One of the best ways to learn Chinese from movies is to pick up useful sentence patterns. By learning sentence patterns, you can adapt and re-work those patterns to suit other real-life situations.
The process looks like this:
Pick a movie you like. Chinese genres available on Netflix include martial arts, historical drama, romance, action and comedy.
Listen carefully to the dialogue. Pick out key sentence patterns that you understand well. Pause and replay when needed.
Learn the sentence pattern, and then revamp the sentence pattern for other contexts.
Now, let's try out this method with five Chinese movies!
"Empress in the Palace" — Learn Complaints and Flattery
Hear, hear! The Emperor is auditioning new concubines. When new recruits enter the harem, however, jealousies and competitions begin to boil.
This is the seductive plot of "Empress in the Palace," which is actually a TV series with over 70 episodes. Netflix offers episode 1, but subsequent episodes can be found on YouTube.
Let's check out some sentence patterns we can hack from "Empress in the Palace."
A) Who's to blame?
Have you ever wanted to say, "He's got nothing to do with it, it's all her fault"? Here's something similar from the movie:
huáng shàng bù guǎn zhè gè，dōu shì huáng hòu niáng niáng dìng de.
The king doesn't care about this. It was all the queen's decision.
Use this same pattern in speech by substituting other actors.
wǒ bà bù guǎn zhè gè, dōu shì wǒ mā jué dìng de.
My dad's got nothing to do with this. It was all my mom's decision.
B) Yes it's great, but…
Here's how to follow up a compliment with a complaint.
yǒu shì yǒu, dì fāng dōu hái gān jìng yǎ zhì, jiù shì piān le diǎn, yuǎn le diǎn, xiǎo le diǎn.
Yes, the place is clean and elegant. But it's a bit out of the way, a bit far and a bit small.
The pattern [adjective] + 了点 means "a little [adjective]." For example, "a little small" is 小了点 (xiǎo le diǎn). Adding 了点 can be a polite way to complain or criticize something.
You can use the same pattern to give a negative comment while still affirming the good.
zhè jiàn wài tào tǐng hǎo kàn de, jiù shì duǎn le diǎn, jiù le diǎn.
This jacket is quite stylish actually. It's just a bit short, and a bit worn.
C) Over-the-top flattery
Due to its historical and royal setting, "Empress in the Palace" contains a lot of literary dialogue, including many Shakespearean-like phrases to praise a woman's beauty.
niáng niáng guó sè tiān xiāng, cái shì zhēn zhèng líng rén jù mù. yíng huǒ zhī guāng, rú hé yǔ niáng niáng míng zhū zhēng huī?
Your highness is the hue and fragrance of the nation. All eyes are drawn to you. How can the glimmer of fireflies be compared to your highness' pearl-like radiance?
There are several poetic phrases here. 国色天香 (guó sè tiān xiāng) means a beauty so great, it adds color and fragrance to nation. 令人剧目 (líng rén jù mù) means a beauty that's captivating. 萤火之光何与明珠争辉 (yíng huǒ zhī guāng rú hé yǔ míng zhū zhēng huī) is a phrase of self-deprecation, meaning, "I'm not fit to be compared with your beauty."
These flowery phrases are fit for a sappy love letter, or a friendly tease.
"Firestorm" — Express Love and Other Complications
In "Firestorm," crime and natural disasters threaten Hong Kong, while an ex-con and his girlfriend test their love.
Note that his movie features both Cantonese and Mandarin dialogue.
Here are some adaptable phrases from the movie for your painfully complicated relationship moments.
A) Please don't cry
Sometimes, you just need your girlfriend to stop crying.
Movie Quote 1:
bù yào kū le hǎo bù hǎo, nǐ hǎo měi lì de.
Please don't cry, ok? You have such a pretty face.
Movie Quote 2:
bù yào kū le, xiāng xìn wǒ.
Don't cry, alright? Just trust me.
The versatile phrase 不要[verb]了 (bù yào___le) is used to ask someone to please stop [verb].
bù yào zài shuō le, hǎo bù hǎo?
Please stop talking about it, ok?
bù yào zài zhēng le, hǎo bù hǎo?
Please stop fighting, ok?
Try using this sentence pattern to ask someone to stop a particular action.
B) Breaking the news
In this movie, we also learn how to announce a pregnancy to your boyfriend.
wǒ yǒu le. sì gè yuè.
I'm pregnant. Four months.
In the movie, the female character follows this up with an accusation: 我怀孕两个月你还没有出狱。(wǒ huái yùn liǎng gè yuè nǐ hái méi yǒu chū yù. I was two months' pregnant and you hadn't even gotten out of jail.)
Hopefully you never encounter this situation in real life. But now you know how to say that you're pregnant; it's 我有了 (wǒ yǒu le), which literally translates to "I have it."
C) I love you, but it's complicated
Love is complicated. Here's an expression for those painfully convoluted moments.
wǒ zhēn de hěn ài nǐ, kě shì wǒ yǐ jīng bù xǐ huān nǐ. nǐ dǒng bù dǒng?
I really love you a lot. But I don't like you anymore. Do you understand?
你懂不懂 (nǐ dǒng bù dǒng) means, "Do you understand?" Take advantage of this useful phrase to check for understanding.
"Shaolin" — Wise Sayings and Parallels
In "Shaolin," a general is betrayed by his closest associate. He then flees to a Buddhist temple, called Shaolin, where he learns martial arts from a cook played by Jackie Chan.
A) You can't have it all
Sometimes in life, it's only one thing or the other. Here's a pattern for those cases.
nǐ shōu dé liǎo tā de rén, shōu bù liǎo tā dí xīn.
You can fix his body but you can't fix his heart.
The above sentence refers to someone whose spirit or attitude is warped, and not likely to be changed. You can reuse this pattern like so:
nǐ mǎi dé liǎo chē zǐ, mǎi bù liǎo bǎo xiǎn.
You can buy the car but you can't get the insurance.
B) Not one to judge
Here's a phrase for giving instruction or advice.
wǒ mén bù gāi yǒu fēn bié xīn.
We should not bear a judging heart.
我们不该 (wǒ mén bù gāi) means "we shouldn't." This phrase is also versatile.
wǒ mén bù gāi yǒu piān jiàn.
We shouldn't be prejudiced.
zì jǐ zé rèn zì jǐ dāng, wǒ mén bù gāi dài gěi bié rén má fán.
We should take up our own responsibility; we shouldn't trouble others.
C) It's a dog-eat-dog world
Here's a phrase for commenting on the times or the circumstances.
zài wài miàn, bù shì nǐ shā rén jiù rén shā nǐ .
Outside of Shaolin, either you kill others or others will kill you.
不是…就是 (bù shì… jiù shì) means "If not this, then that." Adapt this pattern for other contexts:
zài zhè háng yè lǐ, nǐ bù shì máng sǐ jiù shì mèn sǐ.
In this industry, you're either super busy or super bored.
"House of Flying Daggers" — Who Says I Can't?
In "House of Flying Daggers" a blind, beautiful dancer is part of an anti-government rebel group. Two government deputies are sent to investigate her, but both fall for her charms.
A) Who says I can't
Here's a good retort.
shuí shuō máng nǚ bù néng lái cǐ?
Who says a blind girl can't be here?
谁说 (shuí shuō) means "Who says so?" Here's how to reuse this pattern.
shuí shuō xué shēng bù néng chuàng yè?
Who says a student can't own a business?
B) Nicely said
shuō dí hǎo
This short and simple phrase is useful in contexts where you want to applaud another's comment.
C) If you don't…
nǐ bù shā tā mén, tā mén jiù shā nǐ.
If you don't kill them, they'll kill you.
You can adapt this pattern for other uses: 你不___ 他们就___. (nǐ bù___tā mén jiù___. If you don't___, they'll ___.)
nǐ bù péi qián, tā mén jiù huì gào nǐ.
If you don't pay up they'll sue you.
"Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" — Speaking of Best Friends
"Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" tells of two women's friendship, mirrored by a historical story between two "laotong," or sworn sisters, in ancient China. This movie features both Chinese and English dialogue.
A) Best friends forever
Here's a phrase speaking of lifelong friendship.
wǒ bāng nǐ zhǎo gè lǎo tóng, tā shì nǐ zhè bèi zǐ jiù hǎo de jiě mèi.
I found a laotong (sworn sister) for you. She will be your best friend for life.
You can use this same phrase in other contexts.
nǐ shì wǒ zhè bèi zǐ jiù hǎo dí jiě mèi.
You are my best friend for life.
姐妹 (jiě mèi) means close female friends, and it literally translates to "sisters."
B) Since we last met
When too many things have transpired over the past while, here's what to say.
wǒ mén fēn kāi le de shí jiān fā shēng le tài duō shì qíng.
Too many things have happened during the years we were apart.
This phrase can also be used in other contexts.
zhè gè xué qi fā shēng le tài duō shì qíng.
Too many things have happened this semester.
发生了太多事情 (fā shēng le tài duō shì qíng) implies negative things or challenging events.
C) Everything I have is yours
Here's a phrase for expressing unconditional love and generosity.
nǐ shì wǒ de lǎo tóng, wǒ de yī qiē doū shì nǐ de.
You are my sworn sister, everything I have is yours.
You can apply this phrase when speaking to your most loved person.
nǐ shì wǒ de lǎo pó, wǒ de yī qiē doū shì nǐ de.
You're my wife, everything I have is yours.
At the appropriate timing, it can be quite romantic to say.
Now you can see how easy it is to draw out phrases and sentence patterns from movies, and turn them into personalized Chinese lessons. With these excellent examples to get you started, you're now more than ready to delve into your Chinese collection for more language tutorials. Enjoy!
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