Mandarin Chinese in Western Movies, Part II

Jan 2, 2019 | East meets West


It’s no secret how valuable it is to watch Chinese movies to improve your Mandarin. But did you know that Western actors sometimes speak Chinese in Western movies, too? In our previous post, we looked at Keanu Reeves, Bradley Cooper and Christian Bale speaking Chinese in The Day the Earth Stood Still, Limitless, and Batman Begins, respectively.

Let’s continue the journey of exploring Mandarin Chinese in Western movies!

And today, let’s look at Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, From Paris with Love, and Pearl Harbor.


Mandarin Chinese in ‘Snow Flower and the Secret Fan’

Mandarin Chinese in Western Movies

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a 2011 historical drama based on the novel of the same name written by Lisa See. A story is set in nineteenth-century China, and focuses around two girls – who develop their own secret code as a way to contend with the rigid social norms imposed on women. Among all the different actors, there’s one character you just can’t miss. Hugh Jackman is playing the male lead! Even more so, he’s not just acting – he’s also singing. In Chinese!


Hugh Jackman Speaks Chinese

The movie was shot in Shanghai, and it’s a beautiful story about friendship explored across centuries. In one scene, Hugh Jackman plays a nightclub owner, who likes to casually stand up and sing songs. The song he sang was called 《给我一个吻 Gěi Wǒ Yī Ge Wěn》 (“Give me a kiss”). It was really hard for the actor to learn it – it took him two months! He said that he would never forget this song, as he put so much effort into remembering it. “To be honest, [director] Wayne [Wang] said he couldn’t understand a word I was saying,” Jackman says.

Mandarin Chinese in Western Movies

Chinese audience liked his artistry and energy. But they couldn’t help noticing that Jackman’s pronunciation was far from perfect. The rhyme was good, but they way he pronounced words (without paying attention to the tones) – was a bit of a problem. For instance, according to Chinese netizens, one simple phrase from this song “给我一个吻,可以不可以 Gěi wǒ yīgè wěn, kěyǐ bù kěyǐ” (“Give me one kiss, can you?”) transformed into “给我一个碗,膈应不膈应 Gěi wǒ yīgè wǎn, gé yìng bù gé yīng” (“Give me a bowl, do you dislike it or what?)”.

Let’s look at the actual lyrics of this song now:

给我一个吻,可不可以 Gěi wǒ yīgè wěn, kěyǐ bù kěyǐ (Give me a kiss, can’t you?)

吻在我的脸上,留个爱标记 Wěn zài wǒ de liǎn shàng, liú gè ài biāojì (A kiss on my face, it leaves a mark of love)

给我一个吻,可不可以 Gěi wǒ yīgè wěn, kěyǐ bù kěyǐ (Give me a kiss, can’t you?)

吻在我的心上,让我想念你 Wěn zài wǒ de xīn shàng, ràng wǒ xiǎngniàn nǐ (A kiss in my heart, let me miss you)

纵然瞪着你眼睛,你不答应 Zòngrán dèngzhe nǐ yǎnjīng, nǐ bù dāyìng (Even when I look into your eyes, you still don’t agree)

我也要向你请求,绝不灰心 Wǒ yě yào xiàng nǐ qǐngqiú, jué bù huīxīn (I have to say something to you too, always keep your chin up)


How good is his Chinese, really?

So, what’s the verdict? Hugh Jackman is a great actor and singer. He played in tons of different films and musicals. He’s one of the most recognized Hollywood actors. But… His Chinese skills really need some work. His charisma and voice are beyond doubt, but the way he pronounces Chinese words is a bit of a problem. Sorry, Hugh!

Chinese level: ★★☆☆☆


Mandarin Chinese in ‘From Paris with Love’

Mandarin Chinese in Western Movies

From Paris with Love is a 2010 action film starring John Travolta and Jonathan Rhys Meyers. It’s a story about young CIA agent, James Reece (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), who has a cushy day job, but dreams of an exciting life in the field. When the agency offers him his first big-time assignment, James must team with crazed lone wolf Charlie Wax (John Travolta) to stop a terrorist bombing plot.


Jonathan Rhys-Meyers Speaks Chinese

There was a scene in which two men, during their investigation, run into the Chinese mafia, and try to get some valuable information from them. During a short scene, where Wax (Travolta) is trying to make their boss talk, James (Meyers) starts to translate into Chinese what Wax is saying in order to convince the man. And James’s Chinese turned out to be.. not as good as he thinks. Yet his pronunciation in not bad, and he’s really paying attention to the tones! But. It only seems that he is speaking everything right.

Mandarin Chinese in Western Movies

The first phrase turned out to be a bit clumsy, though the intonation is really good. In his first few phrases we can understand only some words, like “毒贩子 dúfàn zi” (dealer) or “送到北京 sòng dào běijīng (send to Beijing)”.

But the last two phrases he says sound really good. Meyers still can surprise us. Let’s have a look at these two phrases:

只要你告诉我谁是你的供货人。Zhǐyào nǐ gàosù wǒ shéi shì nǐ de gōnghuòrén.” (All you’ve got to tell me is just who your supplier is.)

王先生,想想你的孩子。Wáng xiānshēng, xiǎng xiǎng nǐ de háizi.” (Mr. Wang, think about your children.)


How good is his Chinese, really?

Surprisingly, his Chinese (in the second part) is not bad, his pronunciation, intonation and tones are not perfect, but native speakers can understand what he is saying without too much difficulty. That’s really strange because the first few phrases are really clumsy and you can understand only some words.

Chinese level: ★★★☆☆


Mandarin Chinese in ‘Pearl Harbor’

Mandarin Chinese in Western Movies

Pearl Harbor is a 2001 American romantic war drama directed by Michael Bay. “Pearl Harbor” tells the story of how the Japanese staged a surprise attack on an Americans in 1941. This movie got bad ratings, but we aren’t going to comment on it here – let’s look at the Chinese phrases you can hear during this movie!


American Soldier Speaks Chinese

Mandarin Chinese in Western Movies

Unfortunately, there’s only one Chinese phrase we can actually hear in Pearl Harbor. One of the American soldiers says to Chinese villagers:

“我是美国人” Wǒ shì měiguó rén (I’m American)

And straight after that, he explains what he said to his men. The most interesting thing about this scene is, it really happened during the World War II. After a Tokyo air raid, most of the planes had to perform a forced landing in China’s southeastern Zhejiang, Jiangxi, Fujian, Anhui provinces as they ran out of fuel trying to reach a recovery airfield in China. As they were surrounded by Chinese villagers, who couldn’t understand if they were villains or friends, the crew member really said this phrase – in order to receive help and return to their country. Chinese residents helped the American pilots selflessly upon realizing they were friends, not enemies. History is our witness: a foreign language spoken in the right place at the right time can save lives!


How good is his Chinese, really?

It’s difficult to say if his Chinese is good enough, based on only one phrase. But we must say – the American Soldier said it quite well! The pronunciation, the tones and the intonation are all not bad at all.

Chinese level: ★★★★☆


Next week, we will turn to Marvel movies!  But now, as usual, it’s time to hear from you.

What other Western TV shows have you seen featuring Mandarin Chinese spoken by non-Chinese actors?

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


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