The best and worst foreign-Chinese movies of 2015

A look back at 2015's good, bad and laughably bad Chinese-foreign co-productions


2015 has been the year that foreign film companies stopped talking about how important the China market is and started actually showing it. Mainland screens have been inundated with foreign co-productions for one reason: the country is now second only to America in size of box office.

The growing Chinese market is provoking yet another freak-out in the US about the rise of China, but few have bothered to look at what this means in terms of the films. With that in mind, we’ve rounded up five of the biggest co-productions this year. Some you should check out; some not so much.

The good

Wolf Totem
Jean-Jacques Annaud, Mainland/ France 2015

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Although it’s adapted from Jiang Rong’s smash-hit novel of the same name, about a young man sent to Inner Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution, the plot and characters are the weakest elements of this film. Instead, Jean-Jacques Annaud – a French director with a long history of working with animals – shines when focusing his camera on the wolves and the gorgeous landscape of Inner Mongolia: the movie at times feels more like an ethnographic documentary than a fiction film. Despite having a French director and French funding, Wolf Totem really feels like a Chinese production, and is all the better for it.


The 'meh'

Hollywood Adventures
Timothy Kendall, Mainland/USA 2015

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Helmed by an American director and crew but clearly aimed solely at Mainland audiences, this Chinese action-comedy flick is surprisingly funny in its first third, before somewhat lamely falling apart for the rest of the film. Produced and co-written by the Taiwan-born, US-raised Justin Lin (director of many Fast & Furious films), Hollywood Adventures stars Zhao Wei, Huang Xiaoming and Tong Dawei as a trio of Chinese innocents trying to survive in a violent and hedonistic America. How violent and hedonistic? The most popular TV show consists of nothing but guys being socked in the face in front of an American flag. Unfortunately, amusing jokes like that are soon lost in a story that awkwardly tries to cram in forced romance, action scenes and overly cute, self-referential humour.

Mountains May Depart
Jia Zhangke, Mainland/France/Japan 2015

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While large commercial co-productions have drawn a lot of attention, Mainland indie film directors have long been dependent on foreign financing to produce their films. Chinese critical darling Jia Zhangke’s latest represents something new in that it was partially shot in Australia. That said, it also represents a disappointment compared to his earlier work. Jia’s deft visual touch remains intact, but the film’s three-part story never quite coalesces. The details and accents in the Australian sequence are off, while the acting leaves something to be desired. That said, even a world-class thespian would have trouble making lines like ‘Google Translate is your real son!’ sound good.


And the really ugly

Dragon Blade
Daniel Lee, Mainland 2015

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We’ll say this for Dragon Blade: it had a real budget. With all that money spent on special effects, it’s too bad they couldn’t come up with a better colour scheme than the toilet-like brown and yellow employed for the entire film. Dragon Blade really wants us to know that it’s gritty, resulting in a whole lot of bad stylistic choices. Jackie Chan, for example, plays an ancient Silk Road cop while sporting a goatee and braided dreadlocks. That look doesn’t work well for anyone, but especially not middle-aged Asian men.

John Cusack and Adrien Brody also show up as grim, rival Roman Centurions. Cusack mumbles and shrugs his way through the film, while Brody’s actually pretty enjoyable as the scenery-chewing villain. Add in a singing royal Roman moppet that Cusack is protecting and it starts to sound so bad it’s good. Trust us, though – it’s mainly just bad.

Outcast
Nick Powell, Mainland/Canada/France/USA 2015

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Outcast basically plays out like a worse version of Dragon Blade, a sentence we can’t believe we just typed. Here, the foreign warriors stranded in China are a pair of former Medieval crusaders played by Hayden Christensen and Nicolas Cage. They’re both saddled with guilt from all the killing they did, but end up using their mad killing skills to protect the heir to the Chinese throne from his evil older brother, in a plot as bland and forgettable as the film’s title. Even Nicolas Cage, who has a terrible haircut and strokes his chin with a live snake for no reason, can’t save this film with his manic overacting, and Christensen is hardly any better. On the plus side, it’s only 90 minutes!

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