More than most of the countries covered on this website, China has provided the movies with an exceptionally coherent record of its history. I have even found one film depicting life in China before the formation of the first imperial dynasty in 221 BCE.
There are three films about the birth of that landmark dynasty, each of them revolving around attempts to assassinate the King of Qin (say “Chin”). He conquered the warring states all around him and united them under his rule. The king would prevail and declare himself the Emperor of Qin, a unified China. So began the brief but eventful sovereignty of the Qin Dynasty. The best of the three movies is The Emperor and the Assassin. The other two are The Emperor’s Shadow (1996) and Hero (2002).
Set at the beginning of the Warring States Period (475 to 221 BCE), this is the story of China’s revered ancient philosopher, Confucius (551–479 BCE). Flashbacks reach into his late middle years when he served as a mayor in his home state of Lu. His commitment to fairness in government and civility in human relations elevates him to more important positions. When Lu is threatened by enemy invaders, he manages to turn them back without the use of weapons. Eventually, he falls out of favor with those who see him as a threat to the old order. With only a small group of loyal followers, he embarks on an arduous journey, teaching his philosophy to any who will listen. There are some who will give their attention but few who will change their ways. This is the same timeframe in which the Buddha was teaching along the Ganges. Dynastic warfare continues everywhere he goes. In his old age, the wind shifts and he is brought back to the kingdom of Lu with honor. He spends his last years teaching his philosophy and recording it for posterity. There was controversy around this film in China. Objections were raised over the casting of Hong Kong lead actor, Chow Yun-fat, and strong feelings arose regarding the proper presentation of the philosophy. This treatment of the life and work of Confucius is necessarily brief and superficial, but it is done with respect and a minimum of distortion. Certainly it has valuable lessons for any who are unfamiliar with the teachings.
The Emperor and the Assassin (1999) – Chinese
The opening legend says, “In 221 BC, following years of civil war among hundreds of kingdoms, seven states emerged as the dominant powers of China. The most ambitious of these states was the Qin, which was ruled by King Ying Zheng. Following a mandate dictated by his ancestors, King Ying Zheng made the unification of China a personal crusade.” It begins with the Qin armies raging across the Chinese landscape in distinctive wooden chariots. At the court, there is much overwrought talk about the elimination of the other six kingdoms. The King takes his beautiful concubine into the Map Room where he speaks of his vision of a unified China with a Great Wall to the north to protect the country from nomadic barbarians. The assassination attempt at the center of the movie is reported to have happened in 221 BC, the year of unification.
The first empire lasted fifteen years until it was overthrown by the Han. The Emperor’s tomb is in Xian where it is guarded by hundreds of terra-cotta soldiers. Nothing, however, could stop the rampant destruction of the tomb and its guardians by angry citizens after the death of the brutal Emperor in 210 BCE. Strong women characters are the moral center of this film. It was only a hundred years earlier that Alexander the Great ended the cycle of ancient Greek history with his army reaching into India.
Mulan (1998) – Disney
Based on the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan, this Disney version is set in the time of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE). It opens with a night attack on the Great Wall of China by Huns from the north. Word of the assault reaches the Emperor who decrees that one man from every family is to be conscripted into the army. Young Mulan is being educated for marriage when the recruiting party arrives at her home. She contrives to disguise herself as a man and go to war in place of her ailing father. The father is most deeply concerned about his honor. They are practitioners of ancestor worship and when they realize that their daughter is gone they summon up their ancestors, who appear onscreen. They appeal to the Great Stone Dragon to protect Mulan, but the invocation does not work and instead they get a puny orange dragon named Mushu (Eddie Murphy), straining the limits of authenticity. It goes downhill from there. The movie was entertaining for Hollywood audiences but deservedly lost respect in China.
Red Cliff (2008) – Chinese
Available streaming from Netflix, I watched the abridged version of this movie. The original two-part 288 minute version was cut to 148 minutes. It opens with a brief narration in English giving historical background. The story is set at the end of the Han Dynasty with a focus on The Battle of Red Cliffs in 208 – 209 CE. This was a time of intense warfare between the dynasties, each one seeking dominance over the others and demonstrating that Qin’s unification in 221 BCE had not endured. The abridged version of the movie is made up almost entirely of violent battle scenes. The director has testified that he had little interest in historical accuracy and tailored his film to the tastes of his audience.
House of Flying Daggers (2004) – Chinese
Tang Dynasty in the year 859
This colorful martial arts movie about political intrigue in the waning years of the Tang Dynasty is set in the year 859. It follows the exploits of the House of Flying Daggers, a rebel group opposed to the old and corrupt order. At the center of the action is a melodramatic love story. A beautiful blind dancer performs for an aristocratic playboy at a brothel called the Peony Pavilion. We learn that she is a secret agent for the insurgency group and the daughter of its deceased former leader. The playboy is a secret agent for the police, trying to seduce her so he will be led to the group’s headquarters. The dancer is as skilled a warrior as the playboy. More complications involving concealed identities follow. Scenes of lyric beauty are interspersed with leaping and soaring kung fu scenes, and lots of swirling daggers. A prolonged conflict at the end results in tragedy. Much of the costuming and choreography brought back memories of cultural shows we saw in Xian, historical capital of the Tang Dynasty. See Curse of the Golden Flower (2007), also from director Zhang Yimou.
The Mongol Empire (c. 1206–1368)
Genghis Kahn (c. 1162–1227) founded the Mongol Empire at the beginning of the 13th century by assembling disparate tribes of nomadic warriors and building a formidable fighting force. His descendants continued his pattern of brutal invasions until they ruled over “the largest contiguous empire in history.” When the grandson of Genghis Kahn, called Kublai Khan, took the throne in 1260, the empire was fracturing into smaller and more manageable divisions. Kublai ruled for thirty-four years from a palace at the heart of his domain in today’s Beijing, founding the Yuan Empire of China. It was to this palace, as well as the summer palace called Xanadu, that Marco Polo made his legendary visits at the end of the 13th century. There are enough movies about the time of the Mongol Empire to justify a separate post.
Empresses In The Palace (2011-12)
This Chinese television series (76 episodes) opens in the first year of the reign of Yongzheng Emperor (1722-35) of the Qing Dynasty. The emphasis here is on the lives of the consorts and concubines who live or die at the will of the Emperor. Apparently, many of the wide exteriors were filmed at the Forbidden Palace. The settings and costumes are splendid, evoking a strong sense of palace life in the 18th Century. There is a soap opera quality to the content, however, dwelling on the ambitions and jealousies of the subservient women with a strong undercurrent of humiliation. The Emperor is played as stern but kind and loving. Available on Netflix, this series is recommended by its great popularity in China. Netflix acquired the property in March 2015 and showed a condensed version in six 90-minute episodes.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2001)
Set in the Qing Dynasty (say Ching), in the year 1779, this is an amazingly good film and only incidentally a martial arts dust-up. The prevalence of very strong female characters is, according to Ebert, part of this tradition in China. At its heart, the film is a beautifully photographed window on traditional Chinese life and popular imagination. It is deeply melodramatic, but it is also authentic and moving. There was some cross-fertilization, I think, between The Matrix (1999) and this movie. Ang Lee directed. This film led to House of Flying Daggers (2004) and Hero (2004).
This brief cavalcade of Chinese empires familiar to the non-Chinese speaking public has now come to the threshold of the 20th century. Before we arrive at The Last Emperor, there are a few movies about daily life under the Qing Dynasty in the last decades that are worth noting. These films include Flowers of Shanghai (1998), Red Firecracker Green Firecracker (1995), and Shadow Magic (2001). One more movie deserves special note before the end of this post. It is 55 Days in Peking (1963), which offers a fascinating picture of life in and around the Forbidden City as the last days of dynasty drew near.
55 Days in Peking (1963)
Set in Peking (Beijing) of 1900, this epic film plays out against the backdrop of the Boxer Rebellion. It opens with elaborate scenes in the Forbidden City where the Dowager Empress (Flora Robson) is concerned with the rebellious activities of the Boxers, who are determined to drive “foreign devils” from their country. There are a number of international contingents in the city, especially British, led by David Niven and an American troop commanded by a Major Lewis (Charlton Heston). He makes a bargain with the British Ambassador (Niven) to take a stand against the Boxers. An elegant ball is held at the British Embassy and Heston attends with Ava Gardner, a baroness attached to the Russian legation. The Japanese legation is powerful but gets little attention here. The Dowager Empress decides to favor the agenda of the Boxers and the Battle of Peking takes on new intensity. Ava does heroic service at the hospital and finding food for children at the besieged legations but is shot down in the process. After 55 days, foreign reinforcements arrive and the Dowager Empress is dethroned. It is just short of stirring at the end when the armies of the various occupying countries march into the city as the Boxers flee in terror. You can almost hear bagpipes. This is an epic portrayal of the closing years of dynastic China, but there is something very wrong with this picture.
The fatal flaw in this ambitious effort is in its depiction of the struggle by common people in China who desperately want to take their country back from foreign intruders. They especially want to be rid of Christian missionaries, though this point is played down in the movie. The heroes of the film are leaders of the occupation forces. Are we meant to cheer as European, Russian, and Japanese guns cut down masses of Chinese peasant soldiers. The Dowager Empress is played impressively by Flora Robson (it has been pointed out that the key Chinese roles are played by Hollywood actors). It seems close to ridiculous in 1963 to frame a central love interest between a swaggering American cavalry soldier (Heston) and a tainted Russian baroness (Gardner). Andy Williams sings a love song over the exit music. The film was made in Madrid and there were serious production problems, some of which are reflected in the end product. Director Nicholas Ray lost his career, Gardner’s career suffered, and Heston entered the long twilight of his heroic years.
The only good trailer I could find was in French. It could be understood even for those of us who do not speak the language.
1911, or Xinhai Revolution (2011)
Jackie Chan was the force behind this film celebrating both his 100th movie and the 100th anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution in 1911. It was not a single mass revolt but a series of uprisings expressing the dissatisfaction of the Chinese people with the rule of the feudal Qing Dynasty. This elaborately produced historical drama did not play well with the critics or the public. It was often labeled as a tiresome history lesson that frustrated the expectations of Jackie Chan’s audience. I thought it was much better than that, but I like history lessons. It is somewhat confusing in the beginning as historical characters enter and exit, but it is an impressive pageant and a good overview of the momentous events that led to the fall of feudalism in China. Chan plays Huang Xing, a top leader in the Kuomintang under Sun Yat-sen. The film begins in Chinatown, San Francisco, with plots being hatched to free China from the harsh and inefficient domination of the Empress Dowager, Cixi (who actually died in 1908). The little emperor, Puyi, can be seen playing in the throne room while she holds her council (see The Last Emperor below). The action follows Chan back to China in 1911 where he leads pitched battles against the opposition forces. The Empress Dowager does all in her power to hold off the deluge that will sweep away 2000 years of dynastic rule. A significant amount of screen time is given to meetings among revolutionary leaders where a provisional republican government is being formed. Even as victory is attained, this governing body will undergo many changes as opposing factions vie for the upper hand. Puyi abdicates on February 12, 1912.
The Last Emperor (1987) – Chinese
Manchuria, 1950: The Emperor is a prisoner of the People’s Republic of China. Amid scenes of prison life, flashbacks recount the story of his life. Peking, 1908: Three-year-old Puyi (Poo Yee) is named Emperor of China and comes to live in the Forbidden City. Bernardo Bertolucci was allowed by the Chinese to film in the actual location. The ritualized rigidity of the Chinese court is even more extreme than that of Versailles. When the boy is still young, he learns that China has become a republic, and has a President. He will be Emperor only within the Forbidden City. By 1919, the Republic had sunk into corruption and turmoil. There are many beheadings. In circa 1919, a Scottish tutor (Peter O’Toole) arrives at the Forbidden City to instruct the Emperor. The young man is agitated by what little he knows of the events unfolding beyond his palace walls. He has abdicated, but remains a symbol. The imperial household is very large and expensive. The young emperor undertakes reforms in the Forbidden City, but meets with opposition. He enlists the help of the Republican Army.
In 1924, revolutionary forces invade the palace and the Emperor is expelled. For the first time since his third year, he passes through the gates and sees the outside world. Tragically, he accepts help and refuge from the young Japanese Emperor. Not lacking for funds, he becomes a Western-style playboy. It is the time of Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975). Things become politically complicated. In 1934, the Emperor without a country returns to his homeland of Manchuria in an effort to regain his ancestral throne. He continues his relationship with Japan. The movie moves quickly through the events of World War II. Relations with Japan turn out to have been a very bad idea. The Russians invade Manchuria and all is lost. In 1959, the prisoner is released by the Maoist government with a pronouncement that he has reformed himself through work. Peking 1967 finds him living modestly as a gardener during the Maoist Cultural Revolution. Shortly before his death in that year, he buys a ticket to tour the Forbidden City and steals a moment to relive his past. The last scene finds tour groups entering the palace with a guide, who announces that the last emperor to be crowned in this place was Puyi in 1908.
China Related Posts:
- Movies about the Chinese Imperial Dynasties
- Movies about Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan, and Marco Polo
- Movies about Modern China