7 Movies Based on Chinese Novels to Watch Next

Throughout the past century, Chinese cinema has been an underrated form of world cinema outside of international film festivals and cinephile communities. The first Chinese-language film to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival was in 1993, when Chen Kaige’s epic Goodbye my concubine took home the award for its incredible performances, cinematography and storylines. Goodbye my concubine was an adaptation of a 1985 novel of the same name by Hong Kong author Lillian Lee. Mainland Chinese literature has deep roots in the region’s literary traditions, influencing many other kingdoms and territories around the world due to the nature of Chinese history and literary traditions. Several films in recent years are inspired by Chinese novels.

Whether contemporary or written in the early 1900s, Chinese-language films have often reverted to auteurs writing about the struggles needed to create contemporary China. With a turbulent history in the past century, many of the films made based on these novels are historical and discuss the consequences of rapid modernization and political upheaval in an era when ordinary people were in trouble. Even today, filmmakers and writers often return to literature and recreate new worlds from what they know, creating something entirely new from the past. These are the best movies based on Chinese novels.


7/7 Raise the Red Lantern

The woman is bathed in red light.
It was international

Released in 1991, Raise the Red Lantern is an early work by Chinese director Zhang Yimou. It was adapted from Su Tong’s novel titled Raise the Red Lantern, and the film’s images take strong inspiration from the red lantern symbol. In 1920s China, a young woman (Gong Li) has been sold by her family to become a rich man’s concubine. She is forced to leave her house to move into the man’s, she becomes her fourth concubine and meets the other women who live on the estate. Their master passes from one woman to another, choosing the one who is her favorite of hers and giving them special treatment, and the girl, having learned the secrets of the estate, slowly begins to succumb to her circumstances.

Related: The best Chinese movies of the 90s, ranked

6/7 Qiu Ju’s story

Woman in red coat stands on top of a mountain in China.
Sil-Metropole organization

Qiu Ju’s story it was released a year later Raise the Red Lantern, and reunited director Zhang Yimou with lead actress Gong Li once again. In this film, Gong Li plays Qiu Ju, a woman who lives in the countryside of China. When her husband is beaten by the community leader and injured, Qiu Ju’s complaints to the police are ignored. However, she will not give up the search for her, leading her to venture to the provincial capital to file an official complaint. Though Qiu Ju is heavily pregnant during all these events, she advances in the name of justice. The film was adapted from the novella The lawsuit of the Wan family by Chen Yuanbin.

5/7 Lust, Attention

The woman leans on the man while he is on the floor
Haishan Film

Decision to leave heads of the star Tang Wei Lust, Attention, a film adapted from the novel by Shanghai-based writer Eileen Chang. The story is potentially based on a true story: During World War II, a spy named Zheng Pingru led a resistance and bombing in Shanghai. Ang Lee directs this film adaptation of the novella, which tells a story of more than four years in Hong Kong and Shanghai. A shy university student from Shanghai studies in Hong Kong and gets involved in student politics. She is designated by her peers to infiltrate the inner rings of a pro-Japanese politician, which she eventually succeeds in doing.

4/7 To live

The woman walks with two children.
WAS International

Chinese author Yu Hua wrote the novel To live in 1993, and was made into a film adaptation by director Zhang Yimou a year later in 1994. Ge You and Gong Li play the film’s lead couple, who, in the 1940s, are dealing with gambling in the husband just before the start of the Chinese Civil War. Forced to adapt to their country’s changing landscape, ten years later they are forced to face tragedy once again in their lives as the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward await.

3/7 Goodbye my concubine

1993 Chinese historical drama Farewell My Concubine
Miramax movies

Goodbye my concubine is a crown jewel of cinema that came out of China in the 1990s, and there are plenty of good reasons why. Leslie Cheung and Zhang Fengyi play two men who grew up in an all-boy Peking opera troupe. They become some of Peking Opera’s biggest stars during their era, but Cheung’s Dieyi struggles with her feelings and her relationship with Zhang’s Xiaolou outside of theatrics. However, the Chinese Civil War and the impending Cultural Revolution will threaten everything they have ever known as Peking Opera is considered backward.

Related: The best Chinese movies of the 2010s, ranked

2/7 The Wandering Earth

The man in the astronaut suit stares at the glowing lights.
China Film Group Corporation

Inspired by a short story by Chinese author Liu Cixin, The Wandering Earth is considered one of the biggest blockbusters to come out of China in the 2010s. The sci-fi film is initially set in 2061, when humans are scrambling to find a solution to the aging Sun and the threat to eradicate all humanity. A man, who has gone to space to help research, returns home to Earth to find his now-adult son is a thief. There are bigger problems at hand, however, as Earth is predicted to strike Jupiter if nothing can be done anytime soon.

1/7 Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon

crouching tiger-hidden-dragon-ang-lee
Images of Colombia

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is one of the most famous wuxia movies released in the 2000s, but its origins date back to the 1940s. Novelist and writer Wang Dulu serialized the original story, with the same title, as part of a pentalogy called Crane iron. Ang Lee directs the 2000 film adaptation of the serialization, which tells the story of a legendary sword stolen and the journey undertaken to get it back. Michelle Yeoh, Chang Chen, Chow Yun-fat and Zhang Ziyi starred in the film, which was the first non-English language film to become a huge box office hit in the United States.

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