Tag: movies


Dec 2015

The Martian in China: Two Observations

I saw The Martian (火星救援) in Shanghai over the weekend. I had read the book, and I was looking forward to seeing the movie on the big screen. Overall, I found that it was a decent adaptation of the novel, and I enjoyed it. China seems to be enjoying it too! There were two things that caught my attention, watching with a Chinese audience, however:

“I’m going to have to science the shit out of this”

I was looking forward to seeing how this line (seen in the trailer above at about 01:30) was rendered in Mandarin:

> “So, in the face of overwhelming odds, I’m left with only one option: I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.”

(The part I was most interested in was the later half, where the word “science” is used as a verb, and in a crudely amusing way.)

Here’s the Chinese translation:

> “我得他妈的想办法活下去。

"Science the shit out of this" doesn't translate

I would translate that back into English as:

> “I gotta fucking find a way to survive.”

The movie’s translation is not horrible; it captures the meaning and the tone of the original, but it seems more grim and determined than humorous, because it sacrifices the science! Oh well.

Accidental China Pandering Still Counts

The other thing that amused me was the Chinese audience’s reaction to the way China fit into the plot. [SPOILER ALERT!] Chinese audiences aren’t dumb, and they know when they’re being pandered to by Hollywood. In this case, the Chinese Space Agency’s involvement in the rescue of Mark Watney was actually a part of the plot in the original book; it wasn’t inserted by Hollywood in a bid to ensure box office success in China.

But the way the scene was done, cutting to China out of nowhere, just felt so similar to the infamous Iron Man 3 scene (with the Chinese doctor and the Fan Bingbing nurse cameo), that as soon as the audience realized that China was about to save the day, they all laughed. They laughed! They weren’t proud or appreciative, it was just an, “oh puh-leeeze, here we go again…” reaction.

I’m pretty sure that’s not the Chinese reaction the producers were going for; hopefully Hollywood gets better at this!

Still, entertaining movie.


Aug 2015

Monkey King: Hero Is Back and Cultural Gaps


I recently watched a Chinese movie called Monkey King: Hero Is Back in English, or 大圣归来 (Da Sheng Guilai) in Chinese (full name: 西游记之大圣归来). The name 大圣 is short for 齐天大圣, which is another name for 孙悟空, the “Monkey King” character from Journey to the West (西游记).

Have I lost you yet? This is actually a pretty good movie, with high-quality animation, but it’s written for a Chinese audience, and as such has a lot of cultural assumptions built in. Although I’m generally familiar with the story of Journey to the West (西游记), it’s a classic that every native-born Chinese person is intimately familiar with from childhood, so foreigners trying to understand the story are at a bit of a disadvantage. (I’m going to provide all the Chinese characters and pinyin for Chinese learners like I always do, but the following info should still help even if you’re not studying Chinese. Mouse over characters for pinyin.)

Pretty much every Chinese person, young and old, knows that Journey to the West has 4 main heroes (plus a horse). One annoying thing is that each character has multiple Chinese names and multiple English translations of those names. The names given in parentheses (in bold) are the ones I hear used the most by Chinese friends.


  1. 唐僧 (Tang Seng), AKA 唐三藏, 玄奘, or Tripitaka in English. He’s a Buddhist monk on a mission to retrieve the sacred sutra from the West. He’s the one that always wears the tall hat.
  2. 孙悟空 (Sun Wukong), AKA 齐天大圣, the Monkey King, also called just “Monkey” in some translations. He’s a badass rebel with an attitude that can do all sorts of magic, including taking on 72 different forms.
  3. 猪八戒 (Zhu Bajie), AKA “Pigsy.” Once an immortal, but now a greedy pig-man with magical powers, but only 36 forms.
  4. 沙悟净 (Sha Wujing), AKA Friar Sand or “Sandy.” Also a fallen immortal, he’s in the shape of a man, but he only knows 18 forms. He seems to be the lackey of the group, and is often seen hauling around everyone’s luggage. (Not nearly as famous or beloved as the above 3 characters.)
  5. 玉龙 AKA 白龙马 (“White Dragon Horse”), a white dragon and son of the Dragon King. Takes the form of Tang Seng’s steed as atonement for a crime. (Not nearly as famous or beloved as the top 3 characters.)

OK, now how do these traditional characters fit into the new movie 大圣归来 (Da Sheng Guilai)? That’s key to understanding it. I won’t give any real spoilers, but the following are a few important notes that all Chinese viewers understand immediately, which should clear a few things up for foreign viewers:


  1. The movie kicks off with Sun Wukong starting a brawl in heaven. He’s basically a troublemaker and is pissing everyone off. You get a taste of his full power here, and also see him change form.
  2. In the end of the opening heavenly brawl, Sun Wukong is stopped by 佛祖 (the Big Buddha), and imprisoned for 500 years under a mountain. This detail is faithful to the original.
  3. When Sun Wukong is first released from imprisonment, he is surprised to discover that he’s lost most of his powers, and it seems to be that magical shackle thing holding them back.
  4. Sun Wukong is referred to in the movie by three names/titles: 齐天大圣, 大圣, and 孙悟空.
  5. 唐僧, the main monk on a mission in Journey to the West, is the little boy named 江流儿 in the new movie. This name is made up for the new movie, and making him into a little boy has no basis in the original story; it’s a fresh twist. He is often referred to by Chinese audiences, for convenience, as 小唐僧 (Little Tang Seng). Everyone knows who he’s supposed to be.
  6. The old man that takes care of Little Tang Seng and raises him to be a monk is just created for convenience in this adaptation, as is the little girl that Little Tang Seng is protecting.
  7. Sun Wukong and Zhu Bajie are represented pretty faithfully to tradition in this movie.
  8. The “White Dragon Horse” makes a few appearances in this new movie, but he has not yet become Tang Seng’s steed. (That will probably happen in a sequel.)
  9. Sha Wujing does not make an appearance in this new movie. (That will also probably happen in a sequel.)

If you’re studying Chinese, I recommend you check out this movie. It’s pretty easy to follow even without the above information, but it’s nice to know how it “plugs into” contemporary Chinese culture.

I hope the forthcoming English-dubbed version is better than this:

Music video with scenes from the movie:

Additional Links:

西游记之大圣归来 on Baidu (Chinese)
Monkey King: Hero Is Back on IMDb
Monkey King: Hero Is Back on Wikipedia
Journey to the West on Wikipedia


Apr 2014

The Laziest Animated Movie Title Translations Ever

I remember when I first moved to China, I used animated films to practice Chinese quite a bit. I quickly discovered that Disney did an especially good jobs with translating (my favorite was the Chinese version of The Emperor’s New Groove). But I also started noticing something strange about a lot of these animated films’ Chinese titles… the word 总动员 appeared, somewhat inexplicably, way too often.

What is 总动员?


It was almost like a formula. In one word, what’s the movie about? That’s the main theme. Then just apply this formula:

> [main theme] + 总动员

What was going on? I asked a number of native speakers abut this phenomenon, and none of them had paid the issue much notice. One bit of helpful information they did give, however, was that the word 总动员, in mainland China, is tied in the minds of many to some popular variety shows that came out around the year 2000. Specifically, they were 欢乐总动员 (“Joyous Zongdongyuan“) and 全家总动员 (“Whole Family Zongdongyuan“). Both were loud, fun, programs with lots of active people.

Pleco‘s dictionaries give the following definitions for 总动员:

1. General/total mobilization
2. General (or total) mobilization
3. general mobilization (for war etc)

OK, obviously those aren’t the meanings they’re shooting for in the titles of cartoon movies.

Native speakers seems to have trouble giving an exact definition of this use of 总动员, but the feeling is clear: exciting, happy, lively, 热闹, with lots of people.

The Rise of 总动员

Not appearing in dictionaries did not stop this word from popping up in animated feature titles all over the place, starting shortly before 2000. Many were Disney films, but not all:


Toy Story, Toy Story 2, Toy Story 3 (1995, 1999, 2010) 玩具总动员: “Toy Zongdongyuan
Joe’s Apartment (1996) 蟑螂总动员: “Cockroach Zongdongyuan
Finding Nemo (2003) 海底总动员: “Bottom of the Sea Zongdongyuan
Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003) 巨星总动员: “Megastar Zongdongyuan
The Incredibles (2004) 超人总动员: “Superman Zongdongyuan
Cars, Cars 2 (2006, 2011) 赛车总动员: “Race Car Zongdongyuan
Ratatouille (2007) 美食总动员: “Gourmet Zongdongyuan
Bee Movie (2007) 蜜蜂总动员: “Bee Zongdongyuan
WALL·E (2008) 机器人总动员: “Robot Zongdongyuan
Planes (2013) 飞机总动员: “Airplane Zongdongyuan
Free Birds (2013) 火鸡总动员: “Turkey Zongdongyuan
Minuscule: Valley of the Lost Ants (2014) 昆虫总动员: “Ant Zongdongyuan

This is not a complete list; rather, it’s an attempt to try to capture some of the biggest titles and the range that “zongdongyuan” covers.


OK, some of these seem to work OK… Specifically, Cars seems to deserve the treatment. I can’t help but feel that “Gourmet Zongdongyuan” (Ratatouille) could have been a much better title, though, as could have “Robot Zongdongyuan” (WALL·E).

To be fair, most of these movies actually do have multiple titles, and a casual check seems to indicate that the translators over in Taiwan are putting a bit more thought into the translations of animated feature film titles. Still, I’ve been seeing these zongdongyuan translations for years, and it especially stands out for Disney films, which tend to have excellent translations for the actual movies themselves, despite the total cop-out titles.

The Fall of 总动员

I was thinking the linguistics nerds like me were the only ones that gave this kind of issue any consideration, but fortunately at least some Chinese movie fans are also getting fed up:

> 最烦动画电影的中文翻译!动不动就什么什么总动员,总动员个屁呀!!有点技术含量行不行,不会翻译就直接用英文名也比这个好吧,都是文化人,怎么那么俗啊?这几年的电影都被总动员了,汽车、玩具、海底、美食、机器人,你知道什么是总动员不?我了个呸!!!!!看见这么二货的翻译就来气,这么好的电影弄了个蹩脚翻译!气死我了!想起来就来气。。。

A rough translation:

> I’m so annoyed by the Chinese translations of animated films. It’s just this zongdongyuan, that zongdongyuan… screw zongdongyuan! Can’t you have just a bit of skill? If you don’t know how to translate, directly using the English title is better than this. You’ve all got culture, but now why so crude? In recent years all movies have been zongdongyuan-ized: cars, toys, bottom of the sea, gourmet food, robots… Do you even know what a zongdongyuan is? Bloody hell! When I see a shoddy translation like this it sets me off. How can such a good move have such a lame translation? I’m so pissed off! I get mad just thinking about it…

Anyway, the good news (for us translation purists) is that in recent years zongdongyuan seems to have worn out its welcome, and quite a few animated movies (including Disney/Pixar films) that almost certainly would have gotten zongdongyuan-ized 5 or 10 years ago did not: Brave, Tangled, A Bug’s Life, Madagascar, Rio, Up, Happy Feet (not 企鹅总动员!), Turbo, Mr. Peabody & Sherman, Despicable Me, The Croods (疯狂原始人, “crazy primitive men” rather than 原始人总动员!)… all escaped zongdongyuan-ization. (Whether or not those films’ titles have good Chinese translations, though, is another question… but at least they’re not quite so lazy.)

So did anyone else notice this lazy translation trend, or was it just me?


Aug 2013

Thoughts on Summer Blockbuster “Pacific Rim” in China

Last night I went to see the movie Pacific Rim at Shanghai’s newest, biggest mall, Global Harbor. My hopes were not super high, but I ended up really enjoying the film. I had totally forgotten that it was directed by Guillermo del Toro; I think it was suddenly seeing Ron Perlman’s face in the movie amongst all the other relatively unknown actors that reminded me. Anyway, very fun movie.

Pacific Rim Locandina

A few things struck me about seeing the film in China:

1. The Chinese mech dies first. This is kind of a shame, not because they’re Chinese, but because their badass red, four-armed robot with buzz-saws for hands looked awesome, and I would have liked to watch it do a little more damage in battle. This didn’t really seem to bother the audience, though; the Chinese mech pilots weren’t even really characters in the movie… easy come, easy go.

2. The human characters in the movie use the Japanese term kaiju (怪獣) for the giant monsters they’re fighting. This was kind of interesting. The (simplified) Chinese is 怪兽. (Another common word for “monster” in Chinese is 怪物.)

3. The Hong Kong Chinese are experts at dicing up the kaiju (giant monster) corpses and selling the parts on the black market (as “medicine”?). There is discussion of the going rates for ground kaiju bones and various kaiju organs. This struck me as both a funny stereotype as well as somewhat insightful.

What do you think? Racist? Or would the biological matter derived from monsters from another dimension totally be worked into the black market, extreme fringes of TCM relatively quickly?


Nov 2012

Animal House for Studying Chinese

We’ve been doing some video clip dubbing experiments for fun on the AllSet Learning YouTube page. We started with Downton Abbey, and did Dracula for Halloween. That one was a bit on the discouraging side (although what can you really expect from Dracula?), so we decided to do a much more upbeat one. The result is this classic clip from Animal House dubbed to be about learning Chinese.

Our intern Jack has been doing a good job and having a good time with this little experiment. He’s the “student” in the Dracula clip, and he conceived the Animal House clip (although our AllSet Learning teachers recorded that one). Good job, Jack!

Are clips like this useful as study material? Probably not, but if they give you a smile and get you listening to a bit more Chinese, they’re worth it. For sure, the ones learning the most are Jack the intern and our teachers. It gets them thinking about the limitations of certain forms of media, tradeoffs in production resources, and creativity applied to pedagogy. It’s a worthwhile investment for us as a company. (BTW, we post all our new videos to our Facebook page as well.)

Anyway, happy Friday! 中文!中文!中文!中文!中文!


Oct 2011

Living with Dead Hearts: Language

By now I hope you’ve heard of Living with Dead Hearts, a documentary project spearheaded by Charlie Custer of ChinaGeeks which aims to spread awareness of a very serious social problem in China:

> Each year, as many as 70,000 children are kidnapped in China. They are not held for ransom; rather, they are sold. The lucky ones are sold into new families who raise them like adopted children; others are sold into slave labor, marriage, prostitution, and lives on the street. Most children who are kidnapped will never see their parents again.

> Living with Dead Hearts follows several parents whose children have been kidnapped as they struggle to track down their kids and to make sense of what has happened to them. Along the way, the film also looks at the experience of kidnapping and growing up in a strange family from the child’s perspective and examines the lives of street children.

Aside from helping get the word out about this project, I’d like to offer a few comments for students of Chinese, since many readers of this blog fall into that category. From a language learning perspective, there are some things you want to be aware of before watching even the trailer for this documentary:

  1. Many of the people in the documentary speak in heavily accented Mandarin, if not full-on “dialect” (read “topolect,” which might as well be a separate language, in many cases). If you’re a learner trying to use Chinese movies as study material, this is not a film to beat yourself up about for not understanding; most Chinese native speakers will be unable to understand some of the people in this movie without the aid of subtitles.

    Dialect is sometimes used as a literary device; unfortunately, in this film it’s simply a cruel reality: the victims interviewed are often from the countryside and can do little to fight back or get help.

  2. The word 拐卖 means “to abduct and sell,” the verb for what we commonly refer to as “human trafficking.” It’s not a verb you normally hear much. In the trailer below, you hear the grown-up 拐卖 victim use the term.
  3. The Chinese word in the background behind the title “Living with Dead Hearts” is 躯壳. Although not an everyday term, this is one of those words that has a definite “correct” reading in the dictionary (“qūqiào”), but don’t be surprised if some of your Chinese friends read it as “qūké.”

    The meaning of the word is “body; outer form” (not including the soul). My New Age Chinese-English Dictionary provides an appropriate sample sentence:

    失去精神,就成了没有灵魂的~。 Once the spirit is lost, what is left is only the body without the soul.

The trailer is below. If you haven’t watched it yet, please do.

Related Links:

Living with Dead Hearts (official site)
Living with Dead Hearts (on ChinaGeeks)
China’s Missing Children (on Foreign Policy)
Child Trafficking and Sina Weibo (on ChinaHush)
Child kidnapping in China: A case study (on Danwei.org)
Child Kidnappings in Anhui, Chinese Netizen Reactions (on chinaSMACK)
Interview with Charles Custer, director of ‘Living With Dead Hearts’ (on Lost Laowai)
Missing children and how parenthood killed my chances of being a manly-man (on Imagethief)


Jan 2010

Hongbao Fantasy

I originally found this video introduced by a Chinese friend on Kaixin Wang as “a Chinese film way more fantastic than Avatar”:

Transcript for the students:

> 老师:你的孩子又考了全班第一。

> 家长:谢谢谢谢。(递红包)

> 老师:你在伤害我。

> 医生:好了,病人终于脱离危险了。

> 家属:谢谢谢谢。(递红包)

> 医生:你在侮辱我。

> 官员:你的审批手续全办好了。

> 商人:谢谢谢谢。(递红包)

> 官员:你在藐视我。

> 警官:恭喜你啊,考试通过了。

> 司机:谢谢谢谢。(递红包)

> 警官:请你尊重我。

> [source (with additional sarcastic commentary)]

The video is a public service message urging people not to accept hongbao (red envelopes full of money) for what they should be doing anyway for the good of society. (And apparently that idea is still rather outlandish in modern China.) Anyway, the video does a good job of educating us foreigners in what situations Chinese people typically give their “thank you notes”:

– A teacher tells a mother that her child is the top student in the class
– A doctor informs someone that his family member is no longer in danger
– A government official announces that a businessman’s procedure is complete
– A police officer announces that the student has passed his (driving) test

I know some students of Chinese that spend a lot of time on Chinese news websites. I’m finding that Kaixin Wang‘s 转帖 (“repost”) system is way better, acting as a combination RSS reader / Digg / SNS site (so the content is filtered by your young Chinese friends). I highly recommend it as a source of interesting material.

Apparently, though, some of the posts (like the one I refer to above) mysteriously disappear… so read quickly, and enjoy!


Jan 2010

Avatar IMAX 3D Tickets Selling Well in Shanghai

Peace Cinema (和平影都) in Raffles City (People’s Square) is the place to see Avatar (阿凡达) in IMAX 3D in Shanghai, but it’s still hard to get tickets, days after the Sunday midnight opening. I went tonight, hoping to pick up a pair of tickets for sometime in the next week, but the theater only sells two days in advance, and all popular times were sold out. You can see the crowd in the picture below. The crowd never got too big, because everyone kept showing up, finding out it was sold out, and then leaving unhappily.

Avatar 3D IMAX, Shanghai

Avatar 3D IMAX, Shanghai

Tickets there range from 30 RMB (non-IMAX) to 50 RMB (IMAX, morning), to 150 RMB (IMAX, prime time on weekends). The soundtracks are all English, with Chinese subtitles. The theater’s (?) website has the price list for the current day.

Avatar has been out on DVD in the streets of Shanghai for a while, but I’m still patiently waiting to experience IMAX 3D for the first time (eventually).

Jan. 7 UPDATE: A friend of my wife offered to buy tickets for us. She showed up at 7:30am to get in line. The theater opens at 9am. When she arrived, there were already 200-300 people in line, some of whom had been there since 4am. Still, with so many showings every day, and a pretty decent capacity, you’d think that person number 300 could still get tickets. No dice. Everyone was buying up lots of tickets, so the theater was sold out of Avatar 3D IMAX tickets by the time our friend’s turn came.

I just found out that the theater is raising prices to 180 RMB per ticket next week. Suddenly I’m losing some of my enthusiasm for Avatar in Shanghai…

Jan. 11 UPDATE: Over the weekend the price rose again from 180 RMB to 200 RMB, caused a furor, and then was changed back to 150. Also, the sale of tickets was opened up for all of January, after which all IMAX 3D tickets promptly sold out. (I’m OK with this; I gave up on IMAX and watched it in regular 3D yesterday. It was awesome.)


Jan 2008

Reel Geezers on Lust, Caution

Word on the street is that the unedited version of Lust, Caution has already circulated pretty widely. My wife picked up a good copy a while back. I’m planning to watch it soon, partly to see what the fuss is about, and partly because of the ridiculous claim that I keep hearing from the Chinese: “foreigners can’t understand it.” (I actually probably won’t understand it–this isn’t the kind of film I’m into–but it’s still a ridiculous claim.)

Anyway, this is all just an excuse to make a post featuring “Reel Geezers,” the “dynamic octogenarian duo.” Their reviews are hilarious. Watch!


Dec 2007

Kung Fu Dunk

I enjoyed Shaolin Soccer, and I like Jay Chou (周杰伦), so I’m really looking forward to more mindless fun from Kung Fu Dunk (大灌篮):

A film by Stephen Chow (周星驰), of course. [Sina page]

UPDATE: The film is not by Stephen Chow at all. It’s by Zhu Yanping (朱延平). Sorry about that. Now it looks like a pretty shameless ripoff. (Thanks to commenter Ken for pointing out that error.)


Sep 2007

Big Brother Godzilla


Godzilla photo by Nanther

For reasons which will become clear soon, I was researching Godzilla recently. I was curious about the name. Godzilla seems like a great English name, but it’s a Japanese creation, and the Japanese name is ゴジラ (Gojira). So I had to wonder… did the Japanese start with the English name “Godzilla” and transliterate into Japanese, or did they start with “Gojira” and semi-transliterate into the fantastic “Godzilla?” The use of katakana for the monster’s name to me suggests the former.

According to Wikipedia, it’s the latter. The Japanese name is a blend of the Japanese words for “gorilla” (ゴリラ) and “whale” (くじら), referencing Godzilla’s enormous size and power. That “Gojira” transliterated so neatly into “Godzilla,” a name which conjures images of god-like power in lizard form, is largely coincidence. I don’t know how the Japanese feel about the name, but I can’t help but feel that the connotations of the English translation of the name are even better than the Japanese original.

Then there’s the Chinese translation of “Godzilla”: 哥斯拉. All three characters could be considered meaningless transliteration, and only the first one could be considered remotely relevant semantically. means “big brother.”

So let’s sum that not-very-objective analysis up in a nice visual aid:

Godzilla Translations


Jun 2007

ChinesePod Movie Madness

ChinesePod has recently been developing its “Extra” content. That refers to content that is not in a daily podcast lesson. One of the Extra features is one called Movie Madness, conceived by Dave Lancashire. The concept is this:

– You’re given an audio clip in Chinese.
– The clip comes from the Chinese dubbing of a well-known Hollywood movie.
– Based on the Chinese audio, guess what the movie is.

Here are the first five that we’ve recorded (each podcast is about 5 minutes long, even though the movie clips are much shorter):

Movie Madness

Movie Madness #1
Movie Madness #2
Movie Madness #3
Movie Madness #4
Movie Madness #5

This is actually harder than it sounds (maybe even slightly… oh, I don’t know… maddening??). The challenges are:

– It can be hard to find movies that are dubbed (especially movies that aren’t cartoons or that aren’t really old).
– The Chinese dubbing can fly by at incredible speeds, greatly reducing the chances of recognition even for really familiar scenes.
– Some really well-known movies don’t have any memorable lines.
– You pretty much have to take what you can get from your own Chinese DVD collection and what’s available in the shops around town.

More than just whining, I’m actually asking for help. If you’ve got audio movie clips from well-known movies dubbed in Chinese, send them in! (They’re pretty easy to record if your computer has a DVD-ROM drive and audio recording software like the free Audacity.)


May 2007

Spider-Man 3

Spider-Man 3

I saw Spider-Man 3 in the theater yesterday (May 2nd) here in Shanghai. Yup, that’s two whole days before North America (or two and a half if you count in time difference). Oh yes. This is why I moved to China.

It felt like the movie was barely promoted here, though. There were ads for it in Cloud Nine, the mall where I saw it, but I didn’t see much promotion elsewhere. What’s the point of the early release in Asia if you don’t promote it? You’re just making it easier on the DVD pirates.

Oh yeah, so the movie… pretty good. Some good action scenes. Venom looked cool. Just don’t forget that at its core it’s still a comic book.


Jan 2007

Micah on Chinese Movie Titles

Micah has an interesting post on some of the factors that come into play when translating a foreign movie title into Chinese for mainland viewers. In the entry he talks about the titles of the following movies:

– The Host (Korean)
– Pirates of the Caribbean
– Night at the Museum
– The Devil Wears Prada
– Casino Royale
– Tsotsi
– Transformers

Micah tells us that the Chinese name of the creature in The Host is . Hoping to see what a 魊 supposedly looks like, I searched for an image of it on Baidu. Although page 2 of those search results seems to suggest that the creature looks like Maggie Cheung, I didn’t really get my answer. However, I did end up discovering a site I didn’t know about: CnMDB.com. Yet another Chinese site shamelessly ripping off a successful foreign website. (Yawn.)

2 MDBs

Note that the IMDb page has no ads (in this selection), way more movie pictures, and uses a romanized version of the Korean name.


Nov 2006

Kung Fu, Season 1, on DVD

Today while grocery shopping at Carrefour I discovered a rather extensive collection of non-pirated DVDs. It was really kind of shocking. I’m not talking about just Roman Holiday or Charlie Chaplin or whatever; I’m talking about movies that were in theatres in the States in the past year. Most were priced at about 20 RMB. While that’s still close to triple the pirated price tag, it’s moving into the affordable range. With DVDs priced at 20 RMB, many Shanghai consumers could still afford them (although they might have to get choosier) if the police were ever to really crack down on DVD piracy instead of just pretending to.

Kung Fu (1st Season) DVD

Kung Fu, Season 1

But anyway… this post is about the old TV series with David Carradine, Kung Fu (Chinese title 功夫, not to be confused with the Stephen Chow movie of the same name). I found Season 1 on DVD at Carrefour priced at 118 RMB for the 6-disc set. Anti-piracy saint that I am, I plunked down all that cash for the official version.

When I think about it, the TV show Kung Fu was probably my first exposure to “Chinese culture” growing up, aside from the occasional Chinese restaurant. I was never very interested in China until about two years before coming here, so it’s kind of interesting to revisit one of my earliest sources of Chinese cultural input to see what I think of it now. I remember watching bits of the TV show with my dad as a child and finding it pretty boring. So now, about 20 years later, I have a chance to see what I missed.

I was also curious what Chinese people think of this TV show… I mean, it’s a story about a Shaolin monk in the American Old West, but it was written in the 70’s, mainly by Americans Howard Friedlander and Ed Spielman. I’m just going to take a wild guess here and say that they’re probably not eminent sinologists. The chances of massive cultural gaffes are great. You have tons of flashback scenes of the young protagonist at Shaolin Temple, and you can’t watch 5 minutes without someone spouting some sort of Eastern philosophy. Bruce Lee was co-creator, though, so maybe he made sure they got it mostly right?

Not being a journalist, I’m not bound to do any real research about this kind of thing, so I simply asked Xiao Wang (my ayi). She was very familiar with the show, and though it was great. Well, cool… at least some Chinese like it. She didn’t erupt into spontaneous laughter, anyway.

Three little details I noticed after watching the first episode:

1. The main character of the showed is called Caine. His name is written in the Chinese subtitles as 凯恩. This is also the Chinese name of Ken Carroll, co-founder of ChinesePod, as well as of his Kaien English School. Coincidence??

2. In one scene there are two clear references to Shaolin Temple as being in Hunan. But it’s not. It’s in Henan. The Chinese subtitles got it right.

3. Caine’s full name is Kwai Chang Caine. Apparently the Chinese translators couldn’t make any sense of that as a Chinese name, so they called him 凯恩· 张.

If you want English audio, the DVD won’t let you turn off the Chinese subtitles. It’s not a big deal except that I can’t help reading the subtitles. So I end up nitpicking the translation even though I don’t want to. On the plus side, though, I’ll learn how to say things like, “when you can take the pebble from my hand, it will be time for you to leave” in Chinese. And living in China, you know that’s going to come in handy.

UPDATE: Once upon a time, Prince Roy offered insight into the issue of Kwai Chang Caine’s real name and the location of Shaolin Temple.


Aug 2006

Chinese Style Snakes on a Plane

I watched the much “celebrated” Snakes on a Plane with John B and our wives last night. I picked up the DVD on the way over to his place. The DVD guy outside of the 好得 (AKA “All Days”) convenience store had it. Here’s what the cover looks like:


A very evil-looking Jackson on the pirated Snakes on a Plane DVD

Thanks to Matt at No-Sword I knew what to expect in terms of the movie’s Chinese title, but I certainly didn’t expect the French title, or this camcorder edition’s laughtrack (yes, a French laughtrack). Really, though, when you’re expecting ridiculous, I guess it only adds to the experience.

The main and secondary titles on this cover confirm two of the mainland Chinese titles that Matt dug up:

空中蛇灾 — “Midair snake disaster”
航班蛇患 — “Snake woes on a flight”


Jun 2006

China: Alternative Film Showcase

You know what the cool thing about buying DVDs in China is? I mean besides them only costing US$1. You may get stuck with bad copies if you buy from unscrupulous vendors (or if you’re too impatient), and not every mindless comedy makes it to the streets of China, but I am continuously amazed at the obscure stuff that does make it here. Any China expat can tell you stories of finding some really random old movie from his childhood on DVD in the unlikeliest corners of China.

Just recently I found The Ewok Adventure (1984) on DVD bundled with Ewoks: the Battle for Endor (1985). I grew up in the 80s, so ewoks were an important part of my childhood. I picked up the two-disc set. I was disappointed to discover that the contents of the DVDs did not match the DVD covers; it was the short-lived ewok animated series I had actually bought. Laaaame. (I may have a soft spot for certain 80s nostalgia, but I do have my limits.)

Bad 80s made-for-TV movies aside, all the exposure to less mainstream films is great. Some DVD shops seem to specialize in obscure movies. I’m not sure if the selection is intentional or if they somehow get stuck with the “dregs” of the DVD shipment. I see quite a few French films, but stuff from all over as well.

Two movies I watched over the weekend:

Les Revenants, AKA They Came Back (France, 2004). I was intrigued because this was a zombie movie with very different zombies. French zombies. And they didn’t attack people or eat brains–they just came back… only they were a little odd. This had serious psychological consequences on the loved ones to whom they returned. Pretty interesting movie, but it dragged a bit in the second half and didn’t have a very satisfying ending. Also, I kept waiting for a zombie to flip out and chomp on someone’s living flesh, and it never happened. At least this movie had good English subtitles, so it was only weird French cinematic metaphors for life and death and acceptance (or whatever) that were confusing me, and not language as well.

Tsotsi (South Africa, 2005). I picked this one up because I really know very little about South Africa (ignorance is bad), and I kind of wanted to hear the African hip hop mentioned on the back. I also had the foolish hope that the movie would be in English, so I didn’t check for English subtitles. Instead I was treated to 94 minutes of Afrikaans, with no English subtitles. Actually there was very little dialogue in the movie, though, so the Chinese subtitles gave me more than enough to follow the story. I definitely enjoyed this one.


Apr 2006

Like Syntax from Takeshi

Kitano, Takeshi

Kitano Takeshi

This is a picture of Kitano Takeshi (北野武), AKA “Beat Takeshi.” (I always find his Chinese name, Běiyě Wǔ, surreally different from his Japanese name.) My syntax teacher looks a lot like this guy, except for having smile lines around his eyes instead of Takeshi’s perpetual mask of indifference. They seem to share a love of the cigarette.

So sometimes when I’m listening to a lecture on Chinese syntax, my teacher’s visage sends my mind back to a scene in Hanabi, or images of a gangster hanging out with a little boy in Kikujiro. Except instead of spitting out tough guy talk, he’s outlining how the latest cognitive linguistics research affects our understanding of phrase structure. Then he cracks one of his bizarre jokes, and those smile lines seize his face once again, shattering the illusion completely.

I like my teacher, but I’m really not so into Chinese syntax theory. Somehow, though, Takeshi’s Chinese doppelganger helps get me through those classes.