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Film and TV in 2021: What Will China Be Watching?

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It’s no secret that 2020 messed with a lot of people’s plans. But after Covid-19 threw film and TV schedules into disarray, the sector in China actually recovered relatively quickly. While Hollywood blockbusters were continually delayed or rerouted straight to streaming, Chinese films went back into production and the country’s box office leapfrogged that of the shuttered US to become the largest in the world.

So what will all those eyeballs be watching in 2021? Here’s our annual run-down of what people in China will be streaming and heading to the cinema for, from big-name blockbusters and worshipped wuxia dramas to virtual idol variety shows.

A Bumper Crop of Spring Festival Blockbusters

In recent years, the national holiday in China that marks the beginning of the lunar new year has become a huge box office battleground. Last year’s Spring Festival box office was decimated by Covid-19 however, with cinemas closed down across the country. That led some films to go straight to streaming, some to delay their releases until later in 2020, and others to just postpone their run in theaters a full year, resulting in one of the busiest slates of New Year releases ever for 2021.

Comedy blockbuster Detective Chinatown 3 will be one of the big titles hoping to finally make it to cinema screens after originally being due for release during Spring Festival 2020, as will similarly delayed family animation Boonie Bears.

Fantasy epic Fengshen Trilogy — which was supposed to be one of last summer’s big blockbusters — was also initially moved to a Spring Festival 2021 release slot, although even that now seems to be dubious. Here’s what we said about it in our 2020 round-up:

“Already being touted as China’s answer to Peter Jackson’s interpretation of The Lord of the Rings, this looks to easily be the most ambitious movie of the year (and has reportedly cost more than 400 million USD to produce). Helmed by Wuershan, the entire trilogy has already wrapped shooting and is essentially a retelling of classic Chinese novel Creation of the Gods (aka Investiture of the Gods). Overthrown kings, demon armies, and bewitching concubine vixen spirits will all feature. ‘Epic’ almost doesn’t capture it.”

If it does confirm a Spring Festival release, it’ll be facing off against another film inspired by Investiture of the Gods as China’s most successful animated movie of all time gets a sequel in New Gods: Ne Zha Reborn.

Related:

“Jiang Ziya,” “Ne Zha” and How Not to Make an Expanded Cinematic Universe

Assassin in Red, starring Yang Mi, will be another film vying for attention during the Spring Festival holiday, with an apparent blend of CGI fantasy action and gritty thriller one-liners.

And as if that wasn’t enough, there’ll also be the heartwarming Andy Lau-led drama Endgame and stylish-looking wuxia adventure The Yinyang Master, starring Zhou Xun.

Variety Shows-a-Go-Go

While question marks remain over the futures of two of iQIYI’s flagship programs — The Rap of China and The Big Band — Chinese TV won’t lack for variety shows in 2021.

From that same network we’ll be getting Stage Boom, an apparent attempt to create a pop music supergroup with guests rumored to include Kpop idol-turned-wannabe rapper Kris Wu, one-time indie darlings Hedgehog and manufactured idol group THE9. That could be… interesting? Whether they all make it to the show remains to be seen, but Lexie Liu (the RnB singer who joined League of Legends music group K/DA in 2020) and Meng Meiqi (of pop act Rocket Girls) are at least confirmed.

Related:

Lexie Liu Links Up with “League of Legends” K-Pop Group K/DA for “More”

Dimension Nova, the Angelababy-hosted virtual idol contest that thoroughly weirded us out in 2020, will be back for another run into the uncanny valley.

And also adding grist to the manufactured pop mill will be the latest outing for Tencent’s Produce Camp and the third season of iQIYI’s Youth With You (expect Blackpink‘s Lisa to return for the latter), both of which will be aiming to give us a new boyband to drool over. Speaking of which…

Lots of “Little Fresh Meat”

Because when can China really take its eyes off of its hot young male stars?

While there will doubtless be some new names to emerge over the course of 2021, it’ll also be a big year for familiar “little fresh meat” idols such as Wang Yibo. On the slate of new productions he’s starring in are a pair of historical dramas — bandit action adventure Legend of Fei (which has just been released) and conspiracy thriller Wind from Luoyang.

Legend of Fei from Tencent

The former already seems to be garnering better reviews than one of the other heavily-touted costume dramas released at the tail-end of 2020, Yan Yun Tai, also on Tencent. The latter, set in the time of China’s only female monarch Wu Zetian, will also feature Produce Camp 2020 mentor Victoria Song.

Meanwhile, Wang’s co-star from The Untamed, Sean Xiao (aka Xiao Zhan), will be looking to dodge bullets and further fan controversy in soldier drama Ace Troops.

Xiao will also be taking a lead role in the highly-anticipated, CGI-heavy Tencent production Duoluo Continent. The show is a live action adaptation of a popular anime series by the same name (also known as Soul Land), and features magic, romance, and, err, the “Shrek Academy.” Here’s a taste:

Elsewhere in that vein, fans will be keeping a close eye on developments with a new live-action adaptation of Heaven Official’s Blessing, based on stories penned by the same author behind the source material for The Untamed. That’s slated to begin shooting in the spring, though may not make it to screens before the year is out. Likely before that, we’ll get an official English-language dub of Bilibili’s anime version however, distributed internationally by Funimation.

As networks rush to adapt more of her work in the wake of The Untamed‘s huge international success, author Moxiangtongxiu continues to be dogged by controversy. In late 2020, she was reportedly charged with “illegal publishing and tax avoidance” and it remains unclear how — if at all — this will impact TV productions of her works in 2021.

Big-Name Directors on the Small Screen

2021 will see a trio of big screen auteurs producing projects for TV.

One of the most talked about will doubtless be Wong Kar-wai’s ode to his birthplace of Shanghai, Blossoms. The famed director, who recently had seven of his films given the 4k restoration treatment, is named as series producer and director for the pilot episode of the Tencent-backed TV series, which will adapt Jin Yucheng’s novel of the same name. The cast is led by Hu Ge, who starred in the gripping Wild Goose Lake and will play a young man attempting to navigate the city’s rapid economic expansion in the 1990s.

Meanwhile, Zhang Yimou will be directing a TV show for the first time. He’ll be taking the reins on an adaptation of The Star, the story of a Shaanxi opera performer, though it’s still not clear quite when that’ll get a release.

It could be a busy year for Zhang, with other potential releases including crime drama Under the Light (in which he reunites with Zhou Dongyu) and spy thriller Impasse. But then, we thought that last year and out of his various projects only One Second ended up limping to cinemas.

Another big director-driven project that is due to hit screens in 2021 however is Beizhe Nanyuan (北辙南辕). The iQIYI series will tell the stories of three women who decide to open a restaurant together, and will mark Feng Xiaogang‘s first foray into small screen productions in 25 years.

Female-Centric Programming…

While some attempts in the past year to bring feminist messages into the Chinese mainstream via film and TV have been frustrated or ham-fisted, 2020 at least seemed to suggest a drive from some quarters to bring more female-centric stories to the fore. The missteps were rightly called out and there were some legitimate question marks around just how empowering some of the programming was, but the likes of Nothing But ThirtySisters Who Make Waves and Hear Her at the very least sparked some much-needed mainstream discussion around feminist issues in China.

Related:

How Women in Entertainment Fought to Bring Female Narratives to the Fore in 2020

Here’s hoping this trend will continue — and improve — in 2021. For one, the makers of Nothing But Thirty, which was one of the top three most-watched TV shows in China in 2020, already have a new drama focused on forty-somethings in the works (四十正好 in Chinese).

A film with potential to tap into feminist sentiment is the delayed biopic of tennis star Li Na, a woman known for taking her own path to success. That movie ought to make it to cinemas in 2021, though how much it’ll be able to focus on that aspect of her story remains to be seen.

Another one to watch will be Youku’s Monarch Industry, a period drama based on the novel Emperor’s Conquest by Mei Yuzhe and centering on a strong warrior empress. The star there? None other than Zhang Ziyi.

…and More Mulans

Yep. Chinese filmmakers apparently can’t stop trying to make the definitive version of the classic woman warrior tale. After Disney’s divisive, disastrous outing in 2020, we can look forward (kinda?) to at least one more attempt in 2021: Emma Xia’s Fight! Mulan, starring Yang Ning, who looks pretty badass in this promotional poster.

fight mulan

Yang Ning will star in Fight! Mulan

Shang-Chi

Marvel’s first Asian-fronted superhero film, Shang-Chi wrapped production in December 2020 and is set for a release into US cinemas in July 2021. If that goes ahead, it’d be a shock if it didn’t appear in Chinese theaters around the same time.

China loves the Marvel cinematic universe, and though there were some dissenting voices over the casting of Simu Liu in the title role for this one (and over the problematic Fu Manchu villain), Shang-Chi ought to avoid the level of controversy that took down Disney’s Mulan. Having the likes of Tony Leung, Awkwafina and Michelle Yeoh — alongside rising Chinese actors such as Zhang Meng’er — supporting Liu certainly doesn’t hurt.

The Three-Body Problem and Other Sci-Fi Tales

Back on the homegrown front, one of the most anticipated shows of the year might just be Bilibili’s animated version of Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem. It’s been over a year since we shared the first teaser from the show — and the disappointing news that production had been delayed — but the ambitious project is still aiming for a 2021 launch.

Related:

First Look: Bilibili’s Animated “Three-Body Problem” Teaser

Bilibili will no doubt be keen to get the series out sooner rather than later given the host of other Liu Cixin projects in the works. The past 12 months has seen Netflix announce a live-action Three-Body Problem series, at least one movie version of the novel trilogy begin planning, and the news that Wandering Earth will get a sequel (in 2023 and featuring Wu Jing, who played a character thought very much dead by the end of the first film).

Outside of the Liu Cixin universe, we can also expect to see more Chinese film and TV stars blasting off into space as part of the government’s push to put the sci-fi genre at the center of their “movie superpower” play. Which brings us to…

Party Propaganda

Same as every year really, but this aspect of China’s “entertainment” landscape isn’t going away any time soon, and may well continue to grow.

While it may be hard to predict precisely which nationalist TV and film projects will be rushed into production in 2021 (it’ll likely depend upon who falls out of CPC favor most), we can certainly expect a slew of programming centered around the 100th anniversary of the Party’s founding in July.

Related:

Why Are Nationalistic Themes Translating Into Box Office Success in China?

Tencent have been producing a film about it all, entitled 1921 and featuring Liu Haoran and Ni Ni among other stars. That’ll be helmed by Huang Jianxin, who also brought us The Founding of a Party, which currently has a 2.9/10 rating on IMDb.

On a more contemporary note, iQIYI are behind a film focused on the Party’s anti-corruption campaign entitled Break Through the Darkness that will be out in mid-January. That’ll be most notable for starring Jiang Wu, who you may know for portraying a character who goes on a shotgun-toting rampage against corruption in Jia Zhangke’s masterful A Touch of Sin. That film was banned from showing in China, so don’t expect this new production to be quite so explosive.

Whatever’s Big Elsewhere

While the entertainment listed above will make it to Chinese audiences via official channels, there’ll also continue to be a (black) market for programming from abroad that hasn’t necessarily been approved.

Despite periodic crackdowns, TV shows and films that cause a stir overseas can still be found online in China through various vendors and young, relatively affluent or internationally-minded audiences are particularly keen to keep up with what’s hot abroad. Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit has over 220,000 reviews on ratings site Douban for example, despite the service not being officially available in China.

On the more legit side of things, movies that perform well at the 2021 Academy Awards will see improved chances of a release in China and it’ll be especially interesting to see whether Oscar hopeful Nomadland makes it to theaters in the country. While her work and life is very much US-based these days, any win for the film’s Beijing-born director Chloe Zhao will likely be widely celebrated in the Chinese press, as her Venice Film Festival win demonstrated.

Jake Newby
Jake Newby is a Shanghai-based writer and editor with more than a decade's experience living and working in China. Previously managing editor of RADII and Time Out Shanghai, he's also written for the Associated Press, The Wire, the Financial Times and more.