Over dinner in Shanghai last week, I asked my Chinese film industry colleagues whether they had seen the three patriotic blockbusters that dominated mainland cineplexes over the National Day holidays. Most hadn’t. Among those who had, the The Climbers , an homage to Chinese mountaineers trying to scale Mount Everest in the 1960s and 70s, was the least popular, behind the Sully -like airborne drama The Captain and the ode to the nation that is My People, My Country . However, my fellow diners’ sentiments appear to be unrepresentative of the masses. At the time of writing, the three films – all released in the mainland on September 30 – were still doing well at the Chinese box office. My People, My Country , a seven-part anthology, and The Captain , by Hong Kong director Andrew Lau Wai-keung, have so far generated takings of 2.7 billion yuan (HK$3 billion) and 2.5 billion yuan, respectively. The Climbers , helmed by another Hong Kong filmmaker, Daniel Lee Yan-kong, has grossed just over 1 billion yuan. On film portal Douban, the Chinese equivalent of IMDb, My People, My Country boasted a respectable score of eight, The Captain averaged seven and The Climbers earned a 6.5. To put that into perspective, Chinese animation Nezha – this summer’s breakout hit, which took in nearly 5 billion yuan – scored 8.5. Even the mediocre DreamWorks animation Abominable , which opened in China on October 1, got a 7.5. This disparity between public discourse and privately held views shows how sentiments in China are not as monolithic as the public displays of patriotism suggest. For those curious about the state of affairs in China, it’s all about looking in the right places. With the authorities exercising stringent control over public discourse in the face of a major event (the celebration of the 70th anniversary of communist rule ) and “external threats” ( the Sino-United States trade war and the international outcry over the situation in Hong Kong ), it is perhaps pointless to look for even a hint of dissent in the country’s first-tier cities. In the hinterlands, however, it’s a different story. Much has been said (by me, in this column, at least) about the audacious movies put forward by film festivals such as FIRST, in Xining, Qinghai province , and Pingyao, in Shanxi . The latter, whose latest edition concluded on October 19, introduced local audiences to films ranging from the latest releases by Singaporean director Anthony Chen ( Wet Season ) and maverick mainland artist Ju Anqi ( A Trophy on the Sea ) to classics from India’s Parallel Cinema, including Ritwik Ghatak’s The Cloud-Capped Star (1960) and Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome (1969). Clandestine attempts to show alternative fare can be found in the unlikeliest of places. During one suffocating summer’s day in August, I was walking along a backstreet in Changsha, the capital of Hunan province and a city celebrated as the “cradle” of the communist revolution, when I happened on a small dive offering “screenings” of films that will perhaps never receive censors’ approval. Common during the pre-boom 1990s, these “secret cinemas” still exist, albeit under the radar. And then there are those who moved abroad to be able to freely make films about their home country. Canada-based filmmakers Li Luo ( Emperor Visits the Hell , 2012) and Johnny Ma ( Old Stone , 2016) and Chicago-based couple Zhu Shengze ( Present.Perfect , 2019) and Yang Zhengfan ( Where Are You Going ? , 2016) are examples of this approach, as are those who sought refuge in Hong Kong, such as Ying Liang, after running into problems with authorities in the mainland. At the end of the day, it’s not about where one is from, but what one is thinking, and where one is going.