> Opinion

Realism increasingly notable in Chinese films

LI DAOXIN | 2018-09-07
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Realism is a fountain of literary and artistic creation. As realistic films from Europe, America, Japan, South Korea and India have frequently emerged as sensations, some of these works have drawn wide attention and discussion in China.

The signature themes of realism  have also come to characterize Chinese film creation in recent years. Dearest and Lost and Love focus on the stories of abducted children. I am Somebody recounts how “small figures” at the bottom of society pursue their dreams. In Song of the Phoenix and Hold Your Hands, people see the changes that took place in rural society during its transition toward modern civilization. A number of excellent Chinese films, keeping in line with the times and infiltrating deeply into reality, have achieved substantial, impressive effects.

With good critical reputation, these films also hit high in box offices. Go Away, Mr. Tumor first showed on screen in 2015 with Xiong Dun battling cancer based on a true story, earned 511 million yuan in the box office. Screened early this year, Forever Young scored a box office of 754 million, with each character in the film based on a real person who can be found in Tsinghua University’s archives.

It is laudable that these films acutely capture the hotspot issues of society and actively reflect on real-life problems. What is more praiseworthy is that most of the works, being people-centric, try to conduct a dialogue with the audience, especially young people, and show solicitude to the issues that they are concerned about. These efforts have elevated the intellectual profundity of the films, striking chords with audiences and exerting substantial social effects.

It has to be said that as new mainstream blockbusters keep being produced in the Chinese film industry, some works still anxiously seek quick success and instant profits, and as such they tend to distort values and mislead thought. In face of the situation, many call for films to return to rationality and reality.

It is in this context that some film creators actively shoulder their social responsibility and cultural obligation by pondering over the real situations and emotional worlds of common people. Films Walking to School, A Deux World and The Class of One are themed on rural education. Still Life, Migrant Worker and Return Ticket focus on the status quo of migrant workers’daily struggle. Fly with the Crane and River Road concentrate on the relationship between the environment and humans. Hold Your Hands and Nan Ge reflect the achievements made in targeted poverty alleviation. After watching Hold Your Hands, some viewers decided to give up their lives in the big city, return to their hometowns and dedicate themselves to the building of a new socialist countryside.

The film director Li Ruijun once said: “My works are mostly about realistic themes and most of the stories originate from life itself. To me, apart from being entertaining, films also need a sense of responsibility and missionary consciousness, which will endow them with more artistic vitality.”

Keen observations of life and penetrating thought about the social reality and fates of characters are signs that Chinese realistic films are growing increasingly mature. Jia Zhangke, a film director deeply influenced by Italian neo-realism, said that the charm of film lies in its ability to present the natural state of human beings. To him, film is always an offline art, and its focus must be “people.”Film creation in any era is always about feeling how people think and what life is like, and this is irreplaceable by any type of big data. In Mountains May Depart, Ash Is Purest White and his other recent works, Jia still seeks his own way to probe into people’s daily lives and explore the plight of a living environment in which people are increasingly alienated from each other.


Li Daoxin is a professor from the School of Arts at Peking University. This article was translated and edited from Guangming Daily.

​(edited by BAI LE)