Here are the best movies about China.
Notice how I didn’t say the best Chinese movies?
They’re two totally different things.
My list, seen from a Western perspective, showcases movies about China that are – with the exception of one – in English.
These movies are enjoyable and entertaining and will help you learn more about China.
Now, I’m sure there will be the odd movie critic who comes after me with a pitchfork for some of my choices.
But like any critique or best-of list, subjectivity will always come into it.
Having lived, worked and traveled in China, I think I’m well-placed to at least have an opinion on some of the best movies about China.
Let me know in the comments if you feel that I’ve missed a good one!
1. The Joy Luck Club
If you’re a strict movie buff, you’re probably going to cane me for saying this – The Joy Luck Club is my all-time favorite movie about China.
It’s honestly one of the last few movies I’ve kept on DVD.
Based on a novel by Amy Tan, this movie is an incredibly heart-warming story about the complex relationships between women and their mothers.
The movie focuses on four Chinese-American families who live in San Francisco. They meet regularly to eat, tell stories and play the Chinese game, mah-jong.
The hidden pasts of the mothers who grew up in China are slowly revealed, and you find out how this influences the experiences of their American-raised daughters.
It’s a wonderful display of both Chinese and American cultures as each character tries to understand their family bonds and one another.
What also makes this movie special is the stellar performance of the relatively unknown cast. It’s truly a fly-under-the-radar, yet superb, movie.
And, like all great movies, you’re bound to shed a tear or two at the end.
2. Raise the Red Lantern
I adore this movie. It’s definitely one of my all-time favorite movies about China.
It’s the only true Chinese movie on this list. By that, I mean it’s all in Mandarin and made by the Chinese.
Raise the Red Lantern is a period drama set in the 1920s. It revolves around four women, three of whom are mistresses (or concubines), and the lengths they go to in order to have the master stay the night with them.
Once the master, whose face is never shown close-up, decides on his preferred concubine for the night, numerous red lanterns are lit up and attached outside the concubine’s home.
The newest concubine, a teenager named Songlian, can’t come to grips with her new life. She slowly starts to unravel and this causes drama in the compound.
The movie gives you a glimpse into the depressing life of a concubine. Unable to do anything for themselves, including cooking a meal, the concubines have nothing left to do but gossip, betray and plot against each other.
Raise The Red Lantern is one of the most well-known movies directed by Zhang Yimou.
The movie was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards in 1992. It became only the second Chinese film to earn this gong (the first was Ju Dou in 1990, also directed by Zhang Yimou).
The full movie, above, can be seen on YouTube. Shhh – don’t tell anyone!
3. Kung Fu Panda
Kung Fu Panda is a great movie about China. Yes, I’m serious!
Loved by audiences the world over, no one would have ever imagined that this computer-animated flick was going to be such a hit.
I remember playing this movie for my junior students when I was teaching English in China, and them telling me that they’d already seen it numerous times.
The hero of the story, a giant panda named Po, is what makes this movie so special. For all his failings, you just can’t help but adore him.
Jack Black, who plays Po, was born for this role. He injects the right amount of humor and earnestness the whole way through.
The star-studded cast also features Hong Kong legend, Jackie Chan. Need I say more?
With its successful mix of action, drama, mysticism – and of course humor – the success of Kung Fu Panda has spawned a franchise of movies and spin-offs covering more than a decade.
This movie makes my list because it’s so different to the others. And, it’s a very gentle introduction to China for those who don’t know much about it, even though it’s very much an American film.
Kung Fu Panda appeals to both kids and adults. Not many movies can do that.
4. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Watch this movie and you’ll understand where China’s obsession about martial arts comes from.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a fictional flick directed by Taiwanese filmmaker, Ang Lee.
Lee is known for the critically acclaimed Chinese movie Lust, Caution, as well as mainstream blockbusters Life of Pi and Brokeback Mountain.
Although this movie is not at all historically accurate, it’s one of the most successful movies about China ever made.
I think it would be a crime to leave this stunning film off this list.
Set in the Qing Dynasty in the 18th century, Crouching Tiger gives a glimpse to the social structures and cultural life of ancient China.
And, of course, it opened the world’s eyes to kung fu.
The famous forest flying scene was shot in a bamboo forest in Anhui province. It has since become a popular tourist attraction, particularly among film buffs.
If this movie piques your interest enough to visit China, you could see the Shaolin Temple as part of your travels.
I haven’t seen this film in many years. I’m dying to see it again!
5. Mao’s Last Dancer
This movie is based on the book of the same name.
To be fair, the book is better than the movie (isn’t it always?) but I still loved the movie nonetheless.
Without giving too much away, Mao’s Last Dancer is about the life of male Chinese dancer, Li Cunxin. He’s taken from his impoverished family in the countryside to train in Madame Mao’s Dance Academy in Beijing.
As a young man, Li heads to Texas for a cultural exchange. There, he meets a girl and defects to the US, and the plot thickens.
The dancing in this movie is incredible, it really is a pleasure to watch. And, knowing that it’s based on a true story gives the movie credibility you often crave.
Mao’s Last Dancer was very well-received in Australia, where it was one of the highest grossing films in 2009 following its release. It’s still in the top 20 Australian films of all time.
This movie only had a limited release in the US, so you may not have heard about it.
6. American Factory
OK, technically this is a Netflix documentary and not a feature movie.
But, at 1 hour and 50 minutes long, it’s movie length. And I loved it!
American Factory follows China’s Fuyao Glass reopening a shuttered factory in Ohio.
At the heart of the movie is the great divide between the US and China, not just in terms of culture but work, relationships, behaviors and attitudes.
I found it fairly balanced, despite it being an American production. You get to hear perspectives from both the Chinese and the Americans.
I especially like how the movie doesn’t force you into a corner with regard to who is ‘right’ and who is ‘wrong’.
My laugh-out-loud moment came when one of the Chinese managers reports to the big boss, Mr Cao, that Americans are slow and have “fat fingers”.
My favorite moment of all though, is when the American managers are invited to Fuzhou, in southern China, to see how everything is done as well as watch the annual stage show.
One of the American managers breaks down in tears after the show, not through joy but at the realization that the differences between the two countries are so great that they’re beyond belief.
Side note: I would hazard a guess that the age of the child performers would be illegal in the US, so I can understand why the guy was in such shock.
American Factory recently won the Academy Award for Best Documentary. So you know it’s worth watching.
7. The Farewell
The Farewell is so damn good!
It’s funny, it’s heart-warming, and it helps you understand facets of the Chinese culture that you probably weren’t aware of.
Billi’s family returns to China under the guise of a fake wedding to say goodbye to Billi’s nai nai (grandmother). Poor nai nai doesn’t know that she only has a few weeks to live.
The character development in this movie is awesome, particularly Billi who is played by Nora Lum (professionally known as Awkwafina). She’s also in Crazy Rich Asians.
I think what I really liked about this movie is that it’s in both Chinese and English. It makes it feel real.
For more great movies about Chinese culture specifically, I recommend you check out this blog.
8. Seven Years in Tibet
I know not many people will agree with me putting Seven Years in Tibet in a best movies about China list.
But hear me out.
Although this movie is not a cinematic masterpiece, and not even one of Brad Pitt’s best, it’s still a thoroughly enjoyable adventure film about one special corner of China – Tibet.
For once, this majestic area of the world has a powerful light shone on it.
Like Mao’s Last Dancer, this movie is preceded by a book that’s based on a true story.
Set around the time of World War II, Austrian explorer Heinrich Harrer, played by Pitt, seeks refuge in Tibet to escape British-controlled India. The story eventually shifts to China’s invasion of Tibet.
Harrer befriends the Dalai Lama, a child at the time, who is intensely curious about the world outside his kingdom.
The friendship builds over many years, and Harrer’s hard exterior softens.
I recently read that the Dalai Lama and Harrer remained close friends until Harrer’s death in 2006. For me, this gives the story of Seven Years in Tibet such authenticity.
I also have a soft spot for this movie as I remember seeing it at the cinema with my late grandma back in 1997.
Seven Years in Tibet doesn’t paint China in a good light, but hey, that’s history for you.
If you’re traveling to China soon…
If you have plans on visiting China soon, it’s best you know now that their internet is censored.
Luckily though, there’s a way around it by getting what’s known as a virtual private network (VPN) on your phone.
I’ve written a blog about the best VPN for China, which will help a lot.
Even if you’re not going to China, a VPN allows you to watch movies on platforms like Netflix that may be blocked in your region.
There are so many great movies about China
There are plenty of great movies about China, many of which I haven’t seen.
If I happen to catch another memorable one, or you recommend one that I end up watching and loving, I’ll add it to the list.
But for now, these are the ones that I think are the best movies about China.
Enjoy watching some, or all of them!
Liked my blog? You’ll probably like the one I did on the best documentaries about China as well.
I’ve also written about the best places to visit in China. It might just whet your appetite enough to go and visit the country!