Lost in Translation: Foreign Films That Didn’t Work Overseas
Self-styled cinephiles often spend time convincing their less enlightened friends to watch more foreign movies. There’s a whole world of fantastic film out there, they say, that the average viewer has neglected because they don’t like films they have to read. And this is true. Some of the best films of all time were not made in Hollywood, and so are lumped in with the rest of the ‘foreign movies’, regardless of quality, mass appeal or actual foreign-ness.
But sometimes foreign films, largely appreciated on their home soil, do not work when they are slapped with subtitles and shipped off to the US of A. Here are some films that, for whatever reason, did not do so well with a non-native audience or lost something in the translation process, meaning an English-speaking audience cannot truly appreciate them.
Shaolin Soccer/Kung Fu Hustle
Two of the highest-grossing films of all time in Hong Kong are actor/director Stephen Chow’s slapstick comedies Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle. Both of these films are part of the well-established ‘Nun-Chuckles’ genre of Kung Fu comedy films, and both films are fairly outside of Hong Kong. Ask any fan of the more absurd end of the comedy spectrum, and they could probably chew your ear off about Chow for hours. But what they couldn’t do, if they don’t speak Cantonese, is talk about the original dialogue.
There are two versions of both these films available to the English-speaking audience: a version with subtitles, and a version with English dubbing. Stephen Chow, talented human being that he is, speaks fluent English. Naturally, he provides his own voice for the English dub. However, though he does his best, what he does not provide is an English equivalent of the film’s puns, wordplay and nonsensical dialogue. Neither do the subtitles. Because, as many commentators have noted, Chow’s trademark humorous use of language is untranslatable.
Known locally as Mo lei tau (literally: makes no sense), Chow’s Cantonese dialogue is stuffed full of mispronunciations, tonal inflections, sound substitutions and juxtapositions that give the already hilarious movies a whole new comic dimension. Mo lei tau cannot be replicated in English because of inherent differences in the way the languages work. Translating comedy is difficult, but slapstick works in any language. Because of this, English-speaking viewers can only see Shaolin Soccer as an absurdist slapstick comedy with little depth, and Kung Fu Hustle as a film that starts out similarly and ends up as a conventional, laugh-free martial arts flick. The films are hilarious, and still worth your time, but unless you learn Cantonese, you may never know their true brilliance.
Another of Hong Kong’s highest-grossing films was less successful abroad for different reasons. Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster is an epic retelling of the story of Ip-Man: kung fu master, outlaw, eventual teacher of Bruce Lee. The story spans several decades, several wars and more than several roundhouse kicks, but Hong Kong viewers loved the emotional moments of sensitivity for which Wong is known. These moments were mostly cut from the international version of the film, so that the final product is more like a straight action film. What’s more, sections of historical stock footage overlaid with subtitles describing China’s past were added to clue in non-Chinese audiences.
If that sounds like dumbing the film down and treating the audience like idiots, that’s because it’s dumbing the film down and treating the audience like idiots. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the film was recut by Wong and Harvey ‘Scissorhands’ Weinstein for international release. When asked about cuts he made to the film, Weinstein said, literally, ‘Who gives a sh*t?’ and went on to talk about how ‘kick ass’ the film is. Yes, Mr Weinstein this version of the film is ‘kick ass’, but is that what it was meant to be?
Despite the edits that made the film ‘easier’ for simple-minded Americans to understand, The Grandmaster did not do well at the US box office and the film’s Hong Kong cut, available on Blu-ray via import, has been widely acclaimed on the internet in articles that slam the Weinstein version. It’s almost like anyone who would pay to see a film like The Grandmaster wouldn’t appreciate being condescended to with explanatory title cards.
Dinner for One
This is actually a case of something being gained in translation – an English language film that never caught on in its home country, but became astronomically successful overseas. Dinner for One is a 1963, single-shot, black and white TV version of this 1920s English play is essential viewing for millions around Europe on New Year’s Eve. Watching Dinner for One is an annual tradition in Germany, Norway, Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, Austria and Switzerland. The sketch itself is extremely straightforward.
It features a butler serving dinner to an elderly woman in her mansion. The woman, sitting on a long table, is seemingly unaware that she is alone, and she asks the waiter to pour drinks for all her companions. The waiter takes it upon himself to impersonate these companions and drink all the drinks, getting increasingly drunk in the process. He eventually adopts a strange limp/gangsta lean, presumably as a result of his inebriation. (Perhaps this isn’t that straightforward after all.)
In English-speaking countries, this sketch was never successful. Most British or US commentators are baffled by its popularity on the continent. The English dialogue is clumsy at best, with a prominent line being “same procedure as every year.” The unnatural banality of this line has not stopped it from entering common parlance in Germany as a popular catchphrase. It is hard to say why this film is so popular in Europe. It might just be that it’s fairly ordinary slapstick (this is no Shaolin Soccer) is just made funnier to the Germans because it happens to a traditionally uptight and reserved Englishman. Or it might be that an English playwright in the 1920s managed to totally capture the European sense of humour like no English writer before him.