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Film and TV in 2020: What Will China Be Watching?

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Cute male-led costume dramas, patriotic blockbusters, and a rock ‘n’ roll reality show were among the offerings that kept Chinese viewers glued to both big and small screens during 2019, but what will they be streaming and heading to cinemas for in 2020?

For starters, probably more of the same, but there’s also an attempt to make “China’s Lord of the Rings,” a potential slew of new Zhang Yimou films, star-led TikTok shows, and the possible return of Fan Bingbing to look forward to. Here’s our round-up of what to expect in the coming year.

The Spring Festival Box Office Battle

In recent years the Spring Festival holiday has become one of the biggest periods for Chinese cinemas as the country looks to escape all the over-eating and parental nagging that comes with Chinese New Year. In 2019, the need for escapism took audiences out into space, with The Wandering Earth blowing away the competition.

Detective Chinatown 3 and Xu Zheng’s?Lost in Russia (itself the third in a series) ought to offer plenty of slapstick moments if not quite the same sort of cultural moment that The Wandering Earth provided, but perhaps the most interesting Spring Festival box office competitor looks to be?Leap.

Directed by Peter Chan and starring Gong Li, the movie will interweave stories from different periods of China’s women’s volleyball team. The sport and team are well-loved in China, while the themes of national glory and overcoming adversity may mean it goes down well at New Year. The presence of Gong Li will hopefully give it a bit of depth.

Elsewhere, Eddie Peng will be hoping to save the day in Dante Lam’s?The Rescue. Lam is the director behind Operation Red Sea and this new film looks like it’ll follow a similar action-packed formula, this time focusing on China’s coast guard.

Oh, and there’s a new Jackie Chan flick on its way:

vanguard jackie chan

Moving swiftly on, animated fantasy film Legend of Deification will be hoping to emulate some of Nezha‘s runaway success, especially as it’s based on a story from the same mythological universe. And for kids, there’s another feature-length run out for the phenomenally popular Boonie Bears characters in?The Wild Life.

The Censored Strike Back?

Outside of the Spring Festival period, other blockbusters to look forward to include a potential slew of Zhang Yimou films.

The Fifth Generation master’s?One Second?was unceremoniously pulled from premiering at 2019’s Berlinale due to “technical reasons,” the often-cited cause when China’s censorship apparatus takes issue with a film, but looks set to hit screens in 2020. Set in the Cultural Revolution, the movie follows a protagonist escaping from a farm-prison — perhaps not surprising that the authorities were jittery about it in the current climate.

Not that Zhang let such a setback slow him down. In December 2019, he started filming on?Impasse, a new spy drama, which he seems confident will be out in 2020. Prior to that, he’d already wrapped up his first gangster movie?Rock Solid.

Another film that fell foul of the censors in 2019 was war epic?The Eight Hundred, which rather embarrassingly was meant to open Shanghai’s Film Festival until it was cut from the schedule at the last minute. Rumor has it that the movie’s “technical issues” have now been fixed and the big budget film may make it to theaters in 2020.

Sports Heroes, Tomb Raiders, and Eileen Chang Adaptations

While Zhang Yimou has been busy behind the camera, one of China’s other best-known directors has been busy in front of it. Jia Zhangke, the man behind the likes of?A Touch of Sin and?Ash is Purest White, is set to make his movie acting debut in 2020 with Cheng Er’s?Pseudo Idealist, about an artist undergoing an existential mid-life crisis.

Another famous Chinese director, Farewell My Concubine‘s?Chen Kaige, has a new film in the works too. Plot details for?Flowering in the Dust?(not the official English name;?塵埃里開花) remain a little hazy, but it seems to broadly focus on a series of coming-of-age stories, fronted by a young cast.

And once the hype and excitement around?Leap has settled down, we ought to be ready for another sporting story in?Li Na, based on the life of China’s most famous tennis player.

Related:

Li Na – Tennis Legend and Tireless Champion – is Now a Hall of Famer

In the summer, Simon West, the director responsible for Con Air, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, and Stolen, will try his luck in the Chinese market with the Zhang Hanyu-led tomb-raiding action flick The Legend Hunters.

That’ll go toe-to-toe with?fantasy epic Fengshen Trilogy. Already being touted as China’s answer to Peter Jackson’s interpretation of The Lord of the Rings, this looks to easily be the most ambitious movie of the year (and has reportedly cost more than 400 million USD to produce). Helmed by Wuershan, the entire trilogy has already wrapped shooting and is essentially a retelling of?classic Chinese novel Creation of the Gods?(aka Investiture of the Gods). Overthrown kings, demon armies, and bewitching concubine vixen spirits?will all feature. “Epic” almost doesn’t capture it.

Mermaid 2 also looks set to make a splash, a film some will be excited to see released purely because it will mean director Stephen Chow is one step closer to working on?Kung Fu Hustle 2.

Related:

It’s Official: “Kung Fu Hustle 2” is Coming

More than 35 years after she adapted?Love In a Fallen City, Hong Kong director Ann Hui will return with another film version of an Eileen Chang novel as?Love After Love is expected to hit cinemas.

And we’re likely to get a look at what happens when you put Jackie Chan and Laoganma-loving John Cena into the same movie with the expected release of?Project X.

Mulan?

Will Disney’s live action remake of?Mulan go down well in China? The studio has certainly pulled out all the stops to make this version a bit more China-friendly than the late ’90s animated offering and the trailer seemed to get the Chinese internet excited, but it’s still unclear exactly how it’ll perform at the box office.

Related:

Here’s the Trailer for Disney’s Live Action “Mulan”

Just as interesting to watch will be the reception the movie gets outside of China. There were calls for a boycott after lead Liu Yifei posted a meme in support of Hong Kong police in 2019, something which Disney seemingly decided to treat with silence. But as the March 2020 release nears and publicity — presumably including interviews with Liu — gears up, the issue seems likely to come to the fore once more. Will this be an NBA moment for Disney?

The Return of Fan Bingbing?

We’re veering into outright speculation territory now, but could 2020 be the year that Fan Bingbing is allowed in from the cold? Formerly one of China’s most famous stars, Fan was ruthlessly dragged over the coals for tax evasion in 2018, leaving her career (and even her proposed marriage) in tatters. Even as recently as October 2019, producers were still grappling with the fall-out and having to digitally erase her from a TV show.

Against that backdrop, a full return to the limelight seems unlikely, but there have been hints that she may be able to resuscitate some semblance of her previous fame. In 2019, she began to make headlines again for simply showing up at events?and was involved in the filming of the Jessica Chastain-led spy caper 355.

Related:

8 Juicy Scandals that Broke China’s Internet in 2018

There have also been rumblings about some of the movies that were pulled in the wake of the initial scandal making it to cinemas in 2020.?She Kills, from Einstein and Einstein director Bao Caoping, is one Fan Bingbing-led film that appears to have hopes of a 2020 release, while?Legend of Ravaging Dynasties 2 and?Cell Phone 2a Feng Xiaogang film which triggered its own side-scandal — were effectively ready to release before Fan’s disappearance. It seems unlikely that all of those films would come out in the same year, but don’t be surprised if Fan makes more tentative moves back into the spotlight in 2020.

Chinese Indie Cinema

As the noose of censorship tightened, 2019 wasn’t a vintage year for Chinese indie films making it into theaters. Whether 2020 will be any brighter remains to be seen, but here’s hoping the surprising rise of arthouse cinemas will be a continuing trend.

Related:

The Surprising Rise of Arthouse Movie Theaters in China

A Cool Fish was one of the big box office surprises of 2018, making 10 million USD in its first week despite the lack of stars and glitzy promotional strategies. In 2020, its director Chen Jianbin is back with his second film: The Eleventh Chapter. The plot revolves around a man attempting to clear his name after a theater production marks him out as the prime suspect in an unsolved murder case, while Chen has secured the services of some well-known names including Zhou Xun and singer Leah Dou. He may well have another hit on his hands.

Also worth keeping an eye out for is?Koali & Rice, the debut feature from Fujian-born filmmaker (and award-winning fashion designer) Yesir. The movie explores the food, music, spirits and people of his home province on the coast of southeast China via the story of an elderly widow looking to prove her “worth.”

koali and rice fujian film china

Another alternative film very much focused on place,?Gu Xiaogang’s debut feature?Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains should also secure a proper release after showing at Cannes in 2019.

Also on the slate for 2020 is a new film from director Pema Tseden, who gave us the?Venice Horizons Award-winning Tibetan-language revenge thriller?Jinpa. His new work,?Balloon, scooped two awards at Hainan’s Golden Coconut Film Festival in late 2019, including best picture and best actress for Sonam Wangmo.

Lou Ye doesn’t really count as an indie director these days, but his aesthetic and choice of subjects makes him something of an outlier from the mainstream crowd nonetheless. His latest,?Saturday Fiction, was removed from cinema schedules in December with little notice — supposedly due to a mix up over certificates rather than anything more sinister — but is widely expected to be out in 2020. The film received mixed reviews at the Venice Film Festival, but who can really resist Gong Li strutting around 1930s gangster-run Shanghai?

Stream Dreams

Onto the smaller screen, and despite hopes that we might be seeing it in 2020, we now know that we’ll have to wait until an unspecified date in 2021 for?Bilibili’s anime version of?The Three-Body Problem, based on Liu Cixin’s famed sci-fi novels. Don’t rule out other adaptations of Liu’s work in the meantime however, including a new series for a funky-looking Minecraft-like spin on the stories entitled?My Three-Body Problem, also on Bilibili.

Related:

First Look: Bilibili’s Animated “Three-Body Problem” Teaser

Also on the animation front, Bilibili’s adaptation of hugely popular online novel?Heaven Official’s Blessing is hotly anticipated among period drama and fantasy fans.

Another novel adaptation, this time set to stream over on Tencent, is wuxia story Douluo Continent. With hot young things Xiao Zhan and Wu Xuanyi heading up the cast, expect this one to do well in the ratings.

Joining that show on Tencent, a new drama starring Zhou Xun entitled Imperfect Her (不完美的她) promises “a story of ‘self-redemption'” told from “the perspective of independent women […] who seek for light in the dark, guard their hope, warm and heal, and touch the hearts of others.” We’re skeptical about quite how dark the subject matter will be permitted to be, but so far the promotional campaign is pushing both this angle and its strong female cast. We’re intrigued.

zhou xun imperfect her tv china

Another show positioning itself as hard-hitting, is Storm Eye, which focuses on national security agents and looks like a Chinese cross between 24 and Homeland. That, but with Yang Mi and Zhang Binbin pouting more. We have our doubts about just how serious this will really be.

Sticking with star-led shows, iQIYI has Ouyang Nana and TFBoy Roy Wang heading up slick-looking costume drama?Master (大主宰):

王源 tf boys roy wang ouyang nana tv china 2020

After The Big Band went bigger than perhaps some had anticipated, the same streaming site has of course green-lighted a second season of the rock reality show. Bands “invited” to join so far include some of the break-out acts of the 2005-2008 indie music era such as Carsick Cars and Queen Sea Big Shark, but those invitations should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Related:

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And having reinvigorated itself by playing up regional identities, battles and beefs in 2019,?Rap of China will of course be back on iQIYI for the summer holidays, with Kris Wu and his fellow judges installed in the hotseats. Hooray.

Fans of Mr Wu will likely be similarly excited by?The Golden Hair Pin, a period drama starring him and Yang Zi.

Phoning It In

In answer to the question posed in the headline up top, we probably could’ve just said “TikTok.” While its American arm may be in line for some more attacks by the US government in 2020, Douyin — the Chinese version of the short video phenomenon — looks set to continue its domination of people’s phone screens.

Yet in addition to candid cat videos, we may well see more established stars taking to the TikTok format as the platform toys with increasing its supply of professionally-produced original content — for example, Lay Zhang’s recently-launched reality show.

Related:

Lay Zhang Has a New Vertical-Format TikTok Reality Show

Similarly, short video rival Kuaishou is looking to take on and augment the offerings of traditional broadcasters, as shown by the platform’s big money deal to gain livestreaming and hongbao rights for 2020’s Spring Festival Gala, aka “the most-watched TV programme in the world.”

We’re not holding our breath, but we wish that relationship would mean Kuaishou stars such as Pangzai popping up on the CCTV Gala.

Regardless, we can expect to see more from the likes of another rural lifestyle blogger, Li Ziqi. Her beautifully-produced videos of Sichuan countryside life and food have catapulted her to major stardom, sparking a rush to follow in her footsteps — and buy from her product line.

And another individual we’re unlikely to have seen the last of as we head into 2020 is Li Jiaqi, the livestreaming ecommerce star who made his name hawking cosmetics and has now become one of the most-watched faces in China.

Li’s success in putting product placement at the center of entertainment will also likely embolden studios to produce more shows such as the Kris Wu and Angelababy-featuring iQIYI offering FourTry, which followed the stars as they attempted to open a streetwear store in Tokyo while also encouraging viewers to buy the products shown on screen.

Related:

Kris Wu and Angelababy Open Tokyo Streetwear Store in New iQIYI TV Show

But this is all just a quick-fire highlights reel of what’s in store. As 2019 showed, between censorship, blockbuster flops, and unexpected indie successes, China’s film and television market looks set to be anything but predictable in 2020. Regardless, we’ll be watching and keeping you informed.

Jake Newby
Jake Newby is a Shanghai-based writer and editor with more than a decade's experience living and working in China. Previously managing editor of Time Out Shanghai, he's also written for publications such as South China Morning Post and the Financial Times.
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