Mandarin Chinese in Western Movies

Dec 27, 2018 | East meets West

For the past two weeks, we’ve been exploring Mandarin Chinese spoken by actors and actresses in Western TV Shows. Some of them turned out to speak Chinese really well! So today, we’re going to turn to movies – and explore Mandarin Chinese in Western movies.

The questions are the same: What phrases did the characters use? How good was their Chinese? And especially, how good was their pronunciation? Could native speakers understand them?

Ready… Steady… Go!


Mandarin Chinese in ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’

 Mandarin Chinese in Western Movies

The Day the Earth Stood Still (地球停转之日 Dìqiú Tíngzhuǎn Zhī Rì) is a 2008 American science fiction thriller film, a loose adaptation of the 1951 film of the same name.It’s a story of an alien who arrived to our planet with a warning: if wars and destruction do not stop, planet Earth will be destroyed, as it poses a threat to the rest of the Universe. The cast was impressive: Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly, Kathy Bates.


Keanu Reeves Speaks Chinese

Mandarin Chinese in Western Movies

There is a part in which Keanu Reeves (Klaatu) meets with an old Chinese man (Mr. Wu, another alien) and they speak Chinese. Let’s see what they are talking about:

Klaatu: 我们和你失去联系很久了。Wǒmen hé nǐ shīqù liánxì hěnjiǔle. (‘You’ve been out of contact for a long time.’)

Mr. Wu: 我任务很危险的。Wǒ rènwù hěn wéixiǎn de. (‘I had a dangerous assignment.’) 这个地方不是很友善。Zhège dìfāng bùshì hěn yǒushàn. (‘This is hostile territory.’)

Klaatu: 我注意到了。Wǒ zhùyì dàole. (I’ve noticed.) 我以为能和他们讲道理 Wǒ yǐwéi néng hé tāmen jiǎng dàolǐ. (I was hoping I could reason with them.)

Mr. Wu: 我想他们不需要爱好和平的。Wǒ xiǎng tāmen bù xūyào àihào hépíng de. (I’m afraid they are not a reasonable race.) 我跟他们一起生活七十年了 Wǒ gēn tāmen yīqǐ shēnghuó qīshí nián le. (I’ve been living amongst them for seventy years now.) 我很了解他们。 Wǒ hěn liǎojiě tāmen. (I know them well.)

Klaatu: 还有呢? Hái yǒu ne? (And?)
Mr. Wu:  任何规劝都是没用的。Rènhé guīquàn dōu shì méi yòng de. (Any attempt to intercede with them would be futile.) 他们具有毁灭性,又不肯改变。 Tāmen jùyǒu huǐmiè xìng, yòu bù kěn gǎibiàn. (They are destructive, and they won’t change.)

Klaatu:  这是你对他们的正式评估吗? Zhè shì nǐ duì tāmen de zhèngshì pínggū ma? (Is that your official report?)

Mr. Wu: 最可悲的,是他们明明知道结果 Zuì kěbēi de, shì tāmen míngmíng zhīdào jiéguǒ。(The tragedy is, they know what’s going to become of them.) 感觉到了 Gǎnjué dàole. (They sense it.) 不过他们不知道怎么办。 Bùguò tāmen bù zhīdào zěnme bàn. (But they can’t seem to do anything about it.)

Klaatu: 那就这么解决吧。Nà jiù zhème jiějué ba (It’s decided then.) 我会尽快启动程序的。 Wǒ huì jǐnkuài qǐdòng chéngxù de. (I’ll begin the process as soon as possible.) 我们做好离开的准备。 Wǒmen zuò hǎo líkāi de zhǔnbèi. (We should make preparations for our departure.)


How good is his Chinese, really?

Keanu tries very hard to say his lines right. His tones are good, and the pronunciation ain’t bad overall. It was still a bit hard for Chinese audience to understand what he said, but Keanu put a lot of effort into it! So despite the accent, we believe his Chinese is really good.

Some might think he is just good at learning and remembering his lines; but Keanu Reeves actually has some Chinese ancestry. According to his own words: “My grandmother is Chinese and Hawaiian so I was around Chinese art, furniture, and cuisine when I was growing up.”. That means, he’d really had some experience speaking Chinese before. Good job, Keanu!

Chinese level: ★★★★☆


Mandarin Chinese in ‘Limitless’

Mandarin Chinese in Western Movies

Limitless (永无止境 Yǒng wú zhǐ jìng) is a 2011 American science fiction thriller, directed by Neil Burger. The plot is simple: Eddie Morra is a struggling author who lives in New York City. His girlfriend Lindy, frustrated with the lack of progress over his book contract, breaks up with him. Eddie encounters Vernon, the brother of his ex-wife Melissa, who gives Eddie a sample of a new drug called NZT-48. Then, the movie stars to turn into something like “Lucy”, but without Scarlett Johansson.


Bradly Cooper Speaks Chinese

Mandarin Chinese in Western Movies

There is a scene in which the main character, Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) meets Lindy at a Chinese restaurant, where he orders lunch in fluent Mandarin. He speaks it in a proud and show-off manner, obviously wanting to surprise Lindy. Yet only he thinks that he speaks Chinese well. Or if he speaks it at all. Let’s go through the whole Chinese dialog with the waiter here and see what is Eddie trying to say. (And I have to tell you that in is almost impossible without subtitles. He’s trying to order sweet chicken):

Eddie Morra: 炸酱面、两个葱油饼、青葱烧龙虾。Zhá jiàng miàn, liǎng gè cōng yóubǐng, qīngcōng shāo lóngxiā. (Noodles with fried bean sauce, two onion oil cakes, spring onion roast lobster.) 千万不要给我味精! Qiān wàn bùyào gěi wǒ wèijīng! (Absolutely do not give me MSG!)

Waiter: 围巾会保护你的衣服。Wéijīn huì bǎohù nǐ de yīfú. (A scarf will protect your clothes.)

Eddie Morra: 可是不会保护我的肮脏手!  Kěshì bù huì bǎohù wǒde āngzāng shǒu! (But it won’t protect my dirty hands!)


It planned to be a joke in Mandarin. And it is really funny, if you say the whole joke properly. Not in our case. The whole joke is built on Chinese pronunciation. The thing is that these words “msg” and “scarf” have the same pronunciation but different tones: wèijīng for msg, and wéijīn for scarf.

The waiter jokes that a scarf (instead of msg, what Cooper really means) would protect his clothes whilst eating the lobster. Cooper says that it wouldn’t protect his dirty hands. See the difference? It can work out only if you know how to say it properly. The joke was lost here. Even more, this scene has two jokes! The other one is Cooper’s mentioning his “dirty hands”, which obviously has a figurative meaning. But this joke can’t work because the expression “dirty hands” don’t have this figurative meaning in Chinese. Adding the awful Cooper’s Chinese pronunciation, we get an epic fail! And that’s a pity for such a good movie.


How good is his Chinese, really?

Of course, the Chinese audience couldn’t understand a word Eddie Morra said in this scene. They couldn’t help laughing. We are sure that Bradley Cooper put a lot of effort into this movie, but when it comes to his Chinese skills – he hasn’t really succeeded.

Chinese level: ★☆☆☆☆


Mandarin Chinese in ‘Batman Begins’

 Mandarin Chinese in Western Movies

Batman Begins (《蝙蝠侠:侠影之谜》Biānfúxiá: Xiá yǐng zhī mí) is a 2005 superhero movie based on DC Comics Character Batman, directed by Christopher Nolan. This movie explores the origins of the Batman legend and the Dark Knight’s emergence in Gotham.


Christian Bale Speaks Chinese

Mandarin Chinese in Western Movies

There’s only one scene in which Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) speaks Chinese. It’s just a short phrase, which he said to the policemen when they found him:

我不是犯人! Wǒ bùshì fànrén! (I’m not a criminal!)


How good is his Chinese, really?

It’s really short, so perhaps it would be unfair to test Christian Bale’s Chinese skills based on it. But we must say – he said it perfectly well! The pronunciation, the tones and the intonation are all good. Good job, Christian Bale! Maybe someday, Batman will speak more Chinese on the big screen.

Chinese level: ★★★★☆


To learn about more movies and more Western actors speaking Chinese, read Mandarin Chinese in Western Movies, Part 2.

What movies have we missed?

Share in the comments below – or tweet us at @thatsmandarin.


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