No more dubs: What subtitles could mean in the language of cinema

A minor cultural revolution is taking place in American theaters.

Words. No, not well-written scripts _ that would be a major upheaval. We’re talking the written word splayed on the lower half of a movie screen.

To cash in on the action spurred by “The Matrix” and buoyed by “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” the 1993 period action movie “Iron Monkey” has been re-released with an introduction, new music and subtitles as big as a billboard. The stunning twist is that this movie is no epic, really little more than standard Hong Kong action buttressed by famous actors and stunning martial arts.

When Ang Lee kept to his linguistic guns and filmed “Crouching Tiger” in Mandarin, he did more than spark an international fervor for wirework and fighting ladies. He wrested a grudging acknowledgment from Hollywood that mainstream audiences would pay to see a film in its native language.

Subtitles of course have been the province of the arthouse, showcasing movies which would attract only a small literate audience anyway, so why not save the expense of dubbing? A regular Joe, on the other hand, wants to sit down in his chair, balance his buttered popcorn on his beer belly and watch some pretty pictures and maybe the occasional special effect. The insistent presence of letters would just be a cruel infliction. Besides, where’s the bouncing ball?

The contagious, English-only attitude fortunately may turn out to be without merit. When Lee created his homage to his cinematic past, the director wanted to have his epic steeped in its sensibilities, which goes beyond costumes or shooting on location. To suspend audiences in another world, you cannot leave comforting strands of their everyday for them to cling to.

Language conveys culture, dialect denotes geography and slang signals class status. Imagine James Bond with a southern drawl _ no matter how convoluted the villain’s doomsday scheme or outrageous the seductions, a “Bond, James Bond, y’all” would complete blow out the fantasy. Think Kevin Costner mouthing his lines as Robin Hood or the Bostonian presidential aide in “Thirteen Days.” Think how an arrow or a Cuban missile directed at Costner would have spared everyone the misery.

Now, the hoards coming to see the standard Hong Kong action film likely aren’t seeking out mind-wringing plots. One justification for dubbing (unfair as it may be) has been that you wouldn’t have to pick up the brain you left by the door to read. In truth, in some cases you don’t need the dialogue to comprehend the stitches of dialogue that exist to connect one fight scene to another. Audiences too easily pick up visual clues, trained they are in international cinematic shorthand: For instance, grimacing people with facial scars are villains, unless they’re stoic loners in big straw hats, in which case they’re tragic figures seeking vengeance.

Truly, though, far more grating than subtitles is the same accursed, cut-rate voice cast hired for every Kung Fu theater episode in the last 20 years. Whoever hires these dubbers _ four or five men, plus one really shrill woman _ must be paying off some sort of lifelong blood debt. It’s bad enough they must add unnatural pauses in their elocution to match the onscreen lip movement. Their horrible cawing induces uncontrollable, bone-deep spasms, as though their pitch carries some extra dog-whistle dimension that prods at your temporal lobe.

Besides, subtitles can serve as an excuse that these movies are educational. You pick up a few phrases here and there better than phonic tapes. Admittedly, my years of watching Mandarin movies wouldn’t serve me in everyday conversation. Few occasions arise for phrases like “Long live the emperor,” “You killed my master,” “I will avenge my family” and “I’m going to get you and your little dog, too.” (Sorry, that was a “Wizard of Oz” flashback.)

Also, consider that most arthouse movies until recently have been French or Italian. In a dub-free zone, Western ears can become better attuned to the cadences of Asian languages. Like it or not, accents _ in no small part perpetuated by mass entertainment _ have been chained to certain attributes. An Irish lilt is friendly, a Jewish cant comedic and a French accent sultry (unless accompanied by a lot of phlegm, in which case it suggests an insufferably haughty maitre de). German accents still connote militancy, although not so much the wholesale villainy anymore.

Makes sense, since generations of European immigrants assimilating into American-speak has made these accents palatable and distinguishable. The influx of East Asian migrants has only been significant in the last 40 years, and south Asians in the last decade. Japanese guttural utterances at least may conjure a samurai flavor, but Chinese and Indian accents are still the voices of a subservient class _ Hop Sing stirfrying up a bonanza over a campfire or the convenience store clerk asking if you want a frozen cherry Cola slush. Who knows, enough exposure might alert viewers to Asian-American actors who are forced to affect accents and do it terribly, like any “Law & Order” episode or one particularly egregious “X-Files” episode in which a guy spoke the most palpably awful Chinese _ little wonder, since the actor is Japanese. (Come on, “The X-Files” is filmed in Vancouver, and the casting director couldn’t find one Chinese speaker amongst the thousands of Hong Kong expatriates?)

Yes, Russians and Italians alike have to contend with a Mafioso complex and we won’t even get into when Middle Eastern accents come into play. I wouldn’t blame Southerners for wanting to secede from Hollywood for all their hick cousin depictions. Indeed, defenders of spoken English even now battle the encroaching nasal Los Angeles twang, taking territory once held by the Midwest.

In mass entertainment, the permutations of language issues are endless. That is why it’s especially gratifying to see _ and hear _ when it does accommodate other voices.

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Vera H-C Chan can be reached at 925-977-8428 at vchan(AT)cctimes.com.

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(c) 2001, Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.).

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