Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Directed by: Mikael Håfström
Produced by: Mike Medavoy; Barry Mendel; Jake Myers
Written by Hossein Amini
Starring: John Cusack; Gong Li; Chow Yun-fat; Jeffrey Dean Morgan; David Morse; Ken Watanabe
Music: by Klaus Badelt
Cinematography: Benoît Delhomme
Studio: Phoenix Pictures; Barry Mendel
Distributed by: The Weinstein Company
Release date(s) June 10, 2010 (Shanghai)
Country: United States
Language: Mandarin/English

Dubbing is a big business in film industry. Sometimes, it’s reasonable as well. Mani Ratnam’s Roja won nation-wide accolades after the Tamil film was dubbed into Hindi. That’s how a lot of people saw The Jurassic Park when it was realsed in India in Hindi. Post- The Jurassic Park, releasing Hollywood movies in Hindi and other south Indian laguages like Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam has become a norm. Hollywood films are always dubbed in European languages.

There are severeal pluses in the scenario. It widens the market for the film for those who do not know the language of its origin, especially, for those who cannot even read subtitles in English. Rajnikant’s latest blockbuster Robot was dubbed from Tamil to Hindi, and it’s, well, a blockbuster.

On the minuses, dubbing breaks the myth of a film as a constructed reality. How do yo react when a Chinese farmer starts speaking in Queen’s English, or Tom Cruise in Malayalam. At best, it can alienate the audience from the screen story. There are also problems inherent with translation; there are so many expression in a source language that may not lend itself to an equivalent alternative in the target language. For example, I remember a certain film, in English, the character says, ‘shit’, and it’s translated to Hindi as ‘he bagawan’, for ‘shit’ as a cuss word does not have a Hindi equivalent.

Hence, I prefer subtitles, as subtitles does not alter the actual film in any way; it’s only an add-on to help us understand the narrative.

That’s one of the reasons why I could never sit through Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor and Scorsese’s Kundun. Both are great films, but the language used in these films break that ‘willing suspension of disbelieve’. I can understand the emperor talking to the Peter O’Toole character in English, but when he speaks to the royal guard in English, that’s too much. Let them speak in the language they are supposed to and give us subtitles. The same is the case with Kundun; I could not come in terms with the fact that those poor villagers in rural Ladakh speak impeccable English, even if with an accent.

It’s all the more difficult to withstand when an American character starts speaking in Mandarin, as happens in case of the John Cusack charater in the film Shanghai. It’s utterly disorienting.

Shanghai, directed by Mikael Håfström, is a Hollywood, Thai and Chinese co-production. The English version has been released at certain centres, including India, but not in US so far. The copy of the film I saw was the Chinese version. The film also stars Gong Li, Chow Yun-fat, and Ken Watanabe. Watanabe was the reason, I wanted to see the film. But to see Cusack sprouting Mandarin was surreal.

The film itself is not bad, if not great. It’s a classic film noir, so much so that you can spot the instances which make it a noir film — including Gong Li as the femme fatale (she makes a brilliant femme fatale; I remember her in Farewell My Concubine, and how I hated her in that film, she was that good.)

The scene is, as you may have guessed already, Shanghai, a few days before the Japanese bombing in Pearl Harbour. Here, the inspiration is, The Third Man, where the city, the only place in China still unoccupied by the Japanese, has been divided into different blocks. There are underground resistance groups, there are spies, counter-spies, opium dens, dazzling casinos, ball dances, mysterious men in fedoras, dark rain-soaked evenings in deserted alleys, shoot-outs at public places, crimes of the past, and most impartially, dead body of an American. Enters the Cusack character to investigate the murder of his friend, who was having an affair with the mistress of the powerful Japanese Captain Tanaka. And so on and so forth.

In short, there’s is nothing here you haven’t seen before, except, John Cusack speaking in Mandarin in the copy I saw.

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