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10 Movies to Watch Before Going to China

There is nothing more exciting than booking a trip abroad, and preparation is a must. Anything you can learn about the Chinese culture, history, or tradition while you are still at home will help you get the most out of your trip. What better way to do this then by watching some of the best China movies.

We have compiled a list to get you on your way, with specific suggestions depending on where in China you will be going, or what you are hoping to learn more about.

1. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

  • Chinese: 卧虎藏龙 Wò Hǔ Cáng Lóng 'fig. Talented Individuals in Hiding'
  • Starring: Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, Chang Chen, Pei-Pei Cheng
  • Director: Ang Lee
  • Released: 2000
  • Length: 120 min
  • Filmed in: Hong Village, Anhui province
Hong Village Hong Village

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is a world famous martial arts film, and is an obvious place to start with regards to Chinese films. It was so successful throughout the entire world that it won 40 awards, including the Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film, four BAFTAs and two Golden Globe Awards, one of which was also for Best Foreign Film. It is still one of the most famous Chinese films, and has a good introduction to China's Dynastic history, as well as martial arts influence.

This film is especially recommended for those who enjoy martial arts, or those who are planning to visit some of China's martial arts historical sights, for example Shaolin Temple in Luoyang, Henan, which is the home of kung fu.

2. To Live

  • Chinese: 活着 Huózhe 'Live'
  • Starring: Ge You, Gong Li
  • Director: Zhang Yimou
  • Released: 1994
  • Length: 133 min
  • Filmed in: Zhoucun Ancient City, Shandong province

Based on the book by famous Chinese author Yu Hua, To Live is a dramatic account of a rich man's son who is a compulsive gambler. After the gambler loses all of his property, he loses his family and is forced to start a shadow puppet troupe during the Chinese Civil War that ended in the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949. The film beautifully follows his life through a lot of hardships following the establishment of this new nation, but ends hopeful for everyone's future.

This film really is a must for a quick overview of China's history, especially the Mao era.

3. Raise the Red Lantern

The Qiao Family CompoundThe Qiao Family Compound
  • Chinese: 大红灯笼高高挂 Dà Hóng Dēnglóng Gāogāo Guà 'Big Red Lantern High Hung'
  • Starring: Gong Li, Caifei He   
  • Director: Zhang Yimou
  • Released: 1991
  • Length: 124 min
  • Filmed in: The Qiao Family Compound, Shanxi province

Raise the Red Lantern is a popular Zhang Yimou film, which was consequently adapted into a ballet by China's National Ballet. It is set in the 1920s, touching on China's early modern history, set in the Warlord Era. The film tells the story of a young woman, Songlian, who becomes a concubine of one of the wealthy men of the Warlord Era.

The film was well received on an international level, and is also a must for those into cinematography as it has been acclaimed for its artistic merit. One of its first awards was the Silver Lion for Best Director at 1991 Venice International Film Festival, and it has won countless awards for Best Foreign Language Film, or Best Film Not in the English Language, including at the British Academy Film Awards in 1993.

4. Yellow Earth

Northen Shaanxi province Northen Shaanxi province
  • Chinese: 黄土地 Huáng Tǔdì 'Yellow Land'
  • Starring: Wang Xueqi, Liu Qiang, Xue Bai
  • Director: Chen Kaige
  • Released: 1985
  • Length: 89 min
  • Filmed in: northern Shaanxi province

Yellow Earth is a Chinese Drama film whose cinematography is by famous director Chen Kaige. The film has received a lot of acclaim from all over the world, most notably at the 24th Hong Kong Film Awards in 2005, where it was placed 4th on the list of 100 Best Chinese Motion Pictures.

The film is set in Shaanxi Province, in central China, in 1939, during the time when the Chinese Communist Party and Kuomintang worked together to fight the Japanese. It thus provides a great insight into this time period, and also a good introduction to Chinese history.

5. In Expectation / Rainclouds Over Wushan

Three Gorges DamThree Gorges Dam
  • Chinese: 巫山云雨 Wūshān Yúnyǔ 'Wu Mountain Cloud Rain'
  • Starring: Li Bing, Xiu Zongdi, Zhong Ping, Wang Wenqiang, Yang Liu, Zhang Xianmin
  • Director: Zhang Ming
  • Released: 1996
  • Length: 95 min
  • Filmed in: Three Gorges Dam, Hubei province

In Expectation, also known as Rain Clouds over Wushan, following the lives of two lonely people living in Wushan on the banks of the Yangtze River during the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, making it a must for those planning to visit the Yangtze River, or the Three Gorges Dam.

It was produced with the Beijing Film Studio, and is a great depiction of rural life in China. It gradually started receiving a lot of positive feedback, winning the Dragons and Tigers Award from Vancouver International Film Festival in 1997. At Torino Film Festival, it also won the Best Feature Film Award, and the FIPRESCI Prize.

6. Shower

  • Chinese: 洗澡 Xǐzǎo 'Take a Shower'
  • Starring: Jiang Wu, Zhu Xu, Pu Cunxin
  • Director: Zhang Yang
  • Released: 1999
  • Length: 92 min
  • Filmed in: Beijing

A popular Chinese film, Shower is a dramatic comedy surrounding the nostalgic dramatization of loss in modern China. Following its premier at Toronto International Film Festival in 1999, it won the FIPRESCI Prize (from the International Federation of Film Critics).

The film follows a family-run bathhouse in Beijing, and explores the Chinese cultural values of family, friendship and tradition, giving a great insight into family life in the capital city.

7. The Spring River Flows East

The Yangtze RiverThe Yangtze River
  • Chinese: 一江春水向东流 Yī Jiāng Chūn Shuǐ Xiàng Dōng Liú 'A River's Spring [season] Water Flows East'
  • Starring: Bai Yang, Tao Jin, Shangguan Yunzhu, Shu Xiuwen, Wu Yin
  • Director: Cai Chusheng, Zheng Junli
  • Released: 1947
  • Length: 210 min
  • Filmed in: Chongqing

The Spring River Flows East, sometimes translated as The Tears of Yangtze, is one of the best Chinese films of its time. The film depicts the life of a family during the Second Sino-Japanese War, before, during and after, delving deep into some of the social issues of the time, and proving a great introduction to culture and life at the time. It was so popular that there is also a TV adaptation from 2005, which has been translated as The River Flows Eastwards.

Watch this film if you are interested in China's wartime society.

8. Beijing Bicycle

hutongA Beijing hutong
  • Chinese: 十七岁的单车 Shíqī Suì de Dānchē '17-Year-Old Bicycle'
  • Starring: Cui Lin, Li Bin, Gao Yuanyuan, Zhou Xun
  • Director: Wang Xiaoshuai
  • Released: 2001
  • Length: 113 min
  • Filmed in: Beijing

Beijing Bicycle is a Taiwanese-French production that won the Jury Grand Prix at its premier at Berlin International Film Festival. The two leading actors, Cui Lin and Li Bin, were awarded the "New Talent Award".

The film offers good insight into the struggle of those from the countryside looking for work in the city, as it follows a young boy, Guei, who comes to Beijing to look for work. His job at a courier company gives him a bicycle, which gets stolen, and he has to look for it. The film beautifully winds together the life of Guei, and the boy who ends up buying the stolen bicycle, demonstrating the clash and cooperation between countryside and city in China.

9. Seven Years in Tibet

The potala palaceThe Potala Palace, Tibet
  • Chinese: 西藏七年 Xīzàng Qī Nián 'Tibet Seven Years'
  • Starring: Brad Pitt, David Thewlis
  • Director: Jean Jacques Annaud
  • Released: 1997
  • Length: 136 min
  • Filmed in: Tibet

Especially interesting if you are going to pass through Tibet during your time in China, Seven Years in Tibet stars Brad Pitt as a mountain climber who escaped to Tibet during WWII, and who eventually ended up befriending the Dalai Lama in Lhasa.

Based on the true story of Heinrich Harrer, it is a great introduction to Tibet's unique culture, and will get you even more excited about your trip as the camera perfectly captures some of the beautiful scenery and natural landscapes that the region has to offer.

10. Hero

Jiuzhai ValleyJiuzhai Valley, Chengdu
  • Chinese: 英雄 Yīngxióng 'Hero'
  • Starring: Jet Li, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Maggie Cheung, Chen Daoming, Zhang Ziyi, Donnie Yen
  • Director: Zhang Yimou
  • Released: 2002
  • Length: 96 min
  • Filmed in: Jiuzhai Valley, Sichuan province; Guilin, Guangxi province; Ejina, Inner Mongol

Hero is a film that is based on the true story of Jing Ke's attempt to assassinate the first Emperor of the Qin Dynasty — Qin Shi Huang in 227 BC, during the Warring States period.

At the time of its release, it was the most expensive project, and the highest-grossing motion picture in Chinese film history. It took two years to make it to American theaters, but was a success there too. Afterwards, the film was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar at the 2003 Academy Awards, and received a lot of international recognition in the film world, mainly for cinematography.

This is the perfect film if you want to get a better idea of imperial China, and learn more about the Warring States period.

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