Watch 12 Classic Chinese Films Online, Complete with English Subtitles (1920s-1940s)

The Chi­nese film indus­try began around the turn of the 20th cen­tu­ry, but unfor­tu­nate­ly noth­ing sur­vives of those first two decades–films lost to fire, to age, and just plain lost. Any per­son want­i­ng to study this his­to­ry must make do with syn­opses, pho­tos, and imag­i­na­tion. How­ev­er, after that? This YouTube playlist curat­ed by the Depart­ment of Asian Stud­ies of the Uni­ver­si­ty of British Colum­bia fea­tures a dozen notable films and influ­en­tial clas­sics from two and half decades of Chi­nese his­to­ry, some of the most tumul­tuous years for that nation. Chi­na oust­ed the British, fought off the Japan­ese, and began a rev­o­lu­tion under Mao. The print qual­i­ty varies here and there, but all are enter­tain­ing, from musi­cals to hor­ror movies to social dra­mas.

The col­lec­tion begins with the old­est sur­viv­ing film in the series, Labourer’s Love, a two-reel­er from 1922 direct­ed by Zhang Shichuan. Most of the orig­i­nal Chi­nese film­mak­ers were trained by Amer­i­cans, so ear­ly shorts like this tend­ed to be silent come­dies filled with visu­al gags–this one fea­tures a car­pen­ter who opens up a fruit stand to woo a woman, and uses his wood­work­ing skills and tools to increase his busi­ness.

By the late 20s how­ev­er, Chi­na was already devel­op­ing its own gen­res and styles, just as it was devel­op­ing a mod­ern nation­al­ist pride away from colo­nial influ­ence. The first mar­tial arts film would be pro­duced in 1928. Oth­er stu­dios opt­ed for folk­lore tales or fam­i­ly melo­dra­mas.

Trained and edu­cat­ed in the Unit­ed Stat­ed, Sun Yu was one of the major film­mak­ers of the 1930s (a group of direc­tors known as the Sec­ond Gen­er­a­tion film­mak­ers) until the inva­sion of Japan sent him flee­ing Shang­hai for the inte­ri­or. But the films he made for the left­ist film stu­dio Lian­hua are now clas­sics. Three of his are rep­re­sent­ed here: 1933’s Day­break, a tale of a young coun­try cou­ple who get cor­rupt­ed in the big city; Queen of Sports, a 1934 dra­ma of a plucky track star who has to nav­i­gate class stratas as well as com­pe­ti­tions; and maybe Sun Yu’s most famous film The Big Road (above), a sto­ry of six young men build­ing a road for the Chi­nese army to bat­tle the Japan­ese. Yes, it’s wartime pro­pa­gan­da, but Sun Yu was always focused on work­ing men and women. These three films also star Li Lili, con­sid­ered by some to be the “Chi­nese Mae West,” and who lived to a ripe age (as did Sun Yu). She has a role in Stan­ley Kwan’s Cen­ter Stage from 1992, his ode to the movie stars of the 1930s.

China’s first hor­ror film is also in this list: 1937’s Song at Mid­night, Ma-Xu Weibang’s retelling of Phan­tom of the Opera (with a bit of Franken­stein thrown in–the Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios influ­ence is very appar­ent here). It’s also a musi­cal, with karaoke-like subs for you to sing along if you know Can­tonese.

Last­ly, Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town from 1947 is one of the most influ­en­tial on this list. A sick­ly man’s friend vis­its in the after­math of the Sino-Japan­ese war, and the wife rec­og­nizes him as a lover from long ago. Roman­tic ten­sions soon begin to smol­der. Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love bor­rowed its repressed, long­ing mood. And film­mak­er Tian Zhuangzhaung remade it in 2002, keep­ing the orig­i­nal set­ting. Many Chi­nese film­mak­ers and crit­ics con­sid­er it one of the best of all time, China’s Casablan­ca.

Hope­ful­ly this dozen will whet your appetite for more Chi­nese cin­e­ma and pro­vide an alter­na­tive to watch­ing anoth­er binge-wor­thy but shal­low Net­flix series.

via Metafil­ter

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch the First Chi­nese Ani­mat­ed Fea­ture Film, Princess Iron Fan, Made Under the Strains of WWII (1941)

The God­dess: A Clas­sic from the Gold­en Age of Chi­nese Cin­e­ma, Star­ring the Silent Film Icon Ruan Lingyu (1934)

An Epic Retelling of the Great Chi­nese Nov­el Romance of the Three King­doms: 110 Free Episodes and Count­ing

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the Notes from the Shed pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

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