Two of the biggest films in China this year were neither chest-thumping odes to patriotism nor slapstick buddy comedies. They featured no superheroes or intricately choreographed car chase scenes.
Instead, they were thoughtful explorations of issues that are familiar to millions of women in China today, like the constant struggle between family obligations and career ambitions or the complicated bond between a mother and a daughter.
The two films, “Hi, Mom” and “Sister,” are part of a wave of movies made by female directors that are challenging the notion of what it takes to conquer China’s vaunted film market — now the world’s largest. And while each film is distinct, together they stand out for what they represent: a rejection of the one-dimensional female roles often seen in commercial Chinese movies, like the lovelorn maiden or the “flower vase,” a derogatory Chinese term for a pretty face.
“The new breed of women’s films are more subtle, nuanced and realistic,” said Ying Zhu, a scholar of Chinese film and author of the forthcoming book “Hollywood in China: Behind the Scenes of the World’s Largest Movie Market.”
By hewing closer to the experiences of women, the films have struck a chord in China, where feminist values have become more mainstream despite the government’s strict limits on activism and dissent. Women are still far outnumbered by men in directing commercial movies, but in the past three years, several of their films have unexpectedly seen runaway success.
Leading the pack is “Hi, Mom,” a comedic tear-jerker directed by Jia Ling that pulled in $840 million in domestic ticket sales, making it the top-grossing movie in China this year and the second-highest-earning film ever in the country.
In the movie, which was released in February, Ms. Jia stars as a woman whose mother is injured in a near-fatal accident. The woman travels back in time and becomes friends with her mother to try to make amends.
The movie’s success propelled Ms. Jia, a well-known comedian and a first-time director, to be the world’s highest-grossing solo female filmmaker, surpassing Patty Jenkins of “Wonder Woman” fame.
For many moviegoers, the film’s portrait of an intimate mother-daughter bond has given them a renewed appreciation for the sacrifices their mothers made. Others enjoyed the nostalgic depiction of China in the 1980s, with its black-and-white televisions and lovers on bicycles. On social media, people posted photos of their mothers when they were younger, with a hashtag that was viewed over 180 million times.
April Li, a civil servant in the southwestern Chinese city of Kunming, said she cried when she saw the movie and that it inspired her mother to make a trip to her ancestral home to pay respects at her own mother’s grave, Ms. Li said.
“At first we all thought it was going to be a comedy,” said Ms. Li, 27. “We didn’t think it would also be so heartwarming.”
The theme of family, explored from the perspective of a woman, also found resonance among Chinese audiences in the movie “Sister,” released this spring.
Directed by Yin Ruoxin and written by You Xiaoying, the low-budget drama follows a young woman who faces a difficult choice after her parents suddenly die in a car accident: continue pursuing her ambitions of becoming a doctor or take care of her 6-year-old brother.
“Sister” offered a somber, at times angry, meditation on the often unfair expectations imposed on women to put their families before themselves. It also pointedly depicted the consequences of China’s “one-child policy,” by showing how her parents, desperate for a son, had forced her to fake a disability so that they could get permission to have a second child.
“I hope that through An Ran’s story, more girls can see that they should be free to choose their own career path and life direction,” Ms. Yin said in an interview with Xinhua, China’s state-run news agency, referring to the film’s female protagonist.
“‘Sister’ is a wonderful and deeply moving film,” she wrote in a glowing review posted on her WeChat blog. “It is also a profound work that is firmly rooted in social reality and reflective of our changing social mores.”
Ms. Jia and Ms. Yin declined requests for interviews.
Despite the recent success of the two films, the country’s film industry is far from reaching gender parity.
Under Mao, state-subsidized studios controlled the filmmaking process. Female directors had no shortage of work, but had little say over what movies they could make or how to make them.
The gradual opening of China’s film industry starting in the late 1980s did not help, as it became even more difficult for female directors to find commercial opportunities to tell their stories. Of China’s top 100 highest-grossing domestic films, only seven were directed by women, according to a review of box office data from Maoyan, a Chinese movie ticketing website.
The ruling Communist Party has also been tightening its grip on culture, and movies that touch on hot-button topics like L.G.B.T.Q.I. issues, surrogate births and the practice of egg freezing are now coming under growing scrutiny, people in the industry say.
The censorship means that China has effectively shunned some of its top female filmmakers like Nanfu Wang, whose documentary, “One Child Nation,” chronicled the brutal consequences of China’s family planning policies, and Chloé Zhao, the Beijing-born filmmaker who in April won the Oscar for directing “Nomadland.”
Still, the huge commercial success of “Hi, Mom” and “Sister” may be a turning point in how studio executives see women-centric narratives.
“It’s a clear indication that audiences are tired of movies that rely on visual bombardment and sensory overload,” said Dong Wenjie, a Beijing-based producer.
Last year, Ms. Dong worked with several prominent Chinese female filmmakers and actresses to make “Hero,” an account of the coronavirus pandemic in China told through the experiences of three ordinary women.
The filmmakers included Li Shaohong, 65, one of China’s best-known female directors, who was among the first to embrace what she described in an interview as the “female perspective.” In “Blush” (1995), for example, she tells the story of the Chinese government’s campaign to “re-educate” prostitutes through the eyes of two women and a female narrator.
“Our voices and our perspectives have been missing too often in the past,” Ms. Li said. “Now is the time for us to find the courage to speak up.”
Zhao Wei, an actress turned filmmaker, is also optimistic, citing her success in raising funds for a mini-series that explored domestic violence, the pressure on women to get married, and other thorny issues. She had initially been told by investors that such a project would not sell.
The show was released on Tencent Video, a popular streaming platform, to rave reviews from viewers, many of whom said it spoke directly to the pressures they felt in their own lives.
The next step for female filmmakers, Ms. Zhao said, will be opportunities to explore their full range of interests, such as with action, war or historical movies — genres that are typically seen as being in the realm of men.
“Female filmmakers can talk about more than just women,” Ms. Zhao said. “All we need is just one woman to succeed to open those doors.”