Beijing isn't short of big cinemas. Almost all big malls, like the Megabox in Sanlitun and Zhongguancun, have a multiplex with comfortable seats, huge screens and a decent range of snacks.
Going beyond standard multiplex fare, however, remains a different story. Arthouse and 'second run' cinemas are few and far between. That said, the city still offers some great venues for cinephiles seeking something beyond blockbusters at the mall.
Here are our favourites.
Best for a touch of luxury
A new vintage-style restaurant and cinema in Sanlitun, with luxury cinema screens. They focus on showing one or two great movies a week, and have appropriately-themed cocktails to boot.
Best for history buffs
Given that most cinemas here are trying their utmost to look like sleek, shiny cubes, it’s easy to forget that Beijing has a history of movie-going dating back over a century.
The one place that won’t let you forget it, however, is Daguanlou. Located in Dashilar, it was the first cinema in China and lays claim to the disputed title of oldest still-running cinema in the world. What’s more, it’s also the birthplace of Chinese film, thanks to the enterprising original owner, Ren Jingfeng, who produced The Battle of Dingjunshan in 1905 in order to attract audiences.
Like many spots in Dashilar, Daguanlou has now been heavily renovated. While this does sap some of its authentic character, it also means that the facilities maintain a modern standard rather than being rundown, while an exhibition of artefacts, including old film projectors and posters, keeps the historical feel intact.
Daguanlou also has some of the best prices in town, with tickets on the door only 45RMB for new releases, well below what most cinemas charge.
Best for accessible arthouse
Broadway Cinematheque Moma
When it comes to arthouse films in Beijing, there’s basically one place to go and that’s Broadway Cinematheque Moma (BC Moma to friends), northwest of Dongzhimen. We’re not being hyperbolic when we say that, because this cinema is probably the only place in Beijing that regularly screens current films that aren’t on wide release.
Luckily for film fans, it’s a fantastic venue, graced with a striking exterior (below) and a comfortable, spacious interior.
In addition to showing mainstream and arthouse films and hosting festival screenings, Broadway Cinematheque Moma also has a well-stocked DVD library.
If you’d rather read than watch, Kubrick, a bookstore affiliated with the theatre, is right next door.
Kubrick is one of the best book shops in Beijing in its own right, but also has a very solid selection of film-related books in English and Chinese. All of this means that an afternoon at Broadway Cinematheque Moma is a must for any Beijing cinephile.
Best for classics
China Film Archive
It’s hard to think of a more important place in Beijing for classic film than the China Film Archive.
The archive is the government bureau responsible for preserving Chinese film, and has played an admirable role in preservation work. Luckily for Beijingers, the China Film Archive also has a cinema where it regularly screens films and hosts events with major Chinese directors.
Granted, the building looks like a failed ’90s attempt at trendy modern architecture, the single-screen theatre has all the charm of an official banquet hall and the projected films sometimes have brief reel-changing or focus issues. So why would anyone go? Because it’s possibly the best place for true cinephiles in all of Beijing. For starters, the screen is gloriously large and those reel-changing issues are the result of using actual film projection rather than digital, with obvious benefits in terms of quality.
Then there are the films themselves. The archive is the only place in town to regularly screen both Chinese and international oldies, and boasts an eclectic selection ranging from recent blockbusters to decades-old classics. Even better, you get to see these classics on the big screen for only 20RMB. A trip to the China Film Archive, with its audience ranging from earnest students to elderly fans, will warm the heart of any cinephile who worries that people don’t care enough about classics.
Best for video art
There’s no popcorn to be had or cavernous screening rooms to sit in at Video Bureau. Instead, this austere white space tucked into a courtyard in Caochangdi simply offers a few flatscreen TVs and DVD players. The screening options consist not of traditional films, but of video art, showcasing works by artists who use film or video as a medium.
The Video Bureau is to Chinese video art what the China Film Archive is to film, providing an archive of works preserved on DVD. It’s the only gallery in Beijing dedicated to video art, and spotlights the work of different artists on rotation.
The bureau makes clear the fantastic variety of video art being made in China, ranging from works that are narratively comprehensible to purely experimental, from bare-bones digital video to luscious productions shot on 16 or 35mm film.
More great alternative cinemas
Beijing film clubs
Several Beijing art spaces and bars host regular film clubs.
Sunday series of Chinese classics, usually preceded by a short talk putting the film in context and followed by a discussion, is particularly worth a look for those looking for a way in to Chinese cinema while Dada's
free movie Mondays usually provides fun cult movies.
This cosy cafe-cum-cinema
hosts free film screenings most nights of the week, with an impressive selection that ranges from new releases to niche cult classics. They also have audience choice days, and two cats.
Italian Cultural Centre
Embassies and cultural centres across Beijing are another great way to see films away from the mainstream, though few have regular screenings.
Although most film lovers at the Italian Cultural Centre
are Chinese, the organisers and some attendees are definitely Mediterranean types. Subtitles might be in English or Chinese so be prepared for a multilingual minefield.
Expect to see films such as sci-fi L’ultimo Terrestre (The Last Land) or endearing romance La Vita Che Vorrei (The Life that I Would). The centre is conveniently located for a post-picture meal in Sanlitun Village.
French Cultural Centre
Both English and Chinese subtitles are shown, so don’t worry if you cannot understand the language of love. Usual selections range from classic film noir to new talents and coming-of-age films.
screens films on a theme each month that could be from bullfighting to football. This is worth knowing because Spanish language films, especially those from the Latin American world, are still rarely seen here in Beijing, even on pirated DVDs.
With fewer screenings than the French Cultural Centre, but more contemporary movies, the Instituto Cervantes dedicates itself to promoting Spanish and Latin American culture in Beijing. The famous institute sees a mixed crowd at screenings - artists, directors and authors from China and beyond. The modestly sized auditorium (90 people), makes getting there 10-15 minutes ahead of schedule a necessity.