Themed Playlist: Disease in Contemporary Chinese Cinema

About the lists: Calls to socially distance and self-isolate are  driving people to look for things to watch. But the sheer amount of options out there can be overwhelming. For this reason, we at the Centre for Screen Cultures are producing themed playlists of film, video, and television so you can organise your own series or festival at home (or home school). They will update here and here:


Dr Kai GAO,  Lecturer in Media Studies at the University of Shanghai International Studies (PRC) and Visiting Scholar at the University of St Andrews offers a list on the theme of Chinese cinema and representations of disease.


About the lists:

Since the beginning of the new century, disease has become a more prominent– and often richly expressed– theme in Chinese cinema. But the attention to disease is about more than the pathology. Rather, illness, infection and disability (psychological, developmental, and physical) offer a lens for reflecting the societies and social lives of people in China.  is about more than  diseases have been appearing more frequently in Chinese films with richer forms and expressions, and gradually becoming a unique perspective to depict the society and lives of people in China.  It is never just about the medical imaginary, but the social one, as disease and disability take on multiple cultural meanings and associations. Chinese films about illness tell us something about China as much as they might about film and disease.


Many of the films on this list are hard to find– and even harder to understand as not all come with English subtitles– but these are some that I would recommend for thinking about how disease transmitted: physically, socially, and in representation.


San shi ba du/38 Degrees (Liu Xin, Ai Ying, 2003):


This romantic comedy featuring  Tao Hong and Huang Lei could be considered China’s first anti-SARS themed film.  Although the film is set during the first SARS epidemic, it is both funny and affectionate, telling the story of how an air hostess and a work-study deliveryman, trapped in isolation, fall in love.  More of a desert island (a Love Island?) adventure than a medical one LIU uses a desperate situation to consider and represent the optimism, sincerity, and dedication of people.  I want to watch this film right now as an needed palliative if not antidote to the  isolation due to the impact brought by COVID-19.


Dying to Survive (Wen Muye, 2018):


Based on a true story, this comedy-drama stars Xu Zheng as as the owner of a chemist’s shop who became the chief distributor for an inexpensive Indian generic cancer drug. Wen’s feature film debut became that year’s third highest grossing film at the Chinese box office ($453 million). The film spurred debate about the cost of medical care among Chinese, and Premier Li Keqiang cited this film in an appeal to regulators to speed up price cuts for cancer drugs in order to reduce the burden on families. Those interested in questions of affordable medicine, whether to protect the UK’s NHS or encourage the U.S. to adopt a public health option might be particularly interested in seeing how this issue plays out in another context. [Ed note: Variety called it ‘China’s answer to The Dallas Buyers Club.] It’s available on Amazon Prime for U.S.-based audiences



Song wo shang qing yun/ Send Me To The Clouds (Teng Congcong,2019):


This recipient of 4 nominations at the 32nd Golden Rooster Awards, this film tells the story of a 30-something journalist who is diagnosed with ovarian cancer and looks for another job to help pay for the surgery. But her search is more than financial: It is about love, sex, and respect.  She is one of China’s ‘leftover women‘ — the over 20-years, single women often denigrated in society and media, but also now the subject of battled for positive reclamation– and this story offers an occasion for empowerment and reflection on women’s value and sexuality, something rarely discussed in Chinese films. When the protagonist declares ‘I want to make love with you’ without shame, she announces this value to herself and to the world. But while she signals a ‘new form of femininity in Chinese cinema‘ , what does it mean that she has to be fatally ill to recognise and represent that new woman?  Happily, this one is available on Amazon Prime:



Hai yang tian tang/Ocean Heaven (Xue Xiaolu, 2010):


When one thinks of Jet Li, a martial arts action film might be the first thing that comes to mind. So you might be surprised by his turn as a single father, diagnosed with a terminal illness, trying to prepare his autistic son (Wen Zhang) to live without him.This 2010 drama is written an directed by Xue Xialou, considered one of China’s most successful female directors (particularly with the top-grossing film Finding Mr Right). I include this film for its good word of mouth and high ratings. It is available on YouTube:



Hang wan si ngo/Happiness (Andy Lo, 2016):


British sociologist Clive Seale has noted the ways that media will often confer special powers onto ordinary people faced with illness, particularly as a means of refocussing a social issue onto the individual. This feel-good film about a woman with early-onset Alzheimer’s in Hong Kong could play into this representation, but it also complicates it with a sweet and gentle story about how people on the margins of society are forced to come together when society lets them down. While one character makes the journey from selfishness to compassion, suggesting one of those journeys of responsibilisation brought on through encounters will illness and disability, it also points to the need for collective responsibility. Moreover, in its warmth, it reminds us how kindness might help make happiness out of helpless situations. Many of us could use that message right now.  And it’s available on iTunes:



The list above is, of course, not comprehensive. And there are many more related films. Add your contributions and thoughts in the comments to make this list longer and richer.


4 thoughts on “Themed Playlist: Disease in Contemporary Chinese Cinema”

  1. Great list! Crucial to any playlist in the time of quarantine is Tsai Ming-liang’s The Hole (1998) ! Nearly-missed connections across courtyards, through ceilings, and between a man and a cat while an apartment complex is under lockdown. Sprinkled with surreal song and dance numbers about desire in the building’s liminal zones.

  2. Love this list! The idea of creating a playlist of Chinese disease cinema is brilliant. I would add Gu Changwei’s Love for Life (2011) to this list. It’s a film about the AIDS tragedy in rural Henan, adapted from Yan Lianke’s remarkable novel Dream of Ding Village. Ai Xiaoming’s documentary The Epic of the Central Plains might be a good companion on the topic of AIDS.


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