Chinese-Language Films at Cannes 2023

After a conspicuous absence in 2022, Chinese-language cinema is making a much-anticipated comeback at the Cannes Film Festival

5 0
Amarsanaa Battulga
9:14 AM HKT, Thu May 18, 2023 4 mins read

Chinese-language film is back on the menu at the 76th edition of the Cannes Film Festival.

Last year, the glitzy French festival saw a conspicuous absence of Chinese feature films, which some attributed to pandemic-related travel restrictions. Others, meanwhile, felt it was part of China’s unofficial boycott of Cannes following the festival's last-minute screening of a Hong Kong protest documentary.

The sudden withdrawal of Art College 1994, a work by acclaimed animator Liu Jian which was originally titled Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, seemed to further substantiate the assessment.

art college 1994

Nonetheless, while Chinese feature-length films were missing from the scene last year, a few short films did take part in the festival, even winning several awards, including the Short Film Palme d’Or for Chen Jianying’s The Water Murmurs.

This year is different, though.

Heavy pandemic restrictions are a thing of the past, and the Chinese film industry is on track for a full recovery; at least, judging by this year’s Cannes selections.

The festival’s official selection list and sidebars include a total of nine Chinese-language titles – five features, two of which are documentaries, as well as four short films.

It’s been some time since Chinese-language cinema has enjoyed its own peak of international recognition – after all, this year is the 30th anniversary of Fifth-Generation filmmaker Chen Kaige’s historic Palme d’Or win for Farewell my Concubine, the first and only Chinese feature title to earn the festival’s highest honor.

There are, however, some strong films being featured this year. You’ll want to pay attention to these Chinese-language films at Cannes 2023.

Editor’s note: Unlike most Chinese news coverage on this year’s Cannes selection, ‘Tiger Stripes’ by Amanda Nell Eu, a Malaysian filmmaker of Chinese descent, is not included on this list as the film is in the Malay language.


Youth (Spring) — Wang Bing

Youth is a new documentary from China’s leading nonfiction filmmaker Wang Bing. The 212-minute feature was shot in a small city near Shanghai, and funded entirely by European production companies.

According to its synopsis, the film follows young migrant workers at a textile factory, whose “friendships and love affairs are made and unmade according to the seasons, bankruptcies, and family pressures.’’


Man in Black — Wang Bing

Rarely does a filmmaker have the opportunity to showcase a documentary at Cannes, let alone two in the same year.

Wang’s second film to feature in this year’s festival, premiering in the Special Screenings section, is Man in Black, a portrait of 86-year-old Wang Xilin. Wang Xilin is one of China’s most legendary classical composers, whose painful experiences during the Cultural Revolution led to a life of exile in Germany.

The documentary clocks in at just 60 minutes of runtime, marking a departure from the director’s penchant for lengthy works (Wang’s debut film Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks, for instance, ran over nine hours long, and is the only Chinese mainland film to be included in the ‘2022 Greatest Films of All Time’ decennial poll conducted by British film magazine Sight and Sound.

Only the River Flows — Wei Shujun

This crime thriller is the fourth film by 32-year-old phenom filmmaker Wei Shujun to appear at Cannes.

As if that weren’t enough expectation-building context, the film is an adaptation of a 2018 novella by Yu Hua, one of China’s most highly acclaimed contemporary authors.

Set in a rural town in the 1990s, the story follows police chief Ma Zhe, as he delves deep into what was seemingly an open-and-shut murder case.

Only the River Flows will compete in the Un Certain Regard section, which is dedicated to “more experimental up-and-coming arthouse directors.”

The Breaking Ice — Anthony Chen

Also premiering in the Un Certain Regard section is Anthony Chen’s The Breaking Ice, which stars two of China’s most popular young actors, Zhou Dongyu (known for her role in Better Days) and Liu Haoran (previously starring in the Detective Chinatown franchise).

According to Deadline, the movie portrays “the blossoming relationship among three young adults in their twenties over a short few days of heavy winter snowfall.”

Though the film is the Singaporean filmmaker’s first production in the Chinese mainland, Chen is no stranger to Cannes. He won the Camera d’Or, the festival’s award for best debut feature, with his 2013 family drama Ilo Ilo.

A Song Sung Blue — Geng Zihan

27-year-old Geng Zihan’s feature debut is a coming-of-age drama, backed by one of the producers behind the award-winning The Farewell.

Described as a chronicle that “marks the end of childhood innocence,” A Song Sung Blue tells the story of 15-year-old Xian’s relationship with Mingmei, her father’s stepdaughter, over the course of one restless summer.

a song sung blue

Geng’s film is selected in the Directors’ Fortnight independent sidebar, which “highlights the most singular and visionary practices in contemporary cinema.” It’s also eligible for the Queer Palm Prize.

Talking to the River — Pan Yue

Another Chinese title appearing in the Directors’ Fortnight is Talking to the River, a short film by young director Pan Yue, a graduate of the London Film School.

talking to the river

The synopsis for the 29-minute film is brief but intriguing: Kai is a left-behind child in a remote village, who begins to sleepwalk after finding out that his mother is pregnant with a second child. When his grandparents find out, they turn to mysterious folk methods to treat him.

Walking with Her into the Night — Shu Hui

Shu Hui’s first short film, sci-fi comedy The Spring Breeze Kisses Me, competed last year’s FIRST International Film Festival, a major event for China’s indie film buffs.

This year, his new short Walking with Her into the Night has secured a prestigious slot as the only Chinese work to be selected in the Critics’ Week section, which runs parallel to the festival’s official selection, and focuses on discovering new talent.

walking with her into the night

Little is revealed in the film’s description: “Late at night, somewhere in the city, a man and a woman meet on the street, they chat and talk, it seems like the beginning of an intimate relationship, but both are aware that it is more like a final trip.”

A Bright Sunny Day — He Yupeng

The description for He Yupeng’s short film A Bright Sunny Day is even more succinct: “The appearance of a girl on a bright sunny day gently changes the life of a young man.”

a bright sunny day

A Bright Sunny Day is one of two Chinese-language short films in this year’s La Cinef selection, featuring works submitted by film schools around the world. The 27-year-old director is currently enrolled at the Columbia University School of the Arts.

Uhrmenschen (Primitive Times) — Yu Hao

The other Chinese-language selection to feature in the La Cinef section comes from Yu Hao, studying animation at the Konrad Wolf Film University of Babelsberg.

The 6-minute long animation featured ‘interviews’ with five primitive people discussing their takes on labor, examining the problem of work culture through an ancient lens.


For a taste of Yu’s previous work, check out his animated adaptation of Chinese-American author Ha Jin’s short story ‘Winds and Clouds Over a Funeral.’

The 2023 Cannes Film Festival will run from May 16 - May 27.

All images via IMDb

Join the Conversation
Write comment

Pour yourself a stiff one, we'll be with you in a minute