Learning Mandarin Chinese comes with tons of perks.
The best of these may just be your newly found ability to access Chinese cinema.
As they say, watch what you love and the language will follow (or something like that).
Chinese films range from light-hearted and humorous to intensely dramatic and historically enlightening.
The history, culture and social dynamics of China have been artfully captured on the big screen, and any serious Chinese language learner must take advantage of this.
Taking in a movie may seem like something reserved for relaxation time. We’ve shown you before how you can learn Chinese using music as tool. We’ve even explored how to use Chinese television programs to your advantage. These guides, along with this one, are here to prove that learning Chinese can be as entertaining as it is educational. Keep scrolling down to check out our favorite films for Chinese language learners!
Best Strategies for Learning Chinese From Movies
Don’t get the popcorn popping just yet. First, we have got to go over some strategies for how to approach Chinese language films.
- Watch actively. Sure, some days you’ll want to just sit back and relax, not worrying if you’ve understood every last detail. However, you will get much greater educational value out of an active watching experience. Pause and rewind when you miss half of a complicated dialogue. Go back and watch these tricky scenes until you understand every word. As you watch the same scene repeatedly, keep an eye on the subtitles below and mouth lines along with the actors if possible. Keep a notebook nearby and jot down new vocabulary or puzzling sentence structures so you can revisit what you have learned later. These steps towards actively watching movies will help you pay closer attention and become thoroughly engrossed in the language.
- Use Chinese subtitles to your advantage. Too many language learners slip into the habit of watching Chinese movies with English subtitles and using their more comfortable language as a crutch. Alternatively, just as many Chinese students try to fly solo and play movies without any subtitles at all, inevitably resulting in undue frustration.
FluentU can help you get started with both active watching and using subtitles properly. FluentU takes real-world videos—like movie trailers, music videos, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons with (optional) bilingual, interactive captions.
- Pick genres and topics that you genuinely enjoy. You want to learn about Chinese history and culture, or understand more about the Cultural Revolution – that’s all well and good. However, you will steadily lose interest if you keep choosing movie after movie featuring dry topics or genres you’re not really into. Are you a total adrenaline junkie who needs a regular diet of action movies? Then don’t force yourself to choose historical dramas because they’re more educational. You can learn Chinese from all types of Chinese movies!
It is all as simple as it sounds: pick great movies, pay close attention and enjoy! Be sure to read this post for a more in-depth guide on how to learn Chinese with movies.
The 17 Best Movies for Learning Chinese
1. 活着 (Huózhe) | “To Live”
“To Live” should be near the top of anyone’s list of best movies for learning Chinese. This film is what many Chinese cinema buffs would describe as the quintessential film on the Cultural Revolution. It serves to illustrate the changes taking place for families during this tumultuous time. From humor to heartache, birth to death and everything in between, this film has shows it all.
It is a large enough production to tackle issues from an big-picture perspective, but has intimate character portrayals which help us identify with the situation on an individual level. This is a culturally-rich film with unique benefits for Chinese learners.
The dialog used is usually simple enough for an intermediate level Chinese learner to follow, with or without subtitles. Of course, learning Chinese characters and watching the film with Chinese subtitles can be much more enriching.
2. 蓝风筝 (Lan fengzheng)| “The Blue Kite”
“The Blue Kite” might easily rival “To Live” as a defining film for the turbulence experienced by families during the Cultural Revolution. What sets “The Blue Kite” apart is that the story is told from the perspective of a little boy. It is hard not to become attached to Tietou (the main character) as he passes the years of his young childhood with three different father figures.
Many scenes involve him and family members having simple conversations, meaning that everything is spoken by or to a child. There are also plenty of simple conversations between the adults that are easy to follow for even new Chinese learners.
The film is is great for beginners and, though it is simple, it is evocative and compelling. It has great vocabulary that you can use to discuss family, history and culture.
3. 和你在一起 (He ni zai yiqi) | “Together”
“Together” tells the story of a man who wants his son to succeed as a violin player. This film displays a common Chinese mentality that success comes from extreme focus and even greater sacrifice. The man and his son move to Beijing so that the boy can enter a music competition. The hardworking father very often puts his son’s competition ahead of their own relationship, the emotional core of the movie.
Complementing this tension, the relationship between the child and his violin teacher is quite humorous and entertaining. Overall, Together gives us a glimpse of the challenges faced by many Chinese moving to big cities.
Many of the characters speak with a heavy accent, but this is good for learners to be exposed to—you will need to get used to many different accents when communicating with people from different areas in China.
4. 幸福时光 (Xingfu Shiguang) | “Happy Times”
“Happy Times” is a bit of an off-beat comedy with a very funny story. Like many Chinese films, though, do not expect it to be goofy and silly just for the sake of it; it is also quite mature. The characters consist of a motley crew of retired friends who set up a fake hotel in an abandoned warehouse and, with good-hearted intentions, hire a blind girl to work in the “hotel.”
There are lots of hilarious interactions between the friends as their scheme develops. It might be hard to focus on the language being spoken between all the laughs, but it will be worth the effort. You will find this one perfect for learning light-hearted conversation and everyday expressions of romance and friendship.
5. 归途列车 (Guitu lieche) | “Last Train Home”
“Last Train Home” gives a great look at one very interesting, important aspect of modern life in China: trying to get home during the holidays. This international award winning film is a documentary about the hundreds of millions traveling at once during the national holidays in China.
It centers around one family of people who are separated physically and emotionally by the need to move to large cities to find work. While the main characters usually speak with a heavy dialectal accent, the film still teaches at least one main thing about China: do not attempt to travel by train during the Chinese New Year. This film is full of great vocabulary for describing transportation, basic business terms and family dynamics.
6. 一个都不能少 (Yi ge dou bu neng shao) | “Not One Less”
“Not One Less” is a simple story about a schoolteacher in a village in rural China. This film highlights another very interesting aspect of life in China–the discrepancies in the education of children in rural and urban China. In the school in this story, even one piece of chalk seems a luxury. The schoolteacher herself is only a child. One of the students runs away to the city and the teacher is forced to go look for him to keep her job.
The film uses wonderfully simple Chinese in conversation, and you should be able to view it with Chinese subtitles. An advantage is that many of the actors are non-professionals. They are more or less acting in their own vernacular. This makes the film seem so real, making it an even more touching story.
7. “Please Vote for Me”
“Please Vote For Me” is a documentary about a democratic election (supposedly the first of such in China) for class monitor in an elementary school in Wuhan, China. The film follows the three candidates through many classroom scenes, debates and coaching sessions with their parents. It is a very modern look at middle class life in China. The story is great for Chinese learners.
Some of the scenes have a lot of background noise with the students all yelling; but there are also many scenes of conversations between the kids and with their parents, meaning that the language used is relatively simple. Since the content and the vocabulary used in the conversations is not too complex, the story is easy to follow.
8. “Beijing Taxi”
“Beijing Taxi” is a documentary that follows three taxi drivers through Beijing in 2008, in the time leading up to the Beijing Olympics. The city of Beijing changed a lot during that time. For example, many old neighborhoods were torn down to make room for the Olympic facilities, and this is reflected in the comments of the three featured individuals.
It gives a great look at the everyday lives of hardworking people in the midst of changes they have little control over. Most Chinese learners will be familiar with the Beijing accent, especially if they have done any audio lessons. Such lessons typically feature this northern Chinese accent.
9. “Up the Yangtze”
“Up the Yangtze” documents the enormous effects that the Three Gorges Dam project has on many people. It shows one family whose home will soon be covered by the flooding caused by the dam. Ironically, the daughter of the family finds work on a cruise boat on the river. The other main character is an ambitious, popular young worker on the boat.
The film really drives home the changes that modern China is going through. The young girl from the countryside working hard, trying to find her place in a new environment. The proud boy is ambitious for new opportunities, but is lacking the values and traditions that are so strong for others. As such individual and cultural changes are the subject of many conversations Chinese learners are bound to have with Chinese people, it makes for a great learning experience.
10. 落叶归根 (Luo ye gui gen) | “Getting Home”
“Getting Home” is a comedy about a man who agrees to take his friend’s body home for a proper burial upon his demise, having previously promised his friend a favor. With no money to transport him, the man has to find a way to travel. Along his journey with his friend (his friend’s remains) he meets a wide variety of characters with whom he has really funny but also many very touching interactions.
He gets himself into and out of a lot of comical situations. The story is fun and the dialog is easy to follow. The main character is played by Zhao Benshan, from “Happy Times,” mentioned above. The film should be available with both English and Chinese subtitles, which is great for any Chinese learner.
11. 我的父亲母亲 (Wode fuqin muqin) | “The Road Home”
“The Road Home” is a subtle, sweet love story set probably about fifty years ago in rural China. A small village gets a new schoolteacher. One of the village girls falls in love with him and they are eventually married. Many years later, the woman is determined that her husband’s burial procession will be on foot. It is a long enough journey that most would take by car, but she is quite stubborn.
The majority of the story takes place when they are young. The advantage for the learner is that there are not too many characters, the story is very easy to follow and there is some narration by the old couple’s son. It is easy to piece the story together. The film has great visuals and great music which really keep you along for the ride. It also gives the Chinese language learner a chance to see life in rural China before the Cultural Revolution modernization and without any of those themes.
12. 一一 (Yi Yi) | “Yi Yi: A One and a Two”
“Yi Yi” is a drama about a family in Taiwan who all face complex challenges in life. The film shows the challenges of each individual separately, but the children’s stories turn out to be the most captivating. The family lives a very modern lifestyle, and the characters are all very compelling. It is interesting to watch them speak to the grandmother, who is in a coma.
The little boy in elementary school provides all the comic relief. The Mandarin Chinese that the cast speaks is very clear and very standard, and thus it is quite good for the ears of Chinese learners. The film is rather long with plenty of dialog, making it a ideal for intensive practice in listening and comprehension.
13. 大红灯笼高高挂 (Da hong deng long gao gao gua) | “Raise the Red Lantern”
“Raise the Red Lantern” is yet another film by Zhang Yimou that has been banned in mainland China. The film shows a wealthy man’s household of four wives and their interactions, sometimes friendly, often jealous and conniving. The story is quite captivating, especially as the plot develops and the film comes to a very dramatic climax.
The story is good for variety and depth for the Chinese learner. It is set in the 1920s, a time period which involved a great deal of cultural progression. This is significantly different than the setting of the Cultural Revolution which is so popular in Chinese cinema. The Chinese spoken is relatively easy to understand for learners, and the film is absorbing enough to want to pay close attention.
14. 饮食男女 (Yin shi nan nu) | “Eat Drink Man Woman”
“Eat Drink Man Woman” is another film whose story is set in modern Taipei, China. This story shows a retired chef and his three daughters who all share one meal together each week. The story is about a change in traditional values, and the portrayal of the daughters’ individual lives and successes show this clearly.
As a side plot, it highlights another theme that often runs through Chinese stories: food. There are many scenes that quite appetizingly highlight the retired chef preparing meals. Eating delicious food and sharing mealtimes together are very important aspects of Chinese culture that any Chinese learner should familiarize themselves with and appreciate.
Like the other Taiwanese films mentioned, the Mandarin is quite good for Chinese learners to tune their ears to.
15. 秋菊打官司 (Qiu Ju da guan si) | “The Story of Qiu Ju”
“The Story of Qiu Ju” stars Gong Li, who also was the main character in “Raise the Red Lantern” and “To Live.” In this story, she plays a heartening role as a determined woman in pursuit of justice. The village chief kicks her husband in the groin during a dispute. even though she is pregnant, she travels to the city to pursue a case against the man. She appeals her way higher through the system, but the results seem frustrating at best.
All she really wants is an apology, but the village chief is stubborn to do so. This film is great for learners because the language spoken is less like movie script lines and more like everyday people really speak. It will be awesome practice for more advanced learners. It also excellently shows an authentic image of China in the early 1990s through the employment of documentary-style shots of street scenes.
16. 变脸 (Bian Lian) | “The King of Masks”
“The King of Masks” is a heartwarming story of a traveling entertainer who excels at his particular performance, a mask-changing show. The aging performer wants to pass his skills on, but he has no son or grandson. He succeeds in adopting a young boy, but it presents him with a unique challenge when he finds out the truth about the child.
The relationship between the two has some rocky development, faces extreme situations and has a very dramatic climax. The glimpse of their life at home, aboard a houseboat, is fascinating.
The scenes of street performances from long ago and street life are also very educational for Chinese learners. The conversations between the old man and the little girl are often amusing, and are quite easy to understand.
17. 向日葵 (Xiang ri ku) | “Sunflower”
“Sunflower” is a post-Cultural Revolution story that shows the changes taking place during the last century in China. The father, who was “re-educated” during the Cultural Revolution, wants his son to follow his artist’s footsteps. This puts a strain on the family and the problems still linger ten years later when the boy, now a man, and his wife inform his parents of a big decision.
Later, the father surprises everyone with a life-changing decision of his own. The story is told for the most part from the perspective of the boy during his youth. The film moves at a pace good for learners to keep up with and be able to focus on the conversations. There is also some narration and monologues for the Chinese learner to more easily follow all the thoughts and ideas projected by the main characters.
And there you have it! These movies are a fantastic jumping-off point for all Chinese language learners, casual and serious learners alike. Once you find a subject, actor or director that you truly love, keep searching for more movies that capture these same elements.
And One More Thing…
If you like learning Chinese with movies, then you’ll love FluentU.
FluentU lets you learn real Chinese from music videos, commercials, news and inspiring talks. It naturally eases you into learning Chinese language. Native Chinese content comes within reach, and you’ll learn Chinese as it’s spoken in real life.
FluentU has a wide range of contemporary videos—like dramas, TV shows, commercials and music videos. In fact, below you’ll even see the song “Let It Go” from the hit movie “Frozen”:
FluentU brings these native Chinese videos within reach via interactive captions. You can tap on any word to instantly look it up. All words have carefully written definitions and examples that will help you understand how a word is used. Tap to add words you’d like to review to a vocab list.
FluentU’s Learn Mode turns every video into a language learning lesson. You can always swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.
The best part is that FluentU always keeps track of your vocabulary. It suggests content and examples based on the words you’re learning. You have a 100% personalized experience.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Chinese with real-world videos.