The best documentaries about China
Since Mao’s death, with the consequent opening of China to the world, China has been told by many directors who described the process of modernization that the country was experiencing. Updated (2021)
Some themes, such as the sense of alienation and emptiness caused by the Cultural Revolution, the search for roots and lost identity, and abruptly abandoned past, the poisoning of the environment and its effect on the population, and the contradictions of the process of economic development at all costs somehow recur in the most interesting works on China.
We have tried to avoid tourist documentaries in this list, preferring to concentrate on documentaries that deal with socio-cultural and historical themes.
For more info about the movies (details, images, credits, trailers) click on the movie title.
Following this link instead, you’ll find a comprehensive list of documentaries about China.
Related articles: Best Chinese Scifi Movies, History of the Chinese Cinema, Best Chinese Animated Movies, History of the Cinema of Hong Kong
Some of the best documentaries on China
Chung Kuo (1972)
by Michelangelo Antonioni
Documentary about the Cultural Revolution in China
Even before Mao’s death, Michelangelo Antonioni, the great Italian director, was one of the few witnesses of China in the middle of the Cultural Revolution.
In 1972 Antonioni was invited by the People’s Republic of China to direct a documentary about New China.
Antonioni’s Chung Kuo focuses primarily on the lives of contemporary working-class Chinese people.
Bumming in Beijing: The Last Dreamers (1990)
by Wu Wenguang
Documentary on the lives and careers of a group of young artists around the time of the events of Tiananmen
Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (2002)
by Wang Bing
Documentary about the environment in China
Filmed between 1999 and 2001, West Of The Tracks describes the progressive decay of Shenyang’s industrial Tiexi district, an area that was once a vibrant example of China’s socialist economy. But the market is changing, and the factories of Tiexi are closing. Wang Bing introduces us to some of the workers affected by the closures, and to their families. With a total runtime of more than nine hours, the film comprises three parts: “Rust”, “Remnants”, and “Rails”.
Please Vote for Me (2007)
Directed by Weijun Chen
Documentary about an experiment in democracy
At Evergreen Primary School, a grade 3 class learns what democracy is when an election for class monitor is being held. Three children are chosen by the teacher as candidates and they have a few days to campaign and convince their classmates to vote for them.
Manufactured Landscapes (2007)
by Jennifer Baichwal
Manufactured Landscapes is the striking documentary on the world and work of renowned artist Edward Burtynsky. Internationally acclaimed for his large-scale photographs of “manufactured landscapes”—quarries, recycling yards, factories, mines and dams—Burtynsky creates stunningly beautiful art from civilization’s materials and debris.
by Zhang Liang
Documentary about Chinese justice system
The dysfunctional Chinese justice system allows citizens with grievances against their local governments to petition the court to clear or correct their record.
Yet in order to do so, the petitioners must travel to Beijing to file paperwork and wait an indefinite period to plead their case.
Following the saga of a group of petitioners over the years of 1996 and 2008, Petition unfolds like a novel.
Last Train Home (2009)
by Fan Lixin
A family embarks on an annual tormenting journey along with 200 other million peasant workers to reunite with their distant family, and to revive their love and dignity as China soars as the world’s next super power.
Man with No Name (2009)
by Wang Bing
The Man with No Name lives far from the worlds of the material and the spirit. Under double political and economical pressure, most of people are depriving of their last dignity into a world where it exists a lack of material and spirit. But a human being stays a human being. He is looking for reasons to continue to live. (Wang Bing)
Queer China, ‘Comrade’ China (2009)
by Zi’en Cui
Documentary on the homosexuality and queer communities in China
The documentary reviews and summarizes the development of homosexuality as an issue from 1980 to 2010.
Fortune Teller (2010)
by Xu Tong
Documentary about a fortune teller in China
Li Baicheng is a charismatic fortune teller who services a clientele of prostitutes and marginalized figures whose jobs, like his, are commonplace but technically illegal in China. Winter brings a police crackdown on both fortune tellers and prostitutes, forcing Li and Pearl into temporary exile in his hometown, where he revisits old family demons.
Three Sisters (2012)
by Wang Bing
Documentary about solitude and isolation
Three sisters by Wang Bing is an intimate portrait of a peasant family who eke out a humble existence in a small village set against the stunning mountain landscapes of China’s Yunnan province.
Web Junkie (2014)
Hilla Medalia, Shosh Shlam
Documentary about Internet addiction in China
China is the first country in the world to classify Internet addiction as a clinical disorder. The documentary features a Beijing treatment center where Chinese teenagers are being “deprogrammed,” and follows the story of three boys from the day they arrive at the center, to their three-month treatment period, and their long awaited return home.
Documentary about the environment and alienation in China
Coal miners are busy filling trucks with coals. Wearing a coal-dust mask, they become ghostlike creatures. An endless line of trucks will transport all the coals and iron ores to the ironworks. There traps another crowd of souls, being baked in hell. In the hospital, time hangs heavy on miners’ hands. After decades of breathing coal dust, death is just around the corner. They are living the reality of purgatory, but there will be no paradise.
Plastic China (2016)
by Wang Jiuliang
Documentary about the environment
Plastic China depicts the story of an unschooled 11-year-old girl, Yi-Jie, a truly global child who learns the world through the United Nations of Wastes while working with her YI minority parents in this recycle workshop thousand miles away from their mountain village home town.
Til Madness Do Us Part (2016)
by Wang Bing
Documentary about mental disorder and alienation
In a remote asylum live 12 months a year fifty men who spend their days locked on one floor, with few contacts with the outside world, even with the medical team. Wang Bing casts an understanding and non-judgmental eye on the patients of a decrepit Chinese mental hospital in this eloquent and emotionally impactful documentary.
Twenty Two (2017)
by Guo Ke
Related: Interview with Guo Ke
Documentary about the ‘Comfort Women’, Chinese women forced into sex slavery by the Japanese during WWII
The documentary follows the stories of the elderly survivors who were forced into sex slavery as “Comfort Women” by the Japanese during World War II. At the time of filming, only 22 of these women were still alive to tell their story; through their accounts, they tell a tale that should never be ignored to generations unaware of the brutalization that occurred.
Dragonfly Eyes (2017)
by Xu Bing
Documentary/videoart about surveillance in China
Installation artist Xu Bing pits this watching world – 10,000 hours of found footage from 28,000 cameras across China uploaded to the cloud – against simple melodrama, young love and fragility.
Dead Souls (2018)
by Wang Bing
Documentary about alienation
In Gansu Province, northwest China, lie the remains of countless prisoners abandoned in the Gobi Desert sixty years ago. Designated as “ultra-rightists” in the Communist Party’s Anti-Rightist campaign of 1957, they starved to death in the Jiabiangou and Mingshui reeducation camps.
People’s Republic of Desire (2018)
by Hao Wu
Related: Interview with Hao Wu
Documentary about video streaming in China
In China’s popular live-streaming showrooms, three millennials – a karaoke singer, a migrant worker, and a rags-to-riches comedian – seek fame, fortune, and human connection, ultimately finding the same promises and perils online as in their real lives.
China Love (2018)
by Olivia Martin-McGuire
A fascinating exploration of contemporary China through the pre-wedding photography industry – a billion-dollar fantasy world.
The Sound of Dali (2019)
by Zhang Yang
Related: Interview with Zhang Yang
Documentary about Yunnan province
“The Sound of Dali” is a documentary to listen to, an audiovisual symphony, where the image is a complementary and auxiliary element in the relationship with sound. The documentary film is the second in the Dali trilogy directed by Zhang Yang, after “Up the Mountain“.
76 Days (2020)
Directed by Hao Wu
Documentary on the COVID-19 pandemic in Wuhan
Related articles: read Interview with Hao Wu, director of the documentary 76 Days on Wuhan COVID Outbreak
76 Days by Hao Wu captures the struggles of patients and frontline medical professionals battling the COVID-19 pandemic in Wuhan.
Do not Split (2020)
Directed by Anders Hammer
Documentary on the Protests in Hong Kong
The story of the 2019 Hong Kong protests, told through a series of demonstrations by local protestors that escalate into conflict when highly armed police appear on the scene.
South of Clouds (2002)
by Dominique Musorrafiti, Matteo Damiani
Documentary about Yunnan ethnic minorities
The documentary shows, without commenting, a China-linked to ancient traditions, which nowadays struggle to compete with the rhythm of modern life: villages, customs, music, and lifestyles of the minorities Bai, Lisu, Nusu, Miao, Dai , Hani, Naxi, Yi, and Hui, before the advent of Chinese mass tourism and the exodus of young people to the metropolis in search of a job opportunity. It was the second documentary produced by China-underground.com and CinaOggi.it (in Italian: A Sud delle Nuvole).
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