The list below is part of RADII’s 100 Films to Understand China.
With a new wave of young and passionate directors bringing increasingly important topics to the fore, as well as the presence of new formats and powerhouses within the film industry (such as production companies with their own streaming platforms, like Tencent Pictures and Baidu-backed iQIYI), the cinematic landscape in China has changed dramatically over the past five years.
At the same time, things have a way of staying the same. Patriotic blockbuster films still dominate, censorship has been a more prominent obstacle for directors to navigate and the country is still chasing a true breakout global hit.
Here are ten films reflecting a representative cross-section of contemporary mainland Chinese cinema.
Wolf Warrior 2 stunned the market by doing 5.679 billion RMB (over 800 million USD) upon its release during the Chinese New Year holiday season in 2017. It single-handedly changed the market, marking the beginning of a domestic boom. Theme-wise, Wolf Warrior 2‘s “Chinese Rambo saves the day in unnamed African nation” plot puts it squarely in the category of zhuxuanlu — a genre sitting somewhere between patriotic and propagandistic.
Peter Shiao, CEO and founder of Immortal Studios: A “Bad Movie” that is concurrently pivoting towards a zhuxuanlu style. This film depicts the Chinese as virtuous and powerful on a global stage in need of a new hero.
WATCH IT Amazon Prime
An early film from one of China’s most exciting young directors, and a movie that has been repeatedly compared to Greta Gerwig’s Ladybird, but with more emotional impact. Girls Always Happy reflects a warts-and-all mother-daughter relationship.
Karin Chien, film producer and distributor at dGenerate Films: Girls Always Happy is a revelation by one of the most exciting new voices in cinema today. Watching the film for the first time, I found myself gasping out loud and having to catch my breath. I have never seen a mother-daughter relationship written and portrayed with such brutal honesty and utter relatability. Yang Mingming is an absolutely fearless director. This is the movie Ladybird could have been. I look forward to watching everything she makes!
“Our Own Cinematic Language”: Beijing Director Yang Mingming on Her Debut Feature Film
The fascinating real story of a Chinese leukemia patient who smuggled unproven medicine from India into China for 1,000 cancer patients. The film garnered comparisons to Dallas Buyers’ Club and was part of a wave of realist, socially conscious films that came out around the time of its release.
Jason Lin, former executive at Alibaba Pictures: The film’s success and its socially conscious or social justice message represented polarizing points. On the one hand, the audience fully supported and appreciated the film and story. However, the level of breakout success may have put unwanted additional attention on the practices of the pharmaceutical industry. This issue is not just in China and exists with the pharmaceutical industry worldwide.
Peter Shiao: This film examines the vast inequities in daily life that the average person must deal with in China. In this case, cancer patients and their travails against a system that does not allow them to access the drugs they need to survive their condition.
The director of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Bi Gan, might be the most experimental and interesting director in China today. His first film, Kaili Blues, was a revelation, using a 41-minute long shot. Long Day’s Journey Into Night provided more talking points, initially perplexing Chinese viewers, who were not expecting a dark, moody noir film, but rather a classic romance. The film went one step further than Kaili Blues, making use of a 59-minute long take.
Samantha Culp, writer, curator and producer: This is the first 3D film I have ever cared about, and could be the last — it will be near impossible for anything to top it. Yes, its characterization is thin and opening half is molasses-slow — but that’s ultimately all on purpose, lulling the audience into a near-REM state to be prepared for the second half, a 59-minute unbroken single take filmed in 3D that floats through and around a nighttime village in ruins as a noir-ish antihero searches for a mysterious woman. Besides being technically brilliant, the sequence may capture the dislocated experience of late 2010’s reality (in China and elsewhere) better than any other — the suspended logic of a dream.
Having courted more than his fair share of controversy throughout his career, with his first two films, Weekend Lover and Suzhou River, banned in China, Lou Ye’s stature as a probing, uncompromising director has never been in doubt. The Shadow Play, his ninth film, is an interesting blend, with the lead character seeking out the truth behind a brutal death, and uncovering a web of conspiracy, against the steamy backdrop of South China.
Muhe Chen, filmmaker: A very Lou Ye-style movie scripted from a real story about a murder caused by a conflict between a real estate investor, his government partner, and their spouses. The story, in my view, is an epitome of the distorted psychological landscape under corruption and morbidly-developing capitalism in China, but Lou Ye narrates it with a very romantic touch.
WATCH IT Mubi
Looking Back to the Future of Chinese Film
This excellent debut from Teng Congcong tackles a number of topics often avoided in Chinese cinema, such as sex and the phenomenon of “leftover women” (unmarried women over the age of 30), with the lead diagnosed with cancer at the outset of the film, before taking on a businessman’s biography writing job and hiking into the mountains, where arguments, assholes and, ultimately, romance, await.
Yalin Chi, Cheng Cheng Films: Diagnosed with ovarian cancer, iron-willed journalist Sheng Nan is pressured to make a quick fortune and find mind-blowing sex before a costly surgery numbs her senses. As deeply moving as it is luminously witty, writer-director Teng Congcong’s debut waltzes across the bitterness swallowed by her generation of women born under China’s One Child Policy, burdened to “surpass men” while trying not to be leftover women at the same time.
(NOTE: Yalin works for the North American distributor of the film.)
Better Days was one of a relative flurry of sudden releases at the tail-end of 2019 that had previously been pulled from cinema schedules with little notice over the course of the year (see also: Diao Yinan’s Wild Goose Lake and Feng Zu’s Summer of Changsha). The film saw TFBoy Jackson Yee put in a stellar performance alongside increasingly bankable star Zhou Dongyu, playing a street savvy thug and bullied schoolgirl, respectively.
Yalin Chi: The award-winning team behind 2016 romantic drama Soul Mate dramatizes Chinese high schoolers’ experiences of on-campus bullying and the Gaokao, a controversial cut-throat national exam but also an irreplaceable selection system that gives equal chances to students from China’s disparate social-economic backgrounds. The film points out that the real pressure on teenagers don’t come from their peers, but is passed down by adults in dysfunctional families and a hierarchical society.
WATCH IT Amazon Prime | Netflix
China’s answer to all those “the US saves the world” Hollywood blockbusters, The Wandering Earth was a gigantic hit at home and drew considerable interest internationally amid numerous headlines about “the birth of Chinese sci-fi.” It may not have been the first Chinese sci-fi film, but the movie’s runaway box office success did ensure a slew of new sci-fi content in China (some of it terrible), as well as a rush to adapt anything ever written by Hugo Award-winning author Liu Cixin.
Jason Lin: The film shows the ambition of China as a country that can not only control its own destiny, but a country that can help lead the world, and even play a part in saving the world. Notably, the film was based on the novella by Liu Cixin, China’s most renowned science fiction writer.
WATCH IT Netflix
While many bemoaned the strict censorship of China’s film market as the 2010s drew to a close, one film that was never likely to hit such roadblocks was this tub-thumping pro-Party celebration of 70 years of the PRC. Full of big names, this was perhaps an example of CCP propaganda done relatively well, with the film striking a chord across multiple demographics.
Muhe Chen: It has a great cast and a big-name team of directors, and the reviews [were] pretty good. Different from most zhuxuanlu films about historical events, this one very much focuses on individual stories about Chinese development.
This three-hour epic made a major splash at the Berlin Film Festival, where it premiered in 2019, picking up two acting awards. So Long, My Son is the latest cinematic masterpiece from Shanghai-born director Wang Xiaoshuai, which tackles difficult subjects like China’s One-Child Policy with a melancholic and emotional depth, tying this tragic story together with familial scenes at dinner tables and repeated refrains of “Auld Lang Syne.”
Ken Yang, director: This film, spanning 30 years, charts the joys and sorrows of a Chinese family. Imbued with a sense of the epic, the film touches on a range of social disasters in China, such as family planning and unemployment.
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