Movie people often complain about American audiences being ignorant. One of the beefs is that they don't want to watch foreign films and have an aversion to anything not in English. These days,
I'm thinking that Hollywood East is just as guilty of such parochial laziness.
The Simpsons Movie is now showing in Hong Kong. To its many fans, the satirical, farcical and outlandish misadventures of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and baby Maggie represent an epoch of American humour and a watershed in pop culture. Critics suggest the doughnut-eating Homer has eclipsed in social influence his namesake - you know, the 8th-century Greek poet who wrote some memorable epics not set in Springfield.
Anyway, it's hard to imagine the Simpsons speaking in any language other than low-brow English. Given the visual puns, in-jokes and Americana (and more oblique pop culture) references, it must be an impossible task to translate into a foreign vernacular. Yet, they have.
Like most animation features released in Hong Kong, a Cantonese version has been made to cater to the much larger market. I don't begrudge the effort. Obviously, the dubbed Simpsons will appeal to viewers whose English isn't up to scratch. What is distressing is that the dubbed version outnumbers the original English screens almost two to one. So much for Hong Kong as an international city. The English print of The Simpsons Movie is running in 10 theatres whereas the Cantonese dub is on 27 screens. Doh!
At the premiere last week, even its local voice cast admit there is no way to capture the nuance of barking 'don't have a cow, man' in Chinese. As actress Josie Ho Chiu-yee (who dubbed Marge) confesses, 'It's like a foreigner trying to translate a Stephen Chow Sing-chi film, it's very difficult and there will be something lost in the translation.'
To be honest, I find a lot of my local friends with excellent English still prefer to converse and surround themselves in Cantonese. But then just as many expats still don't know more than five words of Cantonese, even though they've lived here for a decade. But when it comes to films, I don't know anyone who prefers a dubbed version to the original soundtrack. Americans may dislike them but the rest of the world really doesn't have a problem with subtitles.
About the only movies where a dubbed soundtrack is tolerable are old kung fu movies with their chopsocky English - 'Hmpph ... your kung fu ... is pretty good ... but not as good as mine ... oh yeah, you want to fight about it!' And you wouldn't want to watch Federico Fellini in English.
That's why it's sad to notice they're also dubbing live action movies into Chinese as well now. The latest Harry Potter movie, The Order of Phoenix, was shown in both Cantonese and English.
In fairness, most of the dubbed movies are geared for children and young audiences, although there are some exceptions to this rule. A good argument can be made that the ever-subversive Simpsons is hardly family viewing.
Occasionally, Japanese and Korean hits get dubbed too, but there's little rhyme or reason why some are released in Cantonese and others with subtitles. The recent Seoul comedy 200 Pound Beauty came out in its original Korean and a Cantonese print. Considering the additional costs involved in hiring a voice-over cast and crew, I assume film companies only risk the extra investment if they believe they have a movie with genuine mass appeal on their hand.
There are some movies I wish had been dubbed: Memoirs of a Geisha comes to mind. Chinese actresses pretending to be Japanese while speaking bad English is hardly anyone's idea of realism. Plus, I suspect it would have sounded a lot less embarrassing if Michelle Yeoh Choo Kheng asked Zhang Ziyi: 'Did your mother ever tell you about the eel and the cave?' in Japanese.
I bet you can almost imagine just weird it is to see Harry Potter speak Cantonese at the Hogwarts school.