The 10 biggest Chinese movies of 2018

The mega flicks that made mega bucks this year

Operation Red Sea
Blockbusters: sometimes they are incredible, weaving rich stories, producing characters the viewer cannot help but befriend, and capturing cultural zeitgeist with uncanny accuracy. But sometimes, blockbusters – those top-grossing films of the year that became common topics of conversation – are just a hot mess, with just a big budget and a hard marketing hustle, as opposed to it actually being an enjoyable watch. This year, Chinese cinema had a bit of both, though you might say it was more the latter. You decide – here are the ten biggest, highest-grossing flicks of the year.

By Marjorie Perry
10. Forever Young

10. Forever Young

Corny nostalgia
Directed by Li Fangfang. 747 million RMB at box office

Forever Young (无问西东, Wu Wen Xi Dong) is a historic drama that follows four generations of Tsinghua University students. Starting in the 1920s, the film covers a century of Chinese history and looks at how the individual must rise to the challenges of their era.

China’s long history is one of the country’s defining traits, though it can be easy to feel that the most recent hundred years have been more defining than others. In Forever, the changes of the last century are observed through the starry-eyed ambitions of the country's elite. Indeed, there are a lot of stories to tell, and the major draw of this film is its historic and educational value. Extra props for the period clothing.

However, the film teeters into sickly sweet nostalgia and the unbelievably corny too often. Some of the acting is downright hammy. Two friends smile ear-to-ear, rosy cheeked, and seal a pact with an excessively robust handshake – it’s like watching a socialist propaganda poster come to life. There’s also a village of feral-looking war orphans singing ‘Amazing Grace’ with a legless priest. Skip this film and see 2017’s Youth (芳华 Fanghua) instead.

9. How Long Will I Love U

9. How Long Will I Love U

Rom-com with Chinese characteristics
Directed by Lun Su. 944 million RMB

How Long Will I Love U (超时空同居, Chao Shikong Tongju) is a time-travelling romantic comedy set in Shanghai past and present and, despite the annoying spelling, it's an endearing film, with a plot driven by romance, humour and a little conspiracy; there's also a critical sci-fi element. That the film requires a wilful suspension of disbelief highlights how difficult it can be to find love; for many, there are certain socioeconomic factors that a partner has to satisfy before sparks can fly.

The female protagonist, Xiaoxiao (Tong Liya, pictured), is just that kind of woman: viscerally pragmatic, she would rather 'cry in the back of a BMW than laugh on the back of a bike.' Also, FYI, diamonds are no longer a girl's best friend – real estate is really where it's at, according to this flick. 

But the two main characters, who are brought together after spacetime warps inside their apartment, develop and mature, and that is the essence of this film. They make each other better people – and that’s the greatest gift of love, right?

8. Project Gutenberg

8. Project Gutenberg

Confusing crime thriller
Directed by Felix Chong Man-keung. 1.27 billion RMB

Celebrated Hong Kong director and screenwriter Felix Chong Man-keung (Infernal Affairs) directs this part-crime flick, part-action thriller (Chinese name 无双, Wu Shuang or Mo Seung). It stars Chow Yun-fat in a slickly sophisticated role as a counterfeiting criminal.

The film is partially told through interrogation-room flashbacks, and many things are not what they seem. Or are they? The first half of the movie painstakingly follows a complex counterfeiting operation, while the second half is a reckless action number, mixed with twisted love stories and betrayal. There are so many twists in the film viewers might get motion sickness. Be prepared to take notes while watching.

7. The Island

7. The Island

Power plays and lottery dreams
Directed by Bo Huang. 1.35 billion RMB

It starts with a funny premise – coworkers headed for run-of-the-mill team building end up stranded on a deserted island, and one of them has just won the lottery. And The Island (一出好戏, Yi Chu Haoxi) is indeed filled with plenty of genuinely funny moments, both slapstick and subtle. A major theme of the film is social status, and the power that comes with being on top ('absolute power corrupts absolutely' could be the subtitle of this film). Being on a deserted island gives people a chance to try on new roles, willingly or not.

It's all interesting until about three-quarters of the way into the film, when the plot gets too convoluted to enjoy. The ending is also a disappointment, which is obviously one of the most frustrating things that can happen with a movie.

6. Us and Them

6. Us and Them

Romantic realism
Directed by Rene Liu. 1.36 billion RMB

Us and Them (后来的我们, Houlai De Women) tells the story of two young people coming to Beijing hoping, like millions of others, to achieve the dream of being 'moderately prosperous'. At first the protagonists are just two out-of-towners who connect due to shared circumstances; working tough, thankless jobs and living in cramped quarters. Eventually they come together as more than friends, and the viewer is enrapt with each turn of their relationship as if it were their own. It's a timely film that beautifully portrays the vicissitudes of being in a relationship. It also paints an empathetic portrait of what it is like to be a migrant worker in Beijing.

5. Monster Hunt 2

5. Monster Hunt 2

Family cartoon fun
Directed by Raman Hui. 2.24 billion RMB

Monster Hunt 2 (捉妖记2, Zhuo Yao Ji 2) is a family-friendly action comedy that gets an added boost from acclaimed Hong Kong legend Tony Leung. One of the film's biggest appeals is the cuteness and loveability of the main character, the pudgy and pale creature Wuba. While small in stature, Wuba has the weight of two worlds on his squishy shoulders, as he is supposed to be the one to bring peace between monsters and humans – a tall order for a creature whose language seems to consist purely of adorable squeaks and coos.

Another weight of expectation on Wuba, you might say, was the film's production costs, which broke the record as the most expensive non-English language film ever made, after racking up an estimated 1 billion RMB. Good job the cooing creature and his cronies delivered a handsome return at the box office.

4. Hello Mr Billionaire

4. Hello Mr Billionaire

Tuhao times
Directed by Damo Peng and Fei Yan. 2.55 billion RMB

Loosely based on the 1985 film Brewster's Millions, from king of comedy Richard Pryor, Hello Mr Billionaire (西虹市首富, Xihongshi Shoufu) focuses on how one doofus tries to spend a cool 1 billion RMB in just 30 days, as a bizarre condition for inheriting – guess what – even more money. In a nation with a worrying Gini coefficient, this film hit a nerve with some. Critics harped on the film's depictions of conspicuous consumption, and chastised the movie for portraying China's nouveau riche (as represented by the lead actor, Shen Teng) as having more fun than is socially or ethically acceptable. Nonetheless it's a fun film to watch.

3. Dying to Survive

3. Dying to Survive

Moving social commentary
Directed by Muye Wen. 3.1 billion RMB

Dying to Survive (我不是药神, Wo Bu Shi Yao Shen) is based on the true life story of Lu Yong, who was arrested in 2013 after illegally importing medicine from India, which he was able to find at a tenth of the Mainland sticker price. Despite its serious subject matter – cancer patients and their medicine – it was a hit with national audiences, and is the first Chinese-language film to receive a 9 out of 10 review on the native Douban rating site. The film makes a statement about China's healthcare shortcomings at a time of economic prosperity. Watch for clever dialogue and timely social commentary.

2. Detective Chinatown 2

2. Detective Chinatown 2

Frustrating slapstick
Directed by Chen Sicheng. 3.4 billion RMB

Two mismatched detectives take a romp through NYC tourist highlights while trying to get to the bottom of a murder case. A sequel to 2015's Chinatown Bangkok escapades, Detective Chinatown 2 (唐人街探案2, Tangrenjie Tan An 2) sees a ridiculous pile of twists and turns made even more frustrating by distracting accents and the affected speaking style of Tang Ren (Wang Baoqiang), the 'bumpkin' half of the detective duo. Once they catch the murderer, they are able to convince him of his wrongdoings with a 30-second monologue, making the climax of the film more of a letdown than cold kaoya.

1. Operation Red Sea

1. Operation Red Sea

Gory nationalism
Directed by Dante Lam. 3.65 billion RMB

A two-hour commercial for the People's Liberation military might, Operation Red Sea (鸿海行动, Honghai Xingdong) is based on the IRL PLA evacuation of 500 Chinese nationals from Yemen in 2015. And it made a tonne of cash, as the year's highest, and the second highest-grossing Chinese movie of all time.

The film is excessively gory, and it quickly becomes exhausting to watch people get shot, run over and/or blown up. Blood and guts play a major role in this film, while plot and character development do not. The 'bad guys' are growling Somalians sporting eye patches (they are pirates after all!), while the 'good guys' are those square-jawed, broad-shouldered fighting machines sworn to serve.

Directed by Hong Kong director Dante Lam, this film has been selected as Hong Kong's Oscar submission, though the film doesn't say much about or for HKSAR. (It's not 'Operation South China Sea,' after all). The title has thus been seen by some in HK as looking to curry favour with a far-off capital.

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