4 Great Chinese Movies That Aren’t About Fighting
These days, Hollywood is trying to attract more and more money from Chinese moviegoers, and China too is expanding into larger and flashier blockbusters.
As of right now, the highest-grossing Chinese film is Wolf Warrior 2, about a daring raid by Chinese soldiers to save their countrymen being held hostage.
But all of these are action movies.
If you’re trying to learn Chinese from films (which is probably how you found this article) then you’re not going to pick up a whole lot from 90 minutes of punching and/or explosions.
That’s why today I’ve brought you a list of some fantastic Chinese movies in genres other than action – films which are a joy to watch and can really help you get to know more about Chinese culture.
Chinese Movies for Mandarin learners
Forever Young (2018)
(无问西东/Wú Wèn Xī Dōng)
Okay, this one has a little bit of fighting in it. But that’s not the main theme!
This film sprawls over vast distances of time and space to show how very different lives can be connected by the smallest of coincidences.
We follow a compassionate doctor, a bright young student, and a gifted fighter pilot among others, going from Beijing to Kunming and back again over the span of a hundred years. The main link between the characters is that they’re all graduates of Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University – but the deeper connection is that no matter what obstacles they face, they don’t give up their dreams.
Each time period has a great color palette and production design to really draw you in to the environment, and by the end of the film you’ll marvel at how effortlessly it all came together. It wasn’t without some hard work, though. Production began in 2011 and it took nearly a decade to finally get the film released.
Language notes: Almost all Standard Mandarin throughout, some short exchanges in Kunming dialect (Southwestern Mandarin) and Cantonese.
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (2002)
(巴尔扎克与小裁缝/Bā’ěrzhākè yǔ Xiǎo Cáiféng)
In compiling this list of Chinese movies, I’m afraid I might show my bias for slow-moving personal dramas. (Just wait till number 1!)
This is a beautiful film set in rural, mountainous Sichuan province. Two bourgeois students from the north are sent to a remote village as part of their reeducation during the Cultural Revolution.
But they’ve managed to smuggle in a suitcase full of banned books, including the works of Balzac.
So this fish-out-of-water plot is turned upside down as we see how they manage to keep these books secret while also sharing them and their forbidden content with FC, the seamstress in the title.
You’ll also see how they integrate with the community, and how it changes along with the rest of China over the second half of the 20th century.
A lot of this film is in Sichuan dialect, part of the Southwestern Mandarin dialect group. For advanced speakers of standard Mandarin, it shouldn’t take too long to pick up what people are saying.
Sichuanese uses a lot of the same vocabulary as Standard Mandarin – once you get your ear accustomed to the unique rhythm, you’ll be equipped to understand any film taking place in that area of China.
Language notes: Mostly Sichuan dialect from the villagers, standard Mandarin from the male leads.
Farewell My Concubine (1993)
(霸王别姬/Bàwáng Bié Jí)
This was one of the very first Chinese movies I watched – actually, I saw it in my first Chinese class at college.
I remember asking the professor if she (a native speaker) could understand what was being said, because the authentic Beijing accent of some of the actors was so far from the crystal-clear dialogues in my textbook.
Like any native speaker material, this film will be challenging to understand at first – but of course, that just means you’re building a great base of listening comprehension.
It tells the story of two poor children who became Beijing opera performers, and frames their lives performing together as a part of the tumultuous 20th century in China.
It’s an epic film that spans a huge amount of time, but somehow you never question the age of the actors.
The set direction and acting are marvelous. You can really feel what it’s like to be part of the audience at one of these performances, and you can also develop an understanding for what lifelong stage actors feel as they lead their lives around a single play.
Language notes: Very strong Beijing accent from many characters, no other Chinese varieties.
I Am Not Madame Bovary (2016)
(我不是潘金莲/Wǒ Búshì Pān Jīnlián)
I watched this movie on a tiny screen on a crowded Chinese train, where the earsplitting noise of the engine was barely stifled by my one working earphone.
And yet, the truly masterful production of this film completely entranced me.
This film has an absolutely exquisite visual style. If you’re familiar with The Grand Budapest Hotel, some of the camerawork and direction might ring a few bells.
Each shot is crafted like a classical painting, with the detail extending deep into the background. No detail is out of place, and everything is scripted perfectly to make use of each second of screen time.
Well-known actress Fan Bingbing plays Li Xuelian, a woman on a mission to suffer the slings and arrows of Chinese government bureaucracy so that she can bring justice to her husband.
Her specific grievance with her husband is complicated to explain, and her journey from a rural town all the way to Beijing is full of twists and turns that keep you guessing.
Language notes: A wide range of accents in Mandarin, no other Chinese varieties. The narrator’s voice is truly superb.
Whether you’re interested in historical epics or martial arts films or romances, watching interesting Chinese movies is a wonderful way to learn Chinese without even thinking.
All Chinese movies automatically have word-for-word Chinese subtitles, especially if you watch them on any of the Chinese streaming services. I’ve always found watching movies with subtitles is a great way to improve reading speed – which is vital for learning to enjoy native Chinese content.
You don’t even have to look up every word. Once you can understand what’s happening from context, your brain starts automatically filling in the vocabulary gaps.
It takes a lot of time and exposure to acquire the language in this way, but what better way than from content you love? Start leveling up your Chinese now with the great resources on LingQ, and you just might be the director of the next great Chinese film!
Want more tips to help you learn Mandarin? Check out polyglot Steve Kaufmann’s video:
Alex Thomas studied film in school and languages at home. He has spent most of the last two years in Asia, where he is slowly learning to understand more Southwestern Mandarin.
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