Watch movies to learn Chinese, they said.
It’ll be fun, they said.
But if you aren’t already proficient in the language, watching Chinese movies is just plain overwhelming.
It’s a tricky language! How are you supposed to follow along well enough to actually learn?
That’s where English subtitles come in.
If you watch Chinese movies with English subtitles, you can still expose yourself to the culture, learn new vocab and familiarize yourself with accents and tones. But you can also figure out what the heck is going on.
The good news is there are numerous Chinese movies with English subtitles out there. You just have to know where to look and how to use them to your advantage.
Tips for Watching Chinese Movies with English Subtitles
Take it slow.
Watching a movie for the purpose of learning a language isn’t the same as watching “Juno” or “Good Will Hunting.” You probably aren’t going to watch the entire film in one sitting. (Although, to be honest, I sometimes have to split “Good Will Hunting” into two nights because I get too emotional!)
When watching a Chinese movie, take things scene by scene. You might find that after one or two scenes, you need a break because immersing yourself in the language can be grueling.
By taking the film in chunks, you’ll hopefully be able to avoid burnout and keep having fun with the language.
Don’t be afraid to rewind. If you don’t understand something, you should definitely back up. And even if you think you understand, you can still rewind to better familiarize yourself with the tones, pace and vocabulary.
Keep vocabulary lists.
Isn’t the main reason for watching Chinese movies to learn Chinese vocabulary? To keep yourself accountable, make lists of the words you’re learning.
There are several ways to do this. You can keep one list for an entire film, split lists up by character or keep separate lists for vocab categories (vocab for family, romance, etc.).
But don’t stop with the lists! To master the language, study the vocab once you’ve turned off the TV. Memorize, memorize, memorize!
A great way to memorize vocab is to use digital flashcards with an app like FluentU. Yes, old-school flashcards are fine. But with digital decks, you can study wherever you are, without lugging around a huge deck of cards.
Watch a movie more than once.
I could probably recite “Mean Girls” in its entirety, from the opening credits to the moment we catch a glimpse of the Future Plastics. Why? Because I’ve seen “Mean Girls” upwards of 15 times.
If you like a Chinese film, watch it again. And again. If you can explain the plot and characters to a friend, you’re on the right track. If you can talk about your favorite and least favorite character and the scene that always makes you tear up, great job! If you know what the character is about to say before they’ve even said it, congratulations—you’re on your way to mastering the movie.
Watching multiple times will do more than just help you memorize vocab. It also gives you the chance to pick up native accents and natural speaking speeds, which are two more advanced skills.
Switch up the subtitle options.
Watching films with Chinese audio and English subtitles is a great study tool for beginner-to-intermediate students. But after a while, keeping the English subtitles on could actually be slowing down your progression.
Once you consider yourself to be in the mid-to-upper-intermediate level, try watching movies with Mandarin subtitles. This will really push you, and you’ll be able to further develop your reading skills.
You could even try turning off the subtitles altogether to boost your listening skills! If this seems too daunting, here’s a way to ease yourself into it: Watch a scene with subtitles, then go back and rewatch it without subtitles, or vice-versa.
Search far and wide for Chinese movies.
Today I’m going to share some of my favorite Chinese movies that are available with English subtitles on three popular streaming websites: Netflix, Amazon Prime and AsianCrush.
But this list certainly isn’t the extent of all your options. If you just stick to one or two sites, you might become bored with your limited options—if you watch often, you could even run out of content. You can also find Chinese movies with English subtitles on these sites:
- Viki (you might need a VPN)
Watch movie trailers on FluentU.
When you’re about to plan your evening around watching a Chinese-language movie, you want to be sure it’s one you’ll truly enjoy.
Trailers are vital for language learners on the prowl for a good flick. They let you know if you’ll stay entertained, and they demonstrate the kind of language that will be used throughout the film.
It’s important that you get a preview of the language to and make sure it’s suited to your level.
Even though you’ll be watching the film with English subtitles, you’ll still have a tough time following the dialogue of certain movies (especially period dramas) if you aren’t an intermediate or advanced learner.
Generally, beginners would do best starting with comedies and rom-coms, while more advanced students are better equipped to handle other genres that take on complex topics, such as fantasy and historical dramas. But again, the only way to get a glimpse of the language difficulty level is by watching trailers.
There’s just one (big) problem.
Online streaming services may have a ton of Chinese movies to choose from, but they don’t always provide trailers, let alone trailers with English subtitles. Even Netflix doesn’t include a trailer for all its titles.
Sure, you could watch a low-resolution trailer on YouTube, but if you want high quality and need those handy-dandy English subtitles, try FluentU.
While there are many movie trailers and film snippets for you to watch, make sure you browse through the entire library for a well-rounded learning experience. The digital platform has got a wide range of authentic Chinese clips that demonstrate how Mandarin is spoken in real contexts.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Just Press Play! 16 Chinese Movies with English Subtitles
Chinese Movies with English Subtitles on Netflix
“Look for a Star”
Warning! Because this movie takes place in Macau where people speak Cantonese, Netflix automatically plays the film in Cantonese. Before you watch, be sure to switch the audio to Mandarin.
Okay, now that we have that out of the way, let’s dive into “Look for a Star.”
This film tells the story of a wealthy businessman, Sam Ching, who meets the love of his life, Milan, in a Macau casino. They instantly connect, but because Milan is a croupier and cabaret dancer, Sam is worried about what the other businessmen will think of her. As the relationship grows more and more serious, so do the couple’s problems.
This film is a little raunchy, so you’ll hear a lot of double entendres and slang related to sex. Idioms can be difficult for lower-level learners to pick up, so “Look for a Star” is probably best suited for advanced Chinese-language students.
“Us and Them”
“Us and Them” is a classic romantic drama. A man and woman from the same small hometown try to make their relationship last in the bustling city of Beijing.
You’ll watch the couple’s relationship over the years. The plot jumps between past and present. Movies with this type of plot can be difficult to follow if you don’t speak the language, but the director has helped you out! Scenes in the present are in color, and scenes in the past are in black and white.
You’ll learn a lot of vocab related to relationships and love. Don’t watch “Us and Them” if you aren’t prepared to cry a little.
“The Wandering Earth”
Okay, it’s time to switch gears. We’ve now crossed over into sci-fi.
The sun has died out. Earth is going to collide with Jupiter unless Earth’s inhabitants can find a way to change the planet’s orbit. (Is anyone else getting anxiety just reading the synopsis of this movie? No? Just me?)
“The Wandering Earth” follows a small group of young astronauts who give their all to saving their planet.
Although the two films couldn’t be more different, “The Wandering Earth” does have one thing in common with “This Is Not What I Expected.” While both movies are set in frenzied scenarios, the dialogue isn’t as hectic as you’d think.
You’ll spend a decent amount of time just watching dramatic special effects. Characters also have internal monologues and intense one-on-one dialogues. So you should be able to understand the Chinese without being too distracted by the frantic situations.
Now let’s move onto the Taiwanese family drama “A Sun,” an award-winning family drama that will have you emotionally invested.
“A Sun” is a tale about two seemingly polar opposite sons. The older son, the one that the parents are proud of, is at the top of his class and set to attend the medical school of his choice. The younger son, a disappointment to the parents, is a delinquent who ends up in a juvenile detention center.
But as the movie goes on, the parents begin to acknowledge the prejudices they harbor for each son. They also realize that their sons aren’t as different from each other as they thought.
Keep in mind that this movie is about two and a half hours long, which might be a lot to digest in one sitting. You can watch the film in smaller chunks, which makes it a little easier if you want to learn new vocabulary.
“Five Elements Ninjas”
We couldn’t go through this list without suggesting at least one martial arts movie. Not only is this one of the best ninja films from the ‘80s, but it’s also considered one of the greatest martial arts movies of all time!
As you can tell from the title, “Five Elements Ninjas” revolves around five ninjas with fighting styles based on the five natural elements: water, wood, fire, earth and metal.
A Chinese martial arts school in ancient Hong Kong hires a Japanese ninja to destroy its rival school that currently outranks them. Only one survives the deadly massacre. This drives him to learn the art of ninjutsu in hopes of getting revenge against the ninja.
Given the time that this was filmed, the delivery of dialogues seems very dramatic and exaggerated. However, hearing the way the actors speak in this film is pretty helpful in terms of improving your own accent and pronunciation.
Chinese Movies with English Subtitles on Amazon Prime
“Fall in Love Like a Star”
Okay, after the destruction of Earth and drama, we’re moving on to lighthearted rom-coms! “Fall in Love Like a Star” is based on one of my favorite plot devices: forbidden love.
A famous musician and his band’s assistant fall in love. After some time, the assistant breaks up with the musician to allow him to focus on his career.
Five years later, the two reconnect and decide to rekindle both their professional and romantic relationship. But as you might suspect, things aren’t so simple.
In “Fall in Love Like a Star,” you’ll hear Chinese vocab related to music and the music industry. If this is a world that interests you (or if you’re like my college friend who is touring China playing the saxophone), this could be the perfect movie to help you improve your Chinese.
“Lost in Beijing”
Liu Pingguo and her husband move to Beijing to try to live a better life. Pingguo finds work as a masseuse. A married couple owns the massage parlor, and the husband of this couple is… well… not a great dude.
“Lost in Beijing” will introduce you to the dark side of Chinese poverty. It covers topics such as prostitution, sexual assault, blackmail and general debauchery. Be prepared for an emotional experience (and maybe skip this one if you’re not prepared for something too intense or dark).
I’d recommend this movie for a more advanced student. Let’s face it, Chinese-language learners should probably learn words related to transportation and school before focusing on kidnapping and trauma. But that’s just one language student’s opinion.
Do you remember the Fox Family movie “Ice Angel,” where a hockey player dies, then gets to come back to life… but the trade-off is that he has to come back as a female figure skater? Well, “Beautiful Accident” reminds me a lot of that movie.
A tough, ambitious lawyer dies in a car crash. She gets to return to Earth, except this time she’s living as a housewife whose life’s mission is to take care of her husband and kids. Quite the lifestyle shift, isn’t it?
By watching “Beautiful Accident,” you’ll be exposed to vocab related to the woman’s two lives: her life as a lawyer and her life as a housewife. Yes, this is a broad range of vocab, but both categories can be very useful!
As a dramedy fanatic, “Beautiful Accident” is one of my favorite movies on this list.
“Finding Mr. Right 2—Book of Love”
When translated into English, some people refer to this movie as “Finding Mr. Right 2” or “Book of Love.”
Yes, there’s a “Finding Mr. Right 1,” and this is… sort of the sequel. It reunites the two lead actors, but the plot isn’t related to the first movie. It’s kind of like instead of naming the second Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan film “Sleepless in Seattle,” they had just named it “Joe Versus the Volcano 2.”
This movie follows a Chinese man and woman. The man has moved to Los Angeles, and the woman has moved to Macau. They fall in love through letters throughout the movie, and you don’t see them meet in person until the end. (Oh my gosh, this movie really is like “Sleepless in Seattle!” Or like “You’ve Got Mail,” which I guess could have been titled “Joe Versus the Volcano 3.”)
In this movie, the woman works at a casino and struggles with a gambling addiction. You’ll hear a lot of Chinese words related to gambling and debt. The man works in real estate, so you’ll also learn vocab related to property and homes.
Chinese Movies with English Subtitles on AsianCrush
“Agent Mr. Chan”
Once upon a time, Agent Chan was one of the top secret agents on the scene.
Until he and his partner botched a case, and he was banished from agent work for 20 years.
Now he’s making a comeback. It’s time for him to prove that he’s just as great as he once was.
Do you like comedies about people with serious jobs acting silly? (Think “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” with Andy Samberg.) Then “Agent Mr. Chan” might be your style.
You’ll hear vocab related to crime and the law. The comedy is pretty over-the-top, so the dialogue is occasionally difficult to understand. But, hey, that’s what the English subtitles are for!
Fantasy. Sci-fi. Comedy. “Airpocalypse” has it all. It’s a truly bizarre movie, and I can’t recommend it enough.
Four fallen gods are responsible for a natural disaster that strikes their fictional universe. They team up to repair the damage they’ve caused, but—whoops!—a human gets control of one of the gods’ powers. Now the human has to learn to use those powers for good.
Think of all the weird vocab you’d find in any sci-fi movie. You’ll probably hear it in “Airpocalypse.”
“The Jade Pendant”
In “The Jade Pendant,” a young woman escapes China to flee an arranged marriage. But when she lands in California, she’s sold into prostitution. She fights hard to get herself out of this tragic life, and she falls in love along the way.
This movie is the perfect combination of heart-wrenching and inspirational. You’ll be sad for what the protagonist, Peony, goes through, but you’ll feel uplifted by how hard she works to get through her troubles.
This film provides valuable insight into Chinese history. You’ll also learn about Chinese immigration to the United States in the mid-19th century.
“A Journey Through Time with Anthony”
The popular young adult novel turned movie, “A Journey Through Time with Anthony,” is about a young man battling between the past and the present, specifically a childhood crush slash best friend and a new romantic interest in college.
When Anthony moves from Dalian, China to Melbourne, Australia to study finance, he discovers that he has a knack for cooking. This makes him go against his mother’s wishes and towards a culinary class. This also leads him to meet the aspiring chef and potential new love Serena.
Anthony’s situation is totally different from his old crush Ying, who is struggling to find her footing while studying sound engineering in Tokyo.
The plot probably isn’t the most original one out there, but who doesn’t enjoy a movie about finding oneself in college? The story is quite relatable, so you can expect a lot of helpful, everyday vocabulary and sentences to improve your Chinese communication skills.
“Fleet of Time”
Ready for some nostalgia? Here’s another well-liked YA novel made into a movie.
“Fleet of Time” is a coming-of-age story of close friends growing up, growing apart, and reuniting at a friend’s wedding in 2014.
Their story of friendship and love begins around 15 years ago, back in the ‘90s. As they navigate through the trials and tribulations of high school, they all make it to the same college.
But with each of them having different majors in different departments, they realize that their friendship circle isn’t as close-knit as it used to be. Not only does the group break apart, but it also drives a wedge between one of the guys and the girl he’s had feelings for since high school.
After a trip down memory lane, as he wonders what could have been, he waits to finally reunite with the girl who got away.
Since the dialogues revolve around friendships and relationships, expect to learn vocabulary suited for social situations.
Chinese Movies with English Subtitles on DVD/Blu-Ray
“This Is Not What I Expected”
“This Is Not What I Expected” is a lighthearted rom-com that follows two not-so-lighthearted characters. Lu Jin is an insatiable hotel executive who oversees a hotel called the Rosebud, where Gu Shengnan is the determined (and talented) sous-chef.
These two workaholics never expected to fall in love… Hence the title of the film.
“This Is Not What I Expected” revolves around hotels and kitchens, so by watching the film, you’ll pick up a lot of vocab related to the hospitality industry. And you’ll probably learn more food-related words than you ever cared to know.
Although both the restaurant and hotel industries are fast-paced in real life, the dialogue in this film isn’t as speedy or hectic as you’d expect. There’s a ton of one-on-one scenes between characters, making the conversations relatively clear and easy to understand.
Drama! Murder! Martial arts! This is what many people imagine when they think of Chinese cinema.
Good news. “Sword Master” will scratch all of those itches.
I’ll go ahead and tell you that the storyline is pretty intricate. For this reason, I recommend it for advanced learners.
Here’s the gist: Yen Shisan is a swordsman and assassin. Throughout the movie, he overcomes a ton of obstacles and takes down anyone in his way. Tada!
You’ll pick up vocab related to battle, weaponry and death. Yes, the plot is complex. But if you care more about picking up this type of vocab than about following the story, you still might enjoy “Sword Master” even if you’re a lower-level student. Plus, the complexities are broken up by many, many battle scenes with crazy CGI.
Watching Chinese movies with English subtitles is one of the most entertaining and effective ways to enhance your Chinese language skills.
So, put on some comfy sweats, pop some corn and press play!
Laura Grace Tarpley is a freelance writer based in Nashville. You can find her work at outlets such as Business Insider, Roads & Kingdoms and The Write Life. Follow her on Twitter @lgtarpley.