Total Recall

Zhang Yimou's 10 Best Movies

In this week's Total Recall, we look back at the best-reviewed work of the director of The Great Wall.

by | February 15, 2017 | Comments

This weekend’s The Great Wall unites Matt Damon and Willem Dafoe as imprisoned mercenaries embroiled in a battle against monsters in ancient China — and if that plot description isn’t enough to pique your interest, it’s also the latest from director Zhang Yimou, whose esteemed filmography includes some of the most globally acclaimed features to come out of China over the last 30 years. In honor of this talented filmmaker’s return, we’re taking a fond look back at some of his brightest critical highlights — and you know what that means. It’s time for Total Recall!


The Story of Qiu Ju (1992) 86%

Zhang’s films aren’t necessarily known for having a particularly light touch, but with The Story of Qiu Ju, he tried his hand at something like satire, unspooling the story (adapted from Chen Yuanbin’s novella The Wan Family’s Lawsuit) of a pregnant woman’s determined quest to obtain legal reparations for her husband after he’s kicked in the crotch by a village chief he impugned by mocking his all-daughter brood. It isn’t exactly laugh-a-minute stuff, and Zhang couched his observations on Chinese life in a quasi-documentary format in order to avoid further trouble with censors, but Qiu Ju‘s impact was still keenly felt; as Janet Maslin wrote for the New York Times, “The Story of Qiu Ju reaffirms Zhang Yimou’s stature as storyteller and sociologist extraordinaire, and as a visual artist of exceptional delicacy and insight.”

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Shanghai Triad (1995) 90%

Seeking a bit of a breather after To Live‘s political themes landed him in hot water with Chinese authorities, Zhang opted to play things a little safer with his next feature, 1995’s Shanghai Triad — a 1930s-set period look at the criminal underbelly in the titular city over a one-week span. Although the beats of the storyline, largely focused on a gangster and his dame, weren’t anything audiences hadn’t seen before, Zhang elevated the material with his distinctive eye — and the last in a long series of performances from Gong Li, whose creative and personal relationship with the director had reached its end. The duo wouldn’t work together again for over a decade; in the meantime, wrote Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum, Li “swaggers it up with a flourish” here — “a rare opportunity, given Zhang’s usual stateliness, for the serious, expressive actress to shake her booty.”

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House of Flying Daggers (2004) 87%

After making some more modern detours, Zhang returned to his period-piece wheelhouse with 2004’s House of Flying Daggers, a ninth-century drama about a pair of Chinese police officers (Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro) tasked with rooting out rebellion during the waning days of the Tang Dynasty. Given a handful of days to dispatch the leader of a group called the Flying Daggers, they focus on a blind dancer (Zhang Ziyi) they suspect of having ties to the insurrectionists — but find themselves tangled in intrigue as the case wears on. “This,” marveled Moira Macdonald for the Seattle Times, “is the sort of film we’re intended to wallow in, barely coming up for air — so dazzled, we barely need to breathe.”

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The Road Home (1999) 89%

A decade after introducing viewers to Gong Li, Zhang was fortunate enough to make a similarly fortuitous discovery in Zhang Ziyi, whose starring role in The Road Home served as the first installment in a widely acclaimed and still-prolific career. Here, the two joined together to tell the story of the bumpy courtship and passionate marriage between a teacher (Zheng Hao) and a local girl in rural China — as well as their son’s journey to understanding the legacy of his parents’ love after his father passes away. “This,” wrote Chris Vognar for the Dallas Morning News, “is a film that rescues love from the world of cliché and treats it with the awakening passion it deserves.”

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To Live (1994) 86%

After helping usher modern Chinese cinema onto the world stage — and acquiring no small amount of clout for himself as a filmmaker in the bargain — Zhang put it all on the line with 1994’s To Live, the decades-spanning story of a family (led by Ge You and Gong Li) torn apart by personal circumstance and the increasingly pervasive influence of the Chinese Communist apparatus. The film’s strong performances earned a wave of positive reviews from critics worldwide, but its critical stance against the state got it banned in China — even as it won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes. “To Live is a simple title,” conceded Roger Ebert, “but it conceals a universe.”

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Coming Home (2014) 89%

China’s political upheaval during the Cultural Revolution had profoundly personal effects, explored to heartrending effect in Zhang’s acclaimed 2014 effort Coming Home. Working again with Gong Li, he adapted Geling Yan’s novel The Criminal Lu Yanshi, about a couple separated when the husband (Chen Daoming) is held at a labor camp; he ultimately wins release, only to find his wife (Gong) stricken with amnesia and unable to remember him. A timeless tragedy set in unique circumstances, Home earned the director a fresh round of hosannas from critics like the Toronto Star’s Bruce DeMara, who wrote, “Chen and Gong, two of China’s most respected actors, offer two great performances in a film about love, loss and perseverance that will nearly break your heart.”

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Not One Less (1999) 96%

In marked contrast to many of his better-known films, Not One Less finds Zhang telling a story set in the modern era — yet retaining the sharp sociopolitical awareness that elevates much of his best work. In another change of pace, Zhang employed largely untrained actors, many playing thinly altered versions of themselves, to tell the story of a young substitute teacher (Wei Minzhi) charged with a class’s welfare for a month. If you know anything about Zhang’s oeuvre, it’s spoiling nothing to note that things take some dark and difficult turns — or that critics, by and large, were impressed. “With Not One Less,” wrote the Village Voice’s Leslie Camhi, “Zhang Yimou has fashioned what feels like an uncannily accurate portrait of a culture where Communist ideology has vanished like a brief dream, as traditional community values clash with the burgeoning cult of money.”

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Hero (2002) 94%

Zhang earned his fourth Academy Award nomination for this 2002 period drama, starring Jet Li in a lavishly filmed period epic inspired by the story of an attempt on the King of Qin’s life in 227 BC. A hugely expensive (and hugely successful) record-breaking release in China, Hero earned further accolades — and box-office receipts — during its delayed American run, as much for its patiently told saga as for its artfully arranged action. “The result,” wrote Anthony Lane for the New Yorker, “is not so much a historical epic as a kind of highly determined ballet: dreamy with bloodless violence, relying less on shades of character than on magnificence of gesture.”

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Raise the Red Lantern (1991) 96%

Gong Li continued to serve as Zhang’s muse with Raise the Red Lantern, another period drama — set in the China of the 1920s — that used entrenched social and gender dynamics to fuel a gorgeously filmed collision between expectation and reality, dreams and despair. The story focuses on a young concubine (Gong) whose arrival at her new husband’s estate sparks a series of events that will ultimately pit the women of the house against one another in a conflict no one — except the viewer — can truly win. The end result, wrote John Hartl for Film.com, is “A near-perfect movie that often recalls the visual purity and intensity of silent films.”

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Ju Dou (1990) 100%

After winning the Berlin Film Festival’s Golden Bear with Red Sorghum, Zhang returned to the world cinema stage with 1990’s Ju Dou, which earned the distinction of becoming the first Chinese release to earn a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. Reuniting with Gong Li, Zhang took viewers to rural China in the early 1990s, where a traveling salesman (Li Baotian) returns to his uncle’s home and discovers the older man — who has a reputation for beating his wives to death — has remarried. Naturally, the pair fall in love, setting in motion a web of domestic intrigue that seems destined from the outset to end in tragedy — and add up to what Chris Hicks of the Deseret News called “an emotionally fulfilling and viscerally rewarding adult film.”

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