10 Best Zhang Yimou Movies, Ranked According to Rotten Tomatoes

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10 Best Zhang Yimou Movies, Ranked According to Rotten Tomatoes

Zhang Yimou is a highly acclaimed Chinese filmmaker whose body of work has left an indelible mark on world cinema. Zhang began his career as a cinematographer before transitioning to directing. In the early stages of his career, he gained recognition for his visually striking films, characterized by vivid colors and stunning cinematography.



Zhang’s filmography has grown over time to include a range of genres, such as historical dramas, martial arts epics, and modern tales. His films frequently feature his own visual flare as they tackle themes of love, power, resiliency, and the complexity of Chinese society. Thus, his works include a number of timeless pieces that significantly display his talent and distinguish him in the field.

10 ‘The Road Home’ (1999)

Rotten Tomatoes Scores: 89%

The Road Home follows a young man named Luo Yusheng (Sun Honglei), who returns to his rural hometown in China after his father’s death. The film depicts his memories of his parent’s courtship and their love story as he helps arrange his father’s funeral.

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The movie explores the topic of love and depicts it in its most basic form. By stripping away unnecessary complexities, The Road Home‘s message becomes more accessible and relatable to viewers. Moreover, Zhao Xiaoding‘s cinematography, which ranges from expansive vistas to up-close shots, perfectly depicts the beauty of rural Chinese settings. It genuinely celebrates the beauty and bravery that surround us but that we frequently overlook in both our fiction and real life.

9 ‘Coming Home’ (2014)

Coming Home’ (2014) (1)

Rotten Tomatoes Scores: 89%

Set during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Coming Home centers on a devoted wife named Feng Wanyu (Gong Li) and her husband, Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming). Lu, a dissident intellectual, is imprisoned and subsequently escapes from a labor camp to reunite with his family. However, due to a series of unfortunate events and amnesia caused by a head injury, Lu fails to recognize and reconcile with Feng, forcing her to make heartbreaking sacrifices.

Coming Home is not only one of Zhang’s best films but also a masterpiece that showcases the director’s exceptional storytelling and filmmaking skills. By contrasting the unwavering love of Feng and Lu with the devastation caused by political repression, the film dives into the intricacies of human emotions and relationships. Additionally, it offers viewers a window into a turbulent and politically difficult time in China’s history.

8 ‘Shanghai Triad’ (1995)

Shanghai Triad’ (1995) (1)

Rotten Tomatoes Scores: 90%

Set in the 1930s, Shanghai Triad follows a young boy named Shuisheng (Wang Xiaoxiao) who is sent to Shanghai to work as a servant for his uncle, a powerful Triad boss. Shuisheng later becomes entangled in the dangerous and corrupt world of the Shanghai underworld through his relationships with the members of his uncle’s Triad organization, particularly his uncle’s mistress, Xiao Jingbao (Gong Li).

Through the innocent eyes of Shuisheng, the audience is exposed to the dark underbelly of Shanghai society, where organized crime and political turmoil intersect. In addition, the movie presents a critique of the violent nature of power and the violence that results from pursuing it. Moreover, the lavish settings, stunning costumes, and meticulous production design create a visually rich and immersive experience.

7 ‘Shadow’ (2018)

Shadow’ (2018) (1)

Rotten Tomatoes Scores: 94%

Set during the Three Kingdoms period, Shadow follows the power struggles and conflicts between the kingdom of Pei and the rival kingdom of Yang. It centers around Commander Zi Yu (Deng Chao) of the Pei kingdom, who is gravely injured and confined to his chambers. In his place, his “shadow” or doppelgänger, Jingzhou, steps in to impersonate him. While Jingzhou is loyal to Zi Yu, he also harbors a hidden agenda and seeks revenge for past grievances.

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Shadow is renowned for its beautiful aesthetic, which contrasts light and shadow using a grayscale color scheme. The film also incorporates stylized martial arts sequences that are beautifully choreographed. These sequences showcase Zhang’s signature blend of martial arts and artistic direction, elevating the action to an artistic level. Additionally, Shadow examines the dualities and identities of its characters in terms of both their outward appearances and moral decisions. It also addresses the conflicts between responsibility and selfish ambitions, blurring the borders between good and evil.

6 ‘Hero’ (2002)

Hero (2002) (1)

Rotten Tomatoes Scores: 94%

Set in ancient China during the period of the Warring States, Hero revolves around Nameless (Jet Li), a skilled swordsman who is summoned by the King of Qin. He claims to have defeated three legendary assassins — Broken Sword, Flying Snow, and Sky — who have been plotting against the king. The story unfolds through a series of flashbacks and reenactments as Nameless recounts his encounters.

Hero offers various viewpoints on the same events, challenging the audience’s conceptions of reality and truth. Moreover, the graphics of the movie enhance martial arts as an art form by fusing beautiful motions with breathtaking scenery and carefully crafted sets. Beyond its satisfying martial arts sequences, Hero is renowned for its philosophical underpinnings and thematic richness as it explores the contradictions and complexities of human nature, probing the reasons for people’s decisions and willingness to make sacrifices for the greater good.

5 ‘Not One Less’ (1999)

Not One Less’ (1999) (1)

Rotten Tomatoes Scores: 96%

Not One Less revolves around a young substitute teacher named Wei Minzhi and her efforts to keep her class intact when the regular teacher must leave the village for a month. However, her task becomes increasingly challenging when one of her students, a young boy named Zhang Huike, runs away to find work in the city to support his family.

The film’s documentary-style approach and simplicity of storytelling contribute to its authenticity and emotional impact. The majority of the cast consists of non-professional actors from the rural village, adding a sense of realism to the narrative. Moreover, with its sympathetic social criticism, Not One Less raises awareness of the challenges marginalized groups face as well as the transformative potential of education, showcasing Zhang’s ability to capture the human spirit and shed light on pressing societal issues.

4 ‘Raise the Red Lantern’ (1991)

Raise the Red Lantern’ (1991) (2)

Rotten Tomatoes Scores: 97%

Raise the Red Lantern is set in 1920s China during the warlord era and follows Songlian (Gong Li), who Songlian is compelled to live as a concubine, where she must negotiate the complicated family relationships as well as the rivalry and resentment of the other wives.

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Raise the Red Lantern is renowned for its breathtaking photography and visual graphics, which perfectly capture the grandeur and cramped atmosphere of the home. Moreover, the use of vibrant red lanterns, elaborate costumes, and intricate set designs create a visually striking backdrop against which the characters’ psychological battles unfold. The film’s depiction of women’s oppression and subjugation also sheds light on the broader social and political landscape of the day.

3 ‘One Second’ (2020)

One Second’ (2020) (1)

Rotten Tomatoes Scores: 100%

Based on the novel The Criminal Lu Yanshi by Geling Yan,One Second is set during the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s and follows a prisoner who has been sent to a labor camp for political reeducation and becomes deeply attached to a film reel that contains the only copy of a film he desires to watch – in particular, a single second of it.

Zhang’s direction combines elements of realism with poetic storytelling, creating an emotional cinematic experience. The movie pays homage to the power of film as a medium to preserve events, memories, and feelings. However, it’s vital to note that One Second has experienced substantial release restrictions because of how China’s past is shown in the film, which has run into censorship issues.

2 ‘Ju Dou’ (1990)

Ju Dou’ (1990) (1)

Rotten Tomatoes Scores: 100%

Set during the Second Sino-Japanese War, Ju Dou or Red Sorghum follows the titular woman (Gong Li), who is forced into an arranged marriage with a leprous winemaker in a remote sorghum-wine distillery.

Ju Dou is renowned for its gorgeous cinematography, which perfectly captures the rural settings’ unspoiled beauty as well as their vivid sorghum fields and rich cultural traditions. It utilizes vivid colors and striking imagery to evoke a sense of vibrancy and contrast to the harshness of the characters’ realities. Additionally, Ju Dou makes heavy use of traditional Chinese practices and rituals, emphasizing the characters’ cultural origin and identity. The film also offers a critique of imperialism and foreign invasion, depicting the resilience and defiance of the Chinese people against external oppressors.

1 ‘Full River Red’ (2023)

Full River Red’ (2023) (1)

Rotten Tomatoes Scores: 100%

Full River Red is set in 12th-century China’s Song Dynasty, against the backdrop of a Jin people uprising against the Imperial Court. It begins when the Jin Ambassador is assassinated two hours before a vital diplomatic meeting between Song Prime Minister Qin Hui and a high-level Jin team. Additionally, the Emperor’s critical letter gets stolen from him.

Full River Red is Zhang’s most recent and is characterized as an action comedy, an uncommon combination in his work that both fans and reviewers find surprising. The movie is an unexpectedly humorous and smart dark comedy that skillfully blends tension, dark humor, and Machiavellian deceptions. However, Full River Red seeks to entertain more than Zhang’s earlier movies did by avoiding major socioeconomic themes.

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