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 (Qiu Ju da guan si) (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.”

Watch Trailer

Shanghai Triad (Yao a yao yao dao waipo qiao) (1995) 87%

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.”

Watch Trailer

House of Flying Daggers (2004) 88%

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.”

Watch Trailer

The Road Home (Wo de fu qin mu qin) (2001) 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.”

Watch Trailer

To Live (Huo zhe) (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.”

Watch Trailer

Coming Home (2015) 88%

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.”

Watch Trailer

Not One Less (2000) 95%

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.”

Watch Trailer

Hero (2004) 95%

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.”

Watch Trailer

Raise the Red Lantern (Da hong deng long gao gao gua) (1992) 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, is “A near-perfect movie that often recalls the visual purity and intensity of silent films.”

Watch Trailer

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.”

Watch Trailer

Tag Cloud

golden globes Universal A&E book hist Sneak Peek E3 Spike LGBTQ Trophy Talk sports thriller anthology NBC zombies See It Skip It Nominations supernatural BBC 2018 Showtime Anna Paquin harry potter technology Musical social media Brie Larson Vudu mutant psycho Countdown Oscars Tomatazos Dark Horse Comics Tarantino Polls and Games batman First Reviews Classic Film Set visit teaser crossover E! hispanic Awards diversity Pop Country Mindy Kaling TruTV psychological thriller 2017 The CW WGN Amazon Prime Video Holidays Epix New York Comic Con Ghostbusters DirecTV Mudbound kids ABC Family revenge VH1 transformers GLAAD The Purge PBS spinoff Emmys 007 cults Turner Disney streaming service VICE Thanksgiving Logo First Look slashers Marathons Interview robots Box Office NYCC space BET cats Britbox Toys elevated horror TCA south america Fantasy Paramount RT21 ITV animated Binge Guide Superheroe Shudder Women's History Month The Witch Animation science fiction Infographic Sundance Now USA 20th Century Fox Crackle joker Cosplay Watching Series war Esquire period drama Calendar Crunchyroll Chernobyl Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt cars dc based on movie Nickelodeon RT History award winner cancelled Trivia Writers Guild of America Mary Poppins Returns casting Disney Channel historical drama Lucasfilm CBS All Access cancelled TV series Kids & Family 2016 History SundanceTV Paramount Network Spectrum Originals TV Land spider-man Mystery Rocky blaxploitation richard e. Grant tv talk mockumentary zero dark thirty Ovation Mary Tyler Moore Fall TV Mary poppins YouTube Sony Pictures President Valentine's Day vampires Superheroes LGBT Reality San Diego Comic-Con YouTube Premium unscripted Year in Review TCM Comic Book CW Seed Music foreign Elton John MTV theme song The Arrangement Heroines discovery Hulu 45 jamie lee curtis Freeform ABC romantic comedy cancelled television children's TV strong female leads game show nature Premiere Dates Adult Swim spanish language cinemax natural history crime Family Christmas medical drama Extras political drama aliens CNN GIFs PaleyFest Character Guide Shondaland Apple Comedy Teen romance Summer halloween Disney YouTube Red Black Mirror Sci-Fi true crime Musicals doctor who Awards Tour WarnerMedia crime thriller ghosts sitcom dramedy adventure Netflix cancelled TV shows HBO series quibi 2019 BBC America CBS zombie Rock FXX TV Apple TV+ TCA 2017 Nat Geo Opinion adaptation AMC Acorn TV HBO Max Photos SXSW 24 frames Western TLC singing competition FOX Pride Month Biopics game of thrones Creative Arts Emmys justice league CMT Starz Reality Competition Tumblr 21st Century Fox USA Network DC streaming service Lionsgate breaking bad festivals Martial Arts Horror Syfy politics Fox News stand-up comedy Cannes 2015 Warner Bros. dceu green book OWN video latino IFC Films police drama movies TNT National Geographic what to watch spain El Rey Pixar American Society of Cinematographers Grammys Quiz disaster binge Disney Plus Red Carpet Walt Disney Pictures Food Network Schedule DC Comics Song of Ice and Fire Podcast boxoffice IFC Spring TV APB Bravo talk show Pet Sematary cooking Comedy Central serial killer Comics on TV Peacock comic Lifetime Turner Classic Movies Star Wars Rocketman Ellie Kemper Television Academy Video Games finale Winners DC Universe free movies Emmy Nominations sequel ratings toy story Pirates renewed TV shows Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Super Bowl cops ESPN Amazon Prime Film Film Festival facebook Certified Fresh SDCC DGA TV renewals Columbia Pictures Drama 71st Emmy Awards Action Star Trek spy thriller witnail Election streaming FX Winter TV canceled canceled TV shows docudrama Captain marvel crime drama Best and Worst miniseries Marvel TBS travel Masterpiece TIFF X-Men GoT YA Rom-Com Amazon MSNBC anime Stephen King The Walking Dead composers Trailer MCU biography Sundance dragons Arrowverse Cartoon Network television comiccon