Underrated Chinese Movies to Watch This JanPlan Break

We’ve all been there: browsing the Netflix Top Picks or Recommended, but not finding a single movie you’re remotely interested in or have the patience to sit through 120 minutes for. When that happens to me, I either choose to close my laptop and start aimlessly scrolling through my Instagram feed, or choose happiness. And by happiness, I mean watching a Chinese movie. 

I haven’t met many individuals who are avid Chinese movie streamers like I am. It’s understandable though, given the language barrier. Once in a while, I do feel sorry for those who choose to overlook foreign films simply because of the language barrier or simply because they find subtitles unbearable. What I’m saying is that it’s time to explore your options! Here are top five picks of underrated Chinese movies from the past decade. 

  1. 1. Coming Home (2014)

    A historical drama directed by esteemed Chinese director Zhang Yimou, this film tells a poignant story of a former political prisoner during the Cultural Revolution and his amnesiac wife as he tried to help her regain her memory and rediscover their lost love. This tear-jerking movie sheds light on the tragedies of the Cultural Revolution while awakening your emotions to cherish your loved ones a little more.

  2. 2. Soul Mate (2016)

    A romantic drama narrated through flashbacks, this movie is filled with passionate and painful memories of two best friends, Qiyue and Ansheng, whose friendship begins to deteriorate as Qiyue becomes dangerously attracted to Ansheng’s love interest. This isn’t just any typical love-triangle story, but also one that comments on the influence of class in shaping the direction of people’s lives. Soul Mate might leave you with a broken heart, but with exceptional acting, dialogue, and post-production editing, there is not a single dull moment in this film. 

  3. 3. Dying to Survive (2018)

    I watched this movie while I was in Beijing, and let me tell you–I have never heard that many people sob together in a theatre and I have never seen so many people walk out of the cinema stifling tears with bloodshot eyes and a handful of crumpled tissues. 

    This multi-award winning film is about a group of valiant leukemia patients who run an underground business smuggling cheap and untested medical drugs from India in order to help hundreds of poor, struggling leukemia patients treat their illness. This sentimental story elucidates the plight of the poor and the classicism that exists in the healthcare system, illuminating a socioeconomic issue that many developing (and developed) countries still suffer from. Truly a beautiful film.

  4. 4. Better Days (2019)

    To say I would “strongly recommend” this movie would be an understatement–there are no words more emphatic enough to illustrate how compelling and phenomenal the story, acting, and execution of the plot is! 

    I’ve had the good fortune of growing up in a relatively accepting community in which people embraced each other’s differences and condemned bullying of all kinds. However, in many parts of China, both rural and urban, bullying is still a very common happenstance that can get quite violent as well. The movie, Better Days, is about a bullied high school student and a teenage thug who become the suspects in the murder of a classmate. This movie is powerful and explores school bullying in contemporary China in an affecting manner that will surely open your eyes on the struggles of being a youth and the damaging consequences of bullying.

  5. 5. The Wandering Earth (2019)

    Set in a futuristic world where humans have moved civilization to thousands of feet below the surface after the sun has died out, a forthcoming and perilous collision with Jupiter warrants a dangerous mission with a team of brave individuals to save the Earth. 

    The release of this film was a watershed moment in Chinese cinema because it was the first-ever big-budget blockbuster sci-fi thriller that emerged in theatres, a huge step in demonstrating the potential of the growing Chinese cinematic sphere. It was also interesting to note the cultural differences and similarities in terms of the American vs. Chinese values. While the artistic aspect to the film is definitely akin to a mashup of many classic American sci-fi films, The Wandering Earth also heavily focuses on images representing the importance of family, the nobility of sacrifice, and power of collective action for the will of the group in times of crisis.

Have fun movie-marathoning!