In 2019, to Hollywood’s chagrin, Chinese moviegoers largely forwent American blockbusters for local productions. On the world stage, Chinese films also got a boost from broader global distribution both in theaters and via streaming platforms like Netflix. Given the success of Chinese movies in 2019, you’re probably wondering—what were the top Chinese movies this year?
As we wrap up 2019, let’s take a look the 10 Best Chinese Movies of 2019.
Ranging from comedies to animations, and action movies to deep dramas, these best Chinese movies have not only won the hearts and minds of the Chinese people, but also many viewers around the world.
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10. Crazy Alien
Chinese title: 疯狂的外星人 | Director: Ning Hao | Starring: Huang Bo, Shen Teng, Tom Pelphrey, Matthew Morrison | Genre: Comedy, Sci-Fi
China and the US haven’t exactly been on the best of terms in 2019. Chinese sci-fi comedy Crazy Alien reflected that in a humorous way. The film let America make first contact with an alien, only to let the alien fall into Chinese hands. A Chinese monkey trainer then takes in the alien (thinking it’s an exotic monkey species) to humorous results. Meanwhile, American forces try to capture the alien asset.
While Crazy Alien never ventures beyond slapstick humor, the film is still fairly entertaining. As long as you don’t mind humor at the expense of American pride, Crazy Alien delivers laughter by poking fun at American cultural tropes—ranging from a belief in American superiority on the world stage, to clandestine violations of other nations’ sovereignty.
Check out our review of the film if you want to learn more!
Chinese title: 飞驰人生 | Director: Han Han | Starring: Shen Teng, Huang Jingyu, Zheng Yin | Genre: Comedy, Drama, Motorsport
Fans of Chinese movies and petrolheads will delight at Pegasus, popular author Han Han‘s latest cinematic effort. At the center of Pegasus’ redemption narrative is Zhang Chi (Shen Teng of Goodbye Mr. Loser), a former rally car racing champion who just emerged from a five year driving ban for illegal street racing. His life in shambles, Zhang hopes to redeem himself in one last rally competition.
However, Zhang Chi has to surpass numerous hurdles ranging from getting his driver’s license back, to building a rally racing car for his competition. While none of these challenges are particularly burdensome, they do provide a good amount of body to the plot of the film. Ultimately though, Pegasus is more about motoring entertainment than dramatic value.
Want to learn more about Pegasus? Read our review here!
8. Ne Zha
Chinese title: 哪吒 | Director: Yu Yang | Voices: Lü Yanting, Cao Yalong, Wang Zheng, Chen Hao, Zeng Hongru, Yang Wei, Zhang Jiaming | Genre: Comedy, Animation, Action, Drama
When most moviegoers think of animated films, they usually think of Disney, or the Japanese anime industry. This year, Chinese hit animated movie Ne Zha showed audiences that China’s animation industry packs a punch as well. The story of Ne Zha is based on an eponymous deity from Chinese folk religion. However, while the movie draws heavily from the Chinese legend of Ne Zha, it ends up being a much more light-hearted and family-friendly story that omits the gory details of Chinese folklore.
At its core, Ne Zha tells the story of an unruly child (named Ne Zha) who is possessed by a demon spirit. His upright parents attempt to keep Ne Zha from causing too much chaos, but largely fail in keeping Ne Zha from terrorizing local villagers. Ne Zha ultimately tries to redeem himself by battling against a truly evil force alongside his fellow villagers.
Perhaps owing to a mix of patriotism among Chinese movie-goers, and the relative lack of competition this summer, Ne Zha smashed box office records. It’s now not only the highest-grossing animated film in Chinese history, but also one of the top movies across all genres. Even a Communist Party mouthpiece published a piece asking party cadres to “channel [their] inner Ne Zha”.
Want to learn more about Ne Zha? Read our review of the film!
7. Send Me to the Clouds
Chinese title: 送我上青云 | Director: Teng Congcong | Starring: Yao Chen | Genre: Drama
China was one of the first nations to proudly proclaim that “women hold up half the sky.” While the People’s Republic of China still lags behind in some aspects of women’s rights, the 2019 film Send Me to the Clouds was an apt movie for a nation keen on improving its feminist credentials. Send Me to the Clouds tells the story of Sheng Nan’s quest to have a “mind-blowing” sexual experience before she undergoes surgery to cure ovarian cancer.
Send Me To The Clouds contains ample commentary about the social pressures Chinese women face. While the pursuit of “mind-blowing” sex is the basis of the film’s plot, the majority of the film concerns itself with gendered social expectations—male and female alike. The men in Sheng Nan’s life pursue materialism to gain the respect of their family members, while Sheng Nan herself struggles to carve out her own meaning of life independent of her mother’s expectations.
Interested in reading more about Send Me to the Clouds? Read our full review here!
6. The Last Sunrise
Chinese title: 最后的日出 | Director: Wen Ren | Starring: Zhang Jue, Zhang Ran | Genre: Sci-Fi, Drama
If you watched The Last Sunrise, you wouldn’t have guessed that it was shot in 14 days on a budget of US$250,000. In his first feature film, director Wen Ren deftly utilizes every ounce of resource to deliver an extremely thoughtful and touching narrative about two people trying to survive the end of the world.
The Last Sunrise is set in a future China that is entirely powered by solar energy. One day, the sun mysteriously disappears, throwing China (and presumably the rest of the world) into complete disarray. Amateur scientist Sun Yang teams up with his neighbor Chen Mu to try to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. The Last Sunrise also grapples with some tough moral decisions for the pair, artfully depicting the cruel reality of survival without passing judgement on the duo.
Science-fiction is generally known for its big, fantastic visuals—think Blade Runner 2049, Interstellar, Arrival, and even The Wandering Earth, to name a few. The Last Sunrise defines its own sub-category, one that capitalizes on gentle, subtler moments to highlight the dynamics between its two protagonists. Science fiction rests mainly in the background, a sky full of stars that envelops our protagonists along their route.
5. Wild Goose Lake
Chinese title: 南方车站的聚会 | Director: Diao Yinan | Starring: Hu Ge, Liao Fan, Gwei Lun-mei, Wan Qian | Genre: Drama
Diao Yinan’s follow up to his breakthrough feature Black Coal, Thin Ice is set in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Wild Goose Lake features an all-star cast and blends complex interpersonal relationships to deliver a gripping melodrama. The neo-noir film competed for the prestigious Palm d’Or Award at Cannes in 2019, and received critical accolades.
Like Diao’s prior work, Wild Goose Lake tracks the story of people who are on the periphery of China’s economic boom. Largely shot in the local dialect, the film tracks the story of a gangster pursued by police, who meets a prostitute seeking a new life. Wild Goose Lake is set in the darker, grittier part of China that Beijing is not exactly keen on highlighting to global audiences. Diao once again artfully showcases that even the bleak and cruel parts of China have gripping stories to tell.
4. So Long, My Son
Chinese title: 地久天长 | Director: Wang Xiaoshuai | Starring: Wang Jingchun, Yong Mei, Wang Yuan, Xu Cheng| Genre: Drama, Family
Winner of two Silver Bears at the Berlinale, So Long, My Son is one of 2019’s most critically acclaimed Chinese art house movies. Tracing the lives of two families from the 1980’s to the present day, the film offers a humanistic perspective on China’s “Reform and Opening.”
Across its decades-long storyline, So Long, My Son broaches topics like wealth inequality and the One-child Policy. Yet, it’s not an overtly political film; it simply aspires to show everyday life for its characters. The film has parallels with Hirokazu Kore-eda and Jia Zhangke‘s works—one one hand it’s a slow-moving take on family life, on the other it looks upon contemporary China. Viewers who enjoy artistic movies or studying China will find value from So Long, My Son.
To learn more about So Long, My Son, read our full review.
3. Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains
Chinese title: 春江水暖 | Director: Gu Xiaogang | Starring: Youfa Qian, Fengjuan Wang, Zhangjian Sun, Renliang Zhang, Guoying Zhang, Zhangwei Sun, Hongjun Du, Luqi Peng, Yi Zhuang, Zikang Sun, Zhenyang Dong | Genre: Drama, Family
Gu Xiaogang’s debut as a director couldn’t really have gone much better: the former fashion industry worker’s first feature film Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains was screened at Cannes and critics raved about it. Slow-paced and undramatic, Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains tells the story of three generations of the Yu family, who live in the city of Fuyang.
There’s not much tension or drama to the plot. Instead of letting the story drive the film, Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains more resembles a Chinese landscape painting. Life events happen to the characters of the movie, rather than the movie’s protagonists acting in progression of the plot. Beyond an exceptional cinematic experience featuring stunning landscapes of rural China, Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains highlights a number of social issues in contemporary China ranging from parental marital pressure to materialism.
Interested in learning more about Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains? Read our review here!
2. The Wandering Earth
Chinese title: 流浪地球 | Director: Frant Gwo | Starring: Wu Jing, Qu Chuxiao, Li Guangjie, Ng Man-tat, Zhao Jinmai, Mike Sui | Genre: Sci-Fi, Drama, Action
Our second best Chinese movie of 2019 is the sci-fi movie The Wandering Earth. Wolf Warrior star Wu Jing headlined the cast, leading to concerns from some Chinese netizens that The Wandering Earth might turn into a jingoistic propaganda movie. Those fears were easily allayed. Not only was The Wandering Earth visually breathtaking, but also the screenwriting and acting were superb.
The Wandering Earth is set in a not-so-distant future where the sun begins to expand, threatening to swallow up planet Earth. In response, world governments unite to enact a plan that will move the planet to a new solar system (hence the title of the movie). Apparently, this plan wasn’t very good, because Earth falls into the gravity well of Jupiter on its way out, and a group of (predominantly Chinese) technicians and scientists band together to save the day.
There are indeed subtle hints of Beijing’s propaganda efforts in The Wandering Earth, but director Frant Gwo artfully weaves them into the narrative thread of the film so that they don’t feel jarring or blatantly obvious. The film champions Chinese heroes no more than Hollywood movies champion American might—making the film one of China’s best forays into building soft power to date. By focusing on making a great movie first and foremost, while only hinting at Chinese greatness, Frant Gwo can ensure that international audiences will actually appreciate the film and might leave with a more positive view of China afterwards.
Interested in learning more about The Wandering Earth? Check out our review of the movie!
1. Better Days
Chinese title: 少年的你 | Director: Derek Tsang | Starring: Zhou Dongyu, Jackson Yee | Genre: Drama
We round off our list of 2019’s best Chinese movies with a film that almost didn’t make it to the big screen this year—Better Days. The film features Zhou Dongyu and TFBoys member Jackson Yee play a bullied schoolgirl (Chen Nian) and high school dropout (Xiao Bei) respectively. After a chance encounter, the two form an unlikely bond as Xiao Bei helps protect Chen Nian from her bullies, and Chen Nian begins to give Xiao Bei a reason to live.
Chinese authorities delayed Better Days‘ release multiple times in 2019. Authorities yanked Better Days from the Berlinale in Febuary, and the film’s producers cancelled a planned summer wide theatrical debut. Better Days was worth the wait though. Zhou’s rendition of Chen Nian shows the breadth of her acting abilities, while the brutally honest portrayal of teenage bullying on-screen helped bring the social issue to light.
Interested in learning more? Check out our full review of Better Days here!
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