10 most anticipated Chinese movies of 2023

Source: The China Project (1/13/23)
10 most anticipated Chinese movies of 2023
With the COVID-zero policy out of the picture, 2023 promises to be a busy year for Chinese cinema.
By Amarsanaa Battulga

Full River Red

2022 was not a great year for Chinese cinema — nor were 2021 and 2020: Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, China’s zero-tolerance approach to the virus kept cinemas closed, with frequent lockdowns confining filmgoers to their homes for extended periods of time.

Fearing low audience turnout and subsequent revenue loss, distributors repeatedly postponed film releases in the past three years. The result was a lack of new titles in general, particularly good ones. In 2022, China relinquished its box office crown to North America, raking in $4.35 billion, a drop of 36% from 2021, according to industry data tracker Maoyan Entertainment.

Although the pandemic-related restrictions have been largely lifted since December, moviegoers have remained reluctant to visit cinemas as infections surged across the country. But as the first wave of infections subside, studios are now rushing to meet the pent-up demand for new big-screen releases.

Below, The China Project has rounded up 10 Chinese movies we’re most looking forward to in 2023.

  1. Full River Red 满江红 mǎn jiāng hóng

China’s most famous living director, Zhāng Yìmóu 张艺谋, has been prolific for the past few years, despite being in his seventies. While North American audiences still haven’t had a chance to see his One Second (2020) and Snipers (2022, co-directed with his daughter, Zhāng Mò 张末), a new film by the renowned Chinese director is set to hit Chinese theaters on January 22, just in time for the Lunar New Year holiday.

Full River Red (translated literally from the Chinese title) marks the Fifth-Generation auteur’s return to period film after his 2018 Shadow. Labeled as comedy, the film stars crosstalk performer Yuè Yúnpéng 岳云鹏 and Shěn Téng 沈腾 (Pegasus) opposite singer-turned-actor Yìyáng Qiānx 易烊千玺 (Better Days).

Set in the Southern Song dynasty, the story revolves around a mysterious murder at the treacherous prime minister Qín Guì 秦桧’s residence. A soldier (Shen) and a deputy commander (Yiyang) are tasked to catch the killer, but there are greater forces at play in this fraught conspiracy.

2. The Wandering Earth 2 流浪地球2  liúlàng dìqiú èr

The Wandering Earth 2, a prequel to the massive sci-fi blockbuster that came out in 2019, will share the release date with Full River Red. Featuring the original’s director Guō Fān 郭帆 and male lead Wú Jīng 吴京, the second installment added Hong Kong star Liú Déhuá 刘德华 (Shock Wave 2) to its cast.

The much-awaited blockbuster is set to take the largest share of the lucrative Spring Festival box office, but whether it can financially outperform its predecessor — the fifth highest-grossing Chinese film of all time with $700 million earnings — remains to be seen.

While the story of the first film is centered on a plan to propel Earth away from the rapidly expanding Sun using 10,000 giant engines, the prequel’s story will focus on the conditions leading to the space odyssey. The trailers released thus far hint at emotional storylines of desperate fathers, i.e., astronaut Liú Péiqiáng 刘培强 (Wu) and engineer Tú Héngyǔ 图恒宇 (Lau), and their families. And, of course, there’s plenty of explosive action.

3. Hidden Blade 无名 wúmíng

Although writer-director Chéng Ěr 程耳 hasn’t yet made a name for himself outside China, he’s regarded quite highly among domestic audiences. His previous credits include a 2012 slow-burner crime thriller Lethal Hostage and a stylish, award-winning drama set in wartime Shanghai, The Wasted Times (2016), starring Zhāng Ziyí 章子怡 (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and veteran actor Gé Yōu 葛优 (To Live).

Cheng’s new film also enjoys a star-studded cast, featuring Liáng Cháowěi 梁朝伟 (Days of Being Wild), Zhōu Xùn 周迅 (Hero), and Wáng Yībó 王一博. Set in early 1940s Japanese-occupied Shanghai, the story follows Communist party members in their endeavor to “undermine the agreement between Japan and Chiang Kai-shek and safeguard the motherland,” according to the film’s synopsis on Douban.

Produced by Bona Film Group, which has been behind nearly every big-budget mainstream film for the past several years from The Taking of Tiger Mountain to The Battle at Lake ChangjinHidden Blade is bound to be a “main melody” movie as well. The real question is whether the film’s talented cast and Cheng’s creative approach can elevate it to something more than just patriotic. Audiences will find out the answer on January 22.

4. Deep Sea 深海 shēnhai

Yet another Lunar New Year film (贺岁片 hèsuì piān), this is a fantasy animation by writer-director Tián Xiǎopéng 田晓鹏. His previous project, Monkey King: Hero is Back, took local audiences by pleasant surprise in 2015 with its high-quality animation (at least by Chinese industry standards). The film is among the highest-ranked Chinese animations with a rating of 8.3 out of ten on the review site Douban.

The story of Deep Sea follows a girl who mistakenly enters the dreamy deep-sea world and boards a magical ship with an animal crew. The only worry is the editing. It was reported in September that the film ran into censorship difficulties . But the authorities granted approval soon afterwards in December, leaving some audiences to wonder what compromises were made.

Nevertheless, the visuals of Deep Sea, which has been seven years in the making, look far more advanced than that of Tian’s previous film.

5. Gagaland 舞迪斯科特 wǔ dísīkē tè

Gagaland is an upbeat dance flick set to premiere at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, which will run between January 25 and February 5. Over the past few decades the Dutch festival has been crucial in championing independent Chinese films, with three Chinese-language films winning the Tiger Award in a row between 2018 and 2020.

It tells the story of Boy K, a small-town teenager who quits his factory job and joins a motley crew of street dancers who vie for likes and shares. As he ascends to the height of gaga dance (尬舞 gà wǔ) — literally “embarrassing or awkward dance” — he falls for a fellow dancer, B Girl.

If that synopsis sounds intriguing, wait till you meet the director, Téng Yǔhán 滕语涵. In 2017, the 25-year-old enrolled in the Beijing Film Academy as the top candidate among applicants that year, but three years later, she dropped out and started a factory job in the southern city of Dongguan. While working on the assembly line, she produced videos, engaged in performance art, and completed her feature debut, Gagaland.

Given the film’s niche subject matter and limited commercial appeal, a theatrical release of it in China is unlikely, especially in what may be a year with a packed release calendar. But as was the case with Chinese titles that premiered abroad in recent years, Gagaland will probably screen at domestic festivals such as FIRST and Pingyao in the second half of the year.

Snow Leopard

6. Snow Leopard 雪豹 xuěbào 

The pioneer of Tibetan New Wave, Pema Tseden (万玛才旦 Wànmǎ Cáidàn), has returned with a new film. Snow Leopard wrapped shooting last July and will probably aim for a September premiere at the Venice Film Festival, where the director’s last three films were presented.

Starring Tibetan actor Jinpa (金巴 Jīn Bā), the film is about “how humans and animals get along”: A conflict ensues in a herder family when a snow leopard kills nine of their rams. The son wants to kill the leopard, but the herdsman father insists otherwise.

Despite little information revealed about the film, expectation is already running high for it among movie buffs. “There’s not much to say. [For] Pema Tseden, the bottom line is 7.5 [stars out of ten],” a comment on Douban reads.

7. All In, All 4 You 四十四个涩柿子 sìshísì gè sè shìzi

Writer-director Cài Chéngjié’s 蔡成杰 feature debut, The Widowed Witch, premiered at FIRST and was the first of the aforementioned three Chinese films that won the IFFR top award for three years in a row. Last August Cai returned to FIRST with his second feature, All In, All 4 You, which was the closing film of the festival.

Not much is known about the story except that it takes place in an art class with forty-one students and three teachers (hence, the Chinese title which translates to “forty-four astringent persimmons”). But the setting isn’t just any art class; it’s a preparation class for 艺考 yì kǎo, the grueling, hyper-competitive college entrance exam for art students in China.

Three Words

8. Three Words 三个字 sān gè zì

Sixth-Generation helmer Lóu Yè’s 娄烨 new film is another cinematic project that’s largely kept under the wraps. The director announced that shooting was completed when he posted a picture on his Weibo social media account last March. Currently under postproduction, Three Words features Jackson Yee, Zhāng Yǔ 章宇 (An Elephant Sitting Still), and Wáng Chuánjūn 王传君 (Dying to Survive).

According to the film’s synopsis, the story “inspires us to cherish the present, embrace faith in life, never forget the road of the past no matter how far we go, be a responsible person, face life bravely.” Between this vague, chicken-soup-for-the-soul-style description and the fact that Lou is collaborating with first-time scriptwriter Zhào Zhìgāng 赵志刚, few can guess what to expect from the film.

In the past two decades, several of Lou’s films were nominated for or won awards at the Big Three festivals — Venice, Cannes, and Berlin. Saturday Fiction, his latest directorial effort starring Gǒng Lì 巩俐, was honored as one of the best movies of 2022 by The New Yorker. However, cinephiles worldwide are most familiar with one of his earliest movies, Suzhou River (2000), a Shanghai-set romance.

9. Call Me Crazy 刺猬 cìwèi

Gù Chángwèi’s 顾长卫 career has had its highs and lows. As a cinematographer, he lensed highly-acclaimed Fifth-Generation classics such as Farewell, My Concubine and Red Sorghum. As a director, his last two efforts were subpar romantic comedies. But he also directed Peacock, his 2005 debut that won a Berlinale Silver Bear, and Love for Life, a 2011 adaptation of Chinese author Yán Liánkē’s 阎连科 Dream of Ding Village.

Returning to the big chair after four years, he has adapted another literary work, Zhèng Zhí 郑执’s critically acclaimed short story Fairy Disease (仙症 xiān zhèng). The family comedy tells the adventures of Wáng Zhàntuán 王战团 (葛优 Gé Yōu), an eccentric yet conscientious old man, and his stuttering autistic nephew Zhōu Zhèng 周正 (Wáng Jùnkǎi 王俊凯; Home Coming). Since a poster and a teaser trailer were released last January, there has been no new updates about the film.

10. Born to Fly 长空之王 chángkōng zhī wáng

A story about elite test pilots in the Chinese military and their Herculean labors, Born to Fly was set to become one of the highest-grossing films of 2022. Starring heartthrob Wáng Yībó 王一博, the film was originally scheduled to come out during the National Day holiday in October last year.

But the Chinese Top Gun crashed before it could take off when the producers indefinitely postponed its release just three days ahead “in order to present better production effects.” According to Beijing film industry insiders cited by The Hollywood Reporter, the authorities felt that the “inferior” visual effects and stunts of the film “risked ridicule in comparison” to Top Gun: Maverick, the second highest-grossing film of last year worldwide that showcased the U.S. military prowess.

But the China Film Administration has recently given the green light and it’s announced just a few days ago that Born to Fly would premiere on April 28, the start of the Labor Day holiday weekend. The film is directed and co-written by first-timer Liú Xiǎoshì 刘晓世, who previously made promotional videos for the air forces of Egypt, Pakistan, and China. Besides Wang, its cast includes Hú Jūn 胡军 (Stanley Kwan’s queer classic Lan Yu) and Zhōu Dōngyǔ 周冬雨 (Better Days).

Amarsanaa Battulga is a Shanghai-based film critic and researcher who decided to do a PhD in comparative literature instead of going to therapy. He’s from Mongolia. He cannot ride a horse.

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