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Best Jia Zhangke Movies, Ranked – MovieWeb

Jia Zhangke is one of the modern masters in Chinese cinema. From Unknown Pleasures to A Touch of Sin, these are his best movies.
Jia Zhangke, a Chinese director and screenwriter from Fenyang, China, has become one of the most recognizable names in what is known as the Sixth Generation of Chinese cinema. These directors came into the industry after the Fifth Generation, who produced and made movies during the 1990s. The Sixth Generation paved a new voice and space for young Chinese directors, steering filmmaking into a completely new but realistic take on what the landscape is in the country today. Jia, who decided to pursue film after watching a screening of a Chen Kaige movie, began at the Beijing Film Academy and slowly worked his way up.
His early work often discusses contemporary issues and everyday life in his home province, Shanxi, and often escaped the notice of the mainland’s funding and censorship board. His first big approval from the government came in 2004 with The World, and that is what allowed him the opportunity to have his movies be seen by wider audiences. His follow-up to The World, Still Life, took home the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, cementing his status as a filmmaker to keep an eye on. His work in the 2000s was only a primer for what was to come, as his movies in the 2010s took a larger scope, offering a cinematic look into modern China. These are Jia’s best movies ranked.
Unknown Pleasures, which was released in 2002, saw the second film within the collaboration between long-time collaborators (and Jia’s future wife) Zhao Tao and Jia. She starred alongside Zhao Weiwei and Wu Qiong as three disillusioned youths that seem to have no purpose in their lives. This movie takes on the subject of the Internet’s impacts, as well as mass media, on the youths of that time. Each of these is shown by how it took its toll on the characters. All are the products of China’s one-child policy, feeding into the sense of alienation that permeates throughout the movie.
Grand in its scope, Mountains May Depart takes place across decades. Originally set in 1999, in the city where Jia was born, a 25-year-old Tao works at a shop and is stuck in a love triangle. One is poor, the other wealthy, and she ultimately decides to get married to the richer man, although he treats her poorly. Years later, in 2014, she divorced him and her son lives with her ex-husband. Another time jump, now in 2025, trains its focus on her son, who is struggling at college in Australia and has not seen his mother for years.
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Like Mountains May Depart, 24 City is set across three different eras: the 1950s, the 70s, and the present day when it was filmed, which was 2008. This movie blends nonfiction with drama, taking on the struggles of the city of Chengdu and dramatizing them with a fictional approach. It is presented as a documentary in its style, focusing on an actual apartment complex called 24 City. On the grounds of a former airplane engine manufacturing plant, it shows a decay in the upkeep of entire cities and industries in favor of modernization.
Ash is the Purest White is Jia’s most recent release, starring Zhao Tao and Liao Fan. Originally beginning in 2001, Qiao (Zhao) is dating a mob boss in Datong, a mining city on the decline. When she takes his gun one day and intimidates some gangster rivals, the police come after her and put Qiao away for five years on the charge of owning an illegal firearm. Her boyfriend does not visit, and when she is released, he is nowhere to be found. Forced to make some difficult decisions, she decides to try and renew the relationship, hunting him down to recapture what they once had together.
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2006’s Still Life is gorgeous visually, a portrait of how traditional lifestyles are dying in China. The movie is set in the village of Fengjie, on the Yangtze River, which has been majorly affected by the building of a dam nearby. The town is at risk of disappearing, but this fact is a backdrop to the story of two people, a man, and a woman, who are searching for their missing spouses in Fengjie. Still Life is slow, but captures a disappearing way of life that is actually that way in reality.
A Touch of Sin has several of Jia’s famous director trademarks scattered throughout. Multiple storylines are tied together tightly through interconnecting threads, there are socioeconomic issues among everyday people, and rural life outside China’s major cities is depicted. A Touch of Sin tells four stories in one movie. It consists of local corruption in politics and one man’s struggle for justice, a gunman hiding his career from his loving family, a factory worker struggling with depression, and a woman who murders men after being solicited for sex. This movie is a searing look at modern China, criticism of the system, and the people involved with keeping it built into every story.
Writer, author, critic. Find me at @ashleynassarine

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