Spurred by such box office juggernauts as The Battle at Lake Changjin (长津湖), Hi Mom (你好, 李焕英) and Detective Chinatown 3 (唐人街探案3), the cinema of Mainland China truly roared back from the pandemic-induced doldrums in 2021.
In addition to blockbuster fare, the past twelve months have treated audiences to a wide variety of local films from relatively new and internationally recognized directors alike, thereby ensuring that China’s national cinema continues to be an accessible avenue to better understanding its rich culture.
Encompassing everything from multiplex crowd-pleasers to topical adult dramas to festival favourites, here are the year’s ten best Chinese films.
Cliff Walkers (悬崖之上) (Dir. Zhang Yimou)
Cliff Walkers sees venerable Fifth Generation figurehead Zhang Yimou taking his first shot at the spy genre and hitting the target with customary style. The puppet state of Manchukuo in the 1930s is painstakingly recreated as a snow-covered stage for a deliciously convoluted cloak-and-dagger yarn which is jam-packed with the requisite breathless foot chases, unflinching interrogations and ruthless double-crosses.
Cliff Walkers (悬崖之上) © 2021 China Film Co., Ltd., Emperor Motion Pictures
Farewell, My Hometown (再见，乐园) (Dir. Wang Erzhuo)
Three generations of Chinese women reflect on their lives in Wang Erzhou’s exquisitely bittersweet narrative-documentary hybrid. As stories and narrations overlap, formally composed images of their respective environments (serene mountain landscapes, the gleaming modern cityscape, provincial schools and public parks) exude a profoundly lyrical quality which subtly evokes a lack of individual fulfilment in an accelerated nation.
Farewell, My Hometown (再见，乐园) © 2021 Xin Zhou Films
Hi, Mom (你好，李焕英) (Dir. Jia Ling)
The runaway hit of Lunar New Year 2021, this energetic and unabashedly sentimental travel comedy from director-star Jia Ling finds the popular comedian transported back to 1981 where she endeavours to make life better for her then-unmarried factory worker mother (Zhang Xiaofei). It’s an overstretched yet entirely charming fantasy which cannily taps into nostalgia for the era of economic reform.
Hi, Mom (你好，李焕英) © 2021 Tiger Pictures International
The Old Town Girls (兔子暴力) (Dir. Shen Yu)
Coming-of-age drama meets neo-noir when a lonely teenager (Li Gengxi) reconnects with her flighty biological mother (Wan Qian), only for their newfound bond to be threatened by a merciless loan shark. Making stark use of its industrial town backdrop, Shen Yu’s accomplished debut strikes a delicate balance between an empathic vision of girlhood and a frank depiction of societal ills.
The Old Town Girls (兔子暴力) © 2020 Laurel Films
Railway Heroes (铁道英雄) (Dir. Yang Feng)
Set during the Second Sino-Japanese War, this handsomely mounted men on a mission movie has ample throwback appeal to go alongside its surfeit of patriotic fervour. Based on the exploits of the "Lunan Railway Brigade", it delivers impressive action sequences as resistance fighters (led by a typically taciturn Zhang Hanyu) put their lives on the line to sabotage the Japanese invasion.
Railway Heroes (铁道英雄) © 2021 Huayi Brothers Pictures, China Film Co.
Ripples of Life (永安镇故事集) (Dir. Wei Shujun)
Fledgling auteur Wei Shujun follows his semi-autobiographical debut Striding into the Wind (野马分鬃) with a droll yet poignant meta-comedy in which a film crew descends on a rural community. Episodically focusing on a range of characters from a starry-eyed extra to the combative creative partnership at the project’s core, this is a layered critique of the cinematic idealization of ordinary lives.
Ripples of Life (永安镇故事集) © 2021 Factory Gate Films, Inner Self Films
Sister (我的姐姐) (Dir. Yin Ruoxin)
This thought-provoking take on the enduring influence of filial piety in contemporary Chinese society concerns an independently minded medical student (Zhang Zifeng) who is expected to assume responsibility of her 6-year-old brother when their parents perish in a car accident. Zhang superbly conveys the pragmatic heroine’s conflicted feelings in a mature drama which prompted a national conversation about gender hierarchy.
Sister (我的姐姐) © 2021 China Film Co., HG Entertainment, T.R. Movie
Streetwise (街娃儿) (Dir. Na Jiazuo)
Taking place in a declining Sichuan riverside town in the 2000s, this moodily evocative crime drama follows the plight of an aimless debt collector (Li Jiuxiao) who yearns deeply for an enigmatic tattoo parlour owner (Huang Miyi). A strikingly realized debut feature by Na Jiazuo which trades as much in neon-lit bruised romanticism as it does in provincial underworld backstabbing.
Streetwise (街娃儿) © 2021 The Seventh Art Pictures
Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue (一直游到海水变蓝) (Dir. Jia Zhangke)
For his latest record of China’s sweeping transformation, Jia Zhangke invites three renowned authors (Jia Pingwa, Yu Hua and Liang Hong) to his Shanxi hometown to ruminate on how China has changed since the 1940s. Charting a winding path through a complicated history, this illuminating documentary appropriately uses a chapter-based structure to filter staggered rural development through a literary perspective.
Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue (一直游到海水变蓝 ) can be found on Mubi
Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue (一直游到海水变蓝 ) © 2020 Xstream Pictures
A Writer’s Odyssey (刺杀小说家) (Dir. Lu Yang)
Having established himself as a robust action director with the epic Brotherhood of Blades saga, Lu Yang plunges headfirst into the realm of fantasy with this abundantly imaginative tale of a viral online novel dangerously encroaching on reality. Both the elaborate world-building and effects-heavy set pieces are vigorously executed while Lei Jiayin’s ruggedly determined everyman hero provides the human dimension.
A Writer’s Odyssey (刺杀小说家) © 2021 Alibaba Pictures, Free Whale Pictures, Huace Pictures, Sunac Pictures
If you want more Chinese movie recommendations, check out these other Chinese cinema classics.
John Berra is a lecturer in Film and Language Studies at Renmin University of China. He is a film critic for Screen Daily and has also contributed to BFI Online, China Pictorial and The Chinese Film Market.