From martial arts masterpieces and emotional family dramas to rich historical explorations and underrated comedies–Chinese filmmakers have given the world an endless depth of movies to enjoy. The country’s unique culture is often best reflected and appreciated through its art and lucky for us, plenty of incredible Chinese films are available to stream at the click of a few buttons.
If you’re thrilled by the carefully choreographed, edge-of-your-seat, beauty of modern action fight sequences in films like John Wick, Atomic Blonde, and Tenet–you can thank decades of Chinese martial arts movies. To help you find them, and others, spanning plenty of genres, we’ve put together 10 of the best Chinese movies available for you to watch right now.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Wo Hu Cang Long)
Starring Michelle Yeoh (Crazy Rich Asians, Tomorrow Never Dies) and Zhang Ziyi (Memoirs of a Geisha, House of Flying Daggers), this action love story follows a famed sword, the rebellious Chinese warrior who stole it, and those chasing her down. Ang Lee’s masterpiece has and will always stand the test of time as one of the greatest modern martial arts films ever produced. Released in 2000, Lee’s classic effectively introduced the Western world to wuxia–a genre dedicated to ancient China’s martial arts heroes. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which created a vital opening between classic Chinese martial arts films and Hollywood, is an absolute visual delight to watch and a testament to wuxia’s beauty.
Ip Man (Yip Man)
As both a work of Chinese history and masterful martial arts filmmaking, Ip Man tells the story of its title character, a famous grandmaster and founder of traditional Southern Chinese Kung Fu martial art, Wing Chun, and teacher to Bruce Lee. Starring Donnie Yen, the film follows the iconic martial artist caught in Japan’s invasion of China before the second world war, and, you guessed it, fighting his way to glory. But here’s the best news–once you’ve knocked out Ip Man and you’re craving more mind-blowing fight choreography, you can stay on Netflix and binge the franchise’s second, third, and fourth instalments. While most action franchises decline in quality as studios force too many sequels (except the always perfect Fast & Furious films), the subsequent Ip Man movies hold up well.
Under the guise of a wedding, Billi returns home to China to say goodbye to her grandmother, Nai Nai, who only has a few weeks to live. To Billi’s shock, the family decides to keep Nai Nai’s diagnosis a secret from the elderly matriarch. While The Farewell is an American produced film, it was written and directed by Chinese born Lulu Wang, features a mostly Chinese cast, and stars Awkwafina, born to a Chinese father. With the film taking place predominantly in China and the dialogue being majority Mandarin, we thought it was okay to include it. The comedy-drama is an autobiographical exploration of moral ambiguities, cultural differences, and the difficult but powerful bond created by a family crisis. Awkwafina gives a breakout performance as the grieving yet charmingly comedic lead.
Fist Of Fury (Jing Wu Men)
To call Bruce Lee’s 1972 martial arts epic, Fist of Fury, an historical influence on film, would be a grand understatement. Hong Kong director, Lo Wei, spent most of the 1970s making martial arts/action films starring the legendary Bruce Lee and a young Jackie Chan, with terrifically entertaining results. Set in 1910s Shanghai, the action classic finds Lee as a young martial arts student who avenges the death of his master and defends the honour of his school by fighting the responsible rival dojo of Japanese imperialists. A revenge plot, a fight for honour, an absolute superstar of the genre, and iconic scenes of Lee fighting swarms of men–Fist of Fury should be on everyone’s must-watch list.
If there are two glaringly apparent films sadly left off this list–they’d be 2002’s Hero and 2004’s House of Flying Daggers. Unfortunately, the pair of Zhang Yimou movies are unavailable on any Australian streaming platform–if they ever become available, do yourself a favour and watch them. Luckily, the acclaimed Chinese director’s latest wuxia war film, Shadow, is a call back to some of his best work and is currently in the Netflix library. In ancient China’s Three Kingdoms era, an elaborate plan involving kings, look-alikes, and duelling is devised by a general to finally end the war. This film is an extraordinary visual spectacle you have to see to believe, with Yimou benefiting from the kind of studio money needed to build a spectacularly imagined world.
Kung Fu Hustle
There’s a chance you saw Kung Fu Hustle as a kid, maybe passing one Friday night on SBS–if you did, there’s an even better chance that it blew your little mind. An aspiring gangster hoping to join the Shanghai “Axe Gang” by terrorising a neighbourhood comes up against more than he bargained for with local residents harbouring unexpected fighting powers. Stephen Chow’s film is the ultimate comedic (and often, perfectly ridiculous) homage to China’s martial arts film history. It’s described as a ‘genre-bending classic’–and we think that’s pretty spot on. Not only did the Hong Kong filmmaker (also responsible for the breakthrough action/comedy gem, Shaolin Soccer) direct the film, but he co-wrote, produced, and starred in it. Simply, Kung Fu Hustle is bundles of fun, and you should catch it before the highly anticipated arrival of Kung Fu Hustle 2.
The Nightingale (Ye Ying)
After living alone in Beijing for 20 years, a widowed Chinese farmer travels home to his native village to return a bird and keep a promise he made to his wife. Accompanied by his spoiled and curmudgeonly granddaughter, the pair take an emotional journey together, backgrounded by breath-taking and colourful scenery. With the simple premise of a man and his granddaughter travelling with a bird, The Nightingale mesmerises with the endlessly picturesque beauty of China’s countryside and brings a welcome sense of joy through the leading pair’s charismatic on-screen chemistry. If you’re after a sweet family comedy-drama with positive and hopeful character development–look no further.
Manhunt (Zhui Bu)
After being framed for a heinous crime, a Chinese lawyer teams up with a detective to clear his name and stop an impending corporate plot. You may not recognise the name, but whether you like them or not, you’ll undoubtedly know John Woo from his unique action movie catalogue–1997’s Face/Off, 2000’s Mission Impossible 2, and 2003’s Paycheck, to name a few. The man who’s worked with the likes of Cage, Chan, Van Damme, and Cruise, sure knows how to entertain. If you enjoy the director’s not-always-so-serious brand of violent action movies, check out Manhunt.
Fearless (Huo Yuan Jia)
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In one of the final chances to watch the all-time-great, Jet Li, in a martial arts epic role, Fearless loosely tells the historical tale of Huo Yuanjia, one of China’s most famous martial artists. Returning from solitude forced by a terrible tragedy, a great fighter finds himself duelling to the death and defending China’s honour. Fearless is an entertaining cap to one of the genre’s greatest actors, full of beautifully choreographed, action-packed fighting sequences that’ll likely force you deeper into Li’s impressive film catalogue.
Us And Them (Hou Laid De Wo Men)
Us and Them delves into the depths of a romantic relationship, the trials and tribulations that come with it, and the understanding that individuals within partnerships evolve and change. The story follows a young Chinese couple who meet on a train (with less murderous outcomes than Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train) and build a loving relationship which grows but fractures over several years. With ups and downs, separation and reconnection, Us and Them may more accurately reflect the true nature of relationships outside the movie romances we’re more accustomed to.
Next up, work your way through these 20 epic flicks on Disney+.