Thursday, January 8, 2009

Language barrier, or bad movie?

I'm in the middle of watching a Japanese film called Kids Return. No, I'm not engaged in writing a blog entry while watching a movie -- though I have been known to multi-task like that when a movie is really bad, and I can get the gist just by listening. Such dialogue-based comprehension is impossible when the characters are speaking Japanese. (An aside: Isn't it funny that we still want the volume to be turned up, even when we don't understand the words?)

Actually, I've taken a break from Kids Return -- also not uncommon. I sometimes watch a film in 2-3 sittings, the way fast readers read books. Though I don't think my feat is nearly as impressive. In fact, you might call it the opposite: a sign of severe ADD. As it happens, I'm saving the rest of Kids Return for the trip to the gym I plan to make before work tomorrow morning. It's one of two mornings each week I go in late, and I have a portable DVD player that I strap to the top of the stairmaster with the help of a thick rubber band.

I don't yet know how Kids Return is going to turn out, but it is starting to give me that old familiar feeling.

Namely: "Is this a bad movie, or do I just not get it?"

Generally speaking, I'm the kind of guy who gets really cranky if a script constantly hits me over the head -- repeats character names ad infinitum, bludgeons me with symbols, and is replete with crude exposition in the dialogue. However, that's with English language scripts. I flip the script, as it were, as soon as you shift to subtitles. When the movie is in Japanese and most of the characters are young adult males dressed in matching school uniforms, I need all the help I can get.

The thing is, there's a very good chance that Kids Return is really a bad movie. But I feel like I'll have to start watching it all over again to be sure, and that's not something I'm planning on doing. I don't think they did a good job of differentiating the characters in the first five minutes, but it's a lot easier to blank out on information imparted in subtitles than in spoken dialogue. You could argue it depends entirely on what kind of learner you are, but I think I personally am much more likely to have information subconsciously imprinted through the spoken word. Someone who digs on the visuals -- and I really thought I was that guy, given that film is a visual medium, and I dearly love film -- might actually do better with the subtitles. But not me.

And so it is I'm wondering exactly how I'm going to review Kids Return. Further complicating matters is the fact that the two main characters appear in two different time periods, but director Takeshi Kitano -- otherwise known as "Beat Takeshi" -- doesn't have the courtesy to indicate it through some kind of wavy-lined editing technique. You know, the kind used when Marcia Brady flashes back to her nose getting broken by the errant football. The fact that Kitano is considered one of Japan's modern masters makes my potentially negative review all the more problematic.

It's probably a good thing that Kitano didn't spend these first 70 minutes bashing me over the head. But I could have used a little something more. In fact, not only am I going to have a hard time reviewing this film, I think I'd even have a hard time synopsizing it. Thank goodness that task is already complete. (And maybe I'll find a longer synopsis on wikipedia that will help me make enough sense of what happened to review it.)

How did I end up with Kids Return, a film I'd never heard of, in the first place? Especially since this is 2009, and Kids Return came out in 1996? I suppose it's time to tell you a little more about how I get reviews assigned to me. The website I write for has a page for every film title in the database, and each title has one distinct review and one distinct synopsis. While almost every film has a synop, not every film ended up getting reviewed -- probably because they didn't have reviews when the site first started. In fact, there are quite a lot that are still up for grabs. I amass a list of these available titles I've either seen or want to see, and about every two months I submit them a new one. They shave off a few titles that have already been claimed by others and approve the rest. Then I begin whittling away.

But a couple times they've also come up with their own lists for me -- films that they were surprised did not have reviews, and so assigned to me in order to rectify that. I like getting these lists because they expose me to movies I'd otherwise never see. However, the flip side is that sometimes they end up incomprehensible, like Kids Return. I wish I could say that this were the first Japanese film they've assigned me that left me a little perplexed. Rather, it's probably more like the fourth.

I think we may be dealing with a uniquely Japanese phenomenon here. As all the best pop culture spoofs of the Japanese are aware -- and as some of the more abstract Nintendo Wii games are acutely aware -- there's something strange and untranslatable at the core of Japanese entertainment. A cultural insiderishness that can't cross any oceans. In films like Lost in Translation, we marvel at it. In films like Kids Return, it's just baffling.

Here's hoping the last 35 minutes bring it home for me.

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