Film Scouts Diaries

2008 Karlovy Vary Film Festival Diaries
Diary #5: Penny Wise, Yuan Foolish

by Henri Béhar

Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic, July 10, 2008 – There is no way one can properly gauge and assess Zhang Chi's The Shaft (China, World-premiere, in competition). Based on the visuals, suitably grim (which of course carries a political weight), The Shaft focuses on an ordinary family living in a mining town in Western China. The daughter has to choose between her dreams and an arranged marriage; the son is about to start his professional life down the mine from which the father has just retired.

What is the problem then? These characters talk. What they say is so badly subtitled and so poorly translated as to be incomprehensible. You spend an inordinate amount of time trying to deconstruct the sentences and reconstruct them in an approximation of a lingua franca (English here), thereby preventing you from watching the rest of the screen.

One often hears, on the Festival circuit, filmmakers and sellers from Asia or the former Easter Europe complaining: "Why aren't our films shown abroad?" (generally meaning Europe and America). One of the reasons is, Whatever time and money they may spend on the production itself, subtitling comes as an afterthought, and a negligible one at that. Producers and sellers are reluctant to throw in the extra cash necessary to properly spot the dialogue and have it translated by someone who actually speaks the destination language (as opposed to someone who spent two weeks in Yorkshire ten years ago). As a result, anger and annoyance build up as the film is shown, to such extent that any decent buyer (yes, such an animal exists) would storm out of the screening room at the end of reel one, in part out of a modicum of respect for the filmmakers and the talent involved. Penny wise, yuan (or zloty, or kronen, or rupee) foolish.

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