Watching and re-watching Chinese films has been a great way to practice listening and raise vocabulary on my quest to learn the language. But you don’t have to be a language learning enthusiast to enjoy foreign language cinema. Movies capture history and culture visually, and can transport you to other places and times from the comfort of your sofa. China is famously home to over a billion people, and looking at the country’s cinema can offer you a window into the collective unconscious of a rising superpower. The first six movies I recommend will be subtitled in English so you can get a taste for Chinese cinema without the language barrier, but the last four will not include English subtitles because I want to link to streaming movies and sometimes they are hard to find. If you read my description and want to watch the rest with English subtitles I suggest you find a torrent file or buy the movie from Amazon/someplace. Enjoy!
1.) Last Train Home [ 归途列车 ]
- Streaming video for Americans [Hulu]
- Streaming video from Chinese site with English/Chinese subtitles [AiQiYi]
Last train home is a stunning documentary that looks at the largest human migration on Earth. In China, there is a strong tradition of going home to see your parents and family during the Chinese New Year [春节]. You can’t escape the words “Go Home” [回家] during this time, and there are beautiful advertisements on television that specifically tell Chinese people to go home for the new year. In Last Train Home, Director Lixin Fan follows a family of migrant workers as they head back to their hometown village of Huilong in Sichuan province. Like a surprising number of the Chinese people I have met, the parents in this family are basically estranged from their daughter who is left to grow up under the care of her grandparents back in the village while her parents live and work in a garment factory in GuangZhou. Aside from the incredible visuals of this documentary, the story of a typical Chinese family can illustrate for you the struggles of many Chinese people as they leave their agricultural homelands to find work in the city. It is a beautiful story and masterfully shot, definitely a documentary you shouldn’t miss as you learn about China or dive into the language.
2.) Personal Tailor [私人订制]
- Streaming video with English/Chinese subtitles [YouKu]
- Streaming video from another Chinese site with English/Chinese subtitles [AiQiYi]
- This one is available on youtube, but it costs $1.99
Personal Tailor is a Chinese comedy full of sarcasm that critiques the country in a way that might surprise you for China. It takes a satirical look at many of China’s problems, including corrupt officials, prostitution, and the rapid degradation of the environment. It has a few hilarious moments that made me laugh out loud. People in this film go to a kind of custom travel agency that allows you to pretend you are someone rich and important. The agency hires actors to help the main characters facilitate the illusion that they are a government official or wealthy person and the film documents the temptations and antics that ensue. It includes an actor that I like named GeYou [葛优] that is in many other Chinese films.
3.) Raise the Red Lantern [大红灯笼高高挂]
- Streaming video with English/Chinese subtitles (youtube)
- Streaming video from Chinese language site, but there are NO SUBTITLES 
Raise the Red Lantern is a gorgeous old movie that looks at the struggles of a new wife in an arranged polygamous marriage during the warlord era in the 1920s. The cinematography and costume design are both stunning and it has the feel of old China. It’s a look into the cultural background that preceded liberation in 1949, and shows how women could be treated during this time period. Plenty of old songs and architecture to marvel at in this visual feast, and the story is captivating. The lead actress GongLi [巩俐] is renowned in China for her beauty.
4.) Red Cliff [赤壁]
- Streaming video with English subtitles (youtube)
- Streaming video from Chinese site with no English subtitles (only Chinese subs)
Red Cliff is an action movie that takes place during the Three Kingdoms period of ancient China. It is a Lord of the Rings style epic with lots of sword battles and military strategy. The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is one of my favorite books in Chinese, and Red Cliff comes from the story of Cao Cao’s horrible loss fighting with his enormous naval fleet against the combined strengths of the smaller kingdoms of Wu/Shu. There is plenty of old wisdom in the film, and it’s always fascinating to imagine what it was like to be someone living in such a brutal and mystical past. I suppose people enjoy shows like Game of Thrones for similar reasons. In Red Cliff you see an approximation of what it was like to be an emperor, a warlord, or just a lowly peasant.
5.) NeZha Riots the Seas [哪吒闹海]
This 1979 animation from ShangHai is artistically delightful and puts you in touch with some of the more Buddhist overtones in Chinese culture. The way the dragons move, the old master riding a crane, NeZha’s magical ring: the animation is striking. For the time it must have been very innovative. It’s an old fairy tale about a little boy who defies the dragon king.
6.) Spring in a Small Town [ 小城之春 ]
This 1948 black and white film is a look back in time. It moves slowly and has a bit of a sinister feeling. The story is about a woman’s struggle to stay faithful to her ailing husband. It’s a movie primarily about infidelity, and there are some innuendos and erotic symbolism throughout, but it stays as chaste as you would imagine a 1948 Chinese classic would be. It’s really a fascinating look into Chinese life and culture pre-revolution.
7.) You are the apple of my eye [那些年我们一起追过的女孩]
This comedy from Taiwan is still a guilty pleasure for me. It’s fairly immature in its humor and is filled with blatant sex jokes (something conspicuously missing in most Chinese language films). I am sad that I can’t find a streaming file with English subtitles for people, but you should be able to torrent it. This movie explores what it is like to be cooped up in a Chinese style high school during the hormonal nightmare that is puberty. There are some genuinely funny scenes, and I found it helped me to relate to the trials and tribulations of my own rowdy group of high school kids when I was teaching English at a senior school here in China. The rigorous academic life of a young Chinese person is crazy, and kids in high school are locked in a campus reading textbooks from seven in the morning to ten at night. But they still manage to have their own love stories and drama around all the strict teachers and rote memorization.
8.) Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon [卧虎藏龙]
This movie was a blockbuster in America, so naturally I couldn’t find a free streaming video on the English language interwebs. It costs a whopping $9.99 to watch on youtube. But I still want to include it on my list because it is a work of art that’s worth learning Chinese just to appreciate better. The flying kung fu scenes, Eastern philosophy and ancient scenery make this a Chinese language movie you don’t want to miss.
9.) The Continent [后会无期]
- Streaming video with no English subs (you have to be in China or have a VPN with servers in China to watch)[HunanTV]
While I have read negative reviews about this dry comedy about friends on a road trip, I personally enjoyed this film. It moves slowly, but there are some creative word plays and awkward situations that provoke laughter. The humor is a bit on the darker side, and the movie feels like a long dream sequence, but there is some creative dialogue that must have pushed the boundaries for censorship.
10.) American Dreams in China [中国合伙人]
American Dreams in China is about a group of Chinese English teachers who have their hearts set on going to America on a student visa. Their are some interesting cross cultural interactions, and one of the guys winds up dating an American girl for a time. It’s fascinating to see a Chinese view on foreign culture and lifestyles. Speaking English and going abroad is idealized in the film, and the crew of friends makes their millions by opening up English training centers around mainland China. They wind up in a legal battle over copyright infringement and this leads to some inspirational dialogue about overcoming difficulty.