12 unmissable Chinese Documentaries

See China like you never have before

Born in China
Documentaries have the potential to reveal truth and transform our understanding of the controversial. So, why not use them as insight into one of the most complex societies of the 21st century? China holds a whirlwind of rich history and continues to face a wide range of contemporary issues – whether economical, environmental or social. The following films provide candid depictions of both rural and city-life in modern China, discussing the notion of national identity in the face of adversity.
Under the Dome

Under the Dome

Under the Dome (2015) focuses on air pollution – everyone's worst enemy. After its online release in 2015, this self-funded, independently produced documentary drew more than 300 million clicks in a couple of weeks, before it was taken down by the authorities.

Directed by former CCTV investigative reporter Chai Jing, the documentary was inspired by her concerns for her daughter's safety living under China's heavily polluted skies. Talking TED-style to a studio audience, Chai reveals not only the main driving forces behind these pollution levels – namely the overproduction of steel – but also how the absence of environmental protection legislation, the failure to implement existing rules and the general public’s lack of awareness in regard to reducing their carbon footprint all contributed to the heavily polluted skies. Needless to say, it provides an eye-opening perspective on the state of natural resources in a country of 1.3 billion people.

Born in China

Born in China

For children and animal lovers that want to know more about the rare wildlife of this country, Born in China (2016) journeys through the life of three animal families – the snow leopard, the monkey, and the panda – charting the struggle for survival in the wilderness. Filmed by four of the world's top wildlife cinematographers, the documentary captures raw moments of intimacy and conflict that remind us of the dangerous repercussions of deforestation on animal life. With stunning visuals and heartfelt narration, the documentary offers a macro to micro understanding of the relationships between animals, their habitat and environmental conservation.

Last Train Home

Last Train Home

Every Chinese New Year, migrant workers flood trains stations to make their way home for the holiday. For them, this holiday isn’t a time of relaxation, but the only chance they have to see their families that they left behind in order to seek work in booming coastal cities.

Last Train Home (2009) follows the Zhangs, who left their remote village in Sichuan province to work in Guangzhou. Seventeen years later, they still make three annual journeys back home to see their teenage children. Through an intimate portrayal of the hardships encountered by this separated family, Last Train Home provides a window into the experience of migrant workers in China.

Plastic China

Plastic China

Since the 1980s, China has been cheaply processing imported rubbish – in recent years recycling at least half the world's plastic, metal and paper waste (7.3 million tonnes alone in 2016, according to The New York Times). While the industry will likely change dramatically in light of government regulations in 2017/18 slashing China's foreign waste imports, during the years inbetween stories like that of 11-year-old girl Yi Jie have emerged.

Plastic China (2016) follows Yi Jie's busy days in a plastic-sorting town in China, taking care of siblings, consolidating plastic and searching for small ‘treasures’ in the waste. 

Through Yi Jie's story, we are exposed to the unsettling impacts of globalisation on China's labourers. The film sheds light on deteriorating health, relationships and even family, offering a shocking insight into the exploitation of labour and its place in the vicious cycles of our global economy. 

The Transition Period

The Transition Period

The Transition Period (2009) offers an in-depth and frank look at politics in China. It follows the work of the Communist Party during the last three months of Guo Yongchang's time as the Party Chief of Gushi in Henan County.

The documentary reveals how Guo deals with various government policies, manipulates farmers and workers, exploits regulations and more. It may just be a glimpse of the grand web of Chinese politics, but it's certainly an eye-opening one.

Please Vote for Me

Please Vote for Me

Set in a small Chinese city, Please Vote for Me (2007) follows the lives of a few Elementary School children as they campaign for the position of class monitor. What begins as simple debates and public speeches spirals into an overbearing involvement of parents, bribery and deceit, thus shedding light on a sensitive topic.

The film questions the place of democracy in modern Chinese society and all the components that hinder it. One Child Policy, the education system, social values; Please Vote For Me gives us a lesson on their extensive influences.

Senior Year

Senior Year

The Chinese education system is vastly different from that of the West. This is emphatically clear in Senior Year (2005), which uncovers the rigorous academic lifestyle of 78 high school students in China. We come to see the strenuous and extensive study habits of seniors in preparation for their final exam, the infamous gaokao, and gain perspective on the traditional Chinese notion of success, which revolves around hard work and academia. With insightful interviews and accurate subtitles, Senior Year provides shares profound truths about China's education system, as well as the emotional toll on those caught within it.

Karamay

Karamay

Karamay (2010) documents a real-life tragedy that occurred in 1994, Xinjiang Province, whereby a fire broke out in a concert hall filled with hundreds of local students and state officials. The children were told to let the officials evacuate first, and as a result, almost 300 children lost their lives.

The story of Karamay is heavily censored in the media, thus this documentary provided victims’ families with a way to break the silence for the first time in nearly two decades. Watch as Karamay unfolds the experiences of those involved with the devastating event, setting forward a wider comment on government policies.

Falling From the Sky

Falling From the Sky

Suining, a once ordinary Tier-2 city, experienced absolute catastrophe ever since Xichang Satellite Launching Center was built nearby. Yet, no one seems to know about it.

Falling From the Sky (2009) exposes the atrocities endured by the people of Suining: falling debris, resulting in dilapidated infrastructure and disturbing quality of life. Even more, whilst China experienced national glory when launching the Shenzhou 7 spaceship, the people of Suining feared foreign objects falling from the sky. The documentary highlights the impact of national successes on invisible local communities.

To Live Is Better Than to Die

To Live Is Better Than to Die

Shedding light on a taboo of Chinese culture, To Live is Better Than to Die (2003) tells us what we never knew about the AIDS in China. The documentary, which won a Peabody Award, is set in Wenlou village, Henan province, where 60 percent of residents are HIV-positive due to an unsafe blood donation incident. It focuses on the Ma family, all of whom have HIV (except for the eldest daughter). Following the tumultuous journey of the Ma family, we can see just how unsettling the health crisis can be in rural areas of China. It's disturbing and shocking but will leave you thinking for hours.

A Bite Of China: Celebrating The Chinese New Year

A Bite Of China: Celebrating The Chinese New Year

A full-length feature coming from one of China's top TV series, A Bite of China: Celebrating The Chinese New Year not only introduces local food culture, but also illustrates how families across the country celebrate the most important holiday of the year. This film will fill you with joy, appreciation and (perhaps above all) hunger.

The Chinese Mayor

The Chinese Mayor

The Chinese Mayor (2015) is about the cultural conflict and politics that followed the contentious plan of transforming the pollution-ridden Datong city into a tourist destination. The mayor, Geng Yanbo, devised a revitalisation project that would require the relocation of 500,000 homes.

Through this controversial agenda, we can see Geng’s ambitions and struggles as a B-tier politician, presenting the deep divide between local Chinese politics and the party elite in their leap of faith towards modernism.

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