Many new language learners underestimate how much practice time they’ll need to master Chinese. You’re off to a great start if you’ve taken a course in Chinese or gone through a couple Chinese textbooks, but you’re ultimately going to need much more exposure than that. The good news is that, as you improve, the learning process becomes much more enjoyable: instead of memorizing vocabulary words and sifting through textbooks, you can instead have conversations and read books.
Not everybody can move to China to immerse themselves in a Mandarin-speaking environment, but that’s ok! You don’t need to. Tons of great Chinese content is available on the internet, so you can immerse yourself in the language without leaving the comfort of your home.
Movies, in particular, are great: watching cinema in Chinese exercises your listening skills (and, with subtitles, your reading skills), exposes you to colloquial language, and immerses you in Chinese culture. Furthermore, because it’s enjoyable, you’ll actually look forward to spending time with Chinese.
This post introduces a wide variety of Chinese movies—some serious, some goofy. There’s something for everyone. Pick one (or all of them), and then when you’re done, begin exploring other movies by the same director. Eventually you’ll have built a sizable “to watch” list to incorporate into your learning plan.
A Very Brief History of Chinese Cinema
Potential as a language-learning tool aside, Chinese cinema is well worth exploring for its rich history alone.
Today, Chinese cinema has a global presence. Some of the best movies in Chinese of all time—powerhouse films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; In the Mood for Love; Hero; and Farewell My Concubine—have garnered international praise and recognition. As of 2022, China has also boasted the world’s largest film market for the second year in a row, so it’s set to play an even bigger role in what appears on the silver screens around the world.
This was not always the case. To arrive here, Chinese cinema evolved alongside the (often turbulent) of twentieth-century China. Produced amidst the surging forces of modernization, urbanization, international conflict, and internal ideological strife, Chinese films both reflected and responded to the pressing issues of their days. Today’s viewers watching movies from China’s film archives can actually see slices of China’s history preserved on screen.
The contemporary social dramas, kung fu action flicks, and philosophical compositions are extensions of these film traditions. Today’s internet-age viewers who have tuned into Chinese movies in on Netflix and other outlets can watch on-screen as Chinese filmmakers converse with China’s past, comment on its present, and speculate about its future.
How to Learn Chinese with Movies
If your goal is to learn Chinese by watching movies, the best films to watch are whichever ones that you genuinely want to see. Because Chinese cinema offers a wide range of content to explore, whether you’re interested in classics, niche art genres, or the latest blockbusters, you’re bound to find good movies that appeal to your tastes. As such, don’t waste your time watching movies you’re not interested in.
When you first start watching movies in Chinese, it will more than likely feel difficult. Potentially very difficult. The actors will speak faster than you’re used to, use slang you’ve never heard before, and showcase accents and dialects you’ve never encountered. That’s OK. As long as you enjoy what you’re watching, this exposure to native-speaker level materials will be both fun and worthwhile.
If you don’t understand everything that’s being said, focus instead on what you can understand. Even if you’re just a beginner, you can still look out for key phrases like “对我来说” (對我來說・duì wǒ lái shuō・as for me) or “然后”(然後・ránhòu・then/next). Just focus on having fun and treat anything you learn as a pleasant bonus.
As you improve, you’ll eventually be ready to move on from random key words to bigger and bigger chunks. When you feel like having a more intense learning session, try looping sections of what you’re watching: individual sentences, sections of dialogue, entire scenes, and eventually entire movies, depending on what feels accessible to you and the level you’re at. Of course, it’s fine (and important) to continue watching movies just for fun, too. Consuming more and more “real-world” examples of Chinese social interactions, language usage, and culture can only benefit you.
Included with the movie recommendations below are sentences pulled from their movie trailers to give you a sense of how movies can be broken down into concrete chunks for learning.
8 of the Best Movies in Chinese to Check Out
Here’s a list of popular Chinese flicks across a variety of different genres.
As you’ll see from the sample sentences provided below, different movies expose you to different types of vocabulary—naturally, a contemporary romantic comedy requires different words to tell than a sci-fi adventure through space does. That in mind, you can choose specific sorts of movies to watch in order to help reinforce the specific vocabulary that you're interested in learning.
A Coming of Age Film: 那些年，我們一起追的女孩 (Nàxiē nián, wǒmen yīqǐ zhuī de nǚhái — You Are the Apple of My Eye)
- Simplified Chinese: 青春是一场大雨，即使感冒了，还盼望回头再淋它一次。
- Traditional Chinese: 青春是一場大雨，即使感冒了，還盼望回頭再淋它一次。
- Pinyin: Qīng chūn shì yī chǎng dà yǔ, jí shǐ gǎn mào le, hái pàn wàng huí tóu zài lín tā yī cì.
- English: Youth is like the rain. Even if you catch a cold, you’ll still yearn to get drenched again.
The 2011 Taiwanese film You Are the Apple of My Eye follows the bittersweet romance between Ko Ching-teng and Shen Chia-yi. As the high school sweethearts come of age, a conflict between them goes unresolved and follows them into adulthood.
A Military Action Picture: 八佰 (Bābǎi — The Eight Hundred)
- Simplfied Chinese: 八十八师的弟兄们！因为有你们上海还在！
- Traditional Chinese: 八十八師的弟兄們！因為有你們上海還在！
- Pinyin: Bāshíbā shī de dìxiōngmen! Yīnwèi yǒu nǐmen Shànghǎi hái zài!
- English: Brothers of the 88th Division! Because of you, Shanghai is still standing!
Like history? The Chinese film The Eight Hundred (2020) offers a dramatic depiction of the 1937 defense of Shanghai’s Sihang Warehouse, an important turning point in the 3-month-long Battle of Shanghai during the Second Sino-Japanese War. This is an ambitious action flick and ended up being China's second highest-grossing film of 2020.
A Goofy Comedy: 港囧 (Gǎng jiǒng — Lost in Hong Kong)
- Simplified Chinese: 那我现在跟你讲国语啦：你叫啥儿名字儿？
- Traditional Chinese: 那我現在跟你講國語啦：你叫啥兒名字兒？
- Pinyin: Nà wǒ xiànzài gēn nǐ jiǎng guóyǔ la: Nǐ jiào shà er míngzì er?
- English: I’ll speak your language then: What’s yo’ name, bro?
If you’re looking for a good laugh, Lost in Hong Kong is a 2015 film about a married man hoping to rekindle an old flame… And his eccentric brother-in-law who tags along to document the entire ordeal.
An Action-packed Fantasy: 捉妖记 (Zhuō yāo jì — Monster Hunt)
- Simplified Chinese: 我爹是天师。捉妖时被妖杀死了。
- Traditional Chinese: 我爹是天師。捉妖時被妖殺死了。
- Pinyin: Wǒ diē shì tiānshī. Zhuō yāo shí bèi yāo shā sǐle.
- English: My dad was a “monster hunter.” He was killed while hunting monsters.
Looking for something filled with imagination and ingenuity? Check out the internationally successful Monster Hunt (2015), a China-Hong Kong film. Set in ancient China, the movie takes viewers along for an adventure in a world populated by both humans and monsters.
A Space Sci-fi Adventure: 流浪地球 (Liúlàng dìqiú — The Wandering Earth)
- Simplified Chinese: 无论最终结果将人类历史导向何处我们决定选择希望。
- Traditional Chinese: 無論最終結果將人類曆史導向何處我們決定選擇希望。
- Pinyin: Wúlùn zuìzhōng jiéguǒ jiāng rénlèi lìshǐ dǎoxiàng hé chù wǒmen juédìng xuǎnzé xīwàng.
- English: Regardless of the outcome for the history of mankind, we have decided to choose hope.
For fans of sci-fi, there’s the epic 2019 Chinese motion-picture The Wandering Earth. In this tale, astronauts in 2061 must guide the Earth away from an expanding red giant sun and out of our current solar system.
Somber Drama: 大象席地而坐 (Dà xiàng xídì'érzuò — An Elephant Sitting Still)
- Simplfiied Chinese: 你能去任何地方，可以去，到了就发现，没什么不一样的。
- Traditional Chinese: 你能去任何地方，可以去，到了就發現，沒什麼不一樣的。
- Pinyin: Nǐ néng qù rènhé dìfāng, kěyǐ qù, dàole jiù fāxiàn, méishénme bù yīyàng de.
- English: Go anywhere you want; go ahead. When you arrive you’ll find that things are no different (than here).
What is life, to you? The critically acclaimed An Elephant Sitting Still, a 2018 film, is an intimate study of four characters. The film depicts their personal struggles and critiques the often hostile society around them. The four hope to make a trip to the city of Manzhouli (Manchuria) to see an elephant that sits still, even when it’s beaten.
If you’re at an intermediate level, you can try reading an essay/review of the film here.
A Bilingual Comedy-drama: 别告诉她 (Bié gàosù tā — The Farewell)
- Simplfiied Chinese: 你觉得我们应该告诉奶奶吗？
- Traditional Chinese: 你覺得我們應該告訴奶奶嗎？
- Pinyin: Nǐ juédé wǒmen yīnggāi gàosù nǎinai ma?
- English: Don't you think we should tell grandma?
How about a family movie, instead? The 2019 American film The Farewell stars Awkwafina as a young Chinese American woman who visits China after learning that her grandmother will soon pass away. The film, which includes English and Mandarin dialog, is at times funny and others sad as it explores questions of familial and cultural values.
An Aching Romance: 后来的我们 (Hòulái de wǒmen — Us and Them)
- Simplified Chinese: 是否学会了如何去爱？
- Traditional Chinese: 是否學會了如何去愛？
- Pinyin: Shìfǒu xué huì liǎo rúhé qù ài?
- English: Will they learn how to love?
Looking for a love story that spans decades? The 2018 Chinese film Us and Them rotates between the past and present as a man and a woman reflect on their young love. Despite growing more distant as time passes, they still find themselves wondering about what could have been.
Watch and Learn to Master Mandarin
In addition to these eight films, there are, of course, many other fantastic films in Chinese you can (and should) check out. After you’ve watched the ones that interest you on this list, you can begin exploring popular streaming services like Netflix—in Chinese—which offer substantial libraries of Chinese films to browse.
Again, you don’t have to move to China to immerse in Chinese.
Watching movies in Chinese is a fun and effective way to take your Chinese skills to the next level. Best of all, unlike a native speaking tutor or conversation partner, you can practice with movies whenever and wherever you want.
As you’re watching movies in Chinese, you will encounter vocabulary and sample sentences that you’d like to remember. This is a great opportunity to nourish your learning, so take note of them. An app for learning and retaining Mandarin vocabulary like Hack Chinese or Glossika can then help you hold onto this valuable knowledge long-term.
Thinking about learning Chinese?
- Why I Learned Mandarin Chinese: My Language Learning Journey
- Reflections on 17 Years of Learning Mandarin Chinese
- Differences Between Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese
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