19 Chinese Films Richard Peña Recommends

Richard Peña, director emeritus of the New York Film Festival, shared his top picks from decades of watching Chinese cinema.


  • Goddess (1934) Wu Yonggang, director

“A very, very important film.”


“These two from the 1930s were made by commercial filmmakers but by people who were from kind of a left-progressive movement in Shanghai at that time. They’re about either resistance of the Japanese or emancipation of women, or a lot of things that were a part of the agenda back then.”


“One of the great hits in all of Chinese film history.”


  •  Crows and Sparrows (1949) Zheng Junli, director
    “A Fascinating work because it was actually shot while Shanghai was still occupied by the Kuomintang [Nationalist forces], but then it was released into the P.R.C., so it’s a nice ‘bridge film’ between those two eras.”


  • The Red Detachment of Women (1961) Xie Jin, director
    “A real classic and quite a beautiful film in an era when access to films was quite difficult.”


  • Early Spring in February (1962), Xie Tieli, director
    “Not easy to see this one, but another great from this period.”


  •  Two Stage Sisters (1965) Xie Jin, director
    “A really great film and not as hard to find, along with ‘Red Detachment of Women’.”


  • Breaking with Old Ideas (1975) Li Wenhua, director
    “In the 1970s there’s not much because of the Cultural Revolution. This is a classic of the period and a wonderful expression of the mindset, even if it’s a little bit of a slow slog for two hours.”



  • Yellow Earth (1984) Chen Kaige, director
    “The beginning of the Fifth Generation, along with Red Sorghum, In the Wild Mountains, The Horse Thief—these are fantastic, classic Chinese films from that era.




  • Hibiscus Town (1986) Xie Jin, director
    “Among this directors last great films.”



  • To Live (1994) Zhang Yimou, director
    “I am a great fan of this film.”


  • Xiao Wu (1997) Jia Zhangke, director
    “All of Jia Zhangke’s films should be seen. I think he’s the most important filmmaker in China.”


  • Platform (2000) Jia Zhangke
    “In the 2000s, the most interesting films are coming from a circle of filmmakers around Jia Zhangke.”


  • Suzhou River (2000) Lou Ye
    Lou Ye is not exactly a part of the Jia Zhangke circle, but this film is a great one.”


There are a number of independent documentary filmmakers whose work bears noting, many coming out through a company called dGenerate Films, which has a wonderful selection of underground or unofficial Chinese films. This one is a fantastic documentary that we showed at the New York Film Festival. It’s a great film about the economic impact of extremely remote rural areas of rural China where whole towns have emptied out, leaving only old people and kids. A very, very powerful work.”