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The Last Emperor and Beyond: The 11 Best Movies About Beijing

The 2008 Summer Olympics gave us all a chance to take a good long look at China and to learn a lot about Beijing, the rapidly changing host city that’s home to 17 million of China’s new capitalist strivers. Beyond the Bird’s Nest stadium and the Water Cube is a vast and hyperactive megalopolis full of fascinating stories, many of which have been captured beautifully on film. The Olympics lasts for only two weeks, but your China experience can continue for as long as you (and your Chinese-made DVD player) want it to.

Beijing Bicycle
Young Guei arrives from the sticks to seek his fortune as a bike messenger. When his new bike is stolen by a middle-class school boy who needs it not for work but simply to fit in with his buddies, it sets off a small-scale class war featuring exciting chases through the back alleys of Beijing and more than a few unpleasant fist fights. How the thief and victim arrive at an uneasy détente is amazing. If you’ve ever suspected that life is unfair, this is a movie that offers painful proof.

Shower
This excruciatingly sentimental film tracks the inevitable destruction of one of Beijing’s ancient and intimate hutong neighborhoods. An old man has been running his atmospheric public bathhouse for decades with the help of his developmentally disabled son. When his other son, a budding capitalist from Shenzen, returns for a visit and looks at his father’s situation, a difficult debate about old China vs. new ensues. What matters more, tradition or prosperity? One can only imagine how many historic neighborhoods like this one have been razed since the movie was made in 1999.

The Last Emperor
An absolutely stunning breakthrough when it was released in 1987, Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic saga of the life of Pu Yi, China’s last emperor, was filmed within the confines of the Forbidden City, and that permission was an important sign that China was literally opening up to the world. Like many screen biographies the movie feels a little rushed and episodic (five actors play Pu Yi at various ages), but the sights and the soundtrack are simply gorgeous and serve as great reminders of what was lost when the Chinese empire finally collapsed and the country began its long and painful journey towards Communism.

Summer Palace
Rare is the Chinese film that dares to touch on the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, but this movie, a long and somewhat soapy saga of Beijing college students in love, goes for it, albeit tangentially. Here, the riots are mainly seen and heard as distant gunfire and bloodied victims being wheeled around in the streets. More compelling is the look we get at the lives of these young and confused Beijingers as they face a world that’s changing before their eyes.

Lan Yu
A story of an on-again, off-again gay affair spanning many years in the development of the new China, this project had to be snuck pasts the censors, especially since, like Summer Palace, it touches on the Tiananmen Square massacre. Rich businessman Chen meets young hustler Lan Yu, and the two spend painful years dancing around each other and falling in and out of love while trying to find appropriate roles for themselves in the rapidly changing society. Leading man Ye Liu, who plays Lan Yu, has since gone on to become one of China’s most bankable stars.

The World
A long, challenging, and highly metaphorical attempt to ponder the place of the Chinese in the wider world, cutting-edge director Zhang Ke Jia brilliantly sets his story within the confines of a Beijing amusement park that’s filled with replicas of famous world monuments such as the Taj Mahal, the Eiffel Tower, and even the World Trade Center. (‘See? We still have ours!’ says one character.) The dirt poor employees, mainly dancers and security guards, may have ambitions to see the real world, but they’re virtually imprisoned in this ersatz environment, and they’re given little hope for a brighter future.

Lost in Beijing
Every issue surrounding China’s headlong rush to capitalism is covered in this zany movie. A poor window washer just happens to be hanging outside the window of his wife’s boss when he sees her being raped by the brute. Furious but pragmatic, he hatches a blackmail scheme but is foiled by the boss’s avariciously money-hungry wife, an ugly symbol of the worst aspects of China’s new conspicuous consumption. Then there are more couplings, an unexpected pregnancy, and complicated double crosses as the little guy fights the man, Chinese style.

Farewell My Concubine
This crash course in 20th-century Chinese history is taught through the story of two stars of the Peking Opera, one who plays male roles and one (the late and much missed Leslie Cheung) who is trained to play female roles. Their complicated relationship becomes an even more complicated triangle when the beautiful Gong Li enters the picture, and together they endure decades of upheaval, much of it threatening to extinguish the ancient art form to which they’ve devoted their lives. It’s a bit long, but you’ll enjoy this colorful and atmospheric megadose of Beijing and Chinese history.

Stolen Life
Another troubling tale of what can happen when a gullible peasant joins the vast migration to the city, this move focuses on young college student Yan’ni, who arrives in Beijing only to quickly — and disastrously — fall in love with con man Muyu. She quits school, moves in with him in his tiny room tucked deep in the belly of a huge building that’s home to hundreds of migrant workers who have set up their own little underground town. Muyu’s ultimate plan for Yan’ni is almost unbearable to contemplate. You have to ask how many millions of migrant workers are suffering equally horrible fates.

Big Shot’s Funeral
Donald Sutherland plays an important movie director who sweeps into Beijing to direct a historical epic, and the crew, both American and Chinese, swirl around him to make his vision become a reality. But when he dies unexpectedly, they decide instead to give him an imperial-style sendoff, with comic results. If you’re interested in doing business in China, watch this movie as a lesson in cross-cultural conflict and communication problems.

Together
A father and son from the sticks venture to the big city to make the boy’s dream of becoming a virtuoso violinist become a reality. (Anyone who knows the biography of world famous pianist Lang Lang will see lots of similarities.) Forced to live in squalor in order to afford a good teacher, young Xiaochun struggles mightily to get better at his craft and more importantly, to please his father. It’s about as powerful a tale of filial piety as you’ll ever see. Noted director Chen Kaige, who also directed Farewell My Concubine, is in top form here.

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