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.
I’ve been looking forward to seeing the new movie The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I read (or was read) all those books when I was in third and fourth grade, and enjoyed them immensely. I don’t remember them very well, so I was looking forward to rediscovering some of that feeling when I saw the movies.
I watched the movie with my girlfriend, who is Chinese. She was not familiar with the stories, and was not raised in the Christian tradition, so she had quite a different take. I liked the movie well enough. She didn’t like it.
Here are some of her comments:
– [About the four kids:] I don’t like these kids. They’re all so pasty and pathetic looking.
– [When the White Witch is killing Aslan on the stone and Lucy and Susan are watching:] Why don’t they do something? I can’t stand weak characters like that!
– [As the battle begins:] Aslan sacrificed himself for that lame kid? None of these kids can even fight!
– [During the coronation of the four:] Those are the four most useless kings that ever lived.
– [When Aslan leaves:] If those four are the kings, then what’s Aslan?
I admitted to Micah the other day that he was a part of the inspiration for the 老百姓 snob I wrote about recently. I didn’t mean it as an insult or anything… it was just an observation of his lifestyle in Shanghai.
> But let me say a few words in defense of the 老百姓 snob. I think the reason I put forward the effort to be this kind of snob is because I reject the status boost I might get from the stereotypes that Chinese hold about Western folk: they’re educated, creative, high-flying, party hard, and come to take charge. Consequently, I have to actively try to frame myself back into the same “social status” that I would have had back at home: just your average college graduate working his way into the middle class, feeling out of place in places like Rodeo Drive in Hollywood, considering his pocketbook when he dines out, and still having a warm spot in his heart for the street food and home-cooking of his youth. It’s not that the 老百姓 snob is absurd, it’s that he’s more sensitive to taking advantage of people thinking he’s something he’s not.
> Not that I don’t realize I’m different; I will take advantage of being a foreigner abroad by taking English-teaching or translating jobs, but taking a higher salary just because I have a white face is something that weighs on my conscience. Maybe a useful metric to live by would be, if I was an immigrant from Nigeria would I have this option (of taking this higher salary, being invited to this party, being asked to take part in the filming of this commercial)?
I’ve talked about funny examples of pirated DVDs’ English subtitles and funny examples of pirated DVDs’ Chinese subtitles. These are both pretty commonplace in China. Another source of pirated DVD amusement is the actual DVD jacket the pirates create to sell the movies on the streets.
In many cases the pirates do an extremely professional job, creating either an almost exact replica of the official release, or an original design which is hardly inferior to the official DVD release’s case design. However, it is also not unusual to find DVD jackets with English text thrown on for appearance only (why would Chinese customers care if the English synopsis is totally wrong?). This happens most often when the DVD jacket is created way before the DVD’s official release. This can have hilarious results. I once saw an English synopsis on the back of a pirated DVD jacket that looked something like this: “Sfhtmcp hirncoae nsf doijwp sd dgv pmayq icbs ht yfksbn gxksmzbnc hfjr oisjgf tcwtq nsiv cpsj Fxhstr utn vgbgj doivpb mndlc jvnbh dyr.” You get the idea. The more “professional” pirates often turn to movie reviews on the IMDb. Sometimes they choose less than favorable reviews to display prominently on the DVD jackets, however.
Below is just one example of this phenomenon. Note the quotes on the front at the bottom, and at top right (in red) on the back.
The movie’s full title is Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God. In case there is any doubt, it is indeed a horrible movie. I got through about 20 minutes of it before I turned it off. (Someone gave it to me!)
So last night I saw Jackie Chan’s new movie The Myth at the theater. I wanted to see it despite not even really knowing anything about it, which only seems silly to me in retrospect. I’ll admit I was fooled by the movie posters. The movie wanted very much to be another “Chinese epic” in the tradition of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero. That much is obvious simply in the movie posters. Chump that I am, I was even fooled into thinking this was Jackie Chan playing a serious role in a movie. Actually, maybe I was just lured in by the inclusion of (hot) Bollywood actress Mallika Sherawat.
The truth is the movie was a cross between a typical Jackie Chan movie and the “Chinese epic” (or at least an attempt at one). Both fell short, and the fusion kind of flopped. It still had its entertaining elements, though.
Some points I found interesting:
– The scene in the “rat glue” factory was awesome. I was of the opinion that Jackie Chan hasn’t been coming up with very innovative new action scenes for a while now, but this one was extremely well done.
– Malika Sherawat and the whole India sequence seemed totally unnecessary. The whole depiction of India seemed pretty stereotypical to me, but I can’t say I’m exactly sure what stereotypes the Chinese/Hong Kongnese apply to India or how an Indian would feel about the way India was portrayed in the movie. I guess the whole India bit was all just to show off Malika Sherawat and capitalize on Bollywood’s popularity? It was worth it in the “rat glue” scene.
– I watched the movie in Mandarin Chinese, and it was pretty easy to understand (except for a few parts in the “ancient China” scenes). What I found weird, though, was how they chose to use (Chinese) subtitles in some parts, but just had people speaking Chinese in other parts. For example, in the opening sequence, the princess speaks Korean and it’s subtitled. Later, foreigners working for a research company all speak Chinese (they were clearly dubbed). Jackie speaks in an Indian language with a guard in a temple in India (and it’s subtitled), but the rest of the time in India the Indians all speak (dubbed) Chinese.
– The violence in Jackie Chan’s movies has traditionally been pretty slapstick. It gets pretty bloody in this one, particularly in the ancient China flashbacks. Looks like Jackie is abandoning his principles for a piece of the “China epic” pie?
The last point deserves to be made in its own paragraph rather than just a bullet. It’s a rather weird point to make, and I’m not sure how many would agree with me here. But here goes. The bad guy in The Myth, played by actor Zhou Sun, looks like an older, Chinese version of Joey from Friends (actor Matt LeBlanc). No joke! You know, in the same way that Koizumi looks like a Japanese Richard Gere. I’m not just all talk, though. I have photos for comparison purposes! See if you can pick out who is who! (Warning: bad facial hair ahead!)
Quiz: Joey or Zhou?
If you can’t figure out who is who, you can e-mail me for the answers. I hope you guys agree that they look alike. Last time I suggested a Chinese model looked like Katie Holmes, I didn’t get a lot of support. I know this Caucasian-Asian lookalike phenomenon is real, though, thanks to the incontrovertible Koizumi-Gere case.
I hate celebrity gossip. I think it’s the stupidest thing. Why should we care about that stuff?? What bugs me the most is when I realize I am actually somewhat following it. I don’t want to, I don’t mean to… how does it happen?? I find it even more ludicrous that Chinese people sometimes also follow the celebrity gossip of Hollywood stars. Yeah, I shouldn’t be surprised, in this age of international media… but still. It’s ridiculous.
Last night I accidentally got involved in a celebrity gossip chat with my girlfriend. Argh! (Disclaimer:neither of us really knows what we’re talking about here, so if we’re wrong… ummm… so what??)
> Me: Oh yeah, you saw that already… You didn’t like it, right?
> Her: Right. I just can’t believe he would do that to his girlfriend. I feel so sorry for her…
> Me: Huh?
> Her: You know, how he left her for that other woman…
> Me: (realizing what she’s talking about) Oh! You mean…
> Her: Yeah! Peter!
> Me: Haha… Not “Peter”… It’s “Pitt!” Brad Pitt!
> Her: Right… he left that one girl for the woman in this movie.
> Me: Oh, right. He left his wife Jennifer Aniston for Angelina Jolie.
> Her: Right. Because of this movie!
> Me: So you don’t like it because you don’t like him.
> Her: Right.
> Me: OK, I guess that decides that…
> Her: Which one would you choose if you were Brad Pitt?
> Me: (suddenly sensing very dangerous ground) Ummm…
> Her: I think I would choose Angelina Jolie. She’s younger and sexier.
> Me: (relieved) Yeah, me too.
> Her: Men always go for the younger woman. Like Tom Cruise.
> Me: Yeah.
> Her: I think they’re kind of a cute couple.
> Me: What?? Why don’t you hate Tom Cruise? He did the same thing that Brad Pitt did. He was married to Nicole Kidman, and then he did a movie with Penelope Cruz and divorced his wife. And he didn’t even stay with Penelope Cruz long!
> Her: Oh, really?
> Me: Yeah! And plus he’s crazy!
> Her: He is?
> Me: Yeah, you haven’t heard?
> Her: I heard that he and his girlfriend are having some troubles. One reason is that it’s Tom Cruise’s third wedding and he wants to keep it small and simple, but his girlfriend would like her wedding to be a big affair.
> Me: Hmmm.
> Her: The other is that her family is Catholic, and one time when Tom Cruise was talking to her father, he got in a big argument with him over religion. It almost came to blows! You know, because Tom Cruise is in that one religion… science something sect… [科学-什么-派]
> Me: Oh yeah… [“Scientology”]. (I had no idea what that was in Chinese)
> Her: So Tom Cruise is really crazy?
> Me: So it seems. There are all sorts of clips documenting it on the internet. Wanna see?
> Her: OK.
Celebrity Names in Chinese (absolutely worthless — don’t learn these!):
– Brad Pitt: 布莱德·彼特/皮特 (His last name in Chinese sounds like a transliteration of the English name “Peter,” so he gets called “Peter” a lot by the Chinese.)
– Tom Cruise: 汤姆·克鲁斯
– Angelina Jolie: 安吉利娜·茱丽 (Characters vary somewhat. Why didn’t they just use 周丽 for her last name??)
– Jennifer Aniston: 珍妮佛·安妮斯顿
– Katie Holmes: 凯蒂·霍尔姆斯 (This one was slightly harder to find.)
“Scientology” in Chinese (could potentially result in some interesting conversations and/or jokes!): 科学论派 (literally: “science theory sect”)
Over the weekend I watched the movie Donnie Darko for the first time. I loved it. It reminded me a lot of a Murakami Haruki book, and a little bit of Slaughterhouse Five. It’s one of those pleasantly confusing stories, at once entertaining you and enriching your for the mental struggle it puts you through.
Completely by coincidence, I ended up reading The Courage to Live Consciously later the same night. I found the advice there vaguely reminiscent of Jim Cunningham‘s philosophy, only much more useful.
I found the two sources’ takes on courage and fear to be equally valid.
>Everyone has talent. What is rare is the courage to follow the talent to the dark place where it leads.
When I was visiting the States I got to thinking about how easy and comfortable it would be to just stay in Tampa, where my friends and family are close, and just find some job to do. But that would be totally betraying my passions and my potential.
Some say moving to China to work takes a lot of courage. Numerous times, Americans from back home have told me that they admire my courage for doing what I do. But does what I do take any courage, really? I don’t see it that way.
To me, learning foreign languages and coming to China is simply a matter of doing what I like to do. I really enjoy studying Chinese, and helping other foreigners learn Chinese is something I genuinely like doing. I don’t think I deserve any special credit for doing what I like doing. If I’m hungry and I have a hamburger in front of me, am I courageous for eating it? No. That’s the way I see it.
That said, I do know that some people are living out what they feel are boring lives in the USA, Canada, or elsewhere, and they’d love to be able to move overseas and try out a new life. They see the hamburger, but they have a million reasons why they can’t eat it. Or maybe they’re afraid of what the hamburger has in it. I can’t be sure, because I’m not one of those people. I just eat the damn hamburger. I don’t think it’s courage.
Last week I went with my girlfriend and my sister to see War of the Worlds here in Tampa. Overall, we were not impressed.
I think my girlfriend was one of the few people in the theater who didn’t know how the movie was going to end. She said when the movie was almost over, she was thinking, Tom Cruise still hasn’t figured out a way to defeat the aliens? This must be a really long movie!
Ever since the May holiday, Shanghai’s Zhongshan Park has been housing a big The Mummy Returns promotional activity. It’s like a mini Egypt-themed fair. The main entrance of the park is all Egypted out, and a huge-screen (but low-res) TV has been installed which shows nonstop The Mummy Returns clips, interspersed with advertisements for the mummy fair going on inside the park. Each ticket costs a ridiculous 80 rmb per person.
After you pay, you head into the park and find the mummy section. If you’re unlucky there’s a line. (There were really long lines all throughout the first week of May, but there rarely are now.) You’re herded into the mummy’s temple, a sort of Egypt-themed haunted house. The haunted house was actually quite well done. The best part was all the workers inside dressed up like statues (they really did look like statues). They would remain motionless for a while, and then suddenly come to life, totally freaking people out. Good stuff.
When you come out you’re in the familiar carnival setting. You are surrounded by booths selling everything from National Geographic videos to The Coffee Bean Tea Leaf refreshments. There are lots of impossible games you can play, paying with expensive tokens for a chance at impossible odds to win a virtually worthless “prize.” The familiar favorites were there: shooting (ridiculously small) hoops, fishing, ring around the bottle, etc. The one game with decent chances was a dart game. You just had to pop balloons with darts to win your crappy prize.
If you’re there at the right time, you may also get to see a live show. Yes, it’s Shanghai’s version of the Egyptian craptacular! When I was there the performances alternated between dances which tried to stay on theme, using Middle Eastern music and costumes, and dances which seemed to appeal to teenagers, using flashy clown colors and pop music. Guess which are which!
All this is somewhat odd, of course, but the big question in my mind is: WHY?The Mummy Returns was released in 2001! Why go to all this work to promote a movie that’s already four years old? (I think the event has increased sales of pirated copies, though.) Is it a coincidence that Shanghai started whoring out Zhongshan Park to carnivals the same year that it stopped charging park admission for a lot of its parks?
P.S. Did anyone think it strange that there were Egyptian designs behind the video Coke machine I wrote about? Didn’t think so. Well, it was at this Mummy Returns carnival.
The full two-trilogy Star Wars DVD set is already available for purchase in Shanghai in two attractive versions: the simple 6-disc set (60rmb) and the deluxe 10-disc set featuring the “making of” segments (200rmb). Both look extremely professional and come in a special case, shrink-wrapped and all.
Last night I went to see Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (AKA 星球大战前转3) with some friends. We went to the 9:40pm showing at Hongqiao Century Universal Theatre (虹桥世纪电影城) and paid 60rmb (about US$7.50) per ticket.
For the day after the much-anticipated movie just opened and a Saturday night, the turnout wasn’t spectacular. The theater was only about half full. There were a handful of foreigners in attendance.
I have no way of judging whether or not the other viewers had been following the Star Wars movies at all, except for the woman behind me. She was making obnoxious comments the entire time. Whenever Yoda came out she kept remarking how cute he was. When Anakin was talking to Palpatine early in the movie and Palpatine mentions the Sith, the woman had an earth-shattering epiphany: “He’s the Sith!”
I enjoyed the movie. The way I saw it, the movie had to do three things:
Wow us with special effects
Connect the new trilogy with the old one
Tell a good self-contained story
I’d say it did quite well on #1 and #2, but was definitely lacking in #3. For one thing, there were some lame lines. For me, what took the cake was how Darth Vader taking his first steps in his new costume looked like it came right out of an old Frankenstein movie, and then, just a little later, his cry of “NOOOOOOOO!” at what the emperor told him was so clich�� it was embarrassing. Still, overall the movie was quite entertaining.
I didn’t let the Chinese subtitles distract me too much. I wasn’t worried about them being wrong this time, I was just interested in seeing how certain lines or words were translated. I did happen to notice that “Sith” in Chinese is 西斯 (which I could have gotten just from the full name of the movie in Chinese), and “Jedi” is 绝地. They’re pretty much just systematic transliterations. The one for “Jedi” doesn’t bother me so much as the one for “Sith.” “Sith” somehow sounds evil in English… like “seethe” or “hiss” or “writhe” or “death.” “X��s��” doesn’t really sound like anything–except maybe the legendary Chinese beauty 西施–and it doesn’t sound evil.
At my girflriend’s urging I recently purchased my very first Bollywood movie. I only spent 7rmb on it, but watching it was a three-hour time investment. It was with much trepidation that I started viewing Veer-Zaara.
I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. Pakistan was not portrayed nearly as negatively by Indian producer-director Yash Chopra as I had expected, and there were fewer song/dance scenes than I imagined. The story, while not what one would call “realistic,” was not as predictable as I had expected, either. Overall, it was a very enjoyable experience. (Did I mention Bollywood actresses are really hot?)
The part I found funniest were some of the lines in a song called “Do Pal.” The song starts with a line which goes:
> Just for two moments, the caravans of our dreams made a stop
And then you went your way and I went mine.
Caravans of our dreams? Interesting lyrics. I was put on high cheese alert. My vigilance was richly rewarded. I found the following lines of the song especially amusing when I realized that they could be used as pickup lines! Here they are, copied directly from the subtitles, in English and Chinese:
> Was that really you or was it a luminous sunbeam?
> Was that you or was that the monsoon of my dreams?
> Was that you or was that a cloud of happiness?
> Was that you or was that just a fragrant wind?
> Was that you or were those songs resounding in the atmosphere?
> Was that you or was there magic in the air?
Sinosplice readers, you have a homework assignment. Get out there and use these pickup lines! Then report back by leaving a comment.
The astute observer might ask, “what is a post about Bollywood doing on a China-themed blog?” Ah, but I saw a pirated Chinese copy of this Bollywood movie, and even supplied some Chinese translations. How clever of me!
Everyone knows that in China piracy of American movies runs rampant. The USA acts all angry, and every now and then Beijing makes an attempt to do something about it in order to placate the WTO. Nothing new. I really couldn’t care less about Hollywood’s lost revenues. China’s pirated DVDs do affect my life in other less expected ways, however.
New American releases are obtained as early as possible and mass-produced in China quickly and cheaply. The earlier an eagerly awaited Hollywood title hits the streets in DVD form, the quicker it will be snatched up by movie fans. It should come as no surprise, then, that the quality of translation of the Chinese subtitles for these DVDs can be less than reliable. I’d say that the translations for Chinese subtitles on DVDs fit into three categories:
Professional. These are usually obtained from an official source and are quite trustworthy. The Chinese is often natural and idiomatic.
Hit and Miss. Whoever did the translation could understand a lot of the English dialogue and translate it with a degree of accuracy, but there are clearly some mistakes. Sometimes you can even tell what English word or phrase the translator thought he heard, based on the Chinese. This category can cause some confusion for Chinese viewers, but it’s usually good enough overall to tell the story.
WTF?! For some movies (often the earliest, fuzzy camcorder pirated editions) the “translator” clearly did nothing more than guess at what the people are saying based on visual clues. This can be pretty hilarious if you can understand the original dialogue as well as the Chinese, but it must be very frustrating for the average viewer relying on the Chinese subtitles.
OK, so this whole situation is kind of funny… except for the fact that it can ruin my movie experiences. Why? Because if I’m watching an American movie with my girlfriend, she reads the subtitles. Conscientious boyfriend that I am, I can’t help but do periodic translation checks to ensure that my girlfriend is getting a decent idea of what’s going on. The more mistakes I notice, the more I pay attention to the subtitles so that I can clue her in on important dialogue. Often, before long I’m finding myself explaining the movie in Chinese instead of enjoying it. I guess I can live with that, though, since the movies cost $1 each.
But back to the absurdity of the whole thing. Can you imagine it? A Hollywood movie. The original dialogue has been chucked out the window, save for a few sturdy globs here and there. The rest of the dialogue has just been… made up. Fabricated. By some Chinese guy who’s undoubtedly poorly paid and under a lot of pressure to get the subtitles done now. And I don’t think I have to say that he’s unlikely to have a strong education in Western culture. That’s OK, he can still do subtitles for Western movies with themes ranging from terrorism to Catholic traditions to abnormal psychology. No problem.
The scary thing is that if he’s any good, some Chinese viewers might not realize they’ve been swindled. They may have gotten an alternate version of the story — which shared the same visuals as the original — that was convincing enough that they think they understood it as it was meant to be understood. “I thought the reviews said something about brilliant social commentary,” they reflect for just a few moments after finishing the movie. “Those silly Americans….”
Well, I can do more than just make suppositions, in this case. I actually transcribed a scene from a Chinese DVD copy of the Oscar-nominated film Closer. I transcribed the original English dialogue, but I also translated the Chinese subtitles into English for comparison.
Dan’s lines are in a rich blue. Alice’s lines are in a dark pink. Since the Chinese subtitles are only a shadow of their English counterparts, Dan’s lines translated from Chinese are in a lighter blue under the original, and Alice’s lines translated from Chinese are in a lighter pink under the original. I have added a 汉 at the beginning of the translated-from-Chinese lines just to keep it as clear as possible. You’ll find that it can be a little difficult keeping the parallel (occasionally intersecting) dialogues in your head at once.
(On the bus.)
A: How did you end up writing obituaries?
汉A: What kinds of things do you like?
D: Well, I had dreams of being a writer…
汉D: I like drinking beer.
D: But I had no voice — what am I saying??
汉D: But I don’t drink often. Also…
D: …I had no talent. So I ended up in obituaries, which is…
汉D: I love singing. I can sing many songs.
D: …the Siberia of journalism.
汉D: …including German folk songs.
A: Tell me what you do. I wanna imagine you in Siberia.
汉A: I hope I’ll have a chance to hear you sing.
D: Well… we call it “the obits page.”
汉D: Well… we don’t often sing.
D: There’s three of us. Me, Graham, and Harry.
汉D: Because everyone is really busy.
D: When I get to work, without fail — are you sure you wanna know?
汉D: Especially when I’m working. Extremely busy.
D: Well, if someone important died, we go to the “deep freeze.”
汉D: If someone died, we would sing the funeral hymn.
D: Which is, um, a computer file with all the obituaries, and we find that person’s life.
汉D: Although I rarely sing, singing is something I can’t do without in my life.
A: People’s obituaries are written while they’re still alive?
汉A: Do people like your singing?
D: Some people’s. Then Harry — he’s the editor — he decides who we’re going to lead with…
汉D: Some people. Sometimes we get invitations [to sing].
D: We make calls, we check facts…
汉D: Some are favors, some paid…
D: At six we stand around at the computer and look at the next day’s page…
汉D: We’re all happy to do it; the money doesn’t matter. It’s great.
D: …make final changes, add a few euphemisms for our own amusement…
汉D: It’s a kind of addiction. But it’s not like alcoholism.
A: Such as?
D: “He was a convivial fellow.” …meaning he was an alcoholic.
汉D: I have a really strange friend. A homosexual.
D: “He valued his privacy.” …gay. “Enjoyed his privacy” …raging queen.
汉D: But he’s content with his lot in life.
A: What would my euphemism be?
汉A: Guess what kind of person I am.
D: “She was disarming.”
汉D: You’re a cute girl.
A: That’s not a euphemism.
汉A: I’m not cute at all.
D: Yes it is.
汉D: Yes, you are.
(Some time passes…)
D: What were you doing in New York?
汉D: What were you doing in New York?
A: You know.
汉A: You know.
D: Well, no, I don’t… What, were you… studying?
汉D: No, I don’t know. Are you… studying?
A: Look at your little eyes.
汉A: Your eyes are so pretty.
D: I can’t see my little eyes.
汉D: Your eyes are even prettier.
Impressive, no? For my own amusement, I have graphed the two dialogues below:
I should note that the whole movie was not this bad. This is a particularly WTF scene subtitle-wise. The subtitles of my copy of Closer are probably halfway between the WTF and Hit and Miss categories overall. Love stories are not so hard to figure out, but a relatively inconsequential bus ride with few context clues just unleashes the imagination of the “translator,” it would seem.
This example, I’m afraid, is by no means unrepresentative of the subtitle work provided by the hard-working DVD pirates. What are the ramifications of this? Well, it means every time I talk to a Chinese person about a movie we’ve seen separately, I feel a gap. Sure, we watched the same movie, but we may very well have experienced a somewhat different story. Exaggeration? Perhaps. But then again, maybe every scene of that movie was translated similarly to the scene above. You just don’t know. Furthermore, until this situation changes, the average Chinese citizen’s efforts at foreign film appreciation have been thoroughly sabotaged.
In my junior year of college I decided that I wanted to go live in China after graduation. Around that time I picked up a well-known book called Iron & Silk by Mark Salzman (1987). It was the story of an innocent young American with a love for kung fu who went to teach English in China in the early 80s. It was a simple story.
[Sidenote: While I found the story to be a reasonably entertaining introduction at a time in my life when I knew very little about China, the one thing that put me off was the author’s claim to be fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese simply through four years of study at Yale. I didn’t buy it. But then, “fluent” is a very subjective word, and it’s frequently used casually in this kind of story.]
A few weeks ago I found the movie Iron & Silk (1990) here on DVD in Shanghai, so I just had to pick it up. This movie holds the distinction of being one of the few movies where the author actually plays himself in his own autobiographical story. What makes this especially interesting is that we get to see Mark Salzman demonstrate on camera his alleged mastery of both Mandarin and kung fu.
The movie was OK. I’m no expert in kung fu, but I studied it for a few months once, and I’ve seen professional demonstrations, and Mark’s 武术 looked pretty good to me. His Chinese was also not bad (although it doesn’t measure up to the other Mark‘s).
After living in China so long, though, I couldn’t help but find the story Disney-esque. The interactions, the cultural lessons learned, the forbidden love (which was never allowed even a kiss)… it all just seemed so cute. Even the “dark side of China,” like when Mark was forbidden entrance to the compound where his teacher was because of a crackdown on “spiritual pollution,” seemed parallel to the level of horror you experience when Bambi’s mom is shot.
Now don’t get me wrong… I’m not saying the only cinemagraphic window into China should be movies like To Live or Blind Shaft or something…. It’s just that I don’t think this movie has much to offer those already acquainted with China besides a few smiles.
One thing that made the movie interesting for me was that although the original story took place in Changsha, the movie was filmed in Hangzhou. So I got to see imagery of Hangzhou c. 1990. Much of it looked familiar, but some of it reminded me of ugly streets in Beijing. It was fun seeing the protagonist put his moves on the girl at West Lake — a place where I’ve been on quite a few dates myself, back in the day. The movie even found the extras that played Mark’s English students at the Sunday morning English corner at 六公园 beside West Lake. I made the mistake of blundering onto that group only once, long ago….
Lastly, I’m a little disappointed that the title of the movie was never explained as it was in the book. The explanation that Mark’s kung fu teacher gave him, as I recall it, was that he needed to punch an iron plate many times a day to make the bones in the hand thick and strong. He needed to punch raw, rough silk in order to make the flesh of the hands tough.
I’d recommend this movie only to people who have read the book and are curious, or to people without much knowledge of China who are thinking of coming and teaching here, or are just plain curious. One should keep in mind, though, that China changes fast, so this movie is dated. Also, the English levels of Mark’s students are artificially high, and Mark is forced to conduct most communication in English (even with his Chinese teacher, for example) for the benefit of the English-speaking audience.
I recently saw the movie Lost in Translation. My major in college was Japanese, I have lived in Kyoto for a year, and I still have friends there (both Japanese and foreign). So I had been looking forward to this movie for some time.
I liked the way the movie used language to alienate the characters, particularly in Bill Murray’s scenes — the Suntory photo shoot, the hospital visit, and the ridiculous talk show. There are no subtitles. The effect was a little spoiled for me because in each case I actually understood what the Japanese people were saying, but this really only added to the comic effect. (Here’s a translation of the first Suntory photo shoot to give you an idea.) I imagine a lot of the “acting” was really just improv between two people who really couldn’t communicate in real life.
(Of course, when I was laughing during these scenes and my girlfriend was only smiling, she wanted to know what was so funny, and then I needed to translate from Japanese to Chinese for her, which is a hard switch for me to make if my attention is partially diverted — which it was — so sometimes my “Japanese to Chinese translations” would come out as Japanese paraphrased in more Japanese. Oops. That really confused her.)
One of the reviewers on IMDb felt that the movie was overrated, and that Coppola largely ripped off Wong Kar-Wai. Interesting claim. I don’t know how much the movie was hyped overseas; I missed all that. I do know that I enjoyed the movie, but perhaps largely due to my familiarity with Japan on a personal level. I don’t usually enjoy Wong Kar-Wai’s movies.
One thing I hate about the American media is its neverending charade of “look how wacky those Japanese are!” The American media loves to find the most bizarre aspects of Japanese society and then exploit them. Yes, cultural differences are interesting, but the overall message that the media seems to be trying to convey is they’re not like us, and that can be dangerous. Lost in Translation presents cultural differences (and, indeed, even wackiness) in a way that seems very human. It didn’t annoy me; it made me smile. (Meanwhile my girlfriend, who has been to Japan but doesn’t speak much Japanese, was saying, “Haha, the Japanese really are like that!”)
I’d like to see Hollywood come out with more movies of this “being a foreigner in a distant land” variety. It seems like other countries do it a lot more. (I guess it’s because the terrorists, aliens, and natural disasters all converge on the USA every time, so naturally, that’s where we make the movies.) No, Midnight Express and Spy Game don’t count; that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about Hollywood movies that address the reality of expat life. I’m sure you could get something equally entertaining set in Germany, Thailand, Hong Kong, or even (gasp!)Mainland China.
[NOTE: I don’t pretend to be a movie expert, but that’s my take. I’d love to hear about other movies like this, or links to stories about Lost in Translation.]
I was pretty sleepy in Chinese class today. I didn’t get enough sleep last night, and the teacher’s explanations of the subtle differences between 4 different Chinese words somehow wasn’t jolting me into the desired state of consciousness. I desperately wanted to yawn, but that would be really rude to the teacher if she saw it, so I kept trying to sneak one in when she’d turn to the board to write, but then she would always turn around just a bit too soon, forcing me to clamp my mouth shut and depriving me of full yawn satisfaction at every attempt.
What did wake me up, though, was the teacher’s explanation of the word pī (劈), meaning “to chop, to cleave.” Somehow she decided a good point of reference was Tarantino’s new movie Kill Bill, in which someone’s head is cleaved in two with a katana, apparently. I was amazed. “You’ve seen it already?” I asked her, forgetting the whole point of the reference. (This was a woman who loved Taiwan’s sappy Meteor Garden — not someone likely to be into such a violent movie.) No, she hadn’t, but she’d seen ads online, and some head-cleaving image had stuck in her mind. Then we went off on a tangent about whether you could buy a pirated copy on the streets of Hangzhou yet. (We decided you could probably find it, but not better than a camcorder copy.)
I’ve never been a Tarantino fan, but this movie sure is creating a stir. It’s even trickled into my Chinese classroom. I’m intrigued.
The English title “Kill Bill” is translated into Chinese as something like “Catch and Kill Bill.” The Chinese tend to prefer a 4-character name over a 3-character name, and since “Bill” gets transliterated into the 2-character Bi’er, the “kill” part has two characters to play with. The translators decided to add the “pursuit” concept that the plot revolves around to the 1-character “kill” word.
So I’ll be watching the streets to catch that DVD release.
Ever hear of an opera called Turandot? Perhaps you’ve heard of the film The Turandot Project, which is about the opera. The opera is by Giacomo Puccini, and it’s in Italian, as any proper opera is, but it’s set in ancient China and tells the story of a Chinese princess named Turandot. The name, seemingly French, is not. In French the opera is called Turandeaux, but apparently in English the final t is pronounced. (I read that in a discussion board online, so I can’t really vouch for its reliability.) The name, written in traditional Chinese characters on the Turandot Project website, is 图兰朵 in simplified characters.
I haven’t done a whole lot of looking into it, but as far as I can tell, this “Turandot” character is entirely fictional. The Chinese name seems like a foreign name transcribed into Chinese characters to me, but I don’t really trust my own judgement. Google searches seem to just turn up mostly news about Zhang Yimou’s collaboration with Allan Miller on The Turandot Project movie.
It’s kind of interesting to me that an Italian made an opera set in China. I wonder what the Chinese think of it… but not enough to really bother to find that information online. The Chinese seemed OK with Disney’s Mu Lan, so I guess they’re OK with this too. I noticed, though, that Turandot’s ministers’ names are Ping, Pang and Pong. Hmmm.
The reason this opera came to my attention is because my big sister Amy will possibly sing in this opera. She became a part-time professional opera singer last year, and she has this new gig lined up. She might pass it up, however, to come see me in China instead. That would be cool if we could coordinate it.
Sunday, December 22nd. I get to the airport at about 8:30am. Check-in goes smoothly. Before long I’m on a plane. The only snag is that what I was told was a nonstop flight from Shanghai to Detroit was actually a flight with a stopover in Tokyo. Maybe I wouldn’t have to get off the plane, at least, and I could just sleep. I was ready for that.
On the plane I notice there are a lot of young people. Turns out there are two singing groups from universities in the U.S. which had been invited to Shanghai to perform. That includes religious Christmas songs. Kind of interesting; not interesting enough to keep me awake, however. My last thought as I drift off is, “I hope they wake me when they serve the meal….”
I awake as we’re arriving in Tokyo. I ask the girl next to me if there was a meal. “Yes, she tried to wake you. It was like you were dead to the world.” D’oh! Oh well. I was dead to the world. It’s the best way to sleep.
They make me get off the plane and wait around in the Tokyo airport for two hours. It’s strange hearing so much Japanese again so soon, when I wasn’t planning on it at all. Mostly, though, I’m just tired and hungry. I fall asleep in my chair and awake to the boarding call.
The flight starts off pleasantly enough. To my left is a silent Asian man. To my right is a large Marine, headed home from Okinawa with his family for Christmas. His family is behind us. He seems nice enough.
It isn’t long, however, before the trans-Pacific ennui sets in. I succeed in sleeping for a while. I devour a decent in-flight meal and sleep a little more. Soon, though, my Marine friend’s little 4-5 year old son “E.J.” becomes possessed. He is noisy. Then he starts this thing where he lies on his back in the seat and pummels my seat from behind with his feet. Not exactly conducive to restfulness. I can’t really complain because his parents tell him to stop. Thing is, he keeps just waiting a little while and then starting up again.
There is a mother and two nice young boys in front of me. They all love to recline their seats. I suppose that’s their right. My long cramped legs are forced into straddling the seat in front of me, my knee caps jammed up against the back of the arm rests of the seat. Then they come up with this fun game of repeatedly putting the arm rests up and down for no discernible reason. Are they doing it solely to keep painfully whacking my knee caps? Thanks.
My agony is interrupted by a new form of torture called Santa Who? — a “heart-warming” story of an amnesia-inflicted Santa who meets a selfish news reporter who needed a holiday change of heart. I watch the whole thing. I want to die.
Wait — now E.J. is pummeling me again and my friends in front of me are crushing my kneecaps with renewed vigor. Now I want to die.
There are only two good points to the flight. First, there seem to be an unusually large number of attractive women onboard. Not seated next to me, of course, but they are on the premises to give me something else to focus my attention on and help me pull through it. Thanks, ladies. Second, the airline serves ice cream after Santa Who? ends. Ice Cream! All right.
Silent Asian man is Chinese, as it turns out, and can’t figure out his immigration forms. I help him. He seems pleasantly surprised that I can help him with that in Chinese. His English doesn’t seem too hot. I found myself wondering if he always asks for Coke because he likes it, or because that’s all he can say.
Scooby Doo the Movie comes on. Vowing not to make the same mistake again, I refuse to put my earphones on. Still, my eyes stay glued to the screen, however, and I’m soon angry over the stupidity of the film. I manage to sleep a little more.
Hope comes in the form of the second in-flight meal. Not only does it satisfy my hunger, but with it comes peace to the whole plane, for a short time.
For the remaining stretch E.J. tests my patience. But I hold out. I don’t crack. We land.
Things start getting better after that, because I am actually in the U.S.A. I have just eaten, but I decide to spend some of my 3-hour layover in Detroit eating. I get chicken tacos with chips, salsa, and guacamole dip. You can not get that stuff in China! As I’m eating I notice someone else eating chilli cheese fries and I almost regret my choice of food. The discomforts of the past 13 hours quickly fade into the background as my stomach takes the spotlight. Plus there are more hot women in the Detroit airport. Hot American women. All right.
Before long I’m on my final flight, bound for Tampa. Is it just my imagination, or is the leg room shrinking with every flight?! My legs are really uncomfortable, but at least this flight is relatively short. As the plane lifts off the ground, I gaze out over the landscape. No snow. It looks like a sepia world, all in browns, tans, grays, drabs….
Despite the short travel time, my level of discomfort seems to rise proportionately. It is all I can do to keep from flipping out. I can’t sleep. I try to pass the time with the new issue of The Economist. Biotechnology in China. Hmmmm… (Ouch, my knees!)
In the end, after 24 hours of travel, I make it. As I arrive at the baggage claim, the familiar face of Paco greets me.
My Christmas this year has been an event partially shrouded in mystery since the summer. It was then that the idea to surprise my whole family with a Christmas visit home began to formulate.
Saturday, December 21st. I had meant to get on a bus to Shanghai as early as 3pm, but it wasn’t until 5:30pm that I finally make it out the door. I have been buying lots of Christmas presents and otherwise just preparing for my two weeks’ absence from school. Wilson graciously offered to cover my classes. He had the good idea of combining all our classes and throwing them in a multimedia room at night for those 2 weeks. So all I had to do was plan the content and put it into a wonderful PowerPoint presentation, which was then burned onto a CD and left in Wilson’s hand the day I left.
So I step out the door at around 5:30pm. It’s raining, as it has been for days. The shoes which I have purposely not been wearing for the past 2 days in order to make sure they’re dry for my trip home are wet within 10 minutes of stepping out the door, despite my umbrella. The guard on the ground floor of our building says this damn rain is going to continue for another 3-4 days, at least. All I can think is I’ll be home soon….
I get out to Zhoushan Dong Road just in time to miss a taxi. And then it’s 30 minutes of trudging through a gray, wet world, my rolling suitcase reluctantly trailing behind me on this misadventure. I timed it just wrong: 6pm is when taxi drivers get off their shifts, so around 5:30 the drivers are all heading back to the station and refuse to give anyone a ride, even if the car is empty and the “vacant” light is on. It’s almost impossible to get a taxi at this time of day, but I was standing out in the rain with a heavy suitcase full of gifts and a backpack, and I was going home. Unfortunately, the taxi drivers don’t seem to realize this. Empty cab after empty cab whizzes right by my wet, frantically flailing figure, my furious curses unheard.
Eventually, someone does stop. For some reason, when drivers are getting off duty, they do this thing where they pick up a friend (?) before getting their last ride, and then drop off their friend on the way to your destination. It’s definitely not legit, but they all do it. After waiting 30 minutes in the rain, I wasn’t going to complain.
On the way to the bus station, there’s a traffic jam. All the huge construction trucks in Hangzhou seem to have congregated on the road we need to take to get to the East Bus Station. Our driver doesn’t seem to have much regard for our personal safety, or at least not for the structural integrity of his vehicle. Our windshield repeatedly comes scant inches from the lower end of the huge truck in front of us. Time wears on, and my driver quickly learns I am not in a chatty mood. I am beginning to wonder if there are still going to be buses to Shanghai by the time I get there.
So I finally arrive at the East Bus Station. I loathe that place. It’s hard to explain exactly why, but the scalpers that assail you before you’re even out of your taxi would definitely be high on the list. Shanghai, Shanghai! they yell in my face. The fact that I was actually bound for Shanghai makes them all the more annoying.
When I get to the ticket office, there is a small crowd outside, but no one inside. All the ticket windows are closed up. “They’re closed,” the scalpers gleefully announce, a grinning pack of vultures descending upon me. “Shanghai…”
Defeated, I begin reluctant negotiations with them, and 80rmb is the cheapest I’m hearing. I start following that offer, but as I trudge past the Shanghai-bound waiting room, on a whim I duck in to investigate. The girl at the front tells me I can still buy a ticket to Shanghai. I’m not getting her convoluted instructions to the last remaining open ticket window, so she kindly takes me there herself. I buy a legit 55rmb ticket to Shanghai that leaves in 10 minutes. I am ecstatic.
So I try to sleep on the bus to Shanghai, and to dry out my feet a little as well. Both efforts only meet with limited success. I am chagrined to notice that although the VCD being played is not showing up on the screens (evidently the video out isn’t working), the inane Chinese soap opera dialogue nonetheless spews on. Greeeeat….
I get to Shanghai and meet my friend. I had a good dinner. Get to see famous Hong Kong director Wong War-kai’s movie In the Mood for Love, and I gotta say, I am not impressed. Yeah, I can see the artsiness of the cinematography. I suppose it is cleverly filmed. But in my mind no movie can be forgiven for failing in its primary function: entertainment. This movie and its endless parade of qipao bores me.
Sunday, December 22nd. Probably partly due to In the Mood for Love, I fail in my effort to stay up all night. I do that so that I can be blissfully unconscious for the 20+ hour journey home to Tampa, Florida. I inadvertently get a few hours of sleep. These few hours almost make me late leaving for the airport. I leave in a rush.
My friend told me that I should ask for a 20% discount to the airport since it was so far. I was aware that in Shanghai you can sometimes negotiate cheaper taxi fares, but in my experience that only happens at night. So when I stop the first taxi I come across and tell him I want to go to the Pudong International Airport and I expect a 20% discount, the driver is a little surprised too. “In the daytime?” he says. “I’ll give you 10% off.”
“Never mind,” I say, and start walking.
A minute later my luggage and I are in the taxi. 20% off it is. It is 7:30am, and my flight leaves at 9:30am. It might be as much as an hour’s drive to the airport. I am a little nervous.