Chinese fluency is about more than just chengyu, grammar, or even pinyin and tones.
It’s also about learning Chinese culture.
After all, learning Chinese is about establishing a connection.
And there’s no better way to do that than to talk about something that Chinese people are interested in – like movies.
Mention a famous Chinese actor and most Chinese people will have some opinion, one way or the other.
To get you up to speed, here is the lowdown on 10 famous actors that you should know.
10 Famous Chinese Actors You Oughta Know
Chow Yun Fat
Chow Yun Fat has always been very well known in Hong Kong for his gangster action films. Much like Andy Lau, if you like gangsters and guns, Chow Yun Fat plays defining roles in the genre. He actually has also appeared in a handful of Hollywood films as well, with varying degrees of success. But to see him in an excellent Mandarin film without so many guns, try “The Curse of the Golden Flower”. He plays the emperor in ancient China, and he has the presence to fill the shoes of such a grand role. He really delivers well, and for sure his experience in some good crime stories translates well with, as the story centers around plots and counter-plots by his family and members of the court to overthrow his empire.
In fact, you can watch a clip of Chow Yun Fat’s hit 2011 movie “Let the Bullets Fly” on FluentU!
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Do you like comedy? Then start right here. Zhao Benshan is highly talented, very funny, and highly entertaining. He has learned traditional Chinese performance arts, including a type of Chinese sketch conversation comedy called crosstalk. He is a great actor and if you want to laugh and connect to a heartwarming character but not worry too much about if the film is realistic, then check out his role in “Getting Home”. The premise of the film is quite ridiculous and he is excellent at making it seem entirely natural and logical for his character to stumble into and out of really hilarious and implausible situations. He shows us a character at his wits end more than once, but always tempered by a comedic carefree spirit.
Do not let the limitations of Hollywood action films like “War” (with Jason Statham) or “Romeo Must Die” (with Aaliyah) fool you about the actor Jet Li. Jet Li is a very popular actor in Chinese martial arts films, as a perfect example see “Hero”. He plays the main character, a nameless assassin in ancient China. He gives a very compelling performance, especially in some intense interactions with the other main characters, most notably the emperor, whom he has planned to assassinate. The depth of the character he plays here is a great place to get you started on his work in Chinese films.
Lü Liping may be understated internationally compared to some of the other names here, but her acting abilities are by no means to be overlooked. In fact, it may work to your advantage if trying to find entertaining Chinese actors without the bombardment of martial arts and gangsters. But if you want to see a great dramatic performance, someone who is great at conveying normal emotions intensely, and at delivering great lines, watch her in the film “The Blue Kite”. She portrays a character who has to span several decades of tumultuous history in China while experiencing plenty of dramatic upheaval in her personal life.
The average Hollywood film enthusiast probably has little idea who Ge You is. But he is one of the most recognizable faces in Chinese cinema, and rightfully so. Watch him as the main character in “To Live”, which is one of the defining epic films that portrays the Chinese Cultural Revolution. You will see a character who has it all and then loses it all, you will see a character laugh rambunctiously and cry dejectedly, you will see him in life-threatening danger and in moments of perfect contentment. He captures your attention as a remarkable character with his own defeats and triumphs as the tide of the revolution sweeps around him and his family for many years.
He plays a diverse variety of characters, in dramatic and comedic settings. For an entertaining look at his kind of quirks and wit, look at the film “Secret”. He plays a teacher at a school and the father of the main character. The film is a love story with some quasi-science fiction premises, but Anthony Wong contributes some grounded realism, and at the same time great comedic contributions, as well as some really clever wit in conversing with his son while trying to help with the confusing crisis that is the back story of the film. Alternatively, see him in Mr. Cinema, he plays a patriotic man in Hong Kong who gradually loses some of that fervor, with a great mix of melodrama and comedy.
Anyone with a sense of good cinema should promptly try to forget that the Asian actress in “Rush Hour 2” is Zhang Ziyi. Instead, try to watch “The Road Home” to begin with as a basis to form your opinion of this actress. She plays a young lady in pre-modern China whose village is sent a new schoolteacher. She falls in love with the young man, and is required the deliver a performance showing her desperation, frustration, and ultimate triumph in winning his attention. Her enthusiasm and persistence are showcased in a scene where she falls ill waiting in the snow for his return after a trip to the city. She really fits her character well into the story and the cinematography around her.
If mega-pop star turned actor is your thing, then you should definitely get to know Andy Lau. He has probably the most successful career in Cantopop history and has appeared in what seems like dozens of Hong Kong gangster films; and this is for a good reason, he is a very entertaining actor. But you should really try to see him in a unique Mandarin speaking film, “A World Without Thieves”. He plays a thief traveling aboard a long distance train in China who is thinking about retiring with his girlfriend (and ‘business’ partner). However, a chance for one more score and a showdown with a gang of professional thieves change things dramatically for him.
Tony Leung mostly performs in Cantonese speaking films and like many Hong Kong actors, is also a successful Cantopop star. He has also appeared in several popular Mandarin films. One of them is the epic “Red Cliff” which tells the story of a battle that marked a dynastic turning point in ancient China. If you like epics, this is a great one, the original is over four hours long. He plays the main character trying to defend the kingdoms of warlords from the imperial army. He gives an skilled and compelling performance, right in the middle of plenty of plotting, alliances, deceptions, and strategies.
With a handful of the performers on this list having made the crossover to Hollywood, it is quite surprising that Gong Li has not been more successful in English speaking films. She has been in several Chinese films that became popular internationally, for example “Raise the Red Lantern”. However, if you prefer muted, documentary style storytelling watch her in the film “The Story of Qiu Ju”. It may not be her like her blockbusters, but it shows her acting skill like no other also. She plays a highly determined pregnant woman from a village who travels to the city to pursue a legal case. It is very realistic story, and the simplicity of it does not take away from the incredible role she plays.