15 Must-Watch Chinese Movies for Language Learners 

 June 16, 2021

By  Ellen

People always say that learning a language is learning its culture as well, knowing cultural differences better, you would find yourself with a deeper understanding of language usage and expressions. By watching movies, you get a combination of both. The movies on our list here are some of the most classical and highly rated ones on Douban, an authoritative movie website in China.

霸王别姬 Farewell My Concubine (1993) 

The unsurpassed beauty of a generation. With the background set in the transitional period from old China to new China, this film centers on the lives of two Peking Opera actors, depicting their joy and sorrows for over half a century. Its tragedy is where its beauty lies, being the unsurpassable masterpiece of Chen Kaige (陈凯歌), one of the leading film directors in China.

无间道 Infernal Affairs (2002) 

A timeless masterpiece in the history of Hong Kong cinema. Many western movies have been remade to a Chinese version, but few vice versa and this is one of them, its US counterpart is “The Departed” from Scorcese. The story is about an undercover cop fighting crimes in the gang, and a gang member working his way up in the police system. Both are determined to get their life back, but neither of them did. There are also two sequels.

活着 To Live (1994) 

The best movie presented by Zhang Yimou (张艺谋). Director Zhang has gained his international popularity winning many awards and global fame, but this movie is still considered his best work. Based on a novel with the same name, this movie is centered on the Chinese Civil War and the political movements after the founding of new China, the film reflects the fate of a generation through the misfortune life of Fugui (富贵), whose name actually means “rich and noble”.

末代皇帝 The Last Emperor 1987 

“Don’t compare whose life is worse, mine tops yours.” Technically this is not a “Chinese” movie as the director was Bernardo Bertolucci, but the story is based on the real-life of 爱新觉罗·溥仪 (Pu I), who was the last emperor of the Qing dynasty, as well as the last emperor of China. It was the only movie that received permission to be shoot in the Forbidden City, won nine Oscar awards and even had 2000 liberation army as extras.

鬼子来了 Devils on the Doorstep (2000) 

The revelation and criticism of servility. The film tells the story about a village of peasants who took care of Japanese prisoners during the Sino-Japanese War, only to be massacred by the Japanese army. Emphasizing on the “ignorance of peasants” and the “absurdity of war”, it reflects the complexity and versatility features of human nature. However, this movie was banned by the Chinese government for depicting the Chinese people in a “politically incorrect” manner. Jiang Wen (姜文) was the director and leading actor, who has shown a talent for both.

卧虎藏龙 Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) 

A movie that strongly appeals to foreigners. The film tells the story of a swordsman, who was “the leading hero of a generation”. Intending to leave his fighting and competing days behind, Li Mubai (李慕白) entrusts his confidant to bring his sword to the capital, as a present to a member of the royal family. However, this only triggered endless grudges. This movie directed by Ang Lee (李安) was also the first Chinese- language film to win an academy award for Best Foreign Language Film.

让子弹飞 Let The Bullets Fly (2010) 

You never know what’s coming, you never know who you could become. The film tells the story of how the bandit Zhang Muzhi (张牧之) transforms himself as the upright official “Ma Bangde (马邦德)”, becoming the county magistrate of Goose Town, and fighting against the local bullies. This movie is also directed by Jiang Wen (姜文), the same as “Devils on the Doorstep”.

花样年华 In the Mood for Love (2000) 

Cheating is not as beautiful as this. Wong Kar-Wai (王家卫) is a living ledged, and this is one of his representative works. Set in 1960s Hong Kong, the film tells the story of Su Lizhen (苏丽珍) and Zhou Muyun (周慕云) who discovered that their spouses were having an affair. After they gradually came into contact, they fell deeply in love which ended in vain. “We won’t be like them”, that’s what she said, and Zhou left for Singapore.

一一 Yi yi: A One and a Two (2000)

“When do people get old? When your heart is tired.” A film directed by Edward Yang (杨德昌) from Taiwan, which portrays family ties and the meaning of life. This film tells the stories of the entire family until the death of the gramma. With this movie, Yang won the best director award at the Cannes film festival. This was also his last work, which only officially released in Taiwan in 2009, two years after he passed away.

大闹天宫 The Monkey King (1961, 1964) 

A classical masterpiece of animation that is timeless. Based on “The Journey to the West (西游记)”, one of the four classic novels of Chinese literature, this film presents the legendary experience of the Monkey King Sun Wukong (孙悟空) through his famous stories of making trouble in the dragon’s palace and creating a tremendous uproar in the heavenly palace. This film released a 3D restoration version in 2012. Its colors, artwork, modeling design, animation design, and music are all highly outstanding, leading the film to be praised as “the best Chinse animation”.

饮食男女 Eat Man Drink Woman (1994)

Life couldn’t be like cooking, you can’t have all the ingredients ready beforehand. This is another film directed by Ang Lee (李安), which is one of his highest-rated movies, the other one was “Life of Pi”. The story is about a retired chef who was one of the best in the industry. His wife passed away many years ago, and he currently lives with his three daughters in an old house. Love was expressed through cuisines, and their banquet was extended to the philosophy of life.

阿飞正传 Days of Being Wild (1990)

Wong Kar-Wai (王家卫) is a style, and Leslie Cheung is a representative. Set in the early 1960s of Hong Kong, this film tells the story of a proud and rebellious young man, depicting his inner world and emotional entanglements, which also represents the living environment and social conditions of ordinary young people in Hong Kong.

我不是药神 Dying to Survive (2018)

The Chinese “Dallas Buyers Club”. Based on a true story, this film is about how Cheng Yong (程勇), who was a male health food vendor that couldn’t afford to pay his rent, became the exclusive agent for “Grlenin”, a generic drug from India for treating leukemia. This is one of the most highly rated movies in recent years, which “broke down the so-called institutional barriers”.

牯岭街少年杀人事件 A Brighter Summer Day (1991) 

A stab from the weak to the weaker. Directed by Edward Yang (杨德昌), this movie is based on a real murdering case that happened in Taiwan in the early 1960s. The political turmoil was reflected in the human hearts, where love is not loving, and hate is not hated. The story was simple, just about a boy, and his world—which was constructed of a school that oppresses humanity, a family that does not necessarily respond to him, and all kinds of people that mutually lead him to self-destruction.

一代宗师 The Grandmaster (2013) 

“All encounters in the world are actually reunions after a long separation.” This film tells the stories of Kung-Fu masters (功夫大师) in the Republic of China (中华民国) period, in such difficult times, individual choices are sometimes dictated by circumstances. There are many jokes about how Wong Kar-Wai (王家卫) is keen on getting the best effects, and for this movie, it took 10 years from preparation to production. Wong used three years to visit various remaining Kung-Fu masters throughout the entire country. 

Of course, there are many more Chinese movies worth watching, and we would love to tell you more about them. Let’s end our list for now and, as Wong Kar-Wai would put it, let’s look forward to another reunion after this separation, hopefully not that long.


Ellen is a language specialist from China. She grew up in the US and received a master’s degree from the St Andrews University of UK. The multicultural experiences attributes to her understanding of the differences and similarities between the English and Chinese language. She currently works as an editor specialized in Language learning books.

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