China’s box office surpassed that of the United States for the first time ever in the first quarter of 2018, marking a massive milestone for Chinese movies on the world stage. Amid this milestone, you might wonder: what are some of the top Chinese movies for 2018?
As we wrap up 2018, let’s take a look at 10 of the Best Chinese Movies of 2018. Ranging from comedies to documentaries, and action movies to romance dramas, Chinese cinema has not only won the hearts and minds of the Chinese people, but also audiences around the world.
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10. Hello Mr. Billionaire
Chinese title: 西虹市首富 | Starring: Teng Shen, Vivian Sung | Genre: Comedy
The rise of the nouveau riche in China has come with plenty of hilarious commentary deriding their lack of cultural sophistication. In 2015, Tuhao 520 poked fun at these so-called “dirt barons” with ridiculous scenes ranging from a birthday parade with a tank that shoots money, to extravagant gifts of helicopters and supercars to woo a girlfriend.
Hello Mr. Billionaire is yet another satirical take on the rapid newfound wealth that some Chinese have discovered. Duo-yu (Shen) has to spend a billion yuan within a month, in order to inherit a vast fortune left behind by his wealthy uncle. However, Duo-yu is not allowed to simply give the money away, instead having to come up with some creative and crazy ideas to spend his money—ranging from buying out his former football team, to renting an entire castle for them to party in for a month.
Despite a US$131 million opening weekend, Hello Mr. Billionaire was criticized in China for making light of the extravagant (and wasteful) lifestyles of China’s top-earners, all while income inequality in China is expanding. Be that as it may, Hello Mr. Billionaire remains a wonderfully hilarious satire on the ridiculous ways that some of China’s eccentric billionaires spend their money.
9. Detective Chinatown 2
Chinese title: 唐人街探案 2 | Starring: Wang Baoqiang, Liu Haoran | Genre: Crime, Comedy
Wang Baoqiang and Liu Haoran reprise their roles as uncle-nephew detective duo Tang Ren and Qin Feng in Detective Chinatown 2, a Manhattan-set detective comedy.
Brought to New York to capture the killer of the grandson of the “godfather of Chinatown”, Tang Ren and Qin Feng rowdily romp around the streets of Manhattan causing minor mayhem while using traditional Chinese feng shui techniques to sleuth out the murderer. While at times serious, Wang Baoqiang injects frequent doses of humor through Tang Ren’s outlandish behavior and dialog—not withstanding his outfit that would not be out of place in a tuhao satire. Natasha Liu Bordizzo of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 2 also makes an appearance as a NYPD detective.
8. Amazing China
Chinese title: 厉害了，我的国 | Genre: Documentary
In a departure from the world of comedy, number eight on our list is a state-sponsored documentary about the achievements of the modern Chinese state under Xi Jinping’s administration.
Though held in questionable regard by most online critics (the movie’s Douban page does not list any rating from its users—rather, it shows a “media score”), we felt that Amazing China deserved a spot on this list for its sociopolitical significance.
Released just before presidential term limits were scrapped in China (allowing Xi Jinping to stay in power indefinitely), Amazing China highlights all the accomplishments that Xi had made during his tenure—ranging from the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge to the development of China’s space program.
Amazing China was one of the top-grossing Chinese films of 2018, and its producers aspire for it to hit one billion yuan in ticket sales. With reports that some employees of state-owned enterprises were required to watch the film, perhaps that target is not too far off.
7. Project Gutenberg
Chinese title: 无双 | Starring: Chow Yun-fat, Aaron Kwok, Zhang Jingchu | Genre: Crime, Action, Drama
Many of the world’s best crime action flicks have come from Hong Kong—from the legendary Infernal Affairs to more recent hits like Z Storm and Chasing the Dragon. Project Gutenberg is the latest in Hong Kong’s tradition of producing great criminal dramas.
As the title suggests, Project Gutenberg is about a counterfeit money printer’s life. Lee Man (Aaron Kwok) is captured by the Hong Kong police, and recounts the story of how he and his boss—the mysterious “Painter” (Chow Yun-fat)—ran a counterfeiting ring in Thailand. Twists and turns keep the story interesting, and the film’s fast pace will make you wish it lasted longer than its running time of 130 minutes.
6. The Island
Chinese title: 一出好戏 | Starring: Huang Bo, Wang Baoqiang, Shu Qi, Zhang Yixing | Genre: Romance, Comedy
Office politics meets Lord of The Flies in The Island, starring famed actress Shu Qi. Corporate drone Ma Jin (Huang Bo—who also directed the film) attends a company retreat that takes a turn for the worse when the company’s employees become stranded on an island.
Ma Jin has to balance his crush on Shan Shan (Shu Qi) while navigating the complex political environment that has developed among the twenty-odd survivors on the island. While The Island attempts to explore interpersonal behavior and organizational politics, it ultimately is best seen as an unserious comedy.
5. Us and Them
Chinese title: 后来的我们 | Starring: Zhou Dongyu, Jing Boran | Genre: Romance, Drama
Did you have a high school sweetheart? Did you break up, but find yourself wondering at times what could have been?
Starring acclaimed actress Zhou Dongyu (My Old Classmate, Soul Mate) as Xiaoxiao, alongside Jing Boran as Jianqing, Us and Them traces the story of young love during an era of childhood innocence, only to be shattered by the brutal realities of adulthood—ranging from economic pressures to parental expectations. After years apart, Xiaoxiao and Jianqing find themselves stranded after their flight home gets cancelled due to a winter storm—and they spend a night together reminiscing about their forgotten love.
Fair warning: Us and Them might make you think of one of your exes—and possibly even send them a text message. Curious to learn more? Read our review of Us and Them here!
4. Ash Is The Purest White
Chinese title: 江湖儿女 | Starring: Zhao Tao, Liao Fan, Feng Xiaogang, Xu Zheng, Zhang Yibai | Genre: Drama, Martial Arts
Renowned auteur Jia Zhangke is back at it again with Ash Is Purest White, perhaps his most ambitious feature yet.
Often known as the “godfather of Chinese independent film,” Jia rose to fame by making poignant movies exploring the bleak underbelly of China’s recent modernization and economic growth. Ash Is Purest White continues this tradition, but also melds it with another key facet of Chinese culture: martial arts.
Ash Is Purest White, portrays the relationship between a hardscrabble woman (played by Jia’s wife and recurring muse Zhao Tao) and low-level gangster (Liao Fan from Black Coal, Thin Ice). The novelistic film documents their story over 18 years, tracing China’s past two decades of evolution through the lens of gangster politics and gritty fight scenes.
Screened at Cannes, Ash Is Purest White is a critical darling that you should watch if you’re into award-winning fare. However, the film is also action-packed enough to please anyone who doesn’t care for artistry, which makes it stand out among 2018’s other Chinese indie offerings (some of which are good, but ridiculously long and esoteric).
3. A Cool Fish
Nobody expected A Cool Fish to do as well as it did. With a relatively unpretentious cast and low budget, the film became a surprise winner at China’s box office when it premiered, beating out Hollywood blockbusters like Crazy Rich Asians and Venom.
A Cool Fish (whose Chinese name 无名之辈 roughly translates to “the nameless”) tells a stories of nobodies at the margins of society—two dumb robbers, a security guard, and a disabled woman, among others. Dark humored with sprinkles of action, the film offers a surprisingly philosophical but still highly approachable examination of ambition and the purpose of existence.
Despite being “nobodies”, each of the film’s characters feels three dimensional as we learn their motivations and backgrounds. While there’s a big cast of characters, the plot weaves all their narrative strands together with ease and elegance.
Filled with laughs, tears, and the occasional street fight, A Cool Fish is a refreshing and authentic addition to China’s best films of 2018.
2. Operation Red Sea
Chinese title: 红海行动 | Starring: Zhang Yi, Huang Jingyu, Hai Qing, Du Jiang | Genre: Action, War
We’ve seen many movies based on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, featuring the American military intervening in the Middle East. Operation Red Sea marks the first time we’ve seen the Chinese military jumping into the foray.
One of the top-grossing films in China this year, Operation Red Sea shows an elite group of Chinese special forces sent to rescue Chinese hostages held in an unnamed Middle Eastern country. Famed Hong Kong director Dante Lam, who also directed Chinese military intervention hit Operation Mekong, treats viewers to a two-hour-long sequence of gunfights and explosions—and a tank battle. With a $70 million budget, Operation Red Sea spared no expense in portraying war in all of its bloody realities.
The film’s not just a blockbuster: Operation Red Sea was also submitted as Hong Kong’s nomination (the mainland gets a separate slot) for the foreign language film category at the Oscars.
Interested to learn more? Read our review of Operation Red Sea here.
1. Dying to Survive
Chinese title: 我不是药神 | Starring: Xu Zheng, Wang Chuanjun, Gong Beibei, Zhou Yiwei, Tan Zhuo | Genre: Drama, Comedy
Number one on our list this year is a touching yet comedic commentary on the high cost of pharmaceuticals in China.
Loosely based on the true story of Lu Yong, a Jiangsu-born textile manufacturer who purchased anti-cancer drugs from India for himself and thousands of other Chinese chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) patients, Dying to Survive tackles the suffering of Chinese cancer patients head-on. Most notably, Dying to Survive also features Chinese citizens organizing grassroots efforts to tackle social ills, without the involvement of the party — a topic that would normally be a big no-no in China.
What makes Dying to Survive remarkable is that it actually provoked government response—Premier Li Keqiang issued a statement shortly after the film’s release, promising to make further efforts to reduce the cost of live-saving drugs in China.
Want to learn more? Read our in-depth review of Dying to Survive here, or watch our own Richard Yu’s interview with the BBC about the film and its sociopolitical impact.
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For more Chinese movies, check out The Best Chinese Movies on Netflix or The Best Chinese Movies of 2017!