How many times have you watched Netflix in the last seven days?
Or maybe you can’t even remember because you found yourself four hours deep into an addicting new series.
Watching movies and TV is something we all love to do when we have downtime. It’s the perfect way to treat yourself!
What if I told you that you can enjoy the same leisure activity of watching movies and learn Mandarin Chinese at the same time?
Well, it’s the 21st century—you can!
If you’re tired of going to class or reading a book, this method is for you.
So grab some popcorn, chocolate, a few snacks. Then kick back or snuggle into bed for a night of movie marathons.
Learn Chinese with Movies: 14 Must-watch Flicks
If you decide to go with the Chinese drama approach, I have 14 more movies for you to learn from. To make things easier for you, I’ve also included information such as streaming links, learning levels, themes covered and language used.
Just note that some of the titles are only available in certain regions, so you might want to consider downloading a VPN to change your location on Netflix or Prime Video.
1. “让子弹飞” (ràng zǐ dàn fēi) — “Let the Bullets Fly”
Where to Watch: Apple TV | Netflix
“Let the Bullets Fly” is an internationally acclaimed action comedy set in 1920s China, the era of warlords.
Together with his wife and right-hand man, the new governor of Goose Town is on the train to the provincial town when a notorious bandit halts the train and steals the governor’s identity.
He forces the governor’s companions to go along with the act.
The new fake governor meets his match when a rivalry ensues with the Goose Town slave and opium dealer, who also happens to have a body double for his own safety (played by the same actor).
If you’re looking to brush up on or learn more Chengyu, this one is a good one to watch.
While I enjoyed the comedy, I do have to admit that given the time period, the language is rather unrelatable. The actors are also speaking with the Sichuan accent, which is easy to understand for those who are used to the standard Mandarin accent.
The movie is pretty lengthy, with a running time of over two hours. Because of that, coupled with the language, this title is best for advanced learners.
2. “美人鱼” (měi rén yú) — “The Mermaid”
Where to Watch: Apple TV | Netflix | Prime Video
In this movie, mermaids and humans have long been struggling to coexist, with humans over the years growing more violent towards the ocean species.
When a real estate tycoon invests in a pristine coastal reserve inhabited by the last remaining mermaid population, enough is enough for the underwater community. To derail his plans, they send their most beautiful mermaid to seduce the businessman and prevent any sort of property development in and around their home.
The premise of “The Mermaid” is outrageous, but it’s a unique and rather comedic way to learn about real estate, mythical creatures as well as the art of seduction in Chinese.
Given the type of vocabulary and subject matter of this movie, this one is best suited for intermediate Chinese learners.
Normally, a fantasy movie is a difficult watch for novices, but the characters speak slow enough if advanced beginners are up for a challenge.
3. “大喜临门” (dà xǐ lín mén) — “The Wonderful Wedding”
Where to Watch: Apple TV
大喜临门 literally means “there’s a lot of joy coming,” which is quite ironic since what the main characters go through is anything but joyful.
“The Wonderful Wedding” tells the story of a couple—a Taiwanese woman and a mainland Chinese man—who wants to get married but need approval from their parents. With clashing cultures and traditions, building a bridge between the two families is no easy feat.
Wedding-themed movies are really great for Chinese learners (or any language learners for that matter) since the content and language are relatable.
Other than engagement and wedding customs, you also get exposed to vocabulary related to family dynamics and interactions. However, I do recommend this movie for at least intermediate learners because of the speaking pace and the inclusion of regional dialects.
Throughout the film, they use a lot of homonyms.
I do love a good pun, so it was fun to learn what it means to be punny in Mandarin. You’ll also learn about number slang and how it differs between Taiwan and the mainland.
4. “小时代” (xiǎo shí dài) — “Tiny Times 1.0”
Where to Watch: Netflix | Viki
“Tiny Times” is all about four friends in their prime navigating life in the glamorous city of Shanghai after college.
They’ve known each other since high school, sticking together through thick and thin. But new jobs, schedules and love interests add conflict to their dynamics, testing the friendships and themselves in ways that they’ve never experienced before.
Because the story follows four different women with contrasting personalities and working in different industries, there’s quite a bit going on, which might be overwhelming for beginners.
Intermediates will enjoy the movie and can easily pick up on language related to work-life balance, romance, friendship—basically struggles that any adult can relate to.
If you end up getting invested in the lives of these characters, there’s a sequel you might also enjoy.
5. “滚蛋吧，肿瘤君!” (gǔn dàn ba, zhǒng liú jūn!) — “Go Away, Mr. Tumor!”
Where to Watch: Apple TV | Prime Video | Viki
Fun fact: This movie is actually based on a true story, chronicling the life of Chinese cartoonist Xiong Dun, specifically how she dealt with her cancer diagnosis through her lighthearted web series.
Life seems to be falling apart before Xiong Dun’s 29th birthday. Not only does she lose her job and her boyfriend, but she also collapses in her apartment while entertaining her friends, landing her in the hospital where she receives her cancer diagnosis.
Yet, she still manages to find the silver lining.
Her doctor turns out to be very attractive, inspiring her to daydream about some of the most hilarious and ridiculous scenarios that help her persevere through these dark circumstances.
While there’s talk about cancer, treatment and health in general, the language doesn’t get too clinical, which makes this movie approachable for beginners.
Her fantasies keep everything super light since they’re all very cartoonish, involving superheroes and such. I also liked how one of her daydreams is in the form of a Korean drama, so you’ll learn quite a bit about pop culture.
6. “一个都不能少” (yí gè dōu bù néng shǎo) — “Not One Less”
Where to Watch: Apple TV
In a small, rural town, a school teacher has to leave for a month to care for his sick mother.
The mayor then chooses a 13-year-old girl to be the substitute.
Barely literate herself and just slightly older than the rest of the students, she’s instructed to maintain the headcount until the teacher returns. Despite her being extremely underqualified to take over, her determination to keep students in school is inspiring.
Since this movie isn’t jampacked with dialogue, together with the fact that most of the interactions are between school-aged children, “Not One Less” is very accessible to beginners.
I also think it’s a great movie for non-Chinese learners, as the characters’ courage and compassion are portrayed in their actions rather than in words. So don’t be afraid to put this one on for your next movie night.
7. “大鱼海棠” (dà yú hǎi táng) — “Big Fish & Begonia”
Where to Watch: Apple TV | Netflix | Prime Video
In this movie based on ancient Chinese legends, a magical realm exists under the ocean.
A girl from that realm decides to explore the human world by transforming into a dolphin. She soon feels a connection with a human boy, who sacrifices himself to save her.
She then decides to use magic to bring him back to life, but the noble act has its consequences.
Cartoons are always a good choice for Chinese learners, especially beginners.
The beautiful animations make the movie very easy to understand even if you have zero experience in Mandarin. While some of the mythical-themed vocab may not be applicable to everyday life, the voice actors speak slowly enough so you won’t have a difficult time following along the dialogue.
8. “分手合约” (fēn shǒu hé yuē) — “A Wedding Invitation”
Where to Watch: YouTube
This film slightly reminds me of the plot of “My Best Friend’s Wedding.”
In “A Wedding Invitation,” high school sweethearts make it almost all the way up to university graduation, but a surprise proposal throws the girl off and lets her boyfriend know that she isn’t ready.
This prompts them to forge a breakup agreement: if neither one of them are in a relationship in five years, they’ll get married.
Fast forward to five years later, she receives a call from her ex in hopes that they’ll fulfill their agreement. Instead, she receives an invitation to his wedding and decides she has to win him back, one way or another.
While the language used here isn’t complicated and is relatable in social situations and relationships, some of the characters do speak with an accent.
They also speak moderately fast, and some of them sound like they’re mumbling, so this movie is best for intermediate learners.
9. “一点就到家” (yì diǎn jiù dào jiā) — “Get Home at One Point”
Where to Watch: Prime Video
Before we get into the plot, I just want to point out that the English title of this movie is actually “Coffee or Tea?” which definitely has a better ring to it than the real translation.
I opted for the actual translation in the heading to avoid any confusion.
In this movie released in 2020, three friends from the city decide to move to a small village in hopes of escaping their problems and starting over. With big entrepreneurial dreams, they start a coffee and tea company and take whatever means necessary to sell their products.
“Coffee or Tea?” is a fun comedic film, but it’s definitely fast-paced in terms of plot and talking speed. Because of that, this one’s best suited for advanced learners.
In terms of language, expect to pick up terms related to startups and some other business lingo.
10. “温暖的抱抱” (wēn nuǎn de bào bào) — “Warm Hug”
Where to Watch: Apple TV | Viki
Here’s another movie that was also released in 2020.
In “Warm Hug,” the two main characters are practically polar opposites—a man who has inherited his parents’ obsessive-compulsive and loveless tendencies and a woman who leads a rather messy lifestyle.
But with the man being a piano teacher and the woman a singer-songwriter, the two are bound by their passion for music.
With the help of the singer-songwriter, the piano teacher slowly and surely learns about life, emotions and the warmth of a hug by welcoming a little chaos into his life.
Even though this is a musically centered romantic comedy, mental health is a pretty complex theme to tackle in a foreign language, so I highly suggest that only advanced learners watch this movie.
11. “夺冠” (duó guàn) — “Win”
Where to Watch: Prime Video | Viki
This one is another movie where the English title isn’t the direct translation of the original Chinese title. So again, the direct translation is used in the heading instead. The actual English title is “Leap.”
“Leap” is based on real struggles and events surrounding China Women’s National Volleyball team, mostly about their 12-hiatus from the Olympic circuit. The movie is from the perspective of the current coach, and many of the volleyball players are actually playing themselves to stay true to the details.
Because this movie is biographical rather than fictional, this one might be a little difficult for novices.
Intermediate learners will learn about the history of women’s volleyball in China.
In terms of the type of language and vocab, the conversations revolve around training, teamwork, sportsmanship and the media.
12. “苏州河” (sū zhōu hé) — “Suzhou River”
Where to Watch: Apple TV
The “Suzhou River” near Shanghai is a polluted waterway flowing with secrets. It’s the river the main character rides his motorcycle alongside every day, delivering packages all over the city for his clients, no questions asked.
One day, he gets a request to pick up a criminal’s teenaged daughter and drop her off at her aunt’s place.
Although they seemed to enjoy each other’s company, the daughter suddenly suspects that she’s being kidnapped for ransom, leading her to jump into the river and drowning herself.
Charged with murder, the motorcycle courier serves several years in prison. After serving his time, he meets a nightclub worker that’s a spitting image of the criminal’s dead daughter.
If you ever wondered how to say “bison grass vodka” and “Schwarzenegger” in Mandarin, this movie is made for you.
There’s a lot of interesting albeit random vocab used in the movie, and it kept me engaged throughout.
Aside from pop culture references, you’ll also learn some slang and terms related to nightlife and infatuation, which is helpful and intriguing enough for beginners and intermediates.
13. “宠爱” (chǒng ài) — “Adoring”
Where to Watch: Apple TV | Viki
Referring to the love for pets, “Adoring” follows a veterinarian who provides care for all the animals in her community.
She’s especially touched by the stories of six pets and their owners, all of who are interconnected one way or another. With every person dealing with their own set of problems, they realize it’s the devotion for the animals that help them learn to love and push them through their struggles.
As a sucker for animal-themed movies, this is one of my favorites.
Other than vocabulary related to animals and animal care, beginners will also learn the language surrounding relationship dynamics, with the pet owners all having varying relationship statuses, all of which bring their own set of issues.
14. “后来的我们” (hòu lái de wǒ men) — “Later Us”
Where to Watch: Netflix
Although literally translated as “Later Us,” this movie is actually known as “Us and Them” in English, with “us” and “them” representing the past and present.
A random encounter on the train back home brings two strangers together, and in the present, they reunite at the airport and spend the night together after their flight gets delayed.
The story toggles back and forth between their present and past relationship, showing how much they’ve loved and struggled over the years. This one is definitely a tear-jerker, so you might want to have some tissues handy.
Although several other movies on the list include romantic language, “Us and Them” gets into the nitty-gritty of relationship issues which would be a good challenge for advanced learners.
I also appreciate how modern the love story is, and it’s by far the most realistic compared to the previous picks.
Learn Chinese with Movies: The Quick Guide
How Do You Get Started Learning Chinese with Movies?
There are a few different approaches, each offering varying levels of convenience, selection and scaffolding/support.
So I’d recommend that you pick based on your Chinese level.
- One option for beginners is to use a textbook that’s essentially based on a video, like the one from the Beijing Language and Culture University Press. They have a useful vocab list for all the key words, and they do a very in-depth job explaining all of the nuances of grammar. The disadvantages are that nothing is electronic and it still feels like you’re learning from a textbook… because you still are. They’re available if you search online for “Watching the Movie and Learning Chinese.”
- An option for intermediate learners who already know a lot of Chinese characters is to watch the DVD with subtitles… not just in Chinese/English, but in both languages. There’s so much to learn with Chinese subtitles. You can even watch Chinese movies with pinyin subtitles if you need some extra help.
- If you’re a really advanced learner, want to challenge yourself or want more immediate access, you can just search for them on Youku, and they tend to be there (you might have to do some digging though).
The disadvantage with all these methods is that there’s still a lot of pain involved when you encounter unknown words.
You’ll have to identify the sound and look them up in your dictionary. You’ll spend a lot of time and energy.
If you’d like to be more efficient with this and are open to watching other kinds of videos, you might want to check out the video-based Chinese learning site FluentU, which was designed to address exactly this problem.
You'll find a wide range of contemporary videos that cover all different interests and levels, as you can see here:
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.
From the description page, you can access interactive transcripts under the Dialogue tab, or review words and phrases under Vocab.
The best part is that FluentU always keeps track of your learning. It customizes quizzes to focus on areas that need attention and reminds you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. In other words, you get a 100% personalized experience.
Try FluentU in your browser or, better yet, download the FluentU iOS or Android app today!
What Movies Are Good for Learning Chinese?
If you pick a movie that you really like, then the simple answer is that you can’t go wrong, because you’ll be able to stay interested.
But if that doesn’t work for you, here are two approaches that have worked for me.
1. The Chinese Drama Approach
My go-to approach is to find Chinese dramas that tend to be nontechnical and have people in everyday situations (or at least as close as you can get to that in movies), speaking relatively slowly.
It also feels very efficient to watch famous movies that have famous actors/actresses/directors.
- “洗澡 (xǐ zǎo) — Shower” is probably my favorite movie for learning Chinese. At the risk of oversimplifying, it’s a moving story about a dad and his two sons, who operate a bathhouse. The movie manages to capture a family drama inside a bigger community (the bathhouse) amidst bigger societal changes that are happening in China (destruction of the traditional hutongs in Beijing to pave the way for larger real estate development projects). The actors here are also household names in China (Zhu Xu, Pu Cunxin, Jiang Wu).
- “天下无贼 (tiān xià wú zéi) — A World Without Thieves” has a star-studded cast (Andy Lau, Ge You, Li Bingbing…) in an action drama about expert thieves on a train who compete to steal an idealistic/clueless boy’s life savings.
- “饮食男女 (yǐn shí nán nǚ) — Eat Drink, Man Woman” is an Ang Lee classic about a dad and his three unmarried daughters, each of whom defies tradition in their own way. It’s hilarious even if you’re not a woman.
- Literally translated as “Shake Shake, Shake to Grandma Bridge,” “摇啊摇，摇到外婆桥 (yáo à yáo, yáo dào wài pó qiáo) — Shanghai Triad” is set in 1930s Shanghai and the most beautifully filmed gangster movie you’ll ever watch. You’ll know who Gong Li is after you watch this one.
- Literally translated as “My mother and father,” “我的父亲母亲 (wǒ de fù qīn mǔ qīn) — The Road Home” is the simple love story that made Zhang Ziyi famous. More beautiful cinematography from Zhang Yimou.
- “活着 (huó zhe) — To Live” is actually one I want to warn you not to watch. It’s really famous and everyone might recommend it to you, but actually, it’s painful to watch. A rich compulsive gambler loses his family fortune, his wife and their unborn son, and it starts getting worse from there.
- Actually translated as “Movie history,” “电影往事 (diàn yǐng wǎng shì) — Electric Shadows” is one I haven’t personally watched, but looks promising. It’s about a guy and girl who meet each other and discover they share a love of cinema—and it happens amidst the Cultural Revolution.
- Directly translated as “To the youth we will eventually die of,” “致我们终将逝去的青春 (zhì wǒ men zhōng jiāng shì qù de qīng chūn) — So Young” is a good, funny movie about university life in the ’80s.
2. The “Time to Binge on American Culture” Approach
Sometimes nothing beats an episode of “Friends” or “The Simpsons” to American movies dubbed in Mandarin.
What you lose in terms of learning about Chinese culture, you do gain in terms of having extra comprehensible input (in other words, because you have more context, you’re able to understand more of the language).
Most American TV shows can be found on Youku.
And there you have it!
Let me know what you think of these movies and if you have any personal favorites that haven’t been included on this list.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Chinese with real-world videos.