The list below is part of RADII’s 100 Films to Understand China.
Nothing sticks with you quite like a really bad movie. Much like an annoying but irresistibly catchy tune, a truly terrible film sneaks past all guardrails of taste and seeps in to our streams, persisting in the culture as an inexhaustible mine of ready-made meme material.
Some movies on this list have bad writing or acting; some are indicative of major changes in the relationship between Hollywood and the PRC, and some reflect totally homegrown changes in the mainstream Chinese film market. These ten films are bad, but informative — the best of the worst, the so-bad-they’re-good, and the just plain un-redeemable.
The first of three films in the Lost in… series by director Xu Zheng, Lost in Thailand was a huge financial hit when it was released, but for the wrong reasons. Taking outrageous slapstick comedy to a new level in Chinese cinema, the Lost in series has been much maligned over the years.
Rebecca Davis, Variety Beijing Bureau Chief: You’ve got to put one of the Lost Ins on here, since it’s so representative of that kind of awful mainstream Chinese humor. I haven’t watched all of them, because I VALUE MY SANITY.
WATCH IT YouTube
A film totally lacking logic, that jumps between locations at random, brings together British gangsters and Japanese Yakuza who are trying to steal the legendary painting, “Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains.” A movie that made star of the film Andy Lau say that there was an issue with his process of selecting films.
Muhe Chen, filmmaker: The worst movie I’ve ever seen, one of the worst movies in Chinese film history. No argument about that. It’s about various parties conflicting over the famous old Chinese painting, “Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains.” It makes no sense.
Phoebe Long, screenwriter: This film can be said to be the archetype of “so-bad-it’s-good,” described by film critics as “a splendidly colorful pile of shit.” The jaw-dropping imagination, the incomprehensible styling effects, and the undecipherable performances of the actors make this a terrible movie that people will never tire of.
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, CEO and Founder of 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: The film is scripted from a hit fiction book targeting teenagers, released 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.
The conversation around China taking over Hollywood reached fever pitch when Transformers 4 was released, with the film widely regarded as imbued with heady patriotic undertones… for the CCP that is.
Rebecca Davis: Transformers 4 is fascinating to me because of its politics — one of the best movies to illustrate the weird mishmash of making the CCP look good and inadvertently furthering the CCP political line while also basically being an ad for the latest US military technology, and sort of exactly the thing that Ted Cruz is so upset by with his new proposed SCRIPT Act bill. So basically, a good title through which to see the rise of the China box office (it made more in China than US) and how Hollywood caters to that.
Holder of a lowly 2.2 rating on Chinese film user review site Douban, Pure Hearts: Into Chinese Showbiz is deserving of its reputation as one of the worst Chinese films ever. Perhaps worse than the film itself, was director Bi Zhifei’s response to criticism on Douban, asking for a thorough review into what he felt was a manipulated system.
Stanley Chen, science fiction writer and curator: This is an epic mega-film, or a joke. The director put a tacky, coarse hallucination on the screen with extraordinary self-confidence. Through the exaggerated and crude performance of various ugly phenomena within the Chinese film industry, audiences endured 98 minutes of unforgettable nightmare. As a result, it set the record for the lowest-ever score on [popular film review site] Douban (2.2/10), and contributed many popular memes to the Chinese Internet.
A film indicative of both botched international link-ups and legendary director Zhang Yimou‘s gradual softening of themes in his movies. While trouble dogged his earlier career, Zhang turned the corner with films like this patriotic affair, as well as his directorship of the 2008 Olympics. And as for Damon’s role…
Stanley Chen: Even if Matt Damon can plant potatoes on Mars, retrieve Bourne’s identity, and survive the Normandy landing, he wasn’t able to save this magical film by Zhang Yimou. All the characters seem to be reduced to symbols in order to justify the existence of the heroine, Jing Tian, whose performance deserves to be called a disaster. Together with ugly CG monsters, this overly noisy affair is like an Olympic Games opening parade of one embarrassing moment after another.
Jackie Chan may be one of the most famous Chinese actors of all time, but he’s had more than a few stinkers. Kung Fu Yoga, from his frequent collaborator Stanley Tong, is a mess of stereotypes and bad references.
Krish Raghav, artist and writer: A horrific cringe-fest that highlights all of the problems with “co-productions” (this one is Indo-Chinese) and honestly should have immediately put an end to the whole practice. It’s meant to be a take on Indiana Jones, and manages to successfully retain that series’ colonial gaze and terrible gender politics. It’s a Han chauvinist fever dream so laughably bad it swings to being hugely entertaining.
Following the huge success of The Wandering Earth in China, there was a rush for more sci-fi blockbusters. Shanghai Fortress almost put an end to the excitement around the sci-fi genre in one fell swoop, highlighting how the fast-moving, ill-thought out nature of Chinese cinema can often go awry.
Stanley Chen: Netizens said that The Wandering Earth opened a door for Chinese sci-fi films, and Shanghai Fortress closed that door again. Not only that, but from its first minute, this movie introduces us to the worst possible visualization [in everything from] from male lead Lu Han’s unflappable hair styling (he plays a warrior facing off against aliens), to countless too-familiar visual effects seemingly copied and pasted from third-rate online game animations. This film exposes the absurdity of the Chinese film industry. It uses the most beautiful cast and the most abundant capital to create a soap bubble. The bigger its ambition grows, the faster it breaks down.
WATCH IT Netflix
Named for the Fujian diet of sweet porridge, the film follows a woman whose sons have left home and whose best friend has died. Described as being “divorced from reality,” by Douban critics, the movie defies logic.
Rebecca Davis: The worst Chinese film I’ve ever, ever seen — too awful to even put on this list, probably, but an interesting example of how China’s current manner of churning out “arthouse” fare can go wrong. It’s just so nonsensically awful, embarrassingly serious. It’s the only Chinese film I’ve ever walked out of, and that’s saying something. A critic friend walked out with me and could only utter a single word when she got out: “unacceptable.”
A film that was critically slammed by both those inside and outside of China. The live-action remake of Mulan was beset by historical inaccuracies, with producers taking elements of various iterations of the historical “The Ballad of Mulan” and combining them at random, making for a movie that is constantly at odds with itself.
Frankie Huang, writer, illustrator and cultural insight strategist: You can argue that Disney’s live-action Mulan was doomed almost from its conception. Based on the 1998 animated classic, which is in turn based on the ancient Chinese poem “The Ballad of Mulan,” the film is packaged as a feel-good feminist fairytale designed to empower little girls in the ilk of the new Wonder Woman franchise. But in actuality, modern politics both on and off the screen has rendered it an embodiment of Han nationalist propaganda, as well as the Disney corporation’s naked greed for the China market.
WATCH IT Disney Plus