In early 2020, RADII will be presenting a blockbuster list of the best movies to help you understand China. Based on the recommendations of critics, Chinese film buffs, people in the industry, and scholars, the list will traverse animation, documentary, popcorn flicks, propaganda pics and more, from the early days of Chinese cinema via the lauded 5th and 6th generation directors right up to the present day.
As a taster of what’s to come, we’re presenting 25 films below taken solely from the past decade. Listed in chronological order, these films will enhance your understanding of China and, hopefully, entertain and move you as well — as all great movies (and some bad ones) should.
Disagree with the selections below or think we missed something? Let us know in the comments at the bottom of this page or come at us on social media — we look forward to discussing more about Chinese cinema with you.
Yalin Chi, Cheng Cheng Films: Then-29-year-old filmmaker Hao Jie assembled non-pro fellow villagers for his directorial debut about a group of unmarried old men’s frustrated and chaotic sexual lives in countryside where women are outnumbered and sought after. Heavy social topics such as poverty, gender discrimination, human trafficking and living conditions of the LGBT minority form its background without stealing the thunder of an unstoppable, laugh out loud story about how jungle rules and human desires defy law and moralities in the isolated and scenic rural community.
The radiating creative talent shown in this no-budget production garnered acclaim and hopes for the near future of Chinese indie film scene and a more open censorship environment.
Xueting Christine Ni, author and speaker: 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.
Yalin Chi, Cheng Cheng Films: Renowned “Sixth Generation” film director Jiang Wen’s return to record-setting massive box office success after a five-year ban — and the commercial under-performance of acclaimed film The Sun Also Rises — kickstarted years of heated economic growth in the Chinese film industry.
The story, set in the 1920s, delivers satirical critiques on modern China’s issues, such as corruption and income disparity, with clues and references that flew under censors’ radars, but got picked up, decoded and reinterpreted by audiences nationwide. The almost unprecedented high interest in watching, rewatching, and discussing the film saw an active Chinese cinephile community taking shape. Some of the film’s lines — such as “Let the bullets fly longer” and “Earn money while standing on your feet” — have left a lasting impact on modern Chinese culture.
Maya E. Rudolph, writer/director/producer: Zhang Mengqi began making documentaries in her father’s hometown, a village she calls “47KM” in Hubei province, as a student in the Wu Wenguang Folk Memory Project at Caochangdi Workstation. The Folk Memory Project was initiated by Wu Wenguang, the filmmaker often described as the godfather of Chinese documentary, to encourage a young generation of burgeoning filmmakers to return to their family hometowns to interrogate past events through interviews with village elders and the collection of oral history as documentary practice.
It’s probably safe to say no one has run with this prompt quite like the “post-80s” [born after 1980] filmmaker and classically trained dancer Zhang Mengqi, who as of 2019 has made nine documentaries in 47KM that explore not only painful histories of life in the Cultural Revolution era, but also the struggles of contemporary village life, her own connections to the past, her family, and her identity as an artist.
Maya E. Rudolph, writer/director/producer: Minister of deadpan cool Li Hongqi follows a tour by the Beijing rock scene’s big brothers, P.K.14, with a sense of surreal, affectionate hysteria. This is the most punk rock doc of all punk rock docs, with a soundtrack featuring P.K.14, Dear Eloise, and various snarling wild animals.
RADII says: A light and largely formulaic “prince vs pauper” rom-com on its surface, Finding Mr. Right deals with the somewhat controversial theme of wealthy mainland Chinese moving abroad and setting roots in places like Seattle (where this film takes place; its Chinese title translates to “Beijing Meets Seattle”) and other hotspots on the western coast of North America. Also, you just couldn’t help but encounter references to this film when it came out, it was a full-blown pop-cultural phenomenon for a while.
Ken Yang, director: More and more Chinese families have decided to give birth to their children in Europe and the United States, thinking they have a secure future there. This film focuses on the story of Chinese people desperately going out.
WATCH IT: Netflix
RADII says: One of the categories in our prompt to contributors for this film list is “Bad Movies,” with no further explanation given. Tiny Times has been nominated thrice for that dubious mantle, the most-nominated film in any category so far…
Peter Shiao, Immortal Studios: For China youth, it is about money, brands and being cool, full stop. Welcome to the smaller ambitions of China’s youth.
Muhe Chen, filmmaker: The film is scripted from a hit fiction book targeting teenagers when I was in middle school. It’s a thoroughly exaggerated story of what’s thought to be a fancy lifestyle in a modern city, with a very stupid and unrealistic plot — but it did built up a fantasy in many teenagers’ heads.
Maya E. Rudolph, writer/director/producer: The year was 2013 and a novelist named Guo Jingming unleashed unto the world a tetralogy of fake feminism and conspicuous consumption, which is to say four movies full of mean-girling and glossy shopping montages. I am speaking, of course, of Tiny Times — the phenomenon that changed the course of Chinese teen media and held up a mirror to the high-glam aspirations of the post-’90s generation.
It’s pretty much universally-agreed that all four of the Tiny Times movies released between 2013-2015 are really, really bad, but if it’s DRAMA you seek (or, alternately, if it’s anthropological evidence of attitudes towards consumption and sexual power in 2010s Shanghai you seek) you can’t do much worse than Tiny Times.
Peter Shiao, Immortal Studios: A small-scope look into the life of a common person caught up in the massive changes taking place in China from rural to urban lifestyles. At its core, a fable on the small person who goes against the odds and wins — this time.
Muhe Chen, filmmaker: Considered an art-film tribute to Tarkovsky, but with a magical realistic aesthetic specific to Chinese village scenes.
RADII says: One of our picks of the decade for sure, and one that made a huge impression on the international festival circuit. The narrative is elegant and simple — though given an edge of mystery through the use of a rural dialect and a liberal weaving of supernatural elements into the storytelling style. The film’s dreamy quality is technically reinforced through a staggering 45-minute tracking shot in the film’s second half that crosses a river and roams freely around a remote Chinese village.
WATCH: Amazon Prime
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RADII says: 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.
Peter Shiao, Immortal Studios: An ode to what has been lost amidst all the changes taking place in China, as China goes headlong into capitalism and development/growth, whatever the cost.
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.
RADII says: Animation has a long and interesting history within the world of mainland Chinese film, which we’ll explore in greater depth as we roll out the full film list next year. This 2016 film, about a teenage girl who travels the world as a dolphin, is based on ancient Chinese myths, but technically and beautifully executed in a completely fresh, contemporary fashion.
Xueting Christine Ni, author and speaker: A good state-of-the-industry piece. A classic from China’s first golden age [of animation] would be Nezha and the Dragon King (1979, Shanghai Animation studios), which stylistically takes a lot of inspiration from traditional art and one of the most accessible stories of that era. Considering how well the new animation is doing in China and around the world, it’s well worth seeing the original, which holds up very well and a good reminder of the time that China was a leader and pioneer in Asian animation production.
WATCH IT: YouTube
RADII says: An Indian original, Dangal reflects growth in the market for imported films in China over the last decade, and especially over the last few years. Some major-budget films have done quite well here, of course (hello Marvel), though others have flopped (sorry Star Wars). But the successes of smaller-scale productions like Dangal and Green Book represent an interesting develop in the Chinese film industry in recent years.
Jason Lin, producer: Aamir Khan was already a name in China, but Dangal made him a household name. The runaway success of the film surprised many, as the film was released half a year later in China than its initial Indian release. Many cited the film’s father-daughter drama, and given a generation of one-child households [in China], many families want their daughters to have equal chance in life’s success.
WATCH IT: Netflix
Krish Raghav, artist and writer: A rare full-length, unashamedly “alternative” dark comedy, warts and all, that somehow secured a theater release on the mainland. Have a Nice Day is funny, blunt, vulgar, and features a great soundtrack by Shanghai Restoration Project.
Linda Zhang, PhD candidate, UC Berkeley: Liu Jian’s hand-drawn animations show what is possible with mixing genres and forms, and share a sense of dark humor about contemporary life in China. Watch for some absurd situations (usually surrounding the plot device of a container of cash) that usually end up in stand-offs and violent conclusions.
Muhe Chen, filmmaker: A film in a modern social setting, by a woman filmmaker, Zhang Aijia. By narrating some revealing events between families from both urban and countryside contexts, Zhang reveals three different generations of women’s understandings of love, family and self.
Yalin Chi, Cheng Cheng Films: Vivian Qu’s hyper-realistic film tells a story about how a corrupted coastal town silences a young girl raped by a powerful man, and another girl who’s the only witness with access to evidence. It shockingly resembles social reality, in which numerous similar incidents constantly happen, but the female victims’ voices always get neglected, discredited, or intentionally shut down by a male-dominated public discourse, even during the age of global #MeToo movement.
WATCH IT: Amazon Prime
RADII says: Can’t really make this list without name-checking Wolf Warrior 2, which 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: between 2017 and now, Chinese films have occupied almost all of the top 10 highest grossing box office titles in the country, with only Avengers: Endgame (#4) and 2016 China-Hong Kong co-production The Mermaid (#7) otherwise cracking the list. 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, Immortal Studios: A “Bad Movie” that is concurrently pivoting to zhuxuanlu. This film depicts the Chinese as virtuous and powerful on the global stage in need of a new hero.
Krish Raghav, artist and writer: One of the best films made about contemporary China, about tech, and about how the lines between online and offline are blurred in late capitalism. It’s an extraordinary work on every front.
Muhe Chen, filmmaker: Stories about 15 normal people and families across China. Blind couples, single-mother taxi drivers, teachers in northwest rural China… Everyone is living their lives.
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.
Karin Chien, 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!
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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.
Jason Lin, producer: The film’s success and its social 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.
More on Dying to Survive:
Michael Berry, Professor of Contemporary Chinese Cultural Studies and Director of the Center for Chinese Studies, UCLA: In the age of “the Chinese blockbuster,” the sudden appearance of An Elephant Sitting Still felt like it emerged from another universe, with an understated and sensitive story, a bold signature visual style, and an uncompromising epic canvas that brings to mind masterpieces like Platform and A Brighter Summer Day. This should have been the announcement of a major new talent for the future of Chinese cinema, but after the director Hu Bo took his own life, it tragically became his farewell poem. A rare and unique gem of a film that should be cherished.
More on An Elephant Sitting Still:
RADII says: 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.
Xueting Christine Ni, author and speaker: Well-executed, big budget science fiction film, very influential inside and outside China.
Jason Lin, producer: 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 short story by Liu Cixin, China’s most renowned science fiction author.
WATCH IT: Netflix
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Yalin Chi, Cheng Cheng Films: The award-winning team behind [2016 film] Soulmate’s follow-up dramatizes Chinese high schoolers’ experiences of on-campus bullying and the stressful gaokao, a controversial, cut-throat national competition, 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 pressures put on teenagers don’t come from their peers, but are passed down by adults in dysfunctional families and a hierarchical society.
It was abruptly withdrawn from a number of high-profile film festivals around the world due to its sensitive subjects and mainland China’s tightening censorship rules. The final version released in theaters is heavily edited, and includes onscreen texts emphasizing the measures taken by the Chinese government to handle teenage criminals and school bullying issues. The film was welcomed internationally with box office success and an overwhelmingly positive reception.
WATCH IT: Netflix (Taiwan)
RADII says: 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; Guan Hu’s The Eight Hundred is due out in early 2020). But 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.
Yu Yang, co-founder, Light Chaser Animation: A collection of shared memories of pride, tears and laughter from 1949 to 2019.
Muhe Chen, filmmaker: It has great cast and big-name director team, and the reviews have been pretty good. Different from most zhuxuanlu films about historical events, this one very much focuses on individual stories about Chinese development.
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