and Zhang Yimou – Week 37

A side benefit of my experiment is that by the time I’m done I may be hired by The New York Times as their official Chinese film critic. If not, I can at least be a top critic at (Hmmm, I wonder if that domain has already been registered. Let me check . . . No! It was available, so I just registered it myself – haha! If you don’t believe me, go ahead and search for the registration information at Best $5 I ever spent!

So let me know if you have any ideas for my new website, I’m not sure when I’ll actually set it up, but the basic idea, that I have been carefully crafting over the past few seconds, is to create a website specializing in reviews of Asian films.

Of course, I’m joking about becoming a film critic (not about the website), but I am gradually becoming a Chinese cinephile. I’ve begun paying more attention to Chinese actors and directors than I ever did with Hollywood. In the past, I’ve rarely chosen to watch movies primarily because of the cast, much less the director. However, as it becomes increasingly difficult for me, as a Westerner living in Brazil, to find high-quality films in Mandarin, I think I will begin doing just that: searching for all the films made by the directors I admire, and to a lesser extent starring the actors that I most enjoy watching.

Fortunately, I have my Chinese films table, which I have reworked to start analyzing—and to share with you—the cast and directors from the movies I’ve watched thus far. You can see the results at the end of this post.

I didn’t even realize until I began tabulating this data that I already have a clear favorite as a director: Zhang Yimou. Out of the 20 Chinese movies that I have watched so far and consider good cinema, an astounding seven of them were directed by Zhang. Here’s a short biography, mostly based on information available from Wikipedia.

Zhang was born in Shaanxi Province. His father had fought for Chiang Kai-Shek’s army during the Chinese Civil War, and his uncle and older brother fled to Taiwan, leading to problems for Zhang early in life. He worked as a farm laborer and in a textile mill for many years before studying photography and cinema and subsequently becoming a successful director.

Seven of his films have been the Chinese submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film and one was the Hong Kong submission; three of these were nominated, although none took first prize.

An interesting fact is that Zhang’s career grew in tandem with that of actress Gong Li. His first seven films, between 1987 and 1995, starred Gong Li as lead actress. By the time they were making Shanghai Triad together, in 1995, they were also romantically involved, but their personal and professional relationship ended with that film. Gong Li would appear in a Zhang Yimou film again only in 2006.

In the interim, Zhang made three great movies from my list with another gorgeous and talented actress, Zhang Ziyi: The Road Home, Hero, and House of Flying Daggers. Meanwhile, Gong Li continued her stellar acting career with other directors, including the film The Emperor and the Assassin, which I enjoyed and also recommend. Interestingly, she also worked alongside Zhang Ziyi in Memoirs of a Geisha—which generated intense controversy, since the geishas were played by star Chinese, and not Japanese, actresses in this Steven Spielberg film!

Curse of the Golden Flower reinstated Gong Li and Zhang Yimou’s professional relationship. Zhang’s latest movie, Coming Home (which I have not watched as it is apparently not yet available for download) also stars Gong Li. I can’t wait to see it!

Here is the list of my recommended Chinese movies in Mandarin. I’ve grouped the list by director. You will note that another director is quite prominent on my list, Ang Lee (a Taiwanese American). It’s surprising that more than half of my 20 recommended Chinese Mandarin-language films were directed by just two people. For those not yet familiar with my complete list, the aggregate score is based on a variety of factors—the most heavily weighted being my personal ratings, Rotten Tomatoes critics ratings, and IMDb users ratings.

Name of Movie Aggregate Score Order watched Year Director Star 1 Star 2
Hero 9.8 3 2002 Zhang Yimou Jet Li Ziyi Zhang
House of Flying Daggers 8.8 13 2004 Zhang Yimou Ziyi Zhang Takeshi Kaneshiro
Shanghai Triad 8.6 25 1995 Zhang Yimou Li Gong
The Road Home 8.4 10 1999 Zhang Yimou Ziyi Zhang
The Story of Qiu Ju 7.9 32 1992 Zhang Yimou Li Gong
Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles 7.2 11 2005 Zhang Yimou
Curse of the Golden Flower 7.0 27 2006 Zhang Yimou Li Gong Yun-Fat Chow
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 8.5 6 2000 Ang Lee Ziyi Zhang Yun-Fat Chow
The Wedding Banquet 8.4 30 1993 Ang Lee
Eat Drink Man Woman 8.2 31 1994 Ang Lee
Lust, Caution 7.8 28 2007 Ang Lee Tony Chiu Wai Leung
Journey to the West 9.1 8 2013 Stephen Chow
Shower 8.9 22 2000 Yang Zhang
The Emperor and the Assassin 8.3 14 1998 Kaige Chen Li Gong
Farewell my Concubine 7.6 1 1993 Kaige Chen Li Gong
A Touch of Sin 8.3 12 2013 Zhangke Jia
Fearless 7.9 9 2006 Ronny Yu Jet Li
Warlords 7.1 18 2007 Peter Chan Jet Li Andy Lau
Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon 7.0 19 2013 Hark Tsui
Red Cliff 2 6.9 16 2009 John Woo
Red Cliff 1 6.9 15 2008 John Woo Tony Chiu Wai Leung Takeshi Kanemoro

You can learn any language in an enjoyable 30 minutes a day – Week 36


I am learning Mandarin, and I am having a blast!

I am not taking any classes, I am not studying per se, and I have not even met a single Chinese person.

Last night, I watched Eat Drink Man Woman, and the night before, Wedding Banquet, two critically acclaimed Ang Lee comedies. (A couple of weeks ago, I enjoyed Ang Lee’s thriller Lust, Caution). On average, I spend just 30 minutes a day watching Mandarin movies or TV shows.

If I can learn Mandarin this way, you can learn any language, despite your busy schedule and limited energy. All you need to do is starting downloading movies in your desired language (with English subtitles is fine to begin) and find some shows on YouTube (I recommend children’s programming). In short, this is what my experiment sets out to prove.

No, this is not the fast way to learn a language[1]. The fast and most effective way to learn a language is to completely immerse yourself in it. Go live in a country where it is spoken, make a lot of native friends, listen to countless hours of radio and video, devour the literature, speak all you can, and get a private teacher to correct your structure, pronunciation, and the pages of essays you should write each day.

What? That is not an option for you? You are extremely busy and have a series of professional and personal commitments that keep you otherwise engaged from sun to sun and well into the night? Even the thought of scheduling regular class times with a teacher over Skype is daunting? Welcome to my world. I have three jobs, a family, and I study Law.[2]

Of course, like you, I do need a little time to wind down. I used to do that by playing pointless blitz chess online[3]. But watching films in Mandarin is my new way to relax at the end of a long day. I often do that by myself at one o’clock in the morning. However, depending on the genre, my wife will sometimes enjoy Chinese movies with me (at a more civilized hour). My daughter, who does not mind subtitles, will watch movies like Finding Nemo or Mulan with me in Mandarin.

I am not making fantastic progress. After eight months, I estimate that I understand about four percent of the dialogue in a brand-new Chinese soap opera episode, without subtitles. At this rate, at the end of six years, my listening comprehension will probably be at a low- to mid-intermediate level. However, I am having fun, so I am very likely to stick with it. Beyond my experiment, my guess is that within a decade I will understand Mandarin quite well, and within two decades, I will speak and read Mandarin fluently. I will have surmounted the ultimate language acquisition challenge without giving up anything except pointless online blitz chess. I will reap a series of benefits, such as improved brain power, deep insight into a culture that is incredibly rich and highly relevant to contemporary society, and renewed professional horizons.

So what are you waiting for? Start your own language acquisition adventure today and learn Mandarin, Arabic, Japanese, German, or might I recommend Brazilian Portuguese?


(Please note I have updated my Chinese films table and my graphs).










[1] In addition, at some point you will need to add other elements to learn to speak, read, and write. However, listening comprehension is an excellent first skill to develop, and mastering it will make acquiring the other skills comparatively easy down the line.

[2] I’m a full-time civil servant with managerial responsibilities and an intense travel schedule, in the evenings I provide support to my small business with its dozens of employees, and on the weekends I manage my tree farm. I’m my daughter’s driver to gym and school in the morning, spend time with my family in the evening, practice meditation daily, and stay in pretty good shape. Next semester I’ll be starting up my Law program at the University of Brasilia again.

[3] Which was likely downgrading rather than improving my game, since I didn’t take the time to play longer matches or to study at all. I was playing 5-minute time controls and even starting to play lightning chess (1-minute per side), which is especially inane. I do love and miss chess, but learning Mandarin is more rewarding for me.

A Word a Day Keeps the Textbooks Away – Week 30

I have introduced a new tool to help me focus on acquiring vocabulary while watching videos. If nothing else, it will give me a sense of psychological security that I am progressing, but I believe it will also help me make better use of my viewing time and better commit terms to memory.

The innovation is a word-of-the-day vocabulary list to use alongside video viewing. Each term from the list is spontaneously gleaned from one of the videos I watch, either based solely on clear contextual clues, such as Qiao Hu always provides, or context plus subtitles, in the case of movies. I must be very confident about the meaning of the term to include it in the list. This confidence derives from the video itself leaving no doubt or because I have previously come across that term in other videos and the latest occurrence simply confirms my interpretation.

The list provides just two bits of information. First, I make an approximate phonetic transcription of the term. Second, I note what the video source is, including the exact time or times that it appeared.

It is important to be clear about what the list does not include. There is no English translation and no other explanation of the term. There is no accompanying Mandarin character.

I will not study the vocabulary list in isolation, since my experiment precludes traditional study methods, separate from video viewing. Rather, I will use it when watching that video segment again, to reinforce the terms that I have learned. I am however repeating the day’s term mentally during the day, while doing other activities, with the purpose of ingraining it in my memory bank.

In sum, the list has three immediate goals:

  • Helping me to focus on deciphering new terms as I watch a video.
  • Serving as a guide to watching that same video other times in the future.
  • Repeating a term mentally even when I am not watching videos to reinforce it.

There is also a potential long-term use for this list. Perhaps, many years from now, when I have learned to not only understand Mandarin, but also speak and write it (post experiment), I may partner with native Mandarin speakers to develop an innovative Mandarin-teaching method, based largely on watching videos, of course.

In that case, this list, which by then should include at least 2,000 terms, may be of great value. My idea is that I would add Mandarin characters and then use the video snippets, perhaps associated with images, cartoons, etc. to teach many terms that are appropriate for beginners and that appear, as an example, in a specific classic Chinese film. After students spend an hour or more watching those snippets, repeating the pronunciation, and ideally getting corrections from a native speaker, they would then watch the film in its entirety, with a ready-made guide telling them when each term appears in the film. By this method, and by repeating the film a few times, beginning students may be able to learn a great deal of vocabulary with less effort, greater context (and thus great long term retention), and greater enjoyment than using traditional methods. They will also be acquiring insights into the culture and history of China through film.

This method would work well for any language. Perhaps, through the language institute I founded, I will develop it even earlier as an approach for acquiring languages such as English, Portuguese, French, and Spanish.

Due to the possibility of eventually pursuing such a project, which would include the development of proprietary language acquisition guides, I will not publish my entire list on this blog.

However, at this early stage I will be happy to share the beginnings of my list, still in a disorganized and unformatted Excel file, to give my readers a sense of what I am doing. Eventually, I hope to make a simple Access database that will allow me to easily produce a guide for myself for a specific movie, among other functionalities.

Mandarin Word a Day

In other news, during the past two weeks, I watched Curse of the Golden Flower for the first time and Fearless and A Touch of Sin for the second time. I decided to focus today’s post on my word-a-day list novelty, so I will leave my updated film table and reviews for next week’s post.

Briefly, however, I will say that these three movies are worth watching. Curse of the Golden Flower is worthwhile for the visuals and some good acting, although it’s a true tragedy (not my favorite genre) and I found the second half of the movie somewhat disappointing. I liked Fearless about the same as the first time I watched it and consider it a good, but not great, Chinese film. The true story that the movie depicts is worthwhile on a lot of levels. Finally, I liked A Touch of Sin even better on second viewing. Being a contemporary movie full of (indirect) social commentary and quite unlike the standard Wuxia / historical epic fare, I think it should not be missed by fans of Chinese cinema or Mandarin students in general.


Real live Mandarin – Week 27

I am currently on a brief work trip in Chile. I landed at the Santiago airport half an hour before my boss, so I waited for him in the international arrivals area. I noticed a group of Asians, also waiting for passengers, speaking in a foreign language. “Could it be Mandarin?” I thought to myself. In Brasilia, one does not run into groups of foreigners as a matter of course, as one would in more cosmopolitan cities like New York or London. Moreover, my language institute does not yet have a Mandarin program. So this was the first time I was hearing an Asian language spoken in real life since I began my experiment six months ago.

I drew a little closer to the group and started paying attention. The language sounded familiar and soon I felt that I was deciphering a few words. It was just like watching one of my Mandarin movies! Lots of wo’s and ni’s, among other familiar sounds. As with my videos, I did not understand what was being said, but I was very excited to pick out a few numbers in the midst of the conversation. Although it remains a guess, I think they may have been discussing money, because in addition to the numbers I heard the word tyen, which I believe can have various meanings, among them sword (probably not the case here), dear, and money.

To confirm my perception that I was listening to the language my ears have become increasingly familiar with this year—even without understanding it—I approached a friendly-looking, middle-aged woman in the group. The group’s informal, quasi Western demeanor and in the particular the presence of a Buddhist monk led me to think they were probably not from mainland China, though I don’t know if my underlying assumptions are accurate. In any case, whether on target or off the mark, my reasoning left one major hypothesis in my mind (although others were possible).

“Taiwan,” the woman answered, to my delight, since her single word confirmed my suppositions.

My first encounter with real live people speaking Mandarin was encouraging and reminded me of one of the insights that informs my entire project. When, in the past, I would explain to my English students the importance of watching movies in English (without subtitles), I would comment that high quality films or dramas with professional actors mimic daily language better than any other source. Music is a great way to practice a language for other reasons, and repetitive listening content made specifically for language learners has its place in certain methodologies. Audiobooks are a fantastic resource for more advanced students, as is talk radio or television news programs.

However, none of these sources matches films or quality television dramas in their approximation to how people speak in everyday situations. Granted, many of the movies I have watched are historical epics or wuxia and the language used revolves inordinately around royalty, fighting, and war. Accordingly, my first and best-consolidated sentence thus far is Wo pu sha ni or “I will not kill you.” While that sentence could be extremely useful in certain situations, it is undoubtedly not as important as “Where is the bathroom?” or “I want some food, please.” Nevertheless, even the war and wuxia films do contain a lot of standard conversation and in particular the back-and-forth, natural dialogue that you would not get in music, for example. In addition, some of the movies I have watched do mirror daily situations quite closely—for example, Shower, Slam, or Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles.

I still do not understand much Mandarin, and whether my method is efficient is up in the air. Regardless, my point here is that listening to people have a regular conversation seemed instantly familiar to me. It seemed like one of my movies, and that reveals one benefit, at least, of using authentic listening sources, and in particular cinema.

. . .

In other news, this week, because of my trip, I did little to no listening on most days. I only logged significant time on my flight from Rio de Janeiro to Santiago. I watched the beginning of Journey to the West and the beginning of Shanghai Triad again as I flew over the Andes.

Two New Movies and the Song – Week 26

This past week Camila Daya and I watched Beauty and the Beast dubbed in Mandarin twice (and she watched it couple of additional times in English). It’s a great learning source, just like The Little Mermaid, due to its high quality and “watchability”, the straightforward dialogues (not that I understand much of anything haha), and the catchy songs. On a side note, I noticed that buying some of these Mandarin-language Disney DVDs would be a good way to circumvent the lack of availability of Disney classics for regular purchase or legal download, since they have an English language option. I had tried buying Beauty and the Beast in the past for my daughter (regular edition, in English), but it seems to be a Disney marketing strategy to keep them off the market for long periods.


I also watched a new Chinese movie, Shanghai Triad. It’s an excellent movie and I would highly recommend it, as long as you’re not looking for something to lift your spirits or restore your faith in humanity. Set in 1930s Shanghai, it’s an authentic Chinese gangster movie with some interesting twists. It’s a different style from any of the other Chinese movies I’ve seen to date and the first of this genre. I recognized the actress Gong Li from The Emperor and the Assassin and I subsequently realized I’ve also seen her in Farewell My Concubine and Memoirs of a Geisha (the Japanese movie). Gong Li is clearly one of China’s top actresses from the past three decades and I’m sure I’ll see a few more movies from her filmography in coming months.


Finally, I am persevering with THE SONG. Of course, I’m referring to Make a Man out of You, Mandarin version, from Mulan. I’m happy to report that after three hours of listening to it (over a few weeks) I can now sing along with six whole lines! I would have expected to take about 30 minutes to learn six lines. But no matter … I will stick with it. Who knows how awful my pronunciation may be, but it sounds okay to me! I can sing along to these five lines without missing a syllable. In the video above, I wasn’t very focused, so there are grosser mistakes.

I’ve watched very little Qiao Hu, which is what I should be doing, but I do get a few minutes in from time to time and you can look forward to a new study guide in August.

I will soon have completed 120 hours or 10% of my planned viewing time for the experiment, which will be my first big milestone. If I do that by next week, in my next post I hope to take stock of my progress and reflect on my hypothesis and way forward.

(Ir)regular viewing – Week 19

Due to personal issues, in the past two weeks I haven’t watched Chinese on most days. From May 22 to June 1, I watched Mandarin videos on only 4 out of 11 days. However, I watched 3 movies (2 on one night), so my average time did not go down too much. I’m still at an average of close to 35 minutes per day at the 136th days of my experiment.

Still, I’m slightly frustrated because I think the best strategy (within the parameters of my experiment) would be to watch some Mandarin every single day, and Qiao Hu on most days. I’ve actually done the opposite recently—watched subtitled movies sporadically—and I don’t feel like I’ve progressed much.

Here’s a picture of me watching Qiao Hu with Camila Daya using me as a sofa so that she could watch, too.


She likes to watch videos in the oddest positions, and she really got a kick out of using me as a piece of furniture. I’ll often catch her upside down, with her head on the sofa seat and her legs up in the air, while watching TV. It’s hilarious.

As I’ve commented before, a huge upside to watching movies is that I feel like I’m becoming more and more familiar with Chinese culture. Of course I’m just barely scratching the surface, but I thought about writing about my insights thus far in this post. My general idea was to single out certain characteristics of Chinese culture that are either similar or different from Western culture. However, even if I were explicit about these “findings” being preliminary, I think this would be hugely premature. I just don’t have much to say as yet.

I’m very hesitant about coming to sweeping conclusions even about the culture of countries I’ve lived in for a decade or more (Brazil and the United States), so commenting on even preliminary findings about the culture of a country I’ve never even visited or studied, but only caught glimpses of by watching a handful of subtitled movies, would probably be downright silly.

Instead, I’d like to ask my readers to begin the discussion. For those of you who have lived in China or otherwise had contact with the culture, what are your impressions? Are the Chinese essentially different from or the same as Europeans, Americans, Latin Americans, other nationalities, etc.? In what ways? I will give you my own impressions, however superficial and limited they might be, when I get farther along in my experiment.

Taiping Rebellion and War of Canudos – Week 18

The classic Chinese films I’ve watched in Mandarin are mostly historical war epics. Fortunately, I enjoy this genre. Most recently, I watched The Warlords, which happens to be free on Amazon Prime. I enjoyed it, and would call it a good movie, if far from the quality of Hero or even The Emperor and the Assassin. I’m also glad to watch this genre because I gain insights into Chinese history.

The Warlords seems to be historical fiction, but to understand the context, I had to look up the Taiping Rebellion. I will admit that I was completely ignorant about this portion of Chinese history, which is amazing considering that at least 20 million people died in this 19th-century military conflict. This figure is astonishing. Consider that in the American Civil War, which cost more American lives than World War I, World War II, and the Vietnam War combined, about 620 thousand people lost their lives (only 3% the amount in the Chinese conflict). The Taiping Rebellion, also a civil war, occurred in the same historical period as the American Civil War, though it lasted about three times longer.

The Taiping Rebellion also reminded me a bit of a violent internal conflict in Brazilian History, the War of Canudos, though, again, the Chinese conflict completely dwarfs the Brazilian one in terms of sheer loss of life. The War of Canudos was also a 19th-century episode (in this case, end of century) inspired by a spiritual leader who attained the status of a prophet. Antonio Conselheiro, having suffered personal disappointments, wandered the backlands of the Brazilian northeast for many years before settling down and attracting a large community of followers. Eventually, the federal government became alarmed and sent successive military campaigns to destroy the community. The military was rebuffed on multiple occasions by the ragtag group of ardent, if malnourished followers until it finally succumbed to the modern weaponry, including machine guns, of a large and professional expeditionary force.

Similarly, The Taiping Rebellion was initiated by Hong Xiuqan, a poor but studious Chinese man who suffered personal disappointments, in particularly failing to pass extremely difficult imperial examinations, before becoming a prophetic spiritual leader. Hong came into contact with Christian teachings, and a number of visions led him to proclaim that he was the younger brother of Jesus and that God had given him the mission of destroying wrongful forms of worship, including Confucianism and Buddhism. Like Antonio Conselheiro, his tens of thousands of followers rang alarm bells in the central government, which dispatched professional troops to destroy the movement. These troops were handily defeated, as their Brazilian counterparts would be later by Conselheiro’s followers. A key difference seems to be that Hong became a more proactive political figure, introducing social and bureaucratic reforms that appealed to a wider public, and even went on the offensive militarily. As a result, the conflict became much broader and longer lasting.

This post has little to do with learning Mandarin, but I hope it shows how my experimental method can expand one’s cultural and intellectual horizons, in particular through viewing quality Chinese movies.