I’ve watched a quite a few movies set in China, and I think they provide an excellent glimpse of life in China. The list below will be updated regularly as I come across more films worth watching (new additions will be added at the top of this page).
China: A Century of Revolution (Three Disc Set) – This one can be a bit daunting at first, all 3 parts total up to 6 hours of documentary fun. I recommend this series for those of you who are interested in learning more about China’s recent history, but don’t want to read. The big value of this documentary is all of the historical footage, paired with a lot of interviews with “commoners.” This is the best series I have found so far, with enough background for those who are new to Chinese history, and enough depth for specialists to come away with something new.
I have watched this with Party members and they were very impressed at how balanced the documentary was, and how it sticks to the facts.
The first section is focused on China from 1911-1949, also known as the Republican era. The second section looks at the early Communist period, from 1949- to the early 1970’s. The final section gives a great overview of China’s change from command economy to capitalism.
Nanking -This film is composed of interviews with survivors of the rape of Nanking (Nanjing) along with dramatic readings from diaries and letters written by the members of the International Safety Zone. It provides a clear picture of what the rape of Nanking was actually like for those who lived through one of the most overlooked tragedies of WWII.
As a person who has spent a great amount of time researching this period in China’s history, I would suggest this film over Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II.
The Painted Veil – This isn’t historical, but it is a pretty great glimpse of what life in rural China would have looked like around 1900. The movie is about a doctor who accepts a position in the countryside treating an epidemic. The scenery is amazing, and the story is definitely memorable. Edward Norton and Naomi Watts both give good performances. Well worth a watch.
I must admit that I’m a bit partial to this movie because it was filmed just a few miles from Yizhou, where I lived for a year.
Full disclosure: I get a tiny commission off of any films purchased through the links on this page, which means it isn’t worth promoting films that aren’t any good. The money I do receive from this will be used to buy more books and films to review. If you have any questions about these links feel free to contact me firstname.lastname@example.org and I will be happy to answer your questions.