2019 Year in Review: Top 10 Blockbusters in Chinese Cinema

Holiday season is here, which for film gurus also means that it’s awards season!

In the face of an economic downturn and fierce competition from online streaming platforms, 2019 hasn’t been the best year for the Chinese movie industry, especially the cinemas. Luckily, the second half of 2019 performed much better than the first, and while box office takings for last year maxed out at the 60.9 billion RMB point, as of Dec 12 this year we’ve already reached 60.6 billion RMB, with a full 19 days of the year still to go.

Let’s take a look at the top 10 box office hits of 2019, and how they were received critically and commercially.

10. Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw

Box Office: RMB 1.418 billion
Reception: Douban 6.3/10; IMDb 6.5/10; Metacritic 60/100 (Critics), 6.6/10 (Users); Rotten Tomatoes 67% (Critics), 88% (Audience)

Over the years, the Fast & Furious has continued to reach milestones in commercial success while at the same time increasingly resembling a stale, bland superhero franchise. That’s never been truer than in this spin-off, in which they delved into the world of science-fiction with a cybernetically-enhanced terrorist bad guy, Brixton Lore, played by Idris Elba. Despite the combination of the blockbuster Fast & Furious franchise and director David Leitch, who has worked on such blockbusters as V for Vendetta, Deadpool 2, John Wick and Atomic Blonde, this film failed to blow up the box office to the extent that fans had hoped. Oh, and speaking of superheroes, Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw over took Spider-Man: Far From Home by a cool RMB 17 million in the box office, therefore securing its spot at the bottom of this top-ten list.

9.Better Days

Box Office: RMB 1.532 billion
Reception: Douban 8.4/10; IMDb 7.5/10; Metacritic TBD; Rotten Tomatoes 100% (Critics), 97%(Audience)

Better Days, directed by Hong Kong’s Tsang Kwok Cheung (Lover’s DiscourseSoul Mate) has been one of the dark horses in Chinese movie market this year. The film centers around Chen Nian, a high school student under investigation for her suspected role in murdering a classmate. While the topic of school bullying has never seriously been considered by Chinese cinema before, it is also a widespread phenomenon and this goes a long way to explain why the film has resonated far and wide with audiences. Inspired by Japanese novels and culture, this movie has been lauded for its realistic portrayal of the great difficulties of adolescence, a time in which students are usually thought to be quite docile and have no time to be distracted from their studies. Even though the story needed to deliver the kind of wholesome, satisfactory ending required by Chinese movie regulators, thanks to the screenwriting and skillful portrayals by young actors, it still manages to convey the cruelty and rawness inherent in bullying, and this stage of life.

8.The Bravest

Box Office: RMB 1.676 billion
Reception: Douban 6.6/10 IMDb 5.4/10 Metacritic N/A Rotten Tomatoes N/A

Based upon the true story of catastrophic pipeline explosion and oil spill, that occurred in the night of July 16, 2010 at Dalian, and claimed the life of one firefighter, The Bravest focusses on the heroism of the firefighters who act as first responders to a catastrophe that could potentially threaten not only neighboring cities but even other countries. It is a touching story with great CGI effects but ultimately overdoes the melodramatic heroism and doesn’t delve deep enough into the hidden details of the story to be a truly satisfying watch. For those juicy details, you’d be better off reading newspaper reports about the incident than going to the cinema. Despite these flaws, audiences do love a hero film (especially during the 70th anniversary year of the CCP), and it still managed to pull an impressive RMB 1.676 billion at the box office.

7. Pegasus

Box Office: RMB 1.703 billion
Reception: Douban 6.9/10; IMDb 6.3/10; Metacritic N/A; Rotten Tomatoes N/A

Pegasus is the third movie directed by writer-cum-director Han Han (The Continent), who has completed his transition from bestselling millennial author to a successful director with a special affection for films about racing. As a part-time racer himself, Han Han sure knows his way around race cars, but can he turn his passion into good movies? Audiences seemed to think so, and this comeback comedy, following washed-up racecar driver Zhang Chi as he strives to return to the circuit, became the 7th most successful film at the box office this year, although fans still consider it a pale comparison to his debut, The Continent.

6. Crazy Alien

Box Office: RMB 2.183 billion
Reception: Douban 6.4/10; IMDb 5.8/10; Metacritic N/A; Rotten Tomatoes 50%(Audience)

Judging by the poster, you may think that science-fiction comedy Crazy Alien is yet another E.T. parody, but the film is more like a political satire, or at least it was supposed to be. The story follows an unemployed monkey trainer and his friend as they try to train a powerful extraterrestrial creature, which is also being chased down by the government of fictional superpower “Amanica,” all of which results in an extremely politically incorrect film. The reviews about this movie are highly polarized, with fans lauding it for its exquisite fusion of the absurd and real-life struggles (which is what director Ning Hao is known for), while others believe that the only monkey who got tricked in this film is the audience and no one should waste their time on it. A friendly reminder for anyone who is interested in checking it out, don’t view it as a sci-fi movie, as this actually aimed at deconstructing Western sci-fi movie principles with Eastern pragmatism. In any case, Crazy Alien still came home with RMB 2.183 billion at the box office.

5. The Captain

Box Office: RMB 2.848 billion
Reception: Douban 6.9/10; IMDb 5.9/10; Metacritic N/A; Rotten Tomatoes 71% (Critics), 96% (Audience)

Another movie based on a real story to make the top ten list, The Captain made the same mistakes as The Bravest, yet worse. The film is based upon the May 2018 incident in which Sichuan Airlines Flight 8633 was forced to make an emergency landing after the cockpit windshield partially detached, in a storm, in a mountainous region with no loss of life or serious injury. It’s a mind-blowing and deeply impressive true story, yet the director and playwrights ruined the film by stuffing it full of unnecessary subplots, and writing that goes against science and common sense merely for visual effect. The film was officially supported by the Civil Aviation Administration of China, and hundreds of aviation professionals were apparently involved in the film creation and filming, which might explain the terrible acting that blights this film, the straw to crush this already crumbling story. A well-made documentary about this incident would be 100 times more interesting and touching than this overwrought counterfeit. Imagine you were expecting a Chinese version of Sully then got this turd instead. Meanwhile, it took in RMB 2.848 billion at the box office. There’s really no accounting for taste.

4. My People, My Country

Box Office: RMB 2.963 billion
Reception: Douban 7.9/10 IMDb 6.5/10 Metacritic TBD Rottentomatoes 64%(Audience)

While this film’s subtitle: “A birthday gift for the 70th birthday of the People Republic of China”, is enough to turn anyone off, My People, My Country is not as awful as you might think. While it’s undoubtedly propaganda, this time it is told not in a condescending fashion from up on high, but from the point of view of the ‘common people’, and of the incredible journey that China has undertaken in the past few decades. The movie is comprised of 7 different stories, ranging from 1949 to 2019 in times. Throughout the film, the audience witnesses the flag of the PRC being raised on the day the country was born, and sigh for the star-crossed lovers who must sacrifice their relationship for the sake of the country, and feel the same thrill of excitement that almost every Chinese citizen experienced when Samaranch announced that Beijing would host the 2008 Olympic Games. For foreigners, it may not be a movie that you would typically watch in the cinema, but it can be a good chance to know how many Chinese see their country and why this type of movie always finds a keen audience.

3. Avengers: Endgame

Box Office: RMB 4.205 billion
Reception: Douban 8.5/10; IMDb 8.5/10; Metacritic 78/100 (Critics), 7.8/10 (Users); Rotten Tomatoes 94% (Critics), 90%(Audience)

The grand finale for Avenger movie or the prologue for the new Marvel universe? Superhero fans can talk about this movie, all those details and the many easter eggs hidden within the film for hours. Thanks to their passion and the extra expensive IMAX  tickets, Avenger: Endgame achieved the highest box office takings in a single day by scoring RMB 0.5 billion on Apr 27. It then became the fastest movie to reach 1 billion RMB box office in Chinese movie history. As for the plot, I am afraid I can’t compete with the many longer-and-more-detailed-than-a-PhD-dissertation reviews that you can find online, and I bet you all watched it more carefully than I did anyway. But if this only ranks third in this list, then who are those top two monsters?

2. The Wandering Earth

Box Office: RMB 4.618 billion
Reception: Douban 7.9/10 IMDb 6.0/10 Metacritic 57/100 5.6/10 (User) Rottentomatoes 76% 52%(Audience)

Adapted from a sci-fi novel The Wandering Earth by author Liu Cixin (who also wrote the highly acclaimed sci-fi novel The Three-Body Problem, this movie is a milestone in Chinese sci-fi movie history and shows Chinese filmmakers’ ambitions. While it does a very good impression of a Hollywood blockbuster, when you take a closer look, it is not hard to see that the core of this movie is still based on Chinese values, like family bonds, teamwork, and so on. The downsides of this movie are also obvious: even with such an extraordinary story behind it, the movie hamstrung itself with overly emotional plotlines and fails to elevate to the level of truly exceptional. Some logical and scientific problems also make people question the professionalism of the film crew.

1. Ne Zha

Box Office: RMB 4.934 billion
Reception: Douban 8.5/10; IMDb 7.7/10; Metacritic 54/100; 9.2/10 (Users), Rotten Tomatoes 87% (Critics), 98% (Audience)

For the first time in Chinese movie history, an animated film – a Chinese produced animated film to be precise – managed to take the crown of a year’s box office champion with more than RMB 4 billion, and well deservedly too. In China, animations rarely venture beyond certain stereotypes like family-friendly vibe, vibrant colors, simple, juvenile stories, and one-dimensional characters. But Ne Zha broke many of these rules in one try and won the hearts of not only kids but also teenagers and young adults. The unique aesthetics and outstanding animation production also seduced overseas audiences, where it has been a moderate success. People always make making fun of the industry and asking when the dawn of the Chinese animation industry will finally arrive, and while I can’t quite say it is here, at least this proves that there are people trying hard in the darkness.


Stills credits: Douban


– This article originally appeared on The Beijinger.