This was a whirlwind year for not just Chinese movies, but also all cinema globally. The COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 prevented many Chinese films from premiering during the lucrative Lunar Year Festival period. However, despite these headwinds, there was a bright moment for Chinese cinema in 2020—the Chinese box office overtook North America‘s for the first time in October.
As the year winds to an end, you might be wondering—what were the Best Chinese Movies of 2020?
There were certainly many great Chinese films to choose from. From war movies to dramas, Chinese filmmakers gave us plenty to consider this year. We hope that these great Chinese movies will make their way to a theater (or online streaming service) near you soon.
In line with Cinema Escapist’s mission to explore and connect the world through a cinematic lens, we think the best Chinese movies help audiences understand more about Chinese culture and social context. Thus, our ranking of the best Chinese movies focuses on the extent to which they help audiences learn about China, rather than simply their entertainment value.
With that said, let’s take a look at the 10 top Chinese movies of 2020!
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10. Lost in Russia
Chinese title: 囧妈 | Director: Xu Zheng | Starring: Xu Zheng, Huang Meiying, Yuan Quan | Genre: Comedy, Family
We start off our list of the best Chinese movies of 2020 with Lost in Russia, the latest installment in Chinese comedy director Xu Zheng’s commercially successful “Lost In” series (prior locales include Thailand and Hong Kong). The film offers relatable laughs and a heartwarming mother-son story amidst a superficial Russian backdrop.
Lost in Russia features Xu Zheng as both director and lead actor, playing a middle-aged businessman named Xu Ivan. In the midst of divorce proceedings, Xu wants to fly to New York, only to find that his mother Lu Xiaohua took his passport. While trying to get his passport back, Xu ends up trapped with his mother on the K3 Beijing to Moscow Trans-Siberian train. The train will take six days to reach Moscow, where Lu hopes to sing at a concert promoting 70 years of Sino-Russian relations. This gives Xu and Lu much time to bicker and bond.
Anybody from a Chinese background—or another culture with similar family dynamics—will find Lost in Russia’s portrayal of mother-son relations immensely relatable. Lu exemplifies the classic overbearing Chinese mother. Filled with ample maternal love but little rationality, Lu dotes on Xu Ivan to the point of being manipulative. She literally stuffs his mouth with food, constantly bugs Xu about when he’ll produce a grandchild, and—as we quickly discover—took Xu’s passport on purpose. Her decision to take the train instead of a plane to Moscow is completely illogical, and Xu suspects her concert is a WeChat scam.
However, not all Chinese netizens found the story heartwarming; some (potentially older) Chinese critics said Lost in Russia was merely Xu Zheng complaining about his own mother. The mixed reviews are perhaps due to the generation gap portrayed in the film. Fortunately, many Chinese people got to form their own opinions about the film; when COVID-19 shut down most of China in early 2020, Huanxi Media made a US$91 million deal with tech giant Bytedance to stream the comedy for free on TikTok and other Bytedance platforms. Lost in Russia thus was a nice reprieve during the worst days of COVID-19 lockdowns, with hundreds of millions of Chinese stuck at home, perhaps with their overbearing mothers, amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Check out our full review of Lost in Russia here!
9. My People, My Homeland
Chinese title: 我和我的家乡 | Director: Ning Hao, Xu Zheng, Chen Sicheng, Yan Fei, Peng Damo, Deng Chao, Yu Baimei | Starring: Various | Genre: Comedy, Drama, Anthology
Our next entry on the list of China’s best movies of 2020 is My People, My Homeland, an anthology of five short films showcasing the lives of various people around China. A number of notable directors (including Ning Hao and Xu Zheng), writers, and cast members came together to make the film.
The five shorts tell the story of an uncle-nephew pair seeking medical treatment; a group of villagers, reporters, and scientists investigating a UFO; a village coming together to help their Alzheimers-stricken teacher recover his memories; a group of e-commerce sellers returning to their village; and an art student who gives up his studies and returns to his home village.
My People, My Homeland was one of the biggest hits at China’s box office in 2020; the film raked in nearly US$400 million. Netizens also had positive things to say about the film; some even said the short stories elicited tears, a testament to how empathetic some of the scenes were.
8. The Eight Hundred
Chinese title: 八百 | Director: Guan Hu | Starring: Huang Zhizhong, Zhang Junyi, Oho Ou, Jiang Wu, Zhang Yi, Wang Qianyuan, Du Chun, Vision Wei, Li Chen, Yu Haoming, Zheng Kai | Genre: War, Historical, Action
The Eight Hundred might have been on our list of the best Chinese movies of 2019, were it not for intervention from the Chinese government pushing the film’s release to 2020.
The Eight Hundred tells the story of a group of Republican (Nationalist) Chinese soldiers tasked with defending Shanghai’s Sihang Warehouse in 1937 during the Second Sino-Japanese War (the Chinese theater of World War II). In both real life and the film, a little over four hundred soldiers (exaggerated to eight hundred by their commander) held a warehouse across a river from the foreign concessions in Shanghai, in the hopes that their valiant efforts would be noticed by Western media to add pressure for a peace settlement with Imperial Japan.
While The Eight Hundred lacked some of the emotional depth and character development that other Chinese war films like Assembly (or even American films like Saving Private Ryan) offered, the film does a good job with special effects, explosions, and gun battles. Beyond the action, The Eight Hundred offers interesting political takes. Throughout the film, we see scenes of Chinese soldiers living in austerity and dying to defend their country, while decadent Westerners watch on from safety in the concessions without taking action. Chinese civilians who escaped to the concessions initially partake in their newfound decadent, safe lives, only for many later on to risk their lives to help their stranded compatriots in a demonstration of loyalty to the motherland.
Regardless of whether they came for the action or the political insight, The Eight Hundred is certainly the most commercially successful Chinese movie not just in 2020, but in history. It pulled in over US$400 million at the box office, making it not only top China’s box office this year, but global box offices.
Read our full review of The Eight Hundred here!
7. Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue
Chinese title: 一直游到海水变蓝 | Director: Jia Zhangke | Genre: Documentary, Anthology
Perhaps today’s most renowned Chinese independent film director, Jia Zhangke is back again this year with Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue. It’s his first documentary in a decade, and the capstone to a trilogy (alongside Dong and Useless) about modern Chinese artists. Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue outlines the literary history of post-1949 “New China,” weaving together the lives of four writers who represent different periods of the People’s Republic. Like with Jia’s narrative features, the documentary aptly highlights what’s left behind in the wake of China’s rapid modernization: rural life, local dialects, memories of past tragedies like the Cultural Revolution.
While most cinephiles both within and outside of China may find Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue much less accessible than Jia’s regular features, that doesn’t make it any less compelling of a film. Rather, it’s tracing of how China’s agrarian, rural past influences it’s present, industrial economy makes the film a laudable addition to our list of the best Chinese movies of 2020.
Hopefully Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue sparks inspiration among curious audiences less familiar with the intricacies of Chinese culture and literature to research and learn more about the rich, thousands-year-old history of the nation so they can fully appreciate the beauty of Jia’s latest work.
Does Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue sound like an enticing challenge? Check out our full review here for more information!
6. Wild Grass
Chinese title: 荞麦疯长 | Director: Xu Zhanxiong | Starring: Ma Sichun, Zhong Chuxi, Xin Peng | Genre: Drama, Romance
After their joint appearance in Chinese girl-friendship hit Soul Mate, Zhou Dongyu and Ma Sichuan had widely different career trajectories. While Zhou headlined blockbusters like Us After Them and Better Days, Ma stumbled and struggled with a series of unimpressive dramas and films. Wild Grass was the film set to revive Ma’s career, but Chinese netizens (and the box office) were unimpressed. However, we actually think Wild Grass was a well made film featuring beautifully tragic characters, caught up in the disappointing web of fate.
Wild Grass weaves together the story of two women trying to make a better life for themselves. Li Mai (Zhong Chuxi) is a dancer due to move to Japan for a more glamorous life with her wealthy Japanese boyfriend, while Ma’s Yun Qiao simply aspires to escape an abusive family life with her boyfriend Qin Sheung (Xin Peng). The two women literally meet head on, as Li’s car collides with Yun and Qin’s motorcycle. After the accidents Li suffers nerve damage, rendering her unable to dance again, while Yun and Qin’s fate are left uncertain. Abandoned by her boyfriend, Li descends from glamorous dance troupe star to a showgirl in a seedy nightclub run by a local gang. We later learn this happens to be the same gang who stole money from Qin, more deeply connecting the stories of our tragic protagonists.
While some critics panned the film’s lack of coherence across the two main character arcs, we actually found the focus on Li and Yun’s respective tragic lives to be deeply moving and empathetic. Over the course of the film, we gain an understanding of the struggles of each character as they seek to escape their miserable circumstances. Left with no hope of resurrecting her dance career, Li has no choice but to offer sexual favors to pay for her mother’s medical bills. Yun bravely moves to the “big city” without a cent to her name, after being raped by her brother-in-law. Each of these stories is powerful in their own right; that they come together at various touchpoints adds to the artistic complexity and depth of the film, making the plot all the more interesting.
Chinese title: 金刚川 | Director: Guan Hu, Frant Gwo, Yang Lu | Starring: Wu Jing, Zhang Yi, Li Jiuxiao, Wei Chen, Deng Chao | Genre: War, Action, Historical
Amidst rising China-US tensions, China celebrated the 70th anniversary of her involvement in the Korean War (aka The War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea), in which the China People’s Volunteer army fought back aggressive US-led forces from the Yalu River. Officially, over a hundred thousand Chinese soldiers were killed in action; however, Western sources estimate nearly four hundred thousand Chinese soldiers died in the war. The war was the newly-formed People’s Republic’s first military action, and remains the largest war fought by China since the end of the second world war.
Sacrifice is set in the context of this war. The film focuses on the story of a group of combat engineers trying to hold a bridge in the midst of constant bombardment from the US air force. Featuring famous patriotic film names such as Guan Hu (director, The Eight Hundred), Frant Gwo (director, The Wandering Earth), and Wu Jing (actor, Wolf Warrior), Sacrifice is a feat of cinematic prowess. The film was released just 78 days after principal photography began, and a team of over two thousand worked around the clock to finish the special effects.
There’s no doubt that the film is meant to elicit patriotic fervor among China’s youth, who are a generation (if not two) removed from the hardships that their predecessors experienced in the quest to build a modern China. In an interview with the Global Times, director Guan mentioned that his personal connection to the war through his mother made him feel responsible to make Sacrifice, to “tell the Chinese people today about how we won the war 70 years ago.”
Geopolitical reasons aside, Sacrifice features impressive combat scenes, and more focus on the individual soldiers’ characters than other Chinese war movies like The Eight Hundred did. Frant Gwo actually interviewed veterans of the war, helping to make the characters more compelling and realistic. The film also performed well commercially; it raked in nearly US$50 million in its opening weekend, leading box offices.
4. The Old Town Girls
Chinese title: 兔子暴力 | Director: Shen Yu | Starring: Qian, Li Gengxi, Huang Jue | Genre: Drama, Neo-Noir
While many blockbuster movies focus on the lives of the middle class living in big cities (My Old Classmate, The Ex-Files, The Truth About Beauty), neo-noirs in China tend to tell the story of working-class people in lower-tier cities. The Old Town Girls is set in such a lower-tier industrial city. The film follows the story of teenager Shui Qing (Li Gengxi), whose free-willed mother Qu Ting (Wan Qian) abandoned her at a young age. Ignored by her stepmother, Shui Qing attempts to bond with her birth mother when she suddenly shows up in her hometown, only to find herself drawn into a dark world of gangsters and loan sharks.
The Old Town Girls earns itself a spot on our list of the best Chinese movies of 2020 owing to its focus on the people left behind by China’s rapid economic ascension, combined with high production quality. The characters in the film are all pitiable; they live their lives with little hope for a better future, merely floating along the river of fate that propels them through time. The Old Town Girls uses contrast between daylight and nighttime to highlight the brighter, more fun moments of their lives, which only serve as punctuation marks in their darker, seedier realities.
The film has great character development, fast pacing, and a number of mysterious twists and turns that will keep audiences engaged despite the relatively unexciting premise of the plot. While The Old Town Girls will not leave you fulfilled or satisfied, the essence of a good neo-noir film is not a “feel-good” experience. Films like these are meant to be dark and depressing, and The Old Town Girls more than delivers on that promise.
While The Old Town Girls has yet to make it into theaters (it’s still in the midst of festival runs), we hope that when the film debuts in 2021, audiences will agree with our praise.
Read our full review of The Old Town Girls here!
3. The Best is Yet To Come
Chinese title: 不止不休 | Director: Wang Jing | Starring: White K, Miao Miao, Zhang Songwen, Song Yang | Genre: Historical, Drama
Our third best Chinese movie of 2020 comes from Chinese auteur Jia Zhangke’s protégés—Wang Jing. Wang’s directorial debut The Best is Yet To Come addresses a silent epidemic of discrimination against Hepatitis B carriers that’s plagued China for decades.
The Best is Yet To Come focuses on Han Dong, an aspiring investigative journalist. He represents the hopes and dreams of many young Chinese who migrated to big cities in the early 2000s in the hopes of a better life. Despite the fact that he’s a high school dropout who has only published online blogs, Han relentlessly pursues his dream to become a real journalist until he’s hired at a local newspaper. He stumbles upon a criminal enterprise faking Hepatitis B blood tests; while a story on this could catapult Han to journalistic stardom, he soon encounters obstacles that force him to weigh sympathy against career advancement.
Viewers familiar with Jia Zhangke’s work will see Wang Jing exhibit a similarly high quality of cinematography and production design in The Best is Yet to Come. Rich colors and careful camerawork complement the film’s portrayal of sensitive subjects, and evoke a feeling of nostalgia for early 2000’s Beijing—an arguably more hopeful and carefree time than today, and a period that saw auteurs like Jia Zhangke and Wang Xiaoshuai (of Beijing Bicycle) rise to prominence.
The Best is Yet To Come screened at Venice this year, but it’s unclear when the film will get a theatrical release in China. No doubt a film with an investigative journalist as the main character will face political headwinds, but we have hopes that the movie will be greenlit, if not at least to highlight the government’s progress on combatting Heptatis B discrimination. China’s government officially banned employment discrimination based on Hepatitis B in 2010; however, stigma still persists to this day. Like with all types of systemic discrimination, change cannot come from policy alone—it must also come from people’s hearts. Hopefully, The Best is Yet to Come can be a small part of this change.
2. Jiang Ziya
Chinese title: 姜子牙 | Director: Teng Cheng, Wei Li | Genre: Animation, Drama, Family
The Chinese animated flick Ne Zha earned itself a spot on our list of the best Chinese movies of 2019 for how it brought Chinese mythology to life with world-class animation. Jiang Ziya is Beijing Enlight Pictures’ follow up to that film, telling the story of another hero from the hundred-chapter Chinese classic Investiture of the Gods. Jiang Ziya presents a touching message of individuality, in which the titular character defies the Heavens and his destiny to rescue a girl trapped inside a nine-tailed fox demon.
However, unlike Western films, Jiang Ziya presents individuality in a uniquely Asian context. Rather than Jiang Ziya acting independently of society, it’s actually his compassion for others and his personal sense of social responsibility that compels him to act against gods he believes are unjust.
Jiang Ziya is a family-friendly animation steeped in Chinese values, tradition, and mythology. It has emotional punches rivalling those of Pixar’s films, but also presents moral quandaries that make it a great watch with your whole family, sure to strike interesting conversations. One can only wonder and hope that films like Jiang Ziya are just the tip of the iceberg for the Chinese animation industry.
While Jiang Ziya has yet to reach the box office success of its predecessor Ne Zha, it did manage to shatter the latter’s single-day box office record, and competed head-to-head with My People, My Homeland over the National Day golden week this year.
Read our full review of Jiang Ziya here!
1. 76 Days
Chinese title: 76天 | Director: Hao Wu, Weixi Chen, Anonymous | Genre: Documentary
Are you surprised that Cinema Escapist’s best Chinese movie of 2020 is a documentary about COVID-19? After all, that was basically the defining factor that we’ll all remember 2020 for.
Chinese documentary filmmaker Wu Hao worked with Weixi Chen and an anonymous source to gather the footage for 76 Days. The film features rare footage shot from inside a Wuhan hospital, during the worst days of the COVID-19 pandemic in China. While the film was definitely not greenlit by the Chinese government, and the filmmakers took personal risk to capture the footage, it presents an unvarnished, honest view of China’s handling of the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Just one disclaimer—while the filmmakers are all Chinese, the producers are from the United States.
76 Days excels at putting the toll of the pandemic into human terms. The first half of the film features heart-wrenching footage of emotional turmoil, as patients start to die and their relatives shriek out in grief. However, the film also captures a more heart-warming side of the pandemic, as everyone from doctors to even taxi drivers came together to help Wuhan defeat the pandemic. Towards the end of 76 Days, we see scenes of the city emerging from lockdown, pointing towards an optimistic future for the rest of the world.
While it’s unlikely the film will get mass distribution in China for some time owing to the sensitivity around the COVID-19 narrative domestically, there was a surprising amount of reviews on Chinese film review site Douban about the film. Netizens in general had positive things to say about the film, giving it a 8.1 / 10 rating (albeit only from 400 people). One commentator said that all future COVID-19 documentaries should be like 76 Days, combining emotional scenes of tragedy with moments of strength among the people fighting the pandemic; we can’t help but to agree.
As vaccines start to offer the first glimmer of hope for a post-pandemic world, we hope that 76 Days can serve as a reminder of how the worst days of 2020 brought out the best in humanity.
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