For a superhero show about split personalities and masked identities, from a group of multicultural filmmakers, producers, and international talents, audiences expect more but the latest episode from Disney+ Moon Knight is a terrible slap in the face to the Chinese, and Mandarin speakers everywhere.
In the second episode of Marvel Studios’ latest superhero series on the Disney streaming service, Arthur Harrow (Ethan Hawke) is speaking with Marc Spector (Oscar Isaac) and showing how he is helping the impoverished community, and supporting them by teaching them new things.
One of those he’s helping steps forward, and Harrow starts speaking to her in a different language, but from the get-go, it’s a language that no viewer would understand.
After a few more exchanges in the strange language, Spector asks Harrow, in English, if they were speaking Chinese, and Harrow replies that it is actually Mandarin they were speaking.
In what galaxy?
You have got to appreciate the precision that Harrow brings, by pointing out Spector’s error, but whatever gibberish Harrow was spouting, it wasn’t Mandarin, nor was it any of the many dialects that make up the Chinese language.
From all across the world, Chinese-speaking audiences started questioning whatever it was that was spoken and displayed on the show, because it wasn’t Mandarin. For the uninitiated, the Chinese language is a group of languages spoken by ethnic Han Chinese, and there are many different dialects, including Cantonese, Hakka and Mandarin.
For Harrow to specifically call out that he was speaking Mandarin means Chinese speakers know which dialect he’s speaking, but whatever was spoken on the show wasn’t it.
If you must know, we watched the scene several times and we can guess the exchange. Harrow was challenging his friend to a friendly soccer game, and she replies that he will lose again, to which Harrow replies, you’ll die (lose) for sure. The thing is that, Mandarin is a precise language, so instead of saying, “Let’s kick together”, Harrow basically says, “Let’s fight together.” The whole dialogue sounds like it was written in English, pushed through Google Translate and the actors were basically reading and memorising lines off a badly written dialogue, and mispronouncing almost every word.
Turning on Simplified Chinese subtitles reveal the actual text –
In the first frame, we have Harrow saying, in effect, “What are you doing? Let’s play again.”
But it doesn’t quite match the words he’s saying.
In response, Jamila (Miriam Nyarko), replies, “You’re gonna lose again”
It’s rough but juxtaposed against the subtitles, it does match up.
Lastly, Harrow ends off with, “You’re done for, Jamila, you’re done for.” Or, word for word “You’re dead Jamila, you’re dead.” which comes off as more sinister.
For Traditional Chinese, nothing new is revealed contextually, some words are changed but the meaning remains about the same –
Harrow really does need to work on his pronunciation which does the scene no favours.
And this is not the first time that Hollywood has provided a lacklustre display of Chinese representation, from the yellowface depictions in the 1950s, the Asian caricatures that dominated the movie and TV industry in the 70s and 80s, to the present lack of Asian roles in Hollywood.
But the one thing that has always baffled and infuriated audiences is Hollywood’s inability to grasp the Chinese language, and we’re not even talking Chris Tucker in Rush Hour here. Hollywood just cannot get it right, and even the best of the best falter, including Bradley Cooper in Limitless, Keanu Reeves in The Day the Earth Stood Still, to Christian Bale in Batman Begins.
But in some of those attempts, some effort was made by the actors to be phonetically correct, so that Chinese audiences could at least decipher what was being said.
Not so with Moon Knight, because the few lines of dialogue, which made the Klingon langauge sound like poetry, were spoken as gibberish. The pronunciation was wrong across multiple words, and there was apparently no one on set to correct them.
And while this could be regarded as just another lame attempt by Hollywood, one must call out series director and executive producer Mohamed Diab for this blatant insult.
The irony here is that prior to the release of Moon Knight, Diab did several rounds of interviews where he called out Wonder Woman 1984 and its director Patty Jenkins for its poor depiction of Egypt and the Middle East in that film.
In an interview with Deadline, he knocks the DC Comics movie for how Western cinema still has a way to go in its depictions of his native Egypt.
“You never see Cairo. You always see Jordan shot for Cairo, Morocco shot for Cairo, sometimes Spain shot for Cairo. This really angers us,” Diab was quoted as saying.
In another interview with Hollywood Reporter, Diab specifically mentions how disrespectful little attention is often paid to details in Hollywood productions, and while permit issues prevented him from filming the series in Egypt, he mentioned that he added a number of Egyptian creatives to help achieve his vision in the show.
What? Did that preclude him from hiring a native Chinese speaker, Chinese language expert or Chinese coach to train the cast to actually speak Mandarin? Here he is shaming Patty Jenkins and Hollywood for typecasting Egypt, for effectively insulting his heritage, and in the next moment, he goes around to do the very same thing that he accused the industry of doing, by doing the very same to the Chinese.
Dear Mr Diab, we don’t know what message or goal you were trying to convey with that sequence, but it’s a disgrace to us Chinese. You have two actors spouting rubbish, and tried to pass it off as Mandarin, and that doesn’t make sense to us.
Now, some might argue that of the six-episodes of Moon Knight, Diab only directs four of them, and Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson directed this particular episode, but Diab is also the show’s executive producer, so his responsibility for the series cannot be shirked by stating that he had no involvement in directing, because as the producer, his responsibility is to the whole production. Did he not read the scripts, participate in the shoot, watch the dailies, get involve in the editing or think maybe to ask a Chinese friend if they got it right?
It’s not as if Disney hasn’t made successful and impactful productions based on Asian or more specifically Chinese culture. Wasn’t anyone who worked on Shang-Chi available? Or how about the folks at Turning Red?
What can Chinese audiences do but simply laugh it off as another lame attempt by Hollywood to involve Chinese culture in some way, but do it in a half baked manner? For studios trying to appeal to a global audience, we know bullshit when we see it.
And for Diab, don’t take it personally, but if you want to call out someone for doing something disrespectful, maybe try not to do the same thing in the next instant?