Every year, the Oscars celebrates the highlights of Hollywood. And every year, the centre of gravity of the global movie industry is shifting East, away from the red carpets and palm trees of America’s West Coast.

In 2015, India sold over 2 billion cinema tickets and China sold 1.24 billion – both ahead of the the US at 1.22 billion.

With pricier tickets, the United States is still the world’s biggest box office market, but that is set to change – and fast. While cheap tickets and piracy put a brake on the Bollywood juggernaut, China is expected to overtake by the end of this year, as newly middle class urbanites flock to cinema screens in the country’s legion shopping centres.

China opened on average 22 new cinema screens every single day in 2015. Although growth in ticket sales slowed to 4% last year, matching similar sluggishness in the United States, a rebound in 2017 is already underway.

So what are China’s movie-going millions watching? A mix of homegrown hits and Hollywood imports that offer a snapshot of the country’s changing cultural mores.

Big hits on the big screen: posters for China's most popular movies

“There are things that were impossible to imagine in the past. Hollywood blockbusters, arty films from abroad,” said Wang Jianlin, China’s wealthiest man and the founder of Dalian Wanda Group, now the world’s biggest movie theatre operator. While foreign films are still censored, he said: “It’s much more relaxed censorship, it’s not like in the past.”

Speaking at Davos 2017, Wang Jianlin said Chinese films were an increasingly important part of the mix. They currently account for 60% of ticket sales.

“China has something special. Chinese films focus on the emotional aspect, Hollywood is all about the big-scale screening, the US saving the word, that type. In China, we don’t see films of China saving the world, the story’s not made up yet. Chinese films tend to talk about emotions, the relationships between people, more and more Chinese people prefer to watch domestically produced films.”

Below are the five highest-grossing films in China to date.

1. The Mermaid

Image: Wikipedia, Fair use

Origin: China/Hong Kong
Chinese ticket sales: $493 million
Story in a nutshell: A mermaid is sent to assassinate a tycoon who’s polluting the sea in a fishy tale that ends in romance.
Critic’s view: An “exhilarating, bizarre, good-hearted, blatantly obvious sci-fi-fantasy-slapstick eco-fable” - NY Times

2. Monster Hunt

Image: Wikipedia, Fair use

Origin: China/Hong Kong
Chinese ticket sales: $355 million, although there has been some controversy over inflated figures.
Story in a nutshell: A partly animated children’s fantasy set in a mythical past, where humans and monsters live alongside one another.
Critic’s view: “What makes Monster Hunt so tyke-friendly is its easily digestible story arc, refreshingly devoid of Confucian morality, educational historical background or nationalistic grandstanding – in short, everything that makes most mainland children’s films such a yawn.” -Variety

3. Furious 7

Image: lmaq carteles de cine via Flickr

Origin: United States
Chinese ticket sales: $353 million
Story in a nutshell: An action-fuelled saga about street racing that’s speeding through a major Hollywood franchise.
Critic’s view: “The editing is frenetic, the dialogue dreadful, the stunts ludicrous, the running time extravagant, and the lack of consequences appalling.” - Guardian

4. Transformers: Age of Extinction

Image: Global Panorama via Flickr

Origin: United States
Chinese ticket sales: $288 million
Story in a nutshell: Scantily clad humans team up with giant alien robots to save the world. Again.
Critic’s view: “For those who aren’t still blindly faithful to something they liked when they were nine, despite the colossal scale, there’s little to see here.” - Empire

5. Mojin: The Lost Legend

Image: Wikipedia, Fair use

Origin: China
Chinese ticket sales: $245 million
Story in a nutshell: Based on a best-selling Chinese online novel, grave-robbers search for the tomb of a Mongolian princess.
Critic’s view: “The film clearly hopes to attract the same audiences that made Indiana Jones and The Mummy series international juggernauts, but an over-reliance on CGI and obvious sound stage work dilutes the film’s adventurous energy.” - Screen Daily