With the year’s end in sight, it is time to look back at what 2017 has brought, and cinema is undoubtedly one of the good things worth remembering about 2017.
Whether you fancy action, comedy, or drama, there are certain Chinese films that were released in 2017 that are must-sees for both movie-lovers and China watchers. Some of them are important to know about because they broke box office records, some are masterpieces with profound cultural meaning, others are simply entertaining – and then there are those that just fall in between.
Before 2017 ends, we list 9 Chinese releases of the year that you should go and watch if you haven’t done so yet, just because they are worth it.
Even if you’re not a fan of Chinese films, chances are high that you’ve heard of Wolf Warrior II for its staggering box office numbers. Released in July 2017, the action thriller became the top-grossing film of all time in China in only ten days time. It has grossed nearly 825 million USD so far.
Chinese action star Wu Jing directed the film and also plays the main character: a military hero of the People’s Liberation Army who sets on avenging the capture of his lover in a disease-riddled and war-torn unnamed African nation where China has built hospitals and provided factory jobs for the locals. As if that weren’t enough, the bad guys that are fought by this unstoppable hero – to save and protect innocent civilians – are revolutionaries and Western mercenaries.
Whether you like the politics of Wolf Warrior II or not, this film is relevant for multiple reasons. Besides its record-breaking box office numbers, it was also chosen to represent China in the Oscar’s best foreign film 2018 competition, which is uncommon for action movies. The film was also widely discussed as a work of nationalist propaganda.
Duckweed tells the sweet story of a champion racer who time-travels back to the late 90s, meeting his estranged father and never-seen mother and sets out on a comical adventure with them.
Besides displaying a touching father-son ‘bromance’ and featuring witty plot twists, Duckweed vividly portrays some yesteryear scenes in a small town near Shanghai in 1990s China; a pre-mobile phone era where petty gang members carried beepers as talismans of power. Some features of this film might remind you of Back to the Future.
Directed by the talented blogger/author/entrepreneur/car-racer Han Han and starring some of the most well-known actors and actresses in China such as Deng Chao, Zhao Liying, and Eddie Peng, this easy-going and nostalgic comedy became a holiday hit in China during Chinese Spring Festival in early 2017. With the refined acting and well-written storyline, this time-traveling film presents a coming-of-age tale that is worth your laughter (and tears).
As the very first Chinese animation film that was nominated for a Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival, Have A Nice Day is one of the very few Chinese films that stood out at the major international film award events this year.
The film is set in suburban China, where a chauffeur steals a large amount of money from a local gangster to help his girlfriend fix a failed plastic surgery operation. Later on, this turns into a bloody conflict involving several people from diverse backgrounds with different personal motives.
Despite the fact that Have A Nice Day premiered at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year and has since been released in multiple countries, this animated dark comedy still has not been officially released in mainland China yet.
The film was also withdrawn from a film festival in France in June of this year because of “official pressures.” The 77-minutes animation was allegedly blocked after not passing China’s film censorship.
Although the director Liu Jian claimed his work has nothing to do with politics but is just focused on people’s desires and fates, the brilliantly ironic and cynical way Have A Nice Day portrays its characters, their lifestyles, and the landscape of contemporary China, with dark humor script and sharp dialogs which were bound to touch a nerve.
With its all-star cast and glorious depiction of the early history of the Communist Party of China, The Founding of an Army is the third Chinese nationalist film produced by the state-owned China Film Group Corporation, following The Founding of a Republic (2009) and The Founding of a Party (2011).
To commemorate the ninetieth anniversary of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s establishment, The Founding of an Army recaps moments of Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Zhu De, and other founding fathers of China who fought against the KMT-led government during the Chinese Civil War.
Despite all of these factors, this government-backed propaganda film struggled hard for both box office numbers and media attention. Unfortunately for this film, it coincided with the other patriotic work Wolf Warrior II during the same screening period in the summer. This history-based war film was also criticised for casting a lot Chinese teenage idols and popular young actors who arguably did not have the adequate acting skills to play those military leaders in the movie.
Paths of the Soul is directed by Yang Zhang, whose film Shower received high critic ratings in 1999. This film, Paths of the Soul, first premiered back in 2015 at the Toronto International Film Festival, and it took this film two years to make it onto cinemas in mainland China.
This documentary-drama film blurs the lines between cinematography and photography as it captures the devout and daunting undertaking journey of a group of Tibetan villagers who make a 1,200-kilometer pilgrimage to Lhasa, the holy city of Tibetan Buddhism.
During this over-10-months travel to Lhasa, the changes of seasons and landscapes not only show the distance and time span, but also every obstacle these pilgrims face; natural disasters, financial problems, and internal quarrels.
Paths of the Soul touches the potentially sensitive issue of minority ethnicities in China and their religion. This focus is also rather unpopular on the mainstream Chinese film market, and all actors starring in the film are generally unknown to the majority of Chinese audiences — they are all Tibetans while some of them weren’t even actors before starring in this movie.
Despite all odds, to the surprise of many, Paths of the Soul has successfully grossed over 14.9 million USD and became one of the very few independent productions that was able to make over 100 million RMB box office in China. Perhaps it is this movie’s ability to trigger viewers to think about the smaller and bigger questions of life that has turned it into an unexpected success.
Never Say Die revolves around the story of a male boxer swapping bodies with a female reporter who exposed his bribes, after which they have to help each other to win the UFC championship.
The plot of soul-exchanging may already be a cliche, but this fantasy comedy still managed to dominate the Golden Week holiday box offices and has grossed over 325 million USD so far, coming along as the second big Chinese film box office success of 2017 following Wolf Warrior II, while becoming the highest-grossing comedy in China ever.
Without any big-name cast or large production, Never Say Die uses an easy-going plot and commonly-understood jokes to catch the Chinese audience. And this may signal that the lower-cost Chinese folk comedies are heading in a new direction.
Twenty Two is the title of this documentary and refers to the number of Chinese WWII ‘comfort women’ who are still alive and willing to share their story with the public.
After nearly a century, this documentary focuses on the voices of these 22 women during the last stage of their lives, revisiting the traumas they experienced during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945).
The documentary shows how these brave and strong elder women talk about their history, perspectives on life, sufferings, and how they found personal happiness despite all hardships. Unlike most film and television works in China relating to Sino-Japanese War, the heart of Twenty Two doesn’t seem to lie in narrow nationalistic purposes; instead, it succeeds in letting the general public know and understand this specific group of war victims, permanently preserving a crucial part of war history.
It can’t be compared to the classic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but Brotherhood of Blades II: The Infernal Battlefield is definitely the only Chinese wuxia film in 2017 that was able to do well in the box-offices while also earning great critic reviews.
The film is set in the late Ming Dynasty, when minors and weaklings occupied the throne; neglecting their duties, relying on power-hungry palace eunuchs, and isolating themselves from government ministers.
Shen Lian is an elite guard of the palace who gets framed for treason. In order to prove his innocence, he seeks the truth behind this conspiracy together with a mysterious artist.
Brotherhood of Blades II features a mix of amazing martial arts, beautiful scenery, exquisite costume design, and tasteful drama, all the while carrying a sociopolitical undertone. Through the furious and thrilling martial arts extravaganza, this wuxia sequel presents the audience with the styles and lives, the fate and determination, and the toughness and loyalty of the fighters within Chinese tradition.
This sensitive generational drama starts with the 60-year-old Hui Ying deciding to move her father’s grave from his hometown to a place beside her mother’s grave in the city.
However, the first wife of Hui Ying’s father, who has looked after the grave for years, doesn’t approve of her decision. When Hui’s journalist daughter Wei Wei gets involved, the disagreement ends up becoming a problem for the whole town community.
Love Education is a work that touches upon issues of generational gaps, love, and womanhood in modern-day China. Throughout the grave-moving issue, the film highlights contemporary Chinese family values and shows how women at 30, 60, 90 years old see and learn to deal with the relationships and bonds between mother-daughter, husband-wife, and grandmother-daughter while facing different hardships in their professional and personal lives at their various life stages.
Filled with sophisticated irony and wisdom regarding the topic of love, Love Education is a pleasant and innocuous highbrow lifetime drama. When it opened in the first week of November in China, the film scored a rare 8.6 points on Douban, the biggest Chinese website for film, music, and book reviews, becoming the highest-rated Chinese film in 2017.
Remembering San Mao – the Bohemian Writer That Captured the Hearts of Millions of Chinese
27 years after her suicide, bohemian writer San Mao still strikes a chord with Chinese netizens.
In a time when Beijing’s first fast-food restaurants opened their doors, people were hooked on Teresa Tang’s sweet voice, and television sets entered Chinese living rooms, pirate editions of books by the wildly popular Chinese author San Mao first started spreading all over mainland China.
Before this time in the late 1980s, the female author was already a celebrity in Taiwan and Hong Kong since the 1970s; not just because of her many books, newspaper columns, song lyrics, and public lectures, but also because of her free, cosmopolitan, and “legendary” life that captured the imagination of many Chinese eager to look beyond their own borders.
Researcher Miriam Lang (2015) describes San Mao as “one of the first mass media celebrities in the Chinese-speaking world” (440).
On January 4th 2018, the 20th-century writer became a trending topic on social media when various media commemorated her. Chinese state media outlet People’s Daily dedicated a post to the iconic author on Weibo, titled “Today, we cherish the memory of San Mao.”
People’s Daily writes:
“She was born in Chongqing, moved to Taiwan, studied in Spain, and settled in the Sahara. All of her life she pursued freedom and touched the hearts of many with all of her words. Her love-story with Jose stirred people’s emotions. Her mother said that maybe her life was not perfect enough for her, but we now know that her life-long pursuit of her dreams has already become romantic legend. Today, in 1991, writer San Mao committed suicide.”
Besides that the post itself attracted thousands of comments and was shared nearly 3800 times, many other media outlets and netizens also posted their own commemorations to the author on Weibo. One post by the Communist Youth League received more than 100,000 comments on January 4th.
“She was the first author I really loved,” one person comments: “Whether she was in the Sahara or Madrid, the way she describes her love has become like a little gemstone in my own life.”
A Woman Writer Named Chen, Echo, and San Mao
San Mao is known as the wandering writer. Throughout her life, she moved from place to place; a life pattern that already started forming in the early years of her childhood.
San Mao was born in Chongqing, China, in 1943. Her parents, mother Miao Jinlan and father Chen Siqing, named their little girl Chen Mao Ping (陈懋平). Chen, however, later preferred to be called Chen Ping, and gave herself the English name of ‘Echo’ to honor her painting teacher. Once she started writing, she used the pen name San Mao (三毛), which is how she came to be remembered.
San Mao’s early years took her from wartime Chongqing via Nanjing to Taiwan, where the 6-year-old girl had trouble fitting in at school. She preferred reading books over doing schoolwork, and while she read literary classics such as Don Quixote at an early age, she failed in mathematics and received low grades.
After a teacher at her Taipei school embarrassed her in front of her classmates by drawing a ‘0’ grade on her face and making her parade around, she refused to continue her classes there and was home-schooled by private tutors and her own father, who was a lawyer (Chen 2007).
After studying Philosophy at the Chinese Culture University in Taiwan, the 20-year-old San Mao set out to broaden her horizons and moved to Spain, where she enrolled at the University of Madrid. It was the start of her bohemian lifestyle, that brought her from Spain to Germany, from the Sahara Desert to the Canary Islands, and from Central and South America back to Taiwan.
San Mao experienced many adventures but also had to face many difficult times. Her first great love whom she was to be married to, a German teacher 19 years her senior, died of a heart attack when San Mao was 26 old.
Ten years later, her Spanish husband Jose Maria Quero Y Ruiz, whom San Mao lovingly called ‘He Xi’ (荷西) and with whom she had spent six years in the desert, tragically died during a diving accident.
Miriam Lang, in her study of San Mao (2015), describes her as “unusual for a woman of her time and place”; she traveled far from home, married a non-Chinese man, and remained childless. Nonetheless, Lang notes, San Mao was also traditional in that she represented herself as a “happy housewife” while married, and expressed conservative feminine values in her books (443).
Although San Mao published her first book at the of 19, she did not really gain fame until the release of her first book The Stories of the Sahara (撒哈拉的故事) in 1976. This work revolves around San Mao’s personal experiences in the Sahara desert together with her husband Jose (Ying 2010, 162).
An Unhappy Ending
In the decade following her husband’s death, San Mao first set out on a 6-month journey to America but then traveled less and finally settled in Taiwan in 1982, where she started teaching literature and creative writing at the Chinese Culture University.
Being a celebrity, her classes were always packed – students lined up to attend her lectures.
In 1989, she first visited mainland China again since her childhood, where she started working on the screenplay of Red Dust, a love story set during the Sino-Japanese war. Although the film eventually received much acclaim – even winning the prize for Best Film at the Golden Horse Awards of 1990 – San Mao received criticism for creating a “too positive picture” of the leading male character, who was perceived to be a traitor to the Chinese nation (Lang 2015, 442).
Despite all of her activities in her later career, San Mao never parallelled the success she had with her stories about the Sahara. In 1990, San claimed she had won a literary prize in Spain for novella written in Spanish, but the work appeared to be non-existent (Lang 2015,442).
In early 1991, San Mao admitted herself to a hospital in Taiwan where she was tested for cancer. The results turned out negative, but San reportedly asked the nurse for a sleeping pill for the night and asked her not to wake her (Chen 2007).
San Mao ended her own life by hanging on January 4, 1991, at Rongmin General Hospital. She was 47 years old.
Father Jerry Martinson, a Jesuit priest who knew San Mao for years as the brother of her close friend Barry Martinson, told UCA News two weeks after her suicide that San Mao “desired to escape from her fame’s pressure and emotional entanglements, and to reunite with Jose (..). His death was a trauma in her life.”
He also said that Antoine Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince was San Mao’s favorite reading: “At the end of the story, the Little Prince wanted to go back to his planet, reachable only through short suffering.”
Throughout her life, San Mao visited over 54 countries and wrote a total of 26 complete works (Chen 2007; Lang 2015, 442; Huang 2017). An English translation of her work Stories of the Sahara (1976) is expected to be released by publishing house Bloomsbury in 2018.
Online “San Mao Fever”
The suicide of San Mao generated a new wave of “San Mao fever” in the 1990s. And now, more than two decades after her death, the Chinese celebrity still has major appeal to social media users, who post her quotes, photos, and audio segments.
“How I love San Mao,” one person writes: “Her every word is just immersed with her wisdom.”
But not all commenters are equally positive. Some say that San Mao is representative of a time when Chinese women “blindly followed” western values, adoring foreign men.
For the majority of commenters, however, San Mao is a name that brings out new inspiration or old memories. “Whenever I think about her stories from the Sahara, it just moves me.”
One Weibo user honors San Mao by posting one of her quotes*:
“Often, I asked myself, what is distance? Then I heard my own answer, saying that distance is what I desired most in life – that it is freedom.
A freedom far, far away, like the air.
At that moment, I realized that I had slowly released myself from all the things I didn’t need that were binding me to my life. I then thought: I can go to the most remote corners of the earth if that is where my heart wants to go.
It was in that moment, that my freedom had finally arrived.“
If you are interested in this story you might also be interested in reading the story of Li Xianglan, the superstar who was caught between China and Japan during the Second Sino-Japanese War.
The Stories of the Sahara (in Chinese) can be purchased from Amazon:
The story of the Sahara (Chinese Edition)
The complete works of San Mao can also be purchased in Chinese online:
The Complete Works of Sanmao (Chinese Edition)
iTunes also offers The Stories of the Sahara in Chinese:
Sources & References
Chen, Shaoshua. 2007. “San Mao – Taiwan’s Wandering Writer.” Women of China, November 30. http://www.womenofchina.cn/womenofchina/html1/people/writers/8/8989-1.htm [4.1.18].
Huang, Echo. 2017. “The brave, tragic adventurer who inspired generations of Chinese girls to adopt her nickname.” Quartz Magazine, April 24. https://qz.com/963273/the-world-traveling-writer-san-mao-inspired-generations-of-girls-to-adopt-her-nickname-echo/ [4.1.18].
Lang, Miriam. 2015 (2003). In Lily Xiao Hong Lee and A.D. Stefanowska (eds), Biographical Dictionary of Chinese women – The Twentieth-Century 1912-2000. London/New York: Routledge.
Treichel, Tamara. 2013. “The Echo Effect.” Global Times, March 10. http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/767044.shtml [4.1.18].
UCA News. 1991. “PRIEST SAYS WRITER WHO COMMITTED SUICIDE WANTED TO BECOME CATHOLIC NUN.” UCA News, February 21. https://www.ucanews.com/story-archive/?post_name=/1991/02/19/priest-says-writer-who-committed-suicide-wanted-to-become-catholic-nun&post_id=32086 [7.1.18].
Ying, Li-hua. 2010. Historical Dictionary of Modern Chinese Literature. Lanham: The Scarecrow Press.
Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.
©2018 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at email@example.com.
Successful Reality Show ‘The Birth of Actors’ Surrounded by Controversy
Some viewers suspect there is foul play in this acting competition.
Reality show ‘The Birth of Actors’ (演员的诞生) has been trending on Chinese social media for weeks now. Since its first airing in late October 2017, the Zhejiang Satellite TV hit has repeatedly become a focus of discussion on Weibo.
The show is hosted by the popular actor and director Zhang Guoli (张国立).
The live show invites Chinese actors and actresses to re-enact famous scenes from TV-series or movies. A team of judges, consisting of renowned celebrities Zhang Ziyi (章子怡), Song Dandan (宋丹丹), and Liu Ye (刘烨), give commentary and marks.
The celebrity team, along with the studio audience, then votes over who will stay on the show and who has to leave. The show’s winner gets a chance to perform with one of the acclaimed ‘judges.’
Chinese netizens, however, have been questioning the show’s credibility since many deemed the show’s ‘losers’ better performers than its winners. In the first episode, for example, judge Zhang Ziyi harshly criticized Chinese actress Zheng Shuang (郑爽) over “lacking respect for her job,” but Zheng Shuang won the competition anyway.
In December 2017, Chinese actress and show contestant Yuan Li (袁立) started a big discussion over the validity of the show when she posted screenshots on Weibo of a conversation with a woman working for the show. In this conversation, the show’s staff member promised Yuan Li that she would win the first competition and go on to the next stage, to eventually perform with Zhang Ziyi.
According to Yuan, not only was this promise broken, the show allegedly also edited Yuan’s performance in such a way that it made her look like a “crazy person.”
‘The Birth of Actors’ responded to the allegations, stating that the staff member’s conversation with Yuan Li was not representative of her function at the show. The woman has since resigned from the show.
Corrupt Voting System
Despite the fact that the show’s production has denied allegations, rumors of a corrupt voting system are persistent. Later in December, actress Yuan Li also exposed on Weibo that the machines given to the studio audience of the show are actually fake.
Photos of the non-functional machines were originally taken by a Weibo netizen named ‘Sea Breeze Diary 1983’ (@海风日记1983), who claimed they joined the live recording of ‘The Birth of Actors’ as the studio audience.
Later, however, other sources claimed the vote machines did not belong to Zhejiang TV’s ‘Birth of the Actors,’ but to another show by Beijing Satellite TV, and that Yuan Li was spreading false rumors.
On January 2nd, the show made headlines again after it had featured a re-enacted scene from the Hong Kong stage classic I Have A Date with Spring (我和春天有个约会) by dramatist Raymond To (杜國威).
The Hong Kong production company’s chairman responded to the episode through Weibo, claiming that ‘The Birth of Actors’ never approached the company for copyright to the scenes.
Not only did the chairman accuse the show of copyright infringement, he also stated that the performance of the actors in the Zhejiang Satellite TV show “entirely distorted the nature of the play’s characters and its experience,” and that it “completely destroyed the image of the original script,” “wrecking the spirit of this classic drama.”
The scene became a topic of discussion earlier when Zhang Ziyi called its performance “the most awkward” she had ever seen.
Despite all of its controversies, or perhaps because of them, ‘The Birth of Actors’ has continued to draw large numbers of viewers.
It is not the first time a popular Chinese TV show faces allegations of copyright infringement and fake voting systems. Previously, Dutch production company Talpa sued Zhejiang Satellite TV for its hit TV show ‘New Singing of China’ (中国新歌声), of which the Dutch company owned the TV format (‘The Voice of..’) rights.
Many other Chinese TV shows including voting systems have been accused of influencing or faking audience votes. These controversies often draw more attention to a TV show, which usually grows its viewership.
Besides its controversies, the show has another recipe for success: its all-star cast members that mixes established names with new talent (小鲜肉). As China’s idol industry is thriving, this show gives millions of viewers exactly what they want: superstars, competition, entertainment, and some juicy gossip.
Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.
©2018 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.