China’s top blockbusters of 2020

Society & Culture

As 2020 comes to an end, we take a look back at the biggest box office hits of the year, five films that helped propel the Chinese film industry during a difficult time. Not all of the films on this list are "good," but they were undeniably popular.

2020 has been a tumultuous year for the global film industry. In the United States, theaters are closed, Hollywood is stuck on hiatus, and the blockbusters and $200 million toy commercials we normally expect around the summer have been delayed or dropped onto streaming services. The Chinese film industry has suffered the same woes, but has already made something of a comeback. In fact, in October, China overtook North America as the top box office hub in the world.

Notwithstanding coronavirus and the current lack of international competition, this new record could suggest a bold future for the Chinese film industry. The domestic market evidently doesn’t need 38 imported Hollywood films to survive each year. Currently, the country’s biggest hits haven’t been nearly as lucrative or influential abroad. Still, in honor of the country’s box office milestone, it’s worth reviewing some of the year’s biggest Chinese blockbusters.

Interestingly, all five of the movies on our list appeal to Chinese patriotism in some way. Two (or maybe three) of them could be branded as propaganda, with little appeal to critical or foreign viewers. According to my own tastes, only two of these blockbusters are worth watching at all. But this list isn’t concerned with quality so much as it is with numbers. So what movies did Chinese audiences flock to during this crazy year, and what exactly was so enticing about them?

1. The Eight Hundred (八佰 bā bǎi)

The Eight HundredApprox. gross: $461,226,628

The highest grossing film in the world this year, Guǎn Hǔ 管虎’s The Eight Hundred almost seemed like it would never see the light of day. After being suddenly pulled from the Shanghai International Film Festival last June, this gritty war movie was delayed for over a year, possibly due to objections over its portrayal of Guomindang officers. About a month after China started reopening its movie theaters, The Eight Hundred was finally released on August 21, making it a guinea pig of sorts for the rest of the film industry.

Set during the Second Sino-Japanese War, the story concerns the legendary defense of a warehouse during the Battle of Shanghai. Between October 26 and November 1, 1937, commander Xiè Jìnyuán 谢晋元 and a battalion of 452 soldiers launched a brave bid to protect Sihang Warehouse from the invading Japanese army. The defense was meant to buy time for retreating Chinese forces, as well as to boost domestic morale and impress Western powers. Guan’s film is an epic depiction of this tragic suicide mission.

Shot on IMAX cameras, a first for a Chinese movie, and made on a budget of $80,000,000, The Eight Hundred is ambitious and intense. The battle scenes are definitely the highlight of the film, although there are some other remarkable bits, most notably during the dramatized flight of Yáng Huìmǐn 杨惠敏, a young woman who risked her life to bring a KMT flag to the regiment. In between all the excitement and spectacle, The Eight Hundred struggles to develop its cast into real human beings. It’s unfortunate that the script wasn’t given nearly as much attention, yet it’s difficult to deny that the movie possesses some of the most impressive set pieces to ever come out of the Chinese war genre.

2. My People, My Homeland (我和我的家乡 wǒ hé wǒ de jiāxiāng)

My People My HomelandApprox. gross: $422,384,094 

A sequel to last year’s My People, My Country (我和我的祖国 wǒ hé wǒ de zǔguó), My People, My Homeland is a similarly star-packed, proudly flag-waving anthology. While its predecessor took modern Chinese history as its theme, the five stories in My Homeland celebrate the cities and towns of China, from Beijing to the country’s rural villages. The stories, assembled by a team of nine directors and over two dozen writers, are all meant to stand by themselves, linked by this overall motif.

In the opening short, set in Beijing, a man resorts to a drastic solution so his uncle can get medical care. The second episode involves a journalist and pair of scientists investigating a UFO sighting in Guizhou, while the third is a bittersweet tale about a teacher with dementia who believes he’s still living in the 1980s, teaching in a one-room schoolhouse. The fourth features a pair of quarrelsome businessmen returning to their hometown, and the final short is an elaborate ruse about a husband keeping a secret from his wife.

Visually, My People, My Homeland is so gorgeous that it makes you want to hop on a plane and visit the Chinese countryside. It’s certainly pretty at first glance, but the interior of My Homeland is actually quite shallow. While the tone is consistently lighthearted and upbeat, like most anthologies, the movie can’t help but feel disjointed and generic. It’s a wholesome tribute to everybody’s hometown, and a dull one at that.

3. Legend of Deification (姜子牙 jiāngzi yá)

Legend of DeificationApprox. gross: $240,647,155

With cinematic universes all the rage right now, China is shaping its own with a series inspired by the 16th century supernatural novel Investiture of the Gods 封神演义. The first part of this so-called Fengshen Cinematic Universe, Ne Zha 哪吒之魔童降世, was a national phenomenon in 2019. Chinese moviegoers loved its colorful animation and charm, so much so that they made it the country’s second highest grossing film of all time.

The second installment of the franchise, Legend of Deification, was probably the most-hyped Chinese movie of 2020. Instead of bringing back the first movie’s demon-hunting demon child, Legend of Deification follows a mythological version of Jiang Ziya 姜子牙. After sparing the fox demon Su Daji, because a young girl’s spirit is tied to her body, the gods expel Jiang to the human realm. While traveling the earth, Jiang joins Xiao Jiu, a mysterious girl looking to go to a special mountain. On his journey, the hero reckons with his past, leading up to a fateful battle with Su Daji.

Like its predecessor, Legend of Deification is a clever twist on classic folklore. The animation is equally stunning, and the older main character and themes have inspired a darker and more mature tale. As the successor to a hit like Ne Zha though, Legend of Deification had a hard time living up to the hype. On Douban, viewers have given it mixed reviews, criticizing the plot as undeveloped and even boring. Financially, it also barely touched Ne Zha, which outperformed it by $500 million.

4. The Sacrifice (金刚川 jīn gāng chuān)

The SacrificeApprox. gross: $161,047,608

Hollywood has never had much interest in the Korean War. In China, where the conflict is known as the War to Resist America and Aid Korea (抗美援朝战争 kàngměi yuáncháo zhànzhēng), filmmakers have likewise preferred the Second Sino-Japanese War when they’re in need of some good, old-fashioned heroes. In commemoration of the start of the war 70 years ago, however, China observed the anniversary with a wave of documentaries, TV shows, and movies in October. (The month when China joined the fray.)

The Sacrifice is the biggest and loudest of these homages. The movie concerns a group of soldiers during the Battle of Kumsong, when the Chinese army launched a successful offensive against the American and South Korean forces. While being bombarded by American aircraft, the heroes here are tasked with protecting and rebuilding a vital bridge. Although they aren’t direct participants in the fight, they bravely sacrifice themselves so their comrades can cross over to the frontlines.

According to the Global Times, which has unsurprisingly been very enthusiastic about the movie, The Sacrifice was completed in less than two months. In a way reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, the film’s three directors Guan Hu 管虎 (The Eight Hundred), Lù Yáng 路阳 (Brotherhood of Blades 绣春刀 xiù chūn dāo), and Guō Fān 郭帆 (The Wandering Earth 流浪地球 liúlàng dìqiú) each portray a different perspective during the operation. While technically impressive, it falls dramatically flat, lacking the tempo of something like The Eight Hundred. The pyrotechnics aside, The Sacrifice’s chief aim is to martyrize, offering nothing deeper or more thought-provoking than the typical gung-ho war flick.

5. Leap (夺冠 duó guàn)

LeapApprox. gross: $128,574,045

China’s submission for the 93rd Academy Awards, Leap is a biopic about Láng Píng 郎平, a famous women’s volleyball player and coach. Back in the 1980s. Lang was one of the top athletes in China, taking home a gold medal with the rest of the Chinese national volleyball team in the 1984 Summer Olympics. Over the years, she’s coached not only the Chinese national team, but also the United States team. Lang is a fascinating figure, and Leap traces her career from her early days to her triumph at the 2016 Rio Olympics, when the Chinese team won another gold medal under her direction.

The movie opens right on the 2008 Olympics match between the American and Chinese women’s volleyball teams. Lang Ping, coaching the American team, meets eyes with “Coach,” the movie’s pseudonym for Chén Zhōnghé 陈忠和, the coach of the Chinese team at the time. (Chen was outraged by his portrayal, so his name was stripped from the character.) As they face one another, the movie travels back in time to Lang’s training in the ’80s before returning to 2008 and then the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Out of China’s largest blockbusters this year, Leap is the most enjoyable for the casual foreigner viewer. Anyone can relate to its underdog story, and the movie tends to fill in the blanks for its historical context. It’s wonderfully acted, with Gǒng Lì 巩俐 playing the older Lang, and Huáng Bó 黄渤 starring as Chen’s character. The reconstruction of the games are detailed and well-done, with a devotion to realism that included recruiting most of the Rio Olympic team to act as themselves.