Generational conflict and youthful dreams of freedom may not be very Confucian themes, but they make for damn good drama.

From the silent films of the 1930s to today’s tech-savvy d-Generation, Chinese directors find inspiration in the struggles of the young. Check out our picks from two eras of Chinese cinema: the early golden years and 21st century realist revival.

The Big Road 大路

1934 (Dir. Sun Yu 孙瑜)

From Bonnie and Clyde to Thelma and Louise, characters in American films hit the road to find themselves, escape encroaching fate, and maybe commit a few felonies along the way. But in The Big Road, six male workers and two waitresses at a roadside restaurant get their kicks by building one. Released just as sound cinema was making its debut, this is a mostly silent film with a few musical numbers thrown in for good measure. It features corrupt landlords, massive iron tanks, dancing monkeys and (believe it or not) some full-frontal male nudity. It featured all the biggest male superstars of the day—Andy Deemer, organizer of the World of Chinese Movies night at Jianghu Jiuba, calls it “basically The Expendables for the 1930s.”

New Women 新女生

1934 (Dir. Cai Chusheng 蔡楚生)

Another classic, New Women features tragic starlet Ruan Lingyu as a music teacher who dreams of following her passion for writing. Based on the true story of the suicide of actress Ai Xia, the film laments the plight of educated and ambitious women in a traditional society that spurns them. New Women angered many in the press over its negative depiction of their trade, and newspapers responded by attacking Ruan Lingyu’s personal life. In a final collision of life and art, a despondent Ruan took her own life on the eve of International Women’s Day in 1935.

Invisible Killer 无形杀

2009 (Dir. Wang Jing 王竞竞)

Sure, this meditation on the perils of Internet culture and “human flesh search engines” (人肉搜索) might be sensationalistic, but isn’t it about time someone humanized the legions of World of Warcraft players who keep all those 网吧 in business? “This is still the only movie in the world that treats Internet trolls with diligent research and respect,” says Peter Salladé, international liaison at the Beijing International Movie Festival. In a broad sense, it picks up where Unknown Pleasures leaves off, exploring what happens when digital natives decide to settle their scores in the real world.

And the Spring Comes 立春

2007 (Dir. Gu Changwei, 顾长卫)

Inner Mongolia is a good place to live if you want to pursue a career in mining rare earth elements; for Italian opera, not so much. But for vocal teacher Wang Cailing, dreams of artistic greatness die hard. She despairs of her isolation, but even in a small town on the edge of Baotou she finds kindred spirits, a would-be Van Gogh and a gay ballet dancer among them. As the characters reach middle age, they struggle to maintain their youthful ideals in the face of long odds. This is only the second film directed by Gu Changwei, who previously worked as a cinematographer for landmark Fifth Generation movies like Red Sorghum and Farewell My Concubine.

Unknown Pleasures 任逍遥

2002 (Dir. Jia Zhangke 贾樟柯)

The last of Jia Zhangke’s films to be made outside the Chinese studio system, Unknown Pleasures follows a trio of aimless youth in his hometown of Datong. Seeking meaning in an endless stream of electronic media, the isolated characters experience, in Jia’s words, “an existential crisis of individuality.” The film is a shoestring masterpiece, shot entirely on digital video over only 19 days. “This is my favorite of Jia Zhangke’s films,” says Maya Rudolph, a film contributor to the Chinese culture site Pangbianr.com. “It combines the bleak realism and touch of surrealist elements that make Jia such a compelling filmmaker.”

Sorrows of the Forbidden City 清宫秘史

1948 (Dir. Zhu Shilin 朱石麟)

“Empress dowager Cixi was a total bitch,” says Peter Salladé, international liaison at the Beijing International Movie Festival. “This movie shows it well.” The gripping palace intrigue focuses on the battle for influence between the aging Cixi and the reformist Guangxu Emperor, who believed China had much to learn from the West and Japan. Ultimately, of course, Guangxu couldn’t stave off the Qing Dynasty’s fate. Though the film was made in Hong Kong, both director Zhu Shilin and star Zhou Xuan, who played Guangxu’s concubine, were transplants from the Shanghai Leftist film movement.

The Winter of Sanmao 三毛流浪记

1949 (Dir. Zhao Ming 赵明 and Yan Gong 严恭)

The first film to be released in China after the founding of the PRC, The Winter of Sanmao was also the first on-screen appearance of China’s most popular comic book hero. The scrappy Sanmao, who takes his name from the three hairs that signify his extreme poverty, can’t seem to catch a break on the mean streets of Shanghai, but Chinese audiences appreciated his innocent take on a cruel world. “It was made as a response to the popular Disney films of the day,” says Andy Deemer, “but it reads more like what Buster Keaton’s childhood vaudeville shows were supposed to be like: incredibly dark, sometimes very cruel, and yet almost embarrassingly funny.”

This article was published in March 2011 in City Weekend Beijing. Click here to read the original.