Lost In Translation

Seeing as its Chinese New Year I thought I’d blog about some great Chinese movies. The original thrust of this blog was going to be about the Chinese Odyssey films which are released each year. These all star productions are essentially like a mixture of a pantomime and a movie spoof, poking fun at elements of recent movies whilst keeping everything contained in an energetic and silly storyline. But aside from the previous sentence there’s not much too really say about them, they’re entertaining diversions which showcase a particular brand of sardonic Chinese humour. A humour which is evident in the Fong Sai Yuk films.

If that seems like a belaboured introduction to a blog entry on the Fong Sai Yuk, then I have some disappointing news for you. Fong Sai Yuk is actually a part of a belaboured introduction for the grander theme of the blog, so bear with me whilst I maim the English language a while longer.

Fong Sai Yuk is a series of Jet Li films made in the early 90s; to a casual observer such as myself them seem to be a direct reaction to the popularity of the Wong Fei-Hung films (known over here as Once Upon A Time in China). Like the Wong Fei-Hung films they take a classic hero of Chinese history (in this case the rebellious Fong Sai Yuk) and have Jet Li play a high kicking version of him. Whilst the Wong Fei-Hung films are rabble rousing, crowd pleasing, nationalistic spectacles, the Fong Sai-Yuk films are more amiable pieces of work, aiming for broad laughs more than anything else.

Made around the same time as Wong Fei Hung, one of Fong Sai Yuk’s major jokes is when the titular hero is forced to go undercover. When asked his name he quickly responds ‘Wong Fei…’ the iconic Wong Fei-Hung theme kicking in, before finishing off with ‘Jin’. It’s a great joke, largely because of the well implemented use of music. Of course if you’re American or British you’ll have never heard this joke.

Miramax, bane of Asian cinema fans everywhere, acquired the rights to a lot of Jet Li’s work and subsequently released DVDs versions of Fong Sai Yuk 1 and 2 under the imaginative title of The Legend 1 and 2. Like all Miramax releases the DVDs contained an American Dub and no option for English subtitles with the original audio track (a problem that also blighted Jet Li’s Fist of Legend). As well as being as crappy and as uninspiring as you’d expect from a Miramax dub, the DVD also completely replaces the score and neuters the Wong Fei-Hung joke (it’s been a while but I think he gives the name of Jack in the dub).

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That’s an example of a bad dub, a situation where an attempt to Americanise a foreign production leads to moments actually being lost in translation. Anyone who grew up with Cockney dubbed Kung Fu films will know the lengths distributors will go to, to ensure their product is market friendly. The problem stems when there’s no choice in the matter, I have no problem with some fuckwit not wanting to read a film, give him a dub but give me the original audio track and subs as well.

The thing is that sometimes, just sometimes, I find fidelity to the original language to be a bit jarring. A great example of this is the Miyazaki movie Porco Rosso. Porco Rosso focuses on a pilot who operates around a string of islands in the Mediterranean. The movie is largely a character piece, and the characters are introspective sorts and as such a large part of the dialogue relies on tone and delivery over what is presented. Inference is paramount in the film and the brash original Japanese dub is just too alien to allow any understanding. Not only does it jar with the Sicilian backdrop, but it renders the film incapable of subtly due to the histrionics of the voice cast. The English dub allows the kind of tonal changes required to convey the story. Hilariously it’s the French dub, with the legendary Jean Reno as the main character that Miyazaki prefers. Jean Reno absolutely nails the character, his manner and intonation translating across general language divides to present a great interpretation of the character.

By insisting on subtitles we allow ourselves to see the truest representation of a film, but in doing so how much is lost in translation? I’ve often questioned Choi Min-Sik’s performance in Oldboy, as someone who doesn’t speak Korean I just have his physicality to base my assumptions of performance on. But maybe his wild histrionics are in fact hilarious, it’s impossible to tell because we have no way of knowing how he delivers his lines; we just have half of his performance to look upon.

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It’s why I sit easier with my admiration of Tadanobu Asano. This Japanese actor is very much a psychical performer, often taking roles where his lines are at a minimum. More silent film star than anything else, he often portrays emotional shifts and character changes with glances and eye movements, and it makes it easy to judge how great an actor he is. Tong Leung’s performances in 2046 and In The Mood for Love are other examples of sheer physicality overcoming a language barrier to showcase a truly great performer.

Either way, with subtitles or dubs you’ll find that something has been lost in translation it’s just about what you want to lose, factual truth or emotional truth.

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