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More Cultural Exchanges

By Henry P. Raleigh
ART TIMES june 2006

I JUST KNOW there are many of you out there thirsting for further insights into the melding of Eastern and Western cultures via film. It’s fortunate that I have access to so many of Asia’s fine products. Well, OK, if you wish to be mean-spirited about it, maybe most of these are pirated American films; nonetheless, in the re-packaging of these films there is frequently introduced an Eastern flavor and the result is a sort of cinematic McDonald’s Egg Foo Young.

The 2005 (or 2004, depending on your source) “D.E.B.S.” is a splendid example of how the meeting of two cultures, illegal though it maybe, can be delightfully illuminating, if not bewildering. I assume my copy was recorded by a film lover in Shanghai (at any rate, that’s where the DVD came from) in one of the many theaters that feature American films that have suffered poor runs here. It is somewhat out of focus and fades a bit here and there — a small matter, really. “D.E.B.S.” admittedly was not well received by critics — actually it was largely, if not totally, ignored but, of course, that was before it had received a new cultural infusion. As described on the disc’s cover, the film is about four ‘creme fighting hotties with piller bodies’ — Amy, Max, Janet and Domenique, who are recruited by the U.S. Government to capture Lucy Diamond, the ‘readlist creminal the world has never known’.

You may find a certain resemblance to another American film, “Charlie’s Angels” — to put it bluntly, a very close resemblance but that’s not an important point, I think. What really makes “D.E.B.S.” an unusual study is the translation, sub-titled in English and impossible to delete. Now you may ask why is an English translation needed when the actors all speak English. I don’t know — this is one of the mysterious things about the Orient. More, the English dialogue appears to have been translated into Chinese and then from that translated back into English with mind-boggling consequence. You see, the sub-titles are large and in glaring white against a black ground while the film, including the audio, is, one might say, fuzzy. This intriguing combination compels the viewer to read the dialogue — in fact, to be captivated by the dialogue. How can one not feel a greater emotional impact at a sub-title proclaiming, ‘He harmed my heart, why’ than for a flat-out ‘He dumped me’? Isn’t it more pleasing to be greeted by ‘Good is the morning rice’ than the usual American youth’s ‘Hey’?

Rice figures prominently in the translations. I guess this is another Asian puzzle or perhaps it underscores the importance of this food in the East. In an instruction to one of the hotties designating the leader of a mission (Michael) we read: ‘Michael is responsible for the rice, second’. And later, when Amy is asked her name the sub-title proclaims, ‘Love the rice with work school, 21 classes’. There is a suggestion here that rice is ordered, like our angelic hierarchy, into twenty-one levels from the very best to the kind, I imagine, my wife makes. On occasion, the rice symbol is too deep to grasp as with the phrase, ‘What’s going on?’ becoming ‘Love the rice on the hoof, love the rice in the bowl’.

Some common American expressions are often turned into powerful poetic similitudes as ‘Inebriate oneself and demolish the world’ for ‘Get smashed and drop out’. Yet, interestingly enough, our admonition ‘Please don’t smoke’ translates as ‘Please don’t smoke’. This, no doubt, an Americanism so outlandish that it is incapable of translation by the Eastern mind. And no wonder given the air quality in Shanghai. Les Deux Amour, a café named in the film, goes through a whirlwind of images — ‘Two Lovers’ as spoken by an actor in English, back to Chinese, and once more around to wind up as ‘Thunder is all’.

Engagingly, the F word, used with restraint in the film — after all, the D.E.B.S. are apparently high school girls dressed alike in plaid mini-skirts, white blouses and school ties — is frequently tossed in gratis by the translator whenever he (or she) is stuck for an English equivalent. Any sentence with the word rice, however, is never so desecrated. French fries comes out ‘F_ bean curds’ (Francophobic?); ‘Good of’ is ‘OK’; ‘Poor why and so’ (frankly, I gave up on this one); ‘Etc.’ does yeoman duty for ‘Help, help, help’.

“D.E.B.S.” did enjoy the distinction of being voted the fourth worst film of 2005 by Ebert and Roeper but, of course, they would have seen it, if seen at all, without benefit of the Eastern flavoring. I note that cable film channels have picked up “D.E.B.S.” so it will make the rounds for the next decade or so. If cable was smart, they’d throw in the Shanghai version. Cable viewers would certainly not be offended by the imaginative use of the F word and ‘Please don’t smoke’ shows good intentions.

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