How to See a Movie in Theaters in China

Chinese movie theater

 FREDERIC J. BROWN / Staff / Getty Images

Most big cities in China have movie theaters that offer regional and international films. Movies are generally shown in their original language with Chinese subtitles, so you won't be forced to endure mismatched voiceovers, but finding venues and showtimes can be more difficult.

It might seem odd to seek out an English-language movie while visiting China, but maybe you want to catch the newest blockbuster while you're abroad, especially if you're there long-term. And discovering what kind of snacks they serve, the system of seat selection, and how the audience behaves can be a cultural experience in itself. Even if you're seeing an American movie, the experience is still a way to immerse yourself in the local culture.

How to Find out What Is Playing

Unfortunately, most movie websites that allow you to buy tickets in advance and see what's playing are almost exclusively in Mandarin. The site 247cinema lists showtimes and lets you buy tickets in English, but only for theaters in Shanghai, Beijing, or Shenzhen. SmartShanghai lists all of the major theaters in Shanghai, but the theater websites themselves are in Chinese.

You can also try going directly to the theater to see what's playing. Some theaters will have English speakers while others will not, so you may need to enlist the help of a Chinese-speaking colleague or friend to help you.

Hotel concierges should also be able to help you with finding showtimes. Ask the concierge in the morning to find out what's playing in theaters near your hotel and what the times are.

Ratings & Censorship

There are no movie ratings in China and films are meant for mass consumption of all ages. However, all movies are reviewed by the National Film Administration—a branch of the Communist Party—which has broad power to censor or ban films which are considered inappropriate. Movies may be censored for inciting resistance, mocking government leaders, sexual or violent content, and encouraging superstitious behavior, among other reasons.

Popular movies that have been banned completely include "Call Me By Your Name" for homosexual content, "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" for the depiction of ghosts, and even the family film "Christopher Robin" was banned after Chinese President Xi Jinping was mockingly compared to Winnie-the-Pooh on social media.

If a movie with questionable content is released in China, it's likely that the contentious scenes will be edited out.

Subtitled or Dubbed?

Many foreign films that are released in China are shown in their original language with Chinese subtitles. So if you want to see a Hollywood movie, the audio should be in English. But if you're an English speaker and you're interested in seeing a German movie, for example, it's going to be in German with Chinese subtitles.

Some theaters may also offer films that are dubbed in Chinese. If you're unsure, be sure to ask so you get tickets for what you want.

Some Chinese films will be shown with English subtitles. If it's a Chinese film you're after, make sure to ask if it will be subtitled in English. Not all showings will have English subtitles.

Arriving at the Theater

Buying tickets at the box office is pretty simple. If you haven't had someone else help you buy tickets in advance, then just go to the theater on the day you want to see the movie and purchase your tickets at the counter. You can usually buy tickets for a same-day showing but not for future dates. Tickets are reserved seating, so you won't have to worry about not getting a seat.

You want to be sure to arrive early. Cinemas in China generally don't play a string of previews before the movie starts, so the ticket time is when the actual film begins playing.

You'll also want to arrive early enough to explore the concession stand and pick up some refreshments. Popcorn and kettle corn are universal theater treats, but you'll also find some uniquely Chinese snacks. Popular items include dried plums, dried squid, and coconut juice to drink.

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