2017 was looking like it would be a pretty quiet year for Chinese cinema. And then, in July, along came Wolf Warrior 2. A shock-and-awe exhibit of propaganda as blockbuster, the flag-waving juggernaut has swept US$854 million at the Chinese box office, becoming by far the most successful Chinese movie ever made, and the fifth highest grossing of the year overall, sandwiched between Spider-Man: Homecoming and Guardians of the Galaxy 2.
Key to Wolf Warrior 2’s success is that it expands the horizons of mainstream Chinese filmmaking, eschewing the tired anti-Japanese tropes of innumerable war films for a confident and contemporary declaration of China’s place in the world. Strategic production techniques have a hand too: the film sleekly updates America’s ‘80s machismo action output – Rambo is the obvious template – and had creative input from Captain America: Civil War directors Joe and Anthony Russo, plus a Hollywood stunt crew. The results are frequently thrilling: it looks every bit as good as a Hollywood release. For better or worse, its success has also ensured its influence, and a glut of patriotic action movies showcasing shiny hardware and China’s international status can surely be expected in coming years.
As if Wolf Warrior II wasn’t enough, the rambling underdog sports movie Never Say Die raked in US$334 million at the box office, edging out Home Alone as the highest single-market grossing comedy. Neither headline film is particularly original, yet their success reaffirms an increasingly professional, genre-savvy film system with enough domestic appeal to come within striking distance of Hollywood.
A shrinking space for independent film
An unfortunate by-product of the commercialism of Chinese filmmaking has been growing control. Many of today’s established directors had the option of recourse to the international festival circuit for films that could never be released domestically because of censorship. Come 2017, and it appears the government is intent on cracking down on expressions from outside the centralised system. Evidence of this was the scarcity of Chinese contributions to major festivals this year. Jia Zhangke, whose unlikely emergence at the end of the ‘90s did so much to pioneer the rise of independent filmmaking in China, created an eccentric festival of his own in an apparent effort to head off this trend, the Pingyao International Film Festival, in a historical walled city near his hometown.
It seems certain that official intolerance for alternative perspectives outside the commercial parameters of the industry will make Chinese cinema artistically poorer in the long run. Nonetheless, there was a small crop of well-received festival films from 2017 that we are yet to catch up with, including We the Workers, Knife in the Clear Water, A Yangtze Landscape, Have A Nice Day, Ghost in the Mountains and Children Are Not Afraid of Death, Children Are Afraid of Ghosts.
The top five Chinese films of 2017
- Wolf Warrior II
A fascinating film, not just for the way it cheekily reverse engineers timebound Hollywood conventions in the service of a racially tinted national power fantasy: it even ends with a Chinese-only message superimposed on a passport: ‘Remember the powerful mother country is by your side!’ Whether it’s brilliant or distasteful, it is undeniably skilfully made, with a pounding aesthetic calculated for maximum impact, while the dialogue is a jumble of stilted Foreign Ministry talking points – the fact that China is a UN Security Council member is repeated at multiple junctures. The ideology is also dubious to say the least: the hero is indestructible; the Chinese are well-respected – at one point, two warring forces literally stop fighting to allow them to pass through unarmed; the local Africans get mown down; and the Western bad guys chomp on cigars while committing massacres. But as a tribute to the power of the moving image, and the link between film and propaganda, Wolf Warrior II is plenty stirring, and excluding it from this list seems disingenuous.
The impression that emerges from Feng Xiaogang’s Youth, as in his last film I Am Not Madam Bovary, is that of a late-career director using his clout to engage in a critique of Chinese society and recent history. Youth overlays the personal and the political, following an artistic troupe at the tail-end of the Cultural Revolution, through to China’s 1979 border war with Vietnam and final dissolution; but, despite covering thirty years, it contains little in the way of concrete narrative incident. Feng’s purpose is to challenge the audience to tease out the nuance, and also to pay tribute to the red operas and revolutionary films that he grew up with (Youth was co-produced by the Chinese military; but, like in Madam Bovary, Feng’s attitude toward the rituals he depicts is ultimately ambiguous). Occasionally his ambition outruns his ability as a storyteller: the use of voiceover adds little to the film, and invites unfavourable comparisons with Jiang Wen’s In the Heat of the Sun, a coming of age classic also set in the Cultural Revolution. But on a visual level, Feng is at the height of his powers, and there is plenty to enjoy in his treatment of colour and movement.
- Angels Wear White
Female directors in China (as in Hollywood) remain rare; that alone makes Vivian Qu’s second feature an important contribution to Chinese film in 2017. A loose dramatisation of a notorious 2013 incident in which a school principal drugged and abused schoolgirls in a hotel (also covered in the 2016 guerrilla documentary Hooligan Sparrow), Angels Wear White transcends gruesome specifics by posing pointed questions about the objectification and marginalisation of women in Chinese society. This is brilliantly symbolised in the kitschy exoticism of a giant beach-side statue of Marilyn Monroe; the film takes place in a rundown corner of the resort island of Hainan. Qu adopts Jia Zhangke’s chief motifs of mutually reinforcing materialism and decay, observed in deadpan: when the lawyer representing the children questions the hotel employee who is the only witness, she bluntly asks for money, checking to make sure it’s not a counterfeit bill. Angels Wear White forges a powerful drama from the inequities of Chinese society, and 14-year-old Wen Qi is ideally cast as the blank-faced protagonist.
- Dream Empire
Dream Empire is an outsider’s film, a documentary made by a foreigner, but it can legitimately be considered a part of Chinese cinema for its thoughtful, alternative perspectives on China’s development at the ground level. A hilarious insight into the niche industry of ‘foreigners for hire,’ Dream Empire captures the absurdity of deeply unhappy, boozy expats, mostly Western men, whisked off to remote counties in ridiculous outfits to herald some new development. As unforgettable as these episodes are, director David Borenstein also has the instinct to realise that his film is not really about him. Dream Empire is first and foremost a careful, compassionate character study of his ‘casting agent’, a young, female migrant worker who moves from enthusiastic entrepreneur to disillusioned and bankrupt individual over the course of the film. The key theme of Dream Empire is the Chinese dream: its seductive false promises, seething contradictions and double standards. That a documentary manages to capture all this, in a tone that effortlessly balances comedy and tragedy, shot through with the bizarre, is even better.
- Our Time Will Come
For a filmmaker active over 40 years, Ann Hui’s Our Time Will Come is a work of striking ambition. A challenging, singular interpretation of the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, it strips away the excess and clichés of its nominal genre, the war film. Masterfully subtle and fluid, aided by Yu Lik-wai’s gorgeous cinematography and Jo Hisaishi’s score, every viewing reveals further complexities. Hui withholds catharsis in favour of a quiet, moving meditation on the inextricable costs and choices of war, while deftly linking the significance of these characters and this story to present-day Hong Kong; the final scene is superbly judged. What sets Our Time Will Come apart, and reveals Hui’s decades of experience behind the camera, is that despite its focus on a relatively small ensemble of resistance fighters, the film is full of intimate and authentic small moments evoking the depredations of war on society as a whole.
The best foreign movies of 2017, according to Chinese viewers
After years of only getting to see the biggest blockbusters in the cinema (owing to a quota system that limits foreign movie imports), 2017 appeared to be a year in which Chinese audiences were going off Hollywood. One of the biggest hits of the year, which enjoyed a legendary run at the box office, was Indian sports movie Dangal. Illustrating the adventurousness of moviegoers, the top five includes little-known movies from Spain and the UK, while animation continues to be warmly received, with three titles making it onto the list. [Note: list drawn from ratings on Douban, a Chinese movie site.]
- Ethel & Ernest
- Tied in fifth place – Loving Vincent, Manchester by the Sea, The Darkest Hour