Three Trends That Defined Chinese Film in 2023
The past year was one of recovery for China’s hard-hit film industry. After a challenging 2022, the box office bounced back over the past 12 months, with total receipts climbing above $7 billion — still down from their 2019 peak but well ahead of last year.
Importantly, the rebound has been driven not by increased prices but by a strong showing by the country’s domestic film producers.
Chinese audiences have drifted away from Hollywood in recent years, a trend that only grew more pronounced in 2023. The top 10 films at this year’s box office were all domestic productions. On popular ratings site Douban, homegrown films accounted for seven of the 10 most reviewed films of the year — “Oppenheimer,” “Barbie,” and the most recent “Guardians of the Galaxy” film were the only three non-Chinese movies to crack the list.
What sets this year apart is the nature of the films that topped the box office. Whereas in past years, the most popular Chinese films tended to be effects-heavy action or science fiction blockbusters like “The Wandering Earth” or “Wolf Warrior 2,” this year’s crop reflected a growing preoccupation with social issues — and a desire for emotional catharsis over cinematic pyrotechnics.
Here are three trends that defined China’s film industry in 2023.
Ripped from the headlines thrillers
China’s summer box office champion, “No More Bets,” was a gritty, ultra-violent thriller about Chinese people trapped in telecom “fraud factories” across Southeast Asia. Although the plot was sensationalized, director Shen Ao’s second film leaned into the real-world harm caused by the industry with a series of short promotional films highlighting victims’ stories, leading to renewed calls to crack down on telecom fraud bases.
The summer’s second most popular film, “Lost in the Stars,” took a similar approach, engaging with some of the most heated topics on Chinese social media: the gap between rich and poor, the distribution of property within marriages, and gender relations. Drawing from a real-life case of a woman whose husband tried to murder her on her honeymoon, it offered audiences a revenge fantasy that also played on widespread insecurities about love and marriage.
Winning back audiences’ trust
One of the surprise hits of the year was “Creation of the Gods: Kingdom of Storms,” the first of a planned fantasy trilogy based on a well-known mythological cycle. Fantasy is a genre that’s largely fallen out of favor with audiences in recent years, but “Creation of the Gods” relied on strong word of mouth and a barnstorming 29-stop promotional tour led by director Wuershan to find its footing and earn more than $400 million domestically.
The production team’s tour eventually became a hot ticket in its own right, with the cast and crew earning praise for their fan-friendly approach and willingness to engage with audiences.
“Domestic films need to truly expand their scope and earn the trust of audiences,” Chen Sicheng, who produced “Lost in the Stars” and has a reputation in Chinese film circles as one of the country’s best producers, told domestic media.
A new generation of directors pushes the envelope
The top- and tenth-highest grossing films of 2023 were both directed by Zhang Yimou, who at 73 continues to be one of China’s best-known and most popular filmmakers. But the rest of the list was dominated by new faces. Cui Rui spent years working on big-budget Hollywood films before returning to China to co-direct “Lost in the Stars.” “No More Bets” was Shen’s second feature film, and “Chang An,” “Papa,” and “Never Say Never” were all helmed by first-time feature directors.
One reason for all the new names was the diversity of this year’s release slate. From thrillers and dramas to comedies and animated films, audiences seem hungry for new choices. That’s not only opened up opportunities for young filmmakers, but also given arthouse directors like three-time Cannes selectee Wei Shujun a chance to break into the mainstream. Wei’s neo-noir “Only the River Flows” took home over 300 million yuan ($42 million) at the box office, thanks in part to a star turn from actor Zhu Yilong.
Speaking at a directing class organized as part of this year’s FIRST Film Festival, arthouse darling Yang Chao told aspiring directors not to overlook genre fare. “Explore as many different genres and types of movies as you can,” he urged. “You need to master the basics of genre filmmaking if you’re going to respond to Chinese audiences’ long-neglected desire for genre flicks.”
In this case, embracing genre films doesn’t mean abandoning ambition, Yang added: “The genre films that stand the test of time are usually those with unique perspectives and messages.”
If there’s a common thread among the rising generation of Chinese filmmakers, it’s a willingness to work within the confines of the industry and market to find ways to tell important stories.
(Header image: Visuals from Douban and IC, reedited by Fu Xiaofan/Sixth Tone)