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5 Chinese Movies Not to Miss

5 Chinese Movies Not to Miss

Less than a decade ago, the Shanghai International Film Festival was the preeminent annual hotspot for Hollywood and European dealmakers determined to forge alliances and carve out a foothold in China’s then-booming commercial film sector. In the post-pandemic era, however, as the Chinese industry continues to mature and the Hollywood hype over the country’s market potential long ago gave way to grim reality, the festival has transitioned into a somewhat more inward-facing occasion.

That domestic focus is on display in the Shanghai event’s 2024 lineup, which features 10 Chinese movies among the 25 titles of the two main international competition sections (and not a single film from the U.S. or South Korea). For international film buffs, the Shanghai festival is now best viewed as an opportunity to take stock of current trends in Chinese filmmaking — and on that front, the event’s 2024 lineup is rich with potential.

The 26th Shanghai International Film Festival runs June 14 to 23. Vietnamese-French director Tran Anh Hung (Cannes’ best director winner last year for The Taste of Things) is the president of the event’s main competition jury this year. Below, The Hollywood Reporter picks five can’t-miss Chinese films from the festival’s 2024 selection.

A Man and a Woman, directed by Guan Hu

Local hitmaker Guan Hu is undoubtedly the director of the moment at this year’s Shanghai International Film Festival. Just last month, the 55-year-old, sixth-generation filmmaker triumphed at the Cannes Film Festival by winning the event’s prestigious Prix Un Certain Regard with his visually stunning offbeat drama Black Dog. Starring an achingly cool Eddie Peng as its rebel-without-a-cause protagonist, Black Dog only releases theatrically across China on Saturday, but Guan is already arriving in Shanghai with another completed feature. A Man and a Woman stars local A-listers Huang Bo and Ni Ni in the title roles of two strangers who land in Hong Kong on the same transfer flight during the pandemic and end up stranded in side-by-side rooms in the same quarantine hotel. Best known for his action blockbusters like Mr. Six (2015) and The Eight Hundred (2020), Guan is making another exciting departure with A Man and a Woman, as the film’s subtle story turns on a growing bond between the title characters as they share cigarettes and conversation on their adjoining hotel balconies, waiting for Hong Kong’s fabled skyline to blink back to life.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy, directed by Wei Shujun

Wei Shujun is the only post-1990s Chinese director to have landed in the Cannes Film Festival’s official selection three times — with his offbeat debut Striding into the Wind (2020), follow-up drama Ripples of Life (2021), and last year’s noir thriller Only the River Flows (2023) — and he’s impressed international critics with each outing. The rising talent’s latest effort, Don’t Worry, Be Happy, is set to premiere in Shanghai’s main competition. A family drama, the film follows a mentally challenged young man who has a special bond with his caring mother. But the family is soon shook to its core when the mother is diagnosed with cancer, prompting the protagonist to believe he can help through the power of positive energy, while his elder brother, a doctor, attempts to cure here through conventional means. The film stars Huang Xiaoming, Monyca Lu, Zu Feng and local arthouse hero Jia Zhangke.

‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’

Shanghai International Film Festival

The Royal Cat, directed by Cao Liang

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Chinese animation has been buoyed by the global success of the Boonie Bears franchise ($1 billion in box office revenue from 10 films, so far) and by impressive technical advances, as seen recently in the tale of ancient poets, Chang’An (which earned $250 million at China’s box office last year). So there are high hopes for Beijing Film Academy graduate Cao Liang’s debut feature, The Royal Cat. Cao, who cut his teeth on Chinese television, also sets his film in ancient China. The film follows a human-stray cat duo who team up to investigate the strange case of an emperor’s son who has turned into a cat. Chinese distribution is being handled by the aptly named local outfit Jiang Su Jing Ling Cat Culture Technology.

Ms Hu’s Garden, directed by Pan Zhiqi

Golden Horse Award nominee Pan Zhiqi (24th Street) is part of a generation of Chinese documentarians following the lives of ordinary people whose very personal stories reflect wider social issues in China.  Here, the filmmaker is presenting us with the story of Ms. Hu, one of the nation’s ubiquitous urban garbage collectors who has apparently used that rubbish to build a garden she hopes will bring some color into people’s lives, not least her son, who — like as many as an estimated 35 percent of Chinese citizens — suffers from depression.

Princess Iron Fan (1941), directed by Wan Laiming and Wan Guchan, digitally restored in 4K

Speaking of Chinese animation, there’s a rare chance to see the film that started everything, restored by the wonders of 4K digital technology to all its glory. The Wan brothers — Laiming and Guchan — were pioneers of the art form in Asia, producing the region’s first full-length animated feature in 1941, as war raged around their studio – and the world. The story is taken from the pages of the country’s favorite classical novel, the 16th century epic Journey to the West, helping fuel an industry obsession with the story of the Monkey King that continues to this day. The world premiere of this beautifully remastered version comes through a collaboration between the China Film Archive and mobile gamers Arknights.

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