It’s been a dramatic year for the Chinese entertainment industry. Looking back, notable milestones include the unexpected Spring Festival box office boom, the “small budget + good actor” production model (as demonstrated by Dying to Survive and A Cool Fish) proving its worth against the previously dominant “big IP + traffic-attracting stars” model, and, on the negative side, the “capital winter” that has fallen over the industry following Fan Bingbing’s “Yin-Yang Contract” scandal and the authorities’ subsequent deep-dive investigation into tax evasion throughout the Chinese film industry.
So — 2018 was a big one, but what films and TV shows can we expect to watch in the coming year?
For one thing, we can expect another heated box office brawl in February, as a number of big-budget films aim for the coveted #1 Spring Festival spot. As of this writing, there are at least 13 major films scheduled to hit theaters on February 5, the first day of the coming Year of the Pig.
Besides Ning Hao’s comedy Crazy Alien and the adaptation of Liu Cixin’s sci-fi novel The Wandering Earth, Stephen Chow’s The New King of Comedy (新喜剧之王) has recently announced intentions to join the fray as well. Chow, a Hong Kong director and one of China’s most beloved comedians, had a #1 hit at the box office in 2016 with his last directorial effort, The Mermaid.
Celebrity race car driver turned director Han Han returns with 2019’s Racing Life
Shen Teng, probably the most popular comedian in China right now, has a string of high-profile appearances under his belt already, including memorable performances in blockbuster hits Goodbye Mr. Loser (2015) and Hello Mr. Billionaire (2018). He’ll start 2019 with a bang, starring in both Crazy Alien and writer/race car driver/director Han Han’s latest, Racing Life, both of which come out on the same day. Another contender for the Spring Festival box office coin is Overall Planning by Muahua Fun Age, the same production house behind Goodbye Mr. Loser and Hello Mr. Billionaire.
The Knight of Shadows
If audiences grow tired of comedies, there will also be other options during the one-week holiday. Jackie Chan will portray Pu Songling, a ghost story writer from Qing Dynasty, in half-animated fantasy The Knight of Shadows: Between Yin and Yang. Screenwriter and director Alan Mak, who gained recognition for his 2002 Hong Kong crime drama Infernal Affairs (the basis for Martin Scorsese’s The Departed), returns to the silver screen with Integrity, a film about Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption. Could be interesting to see how that one goes down on the mainland.
And for the kids, Peppa Pig’s rise to popularity in China will be addressed in the form of a feature-length Chinese New Year film produced by Alibaba Pictures just in time for the Year of the Pig.
Xu Haofeng, co-screenwriter of 2013 Wong Kar-wai epic The Grandmaster and a martial arts veteran, has also been active as a director for several years, with 2015’s The Final Master and 2017’s The Hidden Sword among his credits. He’ll return in 2019 with SHI YAN JUAN TIAN, an action film set in ancient China and featuring renowned actors Chen Kun and Zhou Xun, who previously co-starred in Painted Skin (2008; 2011), Flying Swords of Dragon Gates (2011), and Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (2002).
SHI YAN JUAN TIAN YA
According to professional analyst account DoMore’s statistics, from 2012 to 2018, watching films in theaters has become an increasingly important part of the Spring Festival entertainment landscape, rising in popularity along with playing Mahjong, mobile gaming, and visiting relatives. Additionally, Chinese audiences “increasingly depend on a film’s reviews, which might decide the film’s final market result within two days after its release […] Most of the audience will pick one to three films to watch, with the top three films pulling over 60% [of the box office],” the report notes, adding that in some years the top 3 can pull more than 90% of Spring Festival box office revenue.
So, despite the crowded battlefield, it’s likely that only a few of the films scheduled to open on February 5 will stand out at the beginning of the next lunar year.
As for TV and streaming entertainment, it’s been reported that at least 34 TV series started shooting in October, with most of them set to air in the coming year.
On the list, there are a few costume dramas such as Liu Yong’s Cases (LIU YONG AN), and, as always, some Communist revolution/anti-Japanese WWII-themed dramas, like New World starring Sun Honglei. What’s new for 2019 is a higher concentration of “professional TV shows focusing on specific industries,” such as the food, cosmetics, and logistics fields. These industry-specific shows seem to be eroding the base of the simple, formulaic, idol-centered romances that have dominated airwaves in recent years.
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Following a series of rigid regulations on the mobile gaming sector in 2018, Tencent, a major play in the online entertainment space, marked a notable pivot to film and TV production this year. As such, competition between the major video streaming platforms — iQIYI, Tencent Video, and Youku — looks set to intensify in 2019. Trade publication NBD Movies counts 185 web series in the works across these three platforms for 2019.
Among these, iQIYI and Tencent co-produced series The Golden Eyes might be worth a watch. It’s an urban adventure story starring former K-pop star Lay, who offered a strong performance in Huang Bo’s 2018 film The Island. The Golden Eyes already has nearly 500,000 followers on Weibo, so it’ll surely have a lot of eyes on it when it premieres in 2019.
The Longest Day In Chang’an, a Youku-produced show based on a historical novel by Ma Boyong, has also raised viewers’ hopes based on its premise of depicting one day in ancient Xi’an, China’s capital during the height of the Tang Dynasty. iQIYI, for its part, is looking to cash in on the 2018 Spring Festival success of Detective Chinatown 2, adapting the franchise into a 12-episode web series.
The Longest Day in Chang’an
At the end of November, iQIYI released its first vertical-screening short web series, Ugh! Life (Shenghuo Dui Wo Xiao Shou Le), in which lead actors Li Jiaqi and Liu Beishi perform 2-3 minute skits about everyday life in the style of a TikTok video. Will such short-form web series blossom into a fully-fledged industry trend? We’ll see how it goes in 2019.
Screenshot of iQIYI’s Tik Tok-style short video dramedy Ugh! Life
While 2019 will be here in less than a month, the future of the industry remains unclear. Will high-profile controversies like Fan Bingbing’s tax evasion scandal or the government’s ongoing war against “vulgar content” result in a drop in production quality?
At least for now, the stacked slate of upcoming film, TV and web series already in the works for 2019 seems to invite cautious optimism. We’re holding out hope for more creative content coming our way in the New Year — and of course, you’ll read about it first on RADII.
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