The first Academy Awards ceremony was held in 1929. It was a private Hollywood dinner in which the guests numbered about 270. In the 86 years since its inception, no foreign-language film (that is to say non-English language) has won Best Picture. Instead, in 1956 the Academy created a separate category for Best Foreign Language Film – permanently demarcating the linguistic divide in American cinema.
Meanwhile over in China this week audiences are finding that even a shared language can be problematic. The reason? The release of Taiwanese martial arts epic, The Assassin.
The Assassin is the latest wuxia (martial art) genre film from Asia to stir international attention, and stars in its title role Shu Qi. The film earned its director and screenwriter, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, the award for Best Director at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and media coverage in the West has mostly been positive.
The movie is adapted from a fictional tale about a girl called Nie Yinniang, who is kidnapped by a nun and eventually trained to become a skilled assassin. Hou says he has been longing to turn the legend into a film since he read it as a student at National Taiwan University of Arts. According to the New York Times, it is the largest project Hou has shot to date, with the $14 million budget shared between a Hong Kong firm and Hou’s own production house.
Reception in mainland China and Taiwan appears to have been generally positive too, with the film currently scoring a four-star rating on Douban (a favoured Chinese site for discussing popular culture). However, in addition to the praise for the film’s aesthetic achievements, a separate discussion has cropped up with cinemagoers discussing whether they actually understood what was going on.
A review in Beijing Youth Daily describes how many audience members had gone to see the film in a state of anticipation but were soon bemoaning that they couldn’t understand what was being said by the actors. In an account on Taipei-based website The News Lens, a reporter recounts how from the very opening dialogue of the film, audience members were asking their neighbours whether they could comprehend what was being said.
The complication came from Hou’s resolute commitment to maintain a sense of ‘total’ historical authenticity. The film is set in Tang Dynasty China (an era that lastedfrom around 600-900 AD), and so in addition to the costume, scenery and setting of the film – all of which are stunning – the language too has been tailored to suit the era.
According to the New York Times, Hou considered the script as his “biggest challenge”. Many Chinese viewers have grumbled that the film only has a few narrative moments. Shu Qi only utters nine lines in the entire movie. And the sparse dialogue is entirely in classical Chinese – i.e. of the type that Tang poetry is composed in. The Tang spoke what is termed by some linguists as ‘Middle Chinese’, which is somewhat distant from the current Mandarin vernacular that is China’s lingua franca today. For perspective: to make a film in which the cast speak only Middle Chinese is akin to a British studio releasing a movie about King Richard II in which all of the actors speak in a manner modelled on that used by Geoffrey Chaucer in his fourteenth century Canterbury Tales. Most Brits and Americans would be flummoxed.
However, during a press conference in June, Hou vehemently denied that the dialogue is classical Chinese. Instead, Hou maintains that it is simply an “imitation of that period’s speech” in that “it is a little more concise, using more dynastic words [i.e. more archaic]”. Then again, for those baffled by the language used, Hou’s distinction is evidently a moot point.
Acclaimed dancer, Hseu Fang-Yi, who also stars in The Assassin, conceded that she had to read the script several times before she really understood the content.
In fact, this may mark the first time that a “Chinese-language film” can hope to find a more cognisant audience in the West than in China. That’s because, ironically, the English subtitles are more direct and less ambiguous than the poetry-inspired Chinese dialogue, and so less likely to confuse.
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