The list below is part of RADII’s 100 Films to Understand China.
This list of films inform us the most about Chinese pop culture through the past few decades. These films have become entangled with the idea of seasonal cinematic periods, like Spring Festival (the Lunar New Year), as well as lucrative crossovers with big brands and the inclusion of megastar pop musicians.
Films on this list entered the zeitgeist with fury and, for the most part, remain within the public consciousness, inspiring quotes, knock offs and adoration.
Widely recognized as the first American feature film to be shot in China, Chinese-American director Peter Wang’s comedy drama feature remains relevant fodder for discussion, with its plot around culture clashes a topic also covered in Lulu Wang’s The Farewell.
Ken Yang, director: A story of Beijing, filmed by a Chinese-American — East and West cultures colliding. The scenery of 1980s Beijing is on full display, and the film is quite funny.
WATCH IT Amazon Prime | YouTube
The Dream Factory is regarded as the first big Spring festival breakout hit. 24 years later and the holiday season is the most lucrative time of year for blockbuster movies. Focusing on a literal “dream factory,” the movie is full of oddball encounters, and was an early sign of Feng Xiaogang’s commercial crossover ability.
Phoebe Long, screenwriter: Initiating the concept of the “Chinese New Year film,” its one-liners have been widely adopted by everyday folks. It represents the majority of Chinese people’s taste in film.
The first of a trio of “Crazy” movies made by director Ning Hao, and probably the most enduring of the lot, Crazy Stone proved to be remarkably influential, ushering in a new style of comic film that was immediately appreciated by Chinese audiences.
Jason Lin, former executive at Alibaba Pictures: Released in 2006, this is China’s first popcorn movie in the new modern era of filmmaking post 2000s. It was a totally avante-garde film from a young director. It woke up the industry to recognize a commercial type of film with artistic sentiment that audiences would come to increasingly demand.
A film that shows off Jiang Wen’s diversity as a filmmaker, this black comedy is set in the warlord era in 1920s China, and is a wild, rollicking good time. Beloved for its references to social issues and pop culture, and won wide critical acclaim, as well as becoming the fastest Chinese film to break the 100 million RMB.
Xueting Christine Ni, author and speaker: A unique, genre-bending film, almost like a Chinese Western black comedy, with a historical setting but a script packed with references to online memes and pop culture.
WATCH IT Amazon Prime
Storied Hong Kong director Johnnie To brought his talent for action movies to the mainland back in the 2010s, with this stylized crime drama based around a methamphetamine ring. Notable as an early instance of a major Hong Kong director that jumped to the mainland, as the lines between the two regional industries become increasingly blurred.
Yalin Chi, Cheng Cheng Films: It tells the story of a Hong Kong drug manufacturer caught by police in mainland China who can only survive by turning into an informant that sells out his old business partners. The protagonist’s dilemma mirrors a reality faced by many Hong Kongers “going up north” to make a living in the mainland, where laws and customs are entirely different from the rules they have grown used to in Hong Kong. The director changed the ending of the film to accommodate Chinese film censorship, which required criminals to die. But the film’s graphic violence and immoral values were rare in Chinese cinema [at the time], and seen as signals of a more open censorship system.
The first in a blockbuster series that details legal issues surrounding giving birth in China. A couple, who have left the country, meet and fall in love in Seattle, with more than a nod to the Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan romcom, Sleepless in Seattle.
Ken Yang, director: Recently, more and more Chinese families have decided to give birth to their children in European and American countries thinking that they can have a secure future in these places, this film focuses on the story of Chinese people desperately moving away from the country.
WATCH IT Netflix | Amazon Prime
Monster Hunt became the highest grossing film in China after its release, and, by extension, its star, the radish shaped monster Wuba, became an icon inside and outside of the country. Alibaba and theme park Chimelong decided to get in on the marketing power of Wuba and co, teaming with the film’s sequel for marketing campaigns that helped redefine the market potential for Chinese blockbusters.
Peter Shiao, CEO and founder of Immortal Studios: One of China’s most successful entrees into large-scale visual fantasies heavily borrowed from Hollywood, yet short on essence, originality or ambition.
This brisk-clip crime drama stars one of China’s most influential directors, Feng Xiaogang, as the titular street thug Mr. Six, and frequent subject of RADII coverage Kris Wu as the leader of a drag-racing gang. From the man who directed cult 1990s film Dirt, Mr. Six was a huge crossover hit for Guan Hu, who later went on to direct controversial The Eight Hundred.
Peter Shiao: An ode to what has been lost amidst all the changes taking place in China, as it goes headlong into capitalism and development/growth, whatever the cost.
WATCH IT Amazon Prime | Netflix
The Mermaid was the next mega-hit after Monster Hunt, leaping over that film to take top spot in the list of highest grossing films in China. From director Stephen Chow, who directed Kung Fu Hustle), The Mermaid has an environmental bent, albeit buried beneath a slapstick comedy veneer.
Jason Lin: While Stephen Chow films have always been well-received by Chinese audiences, this one turned the trend of Hollywood blockbusters outperforming Chinese films, breaking opening day, opening week [records], and ultimately setting a new high mark for all-time box office. The film’s environmental theme was also notable.
Old Stone describes in horrifying detail the imbalance of China’s rules of the road, commenting on the cost of hitting someone with a car in the country instead of killing them. The scariest thing about the story is how very real the film’s subject is.
Maya E. Rudolph, writer/director/producer: The rare ripped-from-the-headlines social drama that gets it right. A taut and incisive thriller with a killer performance by Chen Gang as a man whose life is horrifically upended after a seemingly-minor traffic incident.
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