Translating Eastern Cinema into Western Success

Translating Eastern Cinema into Western Success
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If you have more than a passing interest in cinema, you may well have heard the rumblings surrounding a new film scheduled for release at the end of 2016. The film in question is called ‘The Great Wall’, a record-breaking 135 million dollar epic set entirely in China, with a huge all-star Chinese cast, directed by Zhang Yimou (who you may recognise as the director of Hero & House of Flying Daggers), but perhaps surprisingly, it stars American actor, Matt Damon, in one of the leading roles.

Damon’s appointment has drawn some criticism in the media with accusations of whitewashing (the casting practice in which white actors are cast in historically non-white character roles). Yimou denies this and it’s interesting to hear the director’s motivations behind the decision. “For the first time, a film deeply rooted in Chinese culture, with one of the largest Chinese casts ever assembled, is being made at tentpole scale for a world audience. I believe that is a trend that should be embraced by our industry… Matt Damon is not playing a role that was originally conceived for a Chinese actor. The arrival of his character in our story is an important plot point. There are five major heroes in our story and he is one of them – the other four are all Chinese.”

Leaving the controversies aside, this is a clear indication that there is a will within China to produce films that can attract a global appeal. In 2013, China’s box office was worth £1.7bn – second only to the United States. In 2015 it had jumped to £5.1 billion and is predicted to wrestle the top spot from the US by 2020. Having a massive audience for imported cinema is one thing, but China is fast becoming a domestic film powerhouse to boot. As of writing, the top two grossing movies in China to date are both domestic releases, Monster Hunt and The Mermaid. Released in 2015 and 2016 respectively, they have raked in a combined box office total in excess of £600 million. When you compare that to the American box office takings for Star Wars: The Force Awakens that achieved £680 million, you can see there is huge potential for Chinese film, the big difference being that many of the Chinese made blockbusters are relatively unknown outside of their domestic market.

So what approach can Eastern Cinema (a collective term for productions from Asian countries that include Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Thailand and Indonesia) productions take to generate success at box offices in the west? Collaborative multinational production, as in the case of ‘The Great Wall’, is perhaps one part of the puzzle and this approach is becoming more commonplace to aid the global credentials of new films and allow Hollywood a route into the somewhat restricted Chinese market. However, as this article will demonstrate, even such major-league productions can sometimes struggle to achieve the elusive goal of worldwide box-office success.

At this point, it’s important to discuss translation’s role in the process, as an intrinsic ingredient in the recipe for multinational box-office success, and not just in terms of language, but culturally as well. Translators are relied upon to transform film scripts into new languages so that the work can be readily understood, appreciated and enjoyed by audiences around the world. Apart from the ‘make or break’ economic importance of capturing western audiences, which Eastern Cinema could reap huge rewards from, this process presents a further series of challenges which make the translator’s task more complex than a simple reinterpretation of soundtrack speech. To remain authentic and appealing to overseas filmgoers, any new adaptation of film dialogue must take the cultural context into account – which means the ‘source’ culture must be respected and represented in the localised end-product using appropriate devices to retain the original meaning. Even when this feat is achieved, an inspired foreign-language edit can be ruined if the technical aspects are ignored. For example, international audiences will not be impressed by a clumsy voice-dubbing attempt which distracts attention and risks compromising the artistic standards, and therefore the box-office potential, of the entire production.

Despite mainland China’s burgeoning global Cinema assault, it is important to note that Eastern Cinema as a whole is not exactly a stranger to mainstream success in the west. As early as the 1970s, Asian cinema, specifically in/from Hong Kong, had already identified the genre of martial arts films as one route to crossover success in western markets. Here, the Hong Kong American martial-arts icon Bruce Lee was undoubtedly a major influence in feature films such as ‘Fist of Fury’ (1972) and ‘Enter the Dragon’ (1973) which, as well as helping to spark a global martial-arts craze, also served to add new dimensions to the way international audiences perceived Asian people and culture. Though the novelty of the martial-combat formula inevitably waned over the years following the boom in the 70s, recent times have seen a huge resurgence in crowd-pulling martial arts films. Films like ‘Ong Bak’ (2003),  ‘Ip Man’ (2008) and ‘The Raid’ (2011)  have all demonstrated that the martial arts genre remains as popular as ever.  A large proportion of Eastern Cinema that has gained success on the international stage still relies on the martial arts genre but it’s no longer limited to productions from Hong Kong alone.

Though Chinese cinema’s ‘wuxia’ (martial chivalry) films borrow from an earlier literary tradition, they also use stories which focus upon martial heroes and combine elements of history, fantasy and adventure. The landmark picture which epitomises this epic genre is undoubtedly ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ (2000), directed by Ang Lee. Overcoming multiple disadvantages on its path to fame and fortune, this Mandarin-scripted film used four lead actors with sharply conflicting regional accents, thus posing potential problems for the domestic market. It was then released internationally, just with added subtitles, for the benefit of western audiences. Despite the poor track record of subtitled foreign-language films, mostly seen as art-house productions with limited appeal for mainstream western cinema audiences, this mystical tale of a great warrior’s quest was a resounding success. Gaining numerous industry awards and generally regarded as one of the finest examples of its type, ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ nevertheless attracted criticism for its English translation, which to some extent compromised some of the film’s cultural authenticity. Furthermore, some claim the script itself was substantially modified to produce a gender balance more in keeping with western expectations.

Despite these minor dissatisfactions, Ang Lee’s masterpiece demonstrated pleasing evidence of ‘counter-flow’ – where western success gained recognition for Chinese film-making, whilst also securing economic- and cultural capital. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that a 2016 sequel, ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny’ adopted a very different strategy. Filmed in English to accommodate the anticipated global market, the original footage was subsequently overdubbed in Mandarin Chinese to meet the needs of China’s own filmgoers.

Beyond mainstream Asian fighting arts, the spectacular success of Japanese cinema’s Studio Ghibli productions requires a more nuanced explanation. Launched in 1985 by film directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata and the producer Toshio Suzuki, Studio Ghibli’s output consisted of animated, subtitled films of exquisite quality which instantly found favour with film-animation connoisseurs everywhere. Despite masterful execution, magical content and a sophisticated market following, Studio Ghibli pictures remained a minority interest until their link up with the Disney Corporation. Once twinned with a like-minded studio which understood their medium and respected their artistic values, Ghibli’s work received a sympathetic revamp making it instantly more accessible to appreciative English-speaking audiences. Original Japanese soundtracks and bland subtitles were replaced with carefully sculpted overdubs using distinctive and familiar artists such as Christian Bale and Clare Danes. In some instances, new release versions even offered the dual option of viewing the reworked US dub edition or the earlier Japanese cut complete with its original subtitles.

Disney’s remodelling and enthusiastic product endorsement opened up Studio Ghibli’s award-winning catalogue to multitudes of western film fans who were immediately enthralled by titles such as ‘Princess Mononoke’ (1997), ‘Spirited Away’ (2001) and ‘The Wind Rises’ (2013). Audiences were treated to a new kind of anime production often presenting a blend of fantasy and spirituality alongside unexpectedly serious subjects such as the Hiroshima bombing (Grave of the Fireflies, 1988), mental health and eco-terrorism. A number of aspirational female characters highlighted new approaches to gender, replacing one-dimensional stereotypes with rounded, complex and touchingly ‘human’ heroines. Even heavyweight content failed to suppress Ghibli’s whimsical, free-flowing presentation of themes which often seemed to take their inspiration from European-style backdrops and writers such as Lewis Carroll, Roald Dahl and others just as readily as they borrowed from traditional Japanese settings and Asian folklore.

Studio Ghibli’s winning formula may also help to shed some light on why many eastern cinema classics fail to conquer international markets. Without budget support earmarked for ‘localising’ a feature film so that its revised content matches the linguistic and cultural expectations of a particular foreign audience, companies are forced to look for low-cost ways to bring their film product to new overseas markets. Subtitles are a much cheaper alternative than dubbing, and software-generated translations are more affordable than human translators. Unfortunately, such machine-translated output cannot cope with much beyond direct word-for-word translation, producing random comic dialogue such as the Chinese-cinema Kung Fu movie where a character warns: “Beware! Your bones are going to be disconnected.”

Inexperienced human translators will fare no better if they don’t completely understand idiomatic humour, or are unable to suitably transpose cultural references from the source script into the new target language and culture. Though dubbing the required dialogue on to the original film is undoubtedly more audience-friendly, not only is it prone to the same misinterpretations as translated subtitles, but it also calls for extra skills and technical expertise.

Arguably, the most pressing requirement for effective dubbing is a competent native speaker who can also replicate extra-linguistic speech elements such as pitch, speed and intonation. For translators, however, lip synchronisation remains one of the greatest challenges, especially where the film footage includes many close-up shots. Here, the new dialogue must be closely shaped to match the original phrase lengths, otherwise audiences will quickly sense discrepancies and realise they are listening to a voice-over. Synchronised lip movements are more important to the viewer’s understanding and enjoyment than even the most accurately translated dialogue. This is why best-practice translators will add or delete words in order to preserve both the sense and on-screen coordination evident in the original soundtrack. Similar difficulties occur with body language such as gestures and eye contact. These features add richness and emphasis to all spoken dialogue, and any post-production language revisions must seek to preserve the same interplay between these elements and the scripted speech as observed in the original performance.

Many other localising touches beyond the translator’s remit can also impact upon how a foreign audience will receive a new film. For example, both Japanese cinema and TV-series products have benefited from devices such as adding clips showing authentic localised scenery, flipping animation backdrops so that highway traffic appears to drive on the proper side of the road, and giving characters new names – and often new traits, behaviours and mannerisms too – in order to build a meaningful cultural resonance with a local audience. Some productions have even used local celebrities to capture important cultural nuances.

Though multiple factors are usually involved in the adaptation of Asian cinema for new markets, the need for high-calibre translations are a core essential. However, as the Disney Corporation has ably demonstrated, a willingness to bring a holistic approach to the task can unleash talent and reap dividends. If success in these arenas is deemed important, then the full implications of localisation must be properly resourced. Otherwise, (as the Matt Damon controversy shows) new releases will continue to draw criticism, success will have to rely on chance innovation, and even the very best (such as Ghibli) may fail to flourish in an inopportune climate.

Has that inspired you to try out some Asian movies yourself? Check out the list below for some of K International’s favourite examples of great Eastern Cinema!

Infernal Affairs (2002) – Hong Kong
The inspiration for Martin Scorsese’s remake ‘The Departed’, Infernal Affairs is an exceptional crime thriller starring Andy Lau & Tony Leung. Once you have enjoyed this film you will be glad to know there is a prequel and a sequel to watch as well.

Old Boy (2003) – South Korea
A chilling and often brutal mystery thriller, Oldboy is the central instalment of director Park Chan-wook’s vengeance trilogy. Not one for the faint of heart but outstanding cinema nonetheless.

My Neighbour Totoro (1988) – Japan
For something much, much lighter but no less brilliant, you should take a look at Hayao Miyazaki‘s (Studio Ghibli) masterpiece ‘My Neighbour Totoro’ for one of the very best feel-good animated films ever to grace the screen. There’s a whole series of works by the studio that you can follow it up with too!

Hero (2002) – China
Perhaps the quintessential example of China’s ability to produce outstanding cinema.  Much more than just a martial arts movie, ‘Hero’ is a lesson in beautiful cinematography, spectacular action and outstanding storytelling, all rolled into one.

Battle Royale (2000) – Japan
Although the author of the Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins, claims never to have seen Battle Royale or read the Manga upon which the film is based, you would be forgiven for thinking she might be fibbing. The premise of the two films is near identical however the Japanese ‘original’ pulls no punches in its gory visceral, approach, some groundbreaking cinema on show here!

Ong Bak (2003) – Thailand
While the plotline might be a little thin, Ong Bak more than makes up for it with its unbelievable choreography, as you can see from the trailer below. What’s even more impressive is that this was filmed entirely without any reliance on wirework, Jackie Chan eat your heart out.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (2003) – South Korea
The film is divided into five segments, each depicting a stage in the life of a novice Buddhist monk and his older teacher who live on a floating monastery. The segments are roughly ten to twenty years apart, and the action of each takes place during the season of its title. ‘Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring’ was met with worldwide acclaim and is widely regarded as one of the best examples of Eastern Cinema.

The Grandmaster (2013) – China/Hong Kong
Written and Directed by Wong Kar-wai and starring Tony Leung, ‘The Grandmaster’ tells the story of Yip Man (Bruce Lee’s iconic martial arts Teacher). Not to be confused with the Ip Man trilogy (which are all well worth watching in their own right), this film is beautifully filmed and expertly choreographed by well-known fight coordinator Yuen Woo-ping.

Red Cliff (parts 1 & 2) (2008-2009) – China
The full 4 hour epic ‘Red Cliff’ is truly a sight to behold, don’t get caught out by the short 2 and half hour European cut, make sure you find the complete version. Red Cliff is a historical epic in a similar vein to western productions like ‘Gladiator’ but on a scale closer to that of ‘the Lord of the Rings’. Directed by John Woo and starring a who’s who of Chinese cinema including Tony Leung, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Zhang Fengyi, Chang Chen, Zhao Wei, Hu Jun and Lin Chi-ling.

Nobody Knows (2004) – Japan
Nobody Knows tells the heart-wrenching and sometimes disturbing true story of four children: Akira, Kyōko, Shigeru and Yuki, aged between five and twelve years old who are abandoned by their mother in a Tokyo apartment. The story takes place over a 12 month period where the children learn to depend on each other for survival. The BBC called this film ‘a disturbing waking-dream’, probably not one for a first date then.

There are many more great examples of Eastern Cinema, let us know some of your favourites and give us your film reviews in the comments below