How To Go To The Movies in China

There are thousands of ways that China is different from Canada, but one of the universal activities we’ve enjoyed is going to the movies. While the selection of movies available in China is limited to family-friendly animated movies and monster flicks, there’s still something so comforting about kicking back in a dark theatre for a few hours and forgetting about the outside world.

However, when living abroad, even something as simple as going to the movies comes with its share of adjustments, so here are our three biggest tips to make movie-going in China easy:

Tip Number #1: Buy tickets through WeChat or Alipay

If you’re spending any prolonged amount of time in China, you’ll probably have some kind of payment app (WeChat or Alipay) enabled on your phone, which will come in super handy for buying tickets to all your favourite movies.

When we went to see the new live-action adaptation of Aladdin, we naively thought we could waltz up to some kind of kiosk to buy our tickets to avoid as much awkward communication as possible. After scouring the place for a couple minutes and finding no such machine, we tried our luck at the food counter.

After some broken dialogue, much pointing and gesturing, we tried to buy two tickets with our foreign credit cards, but they were promptly declined. One of the employees suggested we buy the tickets through WeChat, but at that point, we didn’t have funds in our WeChat account.  We finally handed over 120 yuan in cash, which is almost equal to what we’d pay in Canada, but were able to enter the theatre.

After making it into the movie theatre, we searched through WeChat to see if we could find what the employee had mentioned.  In almost no time, we located the movie ticket program and found that our tickets were half the price of what we paid! So we learned our lesson and always buy our tickets in the app now.

WeChat app screen for purchasing movie tickets.

To get the tickets: Open the WeChat app and hit the “Me” icon in the bottom right corner and then “WeChat Pay”. Scroll down to see programs powered by third-party operators. Click on the icon of the little red cat’s face that says “Movie Tickets”. From there, the text will be in Chinese, but you should be able to find the poster of the movie you want. It will show you showtimes for the theatres nearest you. You can use the location icon to find the theatre you want, and blindly tap through the screens until you pay with your WeChat Pay balance.

Complete the same process in AliPay but the movie program is on the home page and the red icon has glasses instead of a cat face. Tapping through blindly still applies.

Tip Number #2: You need to print your tickets in advance

Godzilla: King of the Monsters movie poster in Chinese.

The second time we went to the movies, it was to see the new Godzilla and this time we knew what we were doing! We purchased our tickets (for much less than 120 yuan, we might add) through the WeChat program and walked into our regular Wanda Plaza cinema. We thought we would just have to show the door person our phone confirmation but he ended up guiding us back to a machine that prints paper tickets.

All we had to do was scan the QR code that popped up after we purchased the tickets through WeChat, and they printed – no translating or gesturing necessary. If in doubt, just start holding your phone screen in front of scanners on these machines until something happens.

Tip Number #3: Check that the movie is actually in English

Most of the films that are coming from outside of China are provided in English. After seeing Aladdin in English with Chinese subtitles and being told by some other expats that this was the norm, we assumed all movies must be the same. And when we went to Godzilla, the same rang true. However…

We wanted to see the remake of The Lion King (clearly we’re suckers for old Disney remakes), and it came out earlier in China than the rest of the world so we were in luck! They are big fans here. There’s merch in every mall and Rose had even remarked that when looking to play The Lion King soundtrack for one of her classes, she found a version in Mandarin.

We checked for tickets on WeChat.  There were two theatres close to us; the first only 500m away with tickets at 50 yuan each, and another about a kilometer away with tickets only 26 yuan a piece—half the price. We generally like to go with the cheaper option so we rolled up to the new cinema, printed our cheap tickets, ordered a couple of small ice creams without any trouble, and entered the theatre.

The movie started, the iconic shot of the sun rising on an African plain, and loud Zulu words being sung. We were geared up, expecting to hear the first lyrics, “From the day we arrived…” but instead heard a completely different language, which of course was Mandarin.

Lion King movie poster in Chinese.

We looked at each other with amusement and disbelief. How could we have been so stupid? Of course the movie would be in Chinese. That would explain all the young children in the theatre, who presumably couldn’t speak English at a Disney-movie level.

We decided to stay, being familiar with the story enough to make it worth while. The music was still as fun as it was in English and while it would have been fun to hear the famous English voices cast in the movie, this was an experience in itself. When else in our lives will we watch The Lion King in Chinese?

Moral of the story: If you find yourself going to the movies in China, stick to the Wanda Cinema locations. In our experience, and the experiences of some friends, they always play the movie in English with the Chinese subtitles below. You might have to pay more than some other local theatres but the cost might be worth it, depending on your outlook.

We hope this helped and if you’re an avid movie-goer, hopefully you can avoid some of the first mistakes we made. Otherwise, happy viewing!

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