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Chinese movies for language learning

Updated on May 6, 2011

Straight talk about the sorry state of Chinese movies in America

My two bits on Chinese movies
My two bits on Chinese movies

The Emperor and the Assassin

How to choose a Chinese movie to study?

You should definitely pick a movie you will enjoy. Learning language shouldn't be like taking bad tasting medicine, but there are some practical questions that you will need to consider.

The first practical question is what dialect is the movie in? Most Chinese movies were originally recorded in Cantonese or Mandarin. Although, occasionally you will find a movie that is substantially in another dialect, say, Taiwanese or Shanghainese. Chinese dialects are about as different as, say, English and French. So, a movie that is in a different dialect from what you have studied will be completely incomprehensible to you.

My experience is that Netflix miss-labels the dialect on about 25% of their movies that are supposedly in Mandarin. Sometimes the movie is actually in dubbed English, and often it is in Cantonese. A few times I have encountered movies that were mostly in Tagalog, or some other language that isn't Chinese, at all. One movie was an entirely silent filming of Chinese ballet. I guess every word that was spoken was in Mandarin.

If you are watching a Netflix movie by downloading it, you are stuck with whatever sound-track the technician picked. If you have the physical CD, there is often a choice of soundtrack. Different releases of the same movie will sometimes have different soundtracks available. However, labeling is inconsistent. Some movie cases will clearly state what language the movie has soundtracks for. Others will not state, or say something vague, like, "Chinese". So, be prepared for a few disappointments and surprises.

Movies that were produced for consumption in China are a bit more reliably in Mandarin than Chinese movies released in the US. If you want to double-check, you can usually find 国语 somewhere on back cover, if the movie has a Mandarin soundtrack. However, you may encounter problems with the dvd you get and your video player being restricted to different regions, and audio and sub-title options my require you to negotiate a Chinese user interface.

Aside from the logistic difficulties, what movies would be good for a language learner? I will make a few recommendations below. Generally, my requirement is that the Mandarin is reasonably standard, the dialog is relatively straight-forward, and the imagery tells the story, even if I miss some words.

Ironically, some of the early Hong Kong produced movies fit this bill rather well. In the US they are often marketed as "Shaw Bros" movies. Quite a few of those are kung fu movies, a fair number are horror movies. Be careful you don't get an English dubbed version. Sex, violence, simple, direct language, they have it all.

Shaw Bros. horror movies I would recommend, include:

The Boxer's Omen,

Human Lanterns,

Black Magic

Shaw Bros. kung fu movies I would recommend include:

The 5 Deadly Venoms

Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan

The Cave of the Silken Web

Bear in mind that the Chinese sensibility about kung fu movies is a little different than the western one. These movies are not just one big long fist fight. They have intricate plots and the kung fu is just stylized violence for the action part of the movie. If what you really want is to study up on martial arts, take some other recommendation.

If you want to watch serious Chinese drama, you should prepare yourself for the fact that the sensibility of Chinese drama is a bit different than Hollywood's. Stories do not always end happily, in fact, they usually don't. Maybe, this gives you more to think about, but don't expect to feel good at the end of the movie.

I recommend these serious Chinese dramas that have been released in the US :

Temptress Moon

The Emperor and the Assassin

Shanghai Triad


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    • recommend1 profile image


      7 years ago

      Useful info - and it is nice to see more hubs promoting intercultural understanding and language learning.


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