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Movies Set in China: The Reel Guide

Whether you’re planning a trip to China or maybe on the fence about whether you should go there or not, seeing this colourful, historic and incredibly scenic country on screen is bound to inspire you. You’ll see amazing scenery and gravity defying martial arts, but thankfully with this list the language barrier won’t be a problem, as I’m too lazy to read subtitles. This list of movies set in China in no way prepares you for the language difficulties you’ll experience when you get there – unfortunately you won’t have the luxury of having every conversation dubbed into American for you.

The Painted Veil (2006)

Edward Norton and Naomi Watts play 2 glum British expats in China during a cholera outbreak – it’s not the most cheerful movie but a lot of it was shot around Yangshuo, so the scenery is pretty amazing. As well as the scenery, the Painted Veil also gives a pretty realistic (I’m assuming) portrayal of expat life in China in the 1920s.

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008)

Perhaps sensing we were a bit sick of The Mummy movies being set in Egypt, the makers of the dwindlingly popular series moved it on over to China with surprisingly good results. They cast a wide net over Chinese culture for this one, so you have a mixture of yetis, Shangri-La, Terracotta warriors and Michelle Yeoh, because a blockbuster movie set in China wouldn’t be complete without her (despite the fact she’s actually Malaysian).

movies set in China - the Mummy Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

The Flowers of War (2011)

Christian Bale is forced to put the bottle down in order to protect a gang of prostitutes and a group of Catholic schoolgirls during the rape of Nanking. I’m a big Christian Bale fan and I thought he did a great job, but the movie was a bit depressing and the characters made some frustrating choices – one decided to walk the Japanese soldier patrolled streets in order to get some strings for her pipa (kind of like a guitar) with predictably grim results. That would never have happened in real life. I actually thought this movie was based on a true story but it wasn’t – that explains it!

Movies set in China - Flowers of War

The Karate Kid (2010)

This movie could have been worse – at least there was only one member of the Smith family on show. Jaden Smith (son of Will) is a terrible actor and I just couldn’t get past that – I didn’t even particularly enjoy the original karate kid which everyone seems to agree is better.  Proceed with caution…

The Amazing Panda Adventure (1995)

Throw an annoying child actor together with some amazingly adorable baby pandas and you get a pretty decent movie aimed at kids but enjoyed (sort of) by adults. It’s not a life changing movie but you’ll see some nice views of Sichuan province and get to spend an hour and a half with pandas.

Sunflower and the Secret Fan (2011)

I read that Hugh Jackman was in this movie, so I started to watch it only to find it was mostly in Chinese. I couldn’t find an English dub either and there were no subtitles (I could have downloaded some but again, I’m too lazy for that). I didn’t get to the Hugh Jackman part but maybe he was only namedropped to lure people like me into watching it (not because I’m a huge fan of his, but because surely Hugh Jackman = English). If you’ve seen it, let me know what it’s like.

Dragon Blade (2015)

I was really looking forward to Dragon Blade but it was a bit disappointing. Jackie Chan and John Cusack lead the rebuilding of a city on the silk road, which brings together Roman soldiers, Han Chinese and all sorts of other Silk Road people. Dragon Blade also features a really weird little kid and Adrien Brody trying (and failing) to look menacing – I’d recommend the movie for the sets and the scenery but definitely not for the acting.

movies set in China - Dragon Blade

Mulan (1998)

I find singing in movies annoying, so I didn’t really enjoy Mulan. It basically has the same plot as that Amanda Bynes movies “She’s the Man” (I probably shouldn’t have admitted to seeing that) and unless you’re a young girl you probably won’t enjoy it.

Wuxia movies set in china

Wuxia: a style of Chinese storytelling involving martial arts and historical settings. I only watched the ones that have proper English dubbed versions.

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000)

I’d seen bits of this movie before but had either fallen asleep or became distracted – so one rainy day at Lake Toba, Indonesia I decided to sit down, load up on sugar and make sure I made it to the end. I really loved this movie – it’d probably be somewhere in my top 20.  The cinematography was outstanding and it was just a really good story told (and acted) to perfection.

movies set in China - Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon

Hero (2002)

Jet Li plays a nameless warrior who recounts his story of heroism to a paranoid emperor. Just like the other Wuxia movies I’ve seen a lot of people end up dying and it’s pretty depressing, but the style, cinematography and fight scenes are top notch. Ancient China looks so colourful and exotic in these movies, it’s not quite the same in real life but you can get a taste of the old world in historic towns such as Dali and Lijiang.

House of Flying Daggers (2004)

This fits in pretty well with movies like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Hero but somehow just isn’t as memorable. The sets are amazing and so is the cinematography though, so definitely check this one out if you’ve seen (and enjoyed) the others.

Movies set in China - House of Flying Daggers

These next two are Hollywood takes on the wuxia genre…

The Forbidden Kingdom (2008)

A kid gets sucked into a magical world of swords and sorcery – don’t worry though because he has the help of Jet Li and Jackie Chan – two of the toughest Chinese actors of all time. I like this kind of epic movie set in China, with sweeping landscapes and exotic ancient towns.

Kung Fu Panda / Kung Fu Panda 2 (2008/2011)

I’m not a huge fan of Jack Black or kids cartoons, so it took me quite a few years before I got around to watching these 2 movies. Was it a waste of my time? Not at all, I really enjoyed them! They weren’t quite as childish as I expected, I thought the animation was great and they were actually pretty funny. Even if you’re not a kid, check them out.

movies set in China - Kung Fu Panda

Old movies set in China

There are so many old movies set in China – it was an exotic place to set all kinds of different stories. I couldn’t find a lot of these old movies online but I did watch a few.

China (or the Fourth Brother) (1943)

This movie starts out pretty light – a guy finds a baby in the aftermath of a Japanese bombing raid (it sounds more depressing than it is in the movie) and names him after Donald Duck. There’s plenty of old school humour and a heroic leading man, but things get a bit depressing by the end. It’s a pretty good movie though, just one of many old black and white movies set in China, most of which I couldn’t find copies of online.

The Chairman (1969)

Chairman Mao and a scientist play some ping pong then discuss their ideological differences in this slightly strange movie starring Gregory Peck. There’s also a guy who wears a glasses/sunglasses mutant piece of fashion which I’ve never seen before. The movie was made in the 1960s, so I guess that style has lost its chance to be cool.

Blood Alley (1955)

Being kept in a Chinese prison caused John Wayne to make up an imaginary friend called “Baby”, who he talks to throughout pretty much the whole movie.  This movie is old and the portrayal of the Chinese might be a little racist, but it’s still enjoyable (the movie I mean, not the racism).

What is your favourite movie set in China? Let me know!

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Jon Algie

Jon Algie

A travel blogger from New Zealand who hates talking about himself in the third person and has no imagination when it comes to naming websites.
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2 Comments

  1. September 9, 2015 at 2:55 pm — Reply

    The painted veil looks like it has a beautiful landscape. Haven”t watched too many of the other movies, but will try and watch a couple now/ also go to China hahaha. Happy travels x

    • Jon Algie
      September 11, 2015 at 1:01 am — Reply

      Thanks Sarah, definitely visit China if you get the chance!

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