Movies about ancient India or China?
January 2, 2012 12:27 PM   Subscribe

Movies about Ancient Chinese or Indian history or culture?

I teach an Ancient History course to middle school students and every so often I host a Friday Movie Night. I like the movies to be relevant to the topics we are studying and we have been studying ancient India and are now about to start studying Ancient China.

Do you have any movie suggestions for an enjoyable and somewhat relevant movie to either ancient China or India?

Here are the qualifications:

- Pg-13 or less preferably. Rated R might work in certain cases but can't have too much sex/nudity or too much violence. It's a private school so I have a bit for leeway here.

- Foreign films are great as long as it is not too slow of a plot since 7th and 8th grade students might get restless on a Friday Night.

- I would prefer not to do Disney type of movies such as 'Mulan'. But it doesn't have to be the most authentic or historically correct movie. We can always talk about it in class as a learning exercise. It's more important that it be enjoyable and somewhat relevant.

- I would prefer for it to be set in pre-modern India or China. (Before 1000 CE) But if not, it can be a movie set in modern times that highlights a particular aspect of either ancient India or Chinese culture. (Buddhism in India for or Confucianism in China for example...)

I also teach a Modern Non-Western History course in high school so I also show movie nights for those classes. So movies about China that are 'modern' I already show it in that class. (So 'The Last Emperor' or "Empire of the Sun' are already used in that class so they don't work)

I'm really stuck here. I also show the Indian movie 'Lagaan' in a different World History course so that doesn't work either.

Any ideas? Thanks!
posted by dealing away to Society & Culture (20 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I enjoyed Hero.

There's a Wikipedia category History of China on film.
posted by XMLicious at 12:36 PM on January 2, 2012

Oh, and there's also History of India on film.
posted by XMLicious at 12:37 PM on January 2, 2012

The Mahabharat!

I dimly recalled this from my distant childhood - it's a series but maybe you could use certain episodes? Can't vouch for the quality or reliability of the site, though.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 12:41 PM on January 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks XMLicious. I saw those links before on Wikipedia and I read reviews on many of those movies but sometimes its more powerful to hear a personal recommendation for a movie rather than just read a professional reviewer. I'll definitely check out Hero! Thanks!
posted by dealing away at 12:42 PM on January 2, 2012

Best answer: House of Flying Daggers is wonderful. It's set in 859 CE and rated PG-13.
posted by argonauta at 12:44 PM on January 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Maybe episodes from the TV series Monkey, or The Water Margin.
posted by plep at 12:46 PM on January 2, 2012

I was coming in to recommend Hero as well. The Peter Brook version of the Mahabharata might also be an option.
posted by rjs at 12:48 PM on January 2, 2012

I don't know how much leeway you have for the HS class, but you ought to take a look at Tae Guk Ki, which is an really good piece on the Korean war (make sure you watch it first so you can decide whether or not it is appropriate as there is a decent amount of violence in it, although nothing gratuitous).

For a semi-modern China film I would suggest Raise the Red Lantern, which is another Zhang Yi Mou film (of Hero and House of Flying Daggers fame), but it is not an action movie and is instead a thoughtful piece on turn of the century Chinese life in the Loess plateau region amongst minor aristocracy. It would require some context though, so you will have to teach your way into it, also for aspiring mandarin speakers, they will get to hear a really gravelly Shaanxi accent throughout.

For modern China, take a look at Shower, which is set in a traditional Beijing style bathhouse in a Hutong that is about to be demolished. Again this will require some context, but its a really good film, and is somewhat funny to boot.

The old HK Kung Fu movies about Wong Fei Hung can be educational if you frame them correctly, and could be a nice reward to follow up a unit on the Opioum Wars.
posted by BobbyDigital at 1:13 PM on January 2, 2012

This is more documentary but there was a 12 hour (?) BBC documentary called "The Story of India".

It had lots of interesting information.
posted by simpleton at 1:19 PM on January 2, 2012

I remember being shown Little Buddha (with Keanu Reeves!) as an introduction to Buddhism.
posted by porpoise at 1:21 PM on January 2, 2012

Always thought Chen Kaige's The Emperor and the Assassin did a better job of telling the Jing Ke story than Hero. Hu Mei did that biopic of Confucius in 2010, which I never watched because it was panned by pretty much everyone, but if you stretch to TV her 2005 Ha Wu Da Di (Great Emperor Wu of the Han) was well received - might be too much of it for you purposes.
If you want something different for your modern class, an oldie but goodie is Zhu Shilin's 1948 Secrets of the Qing Court (aka Sorrows of the Forbidden City)
posted by Abiezer at 2:01 PM on January 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm a Mandarin film translator who works on quite a few historical epics, so I don't know if this constitutes self-linking, but here are two I've done:

- Confucius is the film version of the man himself. Panned, but VERY good from a historical perspective, and could be the basis for a unit on Warring States society and culture.
- "Stop Killing", or Zhi Sha/止杀, is one that's coming out this year about Qiu Chuji's journey to visit Genghis Khan. Now, this is not pre-1,000 CE, but as a period piece looking at what the Mongolian conquest did to China and the rest of the world at the time, and how China looked on the eve of the Mongolian conquest, I highly, highly recommend it. Also, it's a good starting point for teaching the beginnings of Taoism.
posted by saysthis at 2:19 PM on January 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Gosh, I kind of think any reasonable adaptation of the Mahabharata will both be way too long and possibly a little much for middle-schoolers. Maybe one of the many historical Bollywood films might fit the bill better?

Here's a list of five famous historical Bollywood films; take your pick, I guess. I've seen four of these. "Asoka" definitely falls under the banner of "ancient India" and would be the best fit, but I guess "Jodhaa Akbar" would fit one day if you're ever planning to talk about the Mughals at all. Bollywood movies are of course generally cheesy, light-hearted, and due to the censors, unlikely to have anything more scandalous than vigorous gyrating and near-kisses.

I do remember seeing Little Buddha as a high schooler, but as I recall the overall response to Keanu's questions of "What is this 'pain'? What is this 'SUFFERING?' was "YOUR ACTING!" But maybe we were particularly intolerant.
posted by vetala at 2:24 PM on January 2, 2012

Sita Sings the Blues

posted by danep at 2:27 PM on January 2, 2012

It's R-rated, but I'd suggest Red Cliff, a fictionalized re-telling of the Battle of Red Cliffs. If you have covered The Romance of the Three Kingdoms with your class, the students may recognize some of the characters and situations.
posted by needled at 2:36 PM on January 2, 2012

Bharat Ek Khoj (Discovery of India is the book on which it is based) is the authoritative thing to watch on Indian history. It is well made, and covers a lot of ground, so you can be selective about the episodes to watch.

Mahabharata and Ramayana are literature, not history.
posted by vidur at 2:40 PM on January 2, 2012

For China, I'd second the recommendation for Red Cliff. It's an enjoyable movie, the R rating is mostly for the battles and not for sexy times, if that makes any difference.

In terms of historical accuracy, it also takes wild liberties with the source material but captures the essence of how the Three Kingdoms characters are perceived today in modern China (Zhuge Liang is a genius, Zhang Fei is strong but wild, Cao Cao is still shorthand for ruthless ambition). It also depicts a couple of scenes from the book that have eventually gone on to become idioms in modern Chinese.

On top of the cultural relevancy, it's an epic movie and an enjoyable watch. For a group of younger students I think the Western 1-movie release might be a better choice (the movie was released as a two-parter in Asia, the Western 1-movie version cuts out an hour or so).
posted by C^3 at 7:10 PM on January 2, 2012


(and seconding Asoka)
posted by Ziggy500 at 1:51 PM on January 3, 2012

Utsav is another period film - not factually accurate as it is based on a play, but it does give a glimpse into life in Ancient India. On the other hand, I am told that some of the cultural depictions (like the King being an incompetent fool) was not the norm, but the exception and I would be grossly mistaken to consider it as the normal state of affairs.

I think it has some non-PG13 stuff and may not meet your "It's more important that it be enjoyable and somewhat relevant" clause, but throwing it just in case. In short, "Watch it yourself first."
posted by theobserver at 4:39 PM on January 3, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! You opened my eyes to many movies I had no idea existed. I ended up watching both Hero and House of Flying Daggers right away. I added many other movies to my Netflix cue to watch and learn from.

Thanks again for all the answers. You really helped me.
posted by dealing away at 2:18 PM on January 7, 2012

« Older Shoe Repair Destroyed Favorite Boots... now what?   |   My skin needs, no, it needs to be... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.