NOTABLE FILMS OF 2016
China’s movie industry this year may not have seen the enviable growth rate of the recent past, but the past 12 months are seen by many as a good year for quality offerings — and for diversity as well. Not in the Hollywood sense, but in the kind of fare s
There is no cutoff line for the definition of a Chinese blockbuster, but movies with a box-office return of 1 billion yuan ($144 million) or more usually qualify. The wide appeal of these titles may have more sociological implications than purely aesthetic ones. And Hollywood may want to take note because these are the kind of movies that tend to go head-to-head with their foreign rivals and beat them.
It may be some time before Stephen Chow’s slapstick comedy will be knocked off the pedestal that is the nation’s box-office record, which is 3.37 billion yuan. This is not Chow’s best work, but few have the ability to penetrate the small-city market as he did. And with an environmental message that is more timely than piercing, it offers a concoction that could have worked at any time, let alone the Chinese New Year period when it opened.
The classic Chinese fantasy novel proves to be a rich source for film treatment. Taken from one chapter of Journey to the West, this much retold tale gets fleshed out from its original skeletal plot and is enriched by fuller and richer portrayals of the characters. Gong Li as the White-Bone Demon brings in her star power but the rest of the cast are also top-class. The holiday release made 1.18 billion yuan at the box office.
At 1,182 million yuan, this surprise hit is notable for its positive portrayal of the Chinese government in its effort to protect its citizens abroad and bring international criminals to justice. Packed with action, it offers a thrillingly visceral cinematic experience reminiscent of a Hollywood equivalent.
Amid a pile of carcasses in the summer, this adventure movie was about the only survivor making 1 billion yuan. While the reviews were middling at best, it was helped by the tested-butnot-always-true formula of a best-selling novel and a pair of pretty-boy stars. The same formula, however, did not help L.O.R.D (Legend of Ravaging Dynasties), which was among the year’s highest-profiled duds.
Sure, this is a coproduction, and not a purely Chinese product. And with a budget of $1.5 billion it has to succeed in territories outside China to yield any profit. Director Zhang Yimou has been lambasted by many critics, but the monster invasion may prove a litmus test for cultural cross-pollination as it is designed to appeal to audiences in every big market. Its box-office takings are expected to cross the 1-billion-yuan mark by the time this piece sees print.
FIVE WORTHY FILMS
These five Chinese titles did not break any boundaries, but they got into the comfort zone of decent commercial performances and critical acclaim.
It may look like a romance or a girl version of bromance, but it explores a subtle relationship in a love triangle of two girls and one boy — OK, two young women and a young man. While both women dated the same cute guy they are more in love with each other. The female stars were awarded the Golden Horse for best female lead performance.
Cao Baoping brought out the hidden side of his male actors who, like those in previous Cao films, delivered careerbest performances. The noirish crime caper has an intricate narrative structure.
While online fiction is the target of the filmmaking gold rush, stage plays have also proved to be a quiet but fertile ground for quality adaptations. Following 2015’s Goodbye Mr Loser, this political satire about a 1940s village school passing off a donkey as a teacher and dealing with its fallout has opened a lot of eyes. Even though the film version has the clumsy traces of a new hand and can hardly match the brilliance of the original material, it still packs a punch.
A documentary about wild animals typically tends to be relegated to the small screen, but Lu Chuan pushed it to the big screen and ended up with 64.55 million yuan at the box office, a feat for the genre.
Chinese franchises in genres like drama and romance tend to lose steam over time, but not this Hong Kong thriller whose action is more verbal and cerebral than physical. The all-star cast did not disappoint.
FIVE ART-HOUSE GEMS
Movies that flaunt their unconventional narratives as a badge of honor usually end up with abysmal showings at the box office. So, it is a wonder that these films got made in a money-chasing environment, and an even bigger surprise that some of them attracted large crowds. (I admit they have marquee names and high production values, but they are still unconventional at the root.)
This could be the most refreshing directorial debut of the year. Bi Gan, 27, switched from shooting wedding videos to making a beautifully fluid little film. The plot is a little stream-of-consciousness, but the tracking shots are mesmerizing.
A boat journey up the Yangtze River has never been so dreamlike. The narrative may have many loose threads, but the visuals by Pin Bing Lee are absorbing.
This Tibetan tale of a middle-aged shepherd, rendered in stark black and white, captures a slice of life, together with a gentle soul, in an age of transformation. Tibetan filmmaker Pema Tseden fits the profile of an auteur who looks inward and backward rather than going with the flow of the commercial tide.
This star-studded and lavishly photographed period piece looks nothing like a typical art-house feature. Yet, in his heart, director Cheng Er eschews the public craving for a good yarn and goes for a tableaux of fascinating people in various tension-filled but extremely restrained situations. Under the facade of grandeur lies a distaste for conventional story-telling.
OK, it garnered 455 million yuan, way beyond what an artsy feature would typically fetch. But Feng Xiaogang is clearly using his popular appeal to gain latitude for self-expression. His depiction of China’s official scene ventures into a realm that calls for endless creativity.
FIVE MEMORABLE IMPORTS
Most chart-topping foreign fare belongs to the category of franchise movies, so that makes this selection special. It covers a wide range when it comes to earnings, but the films all won Chinese hearts.
Mel Gibson’s version of the real-life conscientious objector Desmond Doss tugged at more heartstrings in China than in his homeland. It has been widely hailed here as the greatest war film since Saving Private Ryan. Many screenings ended with spontaneous applause and many viewers reported a sense of catharsis.
Ang Lee’s experiment with new technology met with suspicion in the United States, but in China the director’s vaulted stature ensured maximum exposure and utmost respect. The character study sparked an avalanche of analyses, but the box office stalled at 165 million yuan.
At 1.5 billion yuan, this Disney animation is the second-highest-grossing film in China this year. More importantly, it shows that a good story, even without the support of a franchise, can turn every moviegoer into a volunteer promoter. Scenes from the film got amateur dubbing treatment, often to hilarious effect.
Thanks to its wide and loyal fan base, this game adaptation made more money in China than elsewhere in the world. It was almost the flip side of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which does not have a sizeable base in the Middle Kingdom and depended on across-thePacific publicity.
The breakout of this Japanese animation was influenced by its market performance in its home country. But it shows that not every animation hit has to come from Hollywood. As a matter of fact, Japanese cartoons, with their distinct style, have always found a special place in the hearts of the Chinese.
From top: Zootopia,HacksawRidge,TheWastedTimes,Kaili Blues,YourName,BorninChina,OperationMekong are among the best-received films of 2016 on China’s big screens.