Chinese cinema is garnering increasing international recognition. And it’s not just in the U.S. (although, we’ve always loved kung-fu films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or Jackie Chan’s Police Story). The recognition is much more global with Chinese directors winning awards at world-renowned platforms like the Cannes and Venice film festivals.
However, westerners don’t often hear about the films that make it big in China. This might be because Chinese blockbusters are usually based on cultural and historical topics that most Americans are unaware of, or because we don’t always understand Chinese humor.
So for this reason, let’s walk through the top 5 Chinese movies of 2018 that you might have never heard of.
5) Us and Them （后来的我们）
The directorial debut of famous Taiwanese singer-actress Rene Liu tells the story of a tragic love affair in two timelines: one in the present, and one in the past (shot in a stylish black-and-white).
The star-crossed lovers Lin and Xiaoxiao serendipitously meet on a crowded train during China’s chaotic chunyun, when thousands of family members across the country migrate to their family homes for Chinese New Year celebrations.
After briefly getting to know each other, Xiaoxiao moves into Lin’s Beijing apartment. Lin is a struggling video-game maker obsessed with getting rich, and Xiaoxiao knows she wants love but doesn’t know how. The film also features a blind father and a whole lot of sad violin music, making it an instant tearjerker.
4) Ash is Purest White (江湖儿女)
Directed by Jia Zhangke, one of the most seminal directors of China’s Sixth Generation of filmmakers, Ash is Purest White is an absolutely epic film — and I mean epic in its truest sense.
Both tragic and comedic, melodramatic and incredibly subtle, the film is set in three acts. It begins by following the quick-witted criminal Qiao and her gangster boyfriend Bin, fighting and surviving in a grimy and industrial 2001 Datong.
However, Ash is Purest White isn’t just a mobster movie. It expands into a massive story not only discussing these two intensely likable criminals but about the state of modern China itself.
3) Detective Chinatown 2
This film is a little (actually a lot) less serious than the previous two, and within a year of its release, it has become China’s third highest-grossing film of all time.
This movie follows the goofy scooby-doo like Detective Qin. In the first Detective Chinatown, he fought crime in Bangkok after being rejected by the Chinese Police Academy. Now, he is engaged in a detective competition in New York City. Chinatown’s gangster godfather’s grandson has been murdered — and he’s willing to pay a huge reward for whoever finds him.
Silly, action-packed and completely engaging, Detective Chinatown 2 (directed by Chen Sicheng) is a must-watch.
2) Dying to Survive (我不是药神）
Another directorial debut, this time from Wen Muye, Dying to Survive is all about smuggled cancer medicine — it sounds deadly serious, but it’s also incredibly funny.
Cheng Yong, who makes money selling aphrodisiacs, is growing poorer day by day, while his father’s brain disease grows increasingly severe. To make some quick cash, Cheng agrees to smuggle a certain leukemia medicine from India into China. Realizing how much money he can make, Cheng continues to sell the drug, while the police begin to grow suspicious about the proliferation of this new and unknown medicine.
Dying to Survive is not only a fantastic film but is also an interesting examination of China’s medicinal market, its intense crackdown on drug smuggling, as well as on China-India relations.
1) Operation Red Sea (红海行动）
The second highest-grossing film in Chinese history (right behind 2017’s Wolf Warrior) is Operation Red Sea. It was directed by Dante Lam as a commemoration of the 90th anniversary of the Chinese People’s National Liberation Army.
The movie is loosely based around the 2015 evacuation of 225 foreign nationals and 600 Chinese citizens from Yemen’s southern port of Aden at the outbreak of the country’s civil war.
The movie is intensely nationalistic, and is basically just one big fight scene — but it’s also a pretty engaging watch.
Operation Red Sea is also an interesting representation of China’s military force and China’s increasing importance on the global stage.