Seven Classic Films to Watch Over Chinese New Year

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In the Mood for Love, 2000
In the Mood for Love, 2000(Film still)

From arthouse gems and contemporary crime flicks to award-winning classics and kung fu chaos, we give you seven standout Chinese films to celebrate the Year of the Tiger

1 February 2022 (in the Gregorian calendar) marks the beginning of a new lunar cycle, and the moment at which we enter the Year of the Tiger according to the Chinese zodiac. In other words, it’s Chinese New Year – one of the biggest annual events for people hailing from all over East Asia.

As tradition dictates, the festivities will last for 16 days – and they can be experienced in Chinatowns across the UK, Europe and the Americas, as well as with millions of people of Chinese and East Asian heritage elsewhere. And while engaging with the community, spending time with family, eating good food and lighting firecrackers are all great ways to enjoy the festivities, cinemas and streaming platforms also offer a straightforward way to engage with Chinese culture at this vibrant time of celebration.

We scoured both IRL and online listings to come up with a list of eight great Chinese-language screen stories through which to celebrate Chinese New Year in 2022 – and the highlights, ranging from arthouse gems and contemporary crime flicks to award-winning classics and kung fu chaos. Check them out below as you clear out the bad and hail in the good, and slide in for (hopefully) a bright and prosperous year ahead:

An Autumn’s Tale (Mabel Cheung, 1987) at BFI Southbank, January 25

One of the most inviting screenings taking place in London in January is a new restoration of 1988 Hong Kong Film Awards Best Film winner An Autumn’s Tale. It plays at the BFI Southbank on January 25 as part of Focus Hong Kong’s Chinese New Year programming. 

Set almost entirely in New York, this understated romantic comedy follows a pair of Hongkongers – one of whom is a beer-guzzling rogue played by a young Chow Yun-fat (Hard Boiled) – who grow close despite their opposing personalities. Graffiti-strewn apartment blocks and run-down neighbourhoods provide a vivid backdrop to the story, and the movie shines, in part, thanks to its rich cinematography that captures the Big Apple in hues of pink, brown and blue. Themes of financial stress, marginalisation and parental pressure were apparently inspired by director Mabel Cheung’s own experiences as a film student at the University of New York – but the film was also influenced in part by the 1969 classic Midnight Cowboy. Either way, An Autumn’s Tale offers an enlightening perspective of late 80s New York from the POV of two affable young, Chinese immigrants. It’s worth watching to catch a different glimpse of the city for this reason alone.

The Wild Goose Lake (Diao Yinan, 2019) on MUBI

Diao Yinan’s hyper-stylised neo-noir The Wild Goose Lake followed the director’s Berlin Golden Bear win in 2014 for Black Coal, Thin Ice, and proved no less impactful upon its release – competing for the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2019.

Set in the nocturnal underbelly of Wuhan, this gorgeous, neon-soaked crime thriller follows Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge) as he navigates the fallout of a motorbike robbery gone wrong, in which a cop is accidentally killed. With both determined authorities and rival gangs on his tail, Zhou retreats to the eponymous Wild Goose Lake – “A lawless place that no-one really controls … [where] you find all kinds of people, professions and crimes.” The ensuing manhunt unfolds at a controlled pace that is occasionally punctuated by scenes of intense violence. It all draws towards a thrilling and gritty climax, showcasing the dazzling peaks of the film’s technical mastery.

The Prodigal Son (Sammo Hung, 1981) at The Genesis Cinema in London, February 4

If you live in London you can go full True Romance on February 4 with a classic martial arts late-nighter at the Genesis Cinema in Bethnal Green. 

Promoters Drunken Scorpion are the party responsible, continuing their long-running Kung Fu Cinema series with a screening of Sammo Hung’s 1981 action-comedy classic The Prodigal Son. A dramatisation of the life of Wing Chun practitioner Leung Jan (Yuen Biao), the film is packed with outrageous acrobatics, goofy sound effects, meticulous fight choreography and some gratuitous use of slow-mo. Head out to the bar, meanwhile, and you can win prizes for competing in “ole-skool” Tekken and Virtua Fighter tournaments. If you can’t make the event IRL, the film has also just been remastered for a January 2022 Blu-ray release as part of the Eureka Classics series, alongside the 1978 martial arts feature Warriors Two (which screens at the Genesis the following weekend).

A Simple Life (Ann Hui, 2011) on BFI Player / Apple TV+

The only film on this list that actually features footage of the Chinese New Year fireworks over Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong is Ann Hui’s masterful drama A Simple Life – a Venice Golden Lion nominee which also won Deanie Ip the Volpi Cup award for Best Actress.

Ip plays Chung Chun-to, an elderly maidservant to film producer Roger Leung (played by Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau) who decides to retire following a stroke after 60 years of service to his family. The sentimental drama that follows is marked by bright cinematography, warm and memorable characters, subtle moments of comedy and much discussion and consumption of food (stewed ox tongue, fermented tofu with chilli, roast goose, and bird’s nest soup are among the many recipes alluded to).

With countless cameos from Hong Kong filmmaking royalty – ranging from video nasty icon Anthony Wong as a shady care home owner to leading directors Sammo Hung (A Prodigal Son), Tsui Hark (Once Upon a Time in China) and Andrew Lau (Infernal Affairs) as various acquaintances of Leung – A Simple Life offers a diving board from which to explore further Hong Kong classics hereafter. Hui, meanwhile, is perhaps the most important female director of the Hong Kong New Wave. Her harrowing 1982 classic Boat People, which recounts the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees in the wake of the Vietnam War, and which won five Hong Kong Film Awards including Best Picture and Best Director in 1983, also arrives on Blu-ray via Criterion in March.

Chungking Express/In The Mood For Love (Wong Kar-wai, 1994/2000) at The Prince Charles Cinema in London, January 31 onwards

Criterion’s career-encompassing box set of newly-restored films by 90s Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-wai ushered in a major revival of interest in 2021 – with cinemas and streaming platforms going wild for the newfound Wong-mania. If you missed all the commotion, head down to the Prince Charles Cinema in the heart of London’s Chinatown – they’ve gone in for round two on a range of classic Wong features screening in late January and February.

Perennial classics Chungking Express and In The Mood For Love – both recipients of countless awards from festivals like the Hong Kong Film Awards and Cannes – are ideal starting points that showcase Wong’s MTV-inspired filmmaking style and delirious, romantic storytelling. They each screen on the afternoon of January 31, and again on February 26 as part of a five-film Wong Kar-wai all-nighter. For a taste of the crowning jewel of the New Taiwanese Cinema movement, meanwhile, pop back on February 15 for the Edward Yang masterpiece Yi Yi.

Xiao Wu (Pickpocket) (Jia Zhangke, 1997) on MUBI

A leading figure within China’s subversive 90s ‘Sixth Generation’, and arguably the most important mainland Chinese filmmaker in modern history, Jia Zhangke was essential in fostering international attention for underground Chinese cinema in the late 90s after feature debut Xiao Wu (Pickpocket) won two awards at Berlin in 1998.

The low-budget film, shot on 16mm with non-professional actors in Jia’s hometown of Fenyang, and presented in 4:3 with a bottle-green tint, is the documentary-like tale of a petty criminal described as a “one-man crimewave” by the local police, who remains stuck in his old ways as the world moves on around him. Visually defined by captivating shot composition and a rich visual aesthetic, the film also comments on the changing political and economic forces that were reshaping Chinese society in the 1990s – most notably signposted by an in-film campaign urging criminals to turn themselves in to “advance the rectification policy and the fight against crime”.

Newly restored in 4K, Xiao Wu is currently streaming on MUBI. Further Jia highlights including A Touch of Sin, Mountains May Depart and Ash Is Purest White can be found on the BFI Player, and on physical media via Arrow Video and New Wave Films.