watched the whole thing till the end (and cried multiple times), despite all its flaws, so they must be doing something right. Like the visuals. The cast looked great (I’d like all their outfits, please) and so did the locations and cinematography: picturesque landscapes and classy cafés, sweeping wide shots and beautiful angles — you name it, Meteor Garden has it.

Meteor Garden consists of a whopping 49 episodes — a lot happens and it’s a pretty wild ride — but if you’re down for some drama, romance, and power clashes, it’s definitely worth a watch.

For when you’re feeling hungry:

Craving some steamy xiao long baos (soup dumplings)? Or maybe, some fluffy, warm gai daan zai (egg waffles)? Here’s what to watch to satisfy (or maybe worsen) those cravings — either way, you’ll be seeing some delicious food:

Once Upon A Bite (2018)

Once Upon A Bite Trailer

Chen Xiaoqing, director of food documentary series A Bite of China, returns with a feast for the eyes in his new, Tencent-produced, food documentary series, Once Upon A Bite. The documentary was filmed over the course of four years, across 22 countries and six continents, and comprises eight episodes, each surrounding a different theme.

Once Upon A Bite delves into the world of food (though mainly focusing on traditional Chinese cuisines), showcasing delicacies from all over the world. The show explores the process of making food, from gathering and preparing ingredients, to seasoning, cooking, and presenting the dish. We see microscopic detail of curing hams and crystallization of meat in cold temperatures; intricate close-ups of juicy, succulent wheat grains; in-oven shots bringing you a close-up experience of baking Iranian sangak; and stunning bird’s-eye shots showing a Xinjiang herder family travelling across mountain ridges with flocks of sheep. We also see comparisons between Chinese cuisine and cuisines from around the world — a Shaanxi mashed potato dish, 洋芋搅团 (yáng yù jiǎo tuán), is compared to pommes aligot (cheesy whipped potatoes) from Southern France. Once Upon A Bite compels you to appreciate the time, dedication, and love put into making the food that we eat everyday.

If you’re thinking about watching Once Upon A Bite, the show features some raw meat and butchery shots. If you’re uncomfortable with this, I’d advise watching with caution (especially in episode 1). Another disclaimer: the show is narrated in Mandarin, and I had difficulty finding English-subtitled versions. If you don’t speak Mandarin, you might want to wait a couple months for people to (hopefully) translate and add subtitles to the show — though the visuals are descriptive enough to transcend language as long as you don’t mind losing a bit of context.

For a good laugh:

Maybe life has hit you hard and you’re feeling frustrated and angry and annoyed. Or maybe you’re bored and in need of a way to pass the time. If you’re looking for something to make you smile, these are the shows for you:

Super Trio series (將門人系列)

Super Trio Maximus (season 10 of Super Trio series) Trailer

Super Trio series is a Hong Kong variety show series where celebrity contestants are invited onto the show to participate in various party games. The celebrities are separated into teams, and the winning team gets (sometimes enticing and sometimes ridiculous) prizes. The series spawned 10 separate programs with basically the same premise — party games are truly timeless.

I used to look forward to watching some iteration of the Super Trio series every night while I was growing up. I’d beg to stay up past my bedtime to watch the show and I’d bounce on the couch beside my mom, waiting for the show to start and we’d both laugh at the crazy challenges and witty comments the show had to offer. The show is lighthearted, amusing, and an overall good time. The show aired from 1995 to 2014 — almost a 20 year run — and proved to be iconic in the world of Hong Kong TV.

Journey to the West

Journey To The West (1996) Opening Theme

Looking for something that’s funny, but a little more meaningful? Check out Journey to the West. Journey to the West is a Chinese folktale, first written in the 16th century (which, if you’d like to read, is available online in Chinese and in English) by Wu Cheng’en. It’s also considered one of the Four Great Classic Novels of Chinese literature. Journey to the West is an epic tome that follows a Buddhist monk, Xuanzang’s, pilgrimage to obtain sacred Buddhist texts. It’s rich in symbolism and metaphor, and resonates with Buddhist values and teachings. What’s really memorable about this story, however, are the characters that accompany Xuanzang on his travels: Sun Wukong, the Monkey King who possesses supernatural powers; Zhu Bajie, the lazy, gluttonous, and lustful pig-human hybrid; and Sha Wujing, a sand monk. All three characters become disciples of Xuanzang and are tasked, by the goddess Guanyin, with protecting Xuanzang after being banished from heaven. Throughout their travels, the eclectic group overcomes hardships and obstacles with their teamwork and wit.

There are endless adaptations of the story — TV shows, movies, plays, and even comics. The one I remember from my childhood, though, is the 1996 TVB series. I used to watch reruns of this series (and many other TVB shows) with my mother over dinner, not fully understanding what it meant but enjoying it nonetheless. The story is humorous, witty, inspiring, and brings back memories of growing up.


What are your favourite Chinese films and shows? Leave your recommendations in the comments below!

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