The success of the Netflix series House of Cards lies in the details.
And a few episodes feature actors speaking in Chinese. That's one detail, though, the show doesn't get quite right.
My fellow binge watchers may remember the character Raymond Tusk speaking in heavily accented Mandarin Chinese during business calls in the show's first season. You wouldn't expect an American billionaire from St. Louis to be a fluent Chinese speaker.
But in the show's second season, there are a few roles that would call for actors to perform in Chinese fluently. So I called an expert – one of my Chinese language instructors in college, Kirsten Speidel, who was born in Taiwan and first learned Mandarin Chinese as a child. Now she teaches Chinese to students at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.
"Because I'm correcting people's pronunciation daily in class, I'm pretty critical when I hear Chinese in American movies [and TV shows]," she said.
Speidel hasn't seen the show yet, so I played her an audio clip of a businessman from China telling one of his staff members to bring over a spoon in Mandarin.
"Not a very good accent," she said. "[It] could be that he knows some Mandarin, but [it's] not very good pronunciation of each word."
But she praised another clip of a Mandarin translator speaking on the phone as "much more fluid and fluent."
The Details Of Language
If you think we're nitpicking, you're right.
But that only seems fair given that the show is obsessed with authenticity ("from the macro to the micro," the show's executive producer Beau Willimon recently told TV Guide).
Staff writer Kenneth Lin wrote the Mandarin dialogue for the show's Chinese characters.
"Obviously we're always trying to get as close to accurate as we can get," he says. "Whether or not [the characters] sound like, you know, natives of Beijing or not is certainly questionable, but you know, if you go to China, people have a lot of different accents."
In American TV shows and movies, characters from China are often played by actors of Asian descent who are not fluent Chinese speakers.
"The assumption is that nobody will notice or care," says film producer Janet Yang has worked for decades on films in both China and Hollywood, including The Joy Luck Club and a Chinese remake of High School Musical. "As it is, [some] people can't really distinguish between Chinese and Japanese and Korean and Vietnamese and any Asian, so Asians tend to get lumped together."
In 2005, Chinese-American actor Robert Chan filmed a small role as a mob boss from mainland China in Martin Scorsese's The Departed. You may have heard him yelling in Cantonese at Jack Nicholson's character Frank Costello. Chan, who grew up speaking Cantonese, says the role was originally written to speak in Mandarin.
"But I said, 'I'm sorry! My Mandarin is even worse than my Cantonese!' " he recalls. "So they ran my Mandarin by some people who actually speak [Mandarin] Chinese, and they said, 'That's really bad! Go with his Cantonese!' I guess it's not factually correct, but then, you know, that's movies. You suspend reality."
Acting 'In Chinese'
Yang says the reality facing Hollywood portrayals of Chinese characters is shifting.
"[Hollywood has] been, for the longest time, catering first to American audiences, and then the rest of the world just sort of gobbled up everything that was being made [in Hollywood]," she says.
But today there's more entertainment that's designed to work in both America and China. (See Iron Man 3 and Looper for recent examples.)
That means more demand for dialect coaches like Doug Honorof, who helps actors pull off the illusion of speaking Chinese fluently. The trick, Honorof says, isn't actually learning the language.
"It's really more about the physical part of it – what you do with your tongue, your lips and your jaw," he explains. "You try to make it appear that you actually can speak [the language] even though you really can't."
Still, Honorof says the level of authenticity depends in part on what the director wants.
"Sometimes they just want the mouth to move. For broad comedy, they're really not thinking about the authenticity so much," he says.
But some of Honorof's assignments involve days of extensive exercises with an actor with the end goal of not just sounding "Chinese."
"They have to be able to act in Chinese. You have to actually be able to own it so much that you can actually then just perform," he explains.
The Asian-American Actor's 'Toolkit'
Hollywood roles for actors of Asian descent are still mostly limited to immigrant or foreign characters.
For better or worse, Steven Eng, an actor who teaches voice and speech classes at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, says the ability to speak in foreign languages or accented English is "an essential part of the actor toolkit" particularly for Asian-American actors.
"We are constantly going in for roles that are characters from foreign countries, so it's necessary for us to not sound 'American,' regardless of the fact that we were born and raised in the U.S." explains Eng, who says he emphasizes to his students the importance of specificity when developing an accent.
For actor Andy Yu, Chinese language skills are a byproduct of being born in Hong Kong and growing up in Canada speaking both Mandarin and Cantonese dialects – skills that he's found to be especially important to get the nod from casting directors.
"One of the reasons they hire us is because they expect us to know our language and our culture really well," says Yu, who has also worked with actors as a Chinese dialect coach. "So we have to deliver."
Lines delivered even in a slightly-off accent can ruin the illusion for audiences in the know.
But this is one detail that hasn't stopped the second season of House of Cards from gaining an audience in China. Since its debut, it's the most-watched American show on China's Netflix equivalent, Sohu.