Thursday, October 28, 2010

On second reference

As I was writing my review of the Korean thriller The Chaser yesterday, I was reminded of two things:

1) How much I loved this tense, taut, terrifically scripted and acted film;

2) How much I dislike reviewing Korean and Chinese films.

This last is for one particular, stupid reason: I always get all jumpy every time I have to make a second reference to the creative talent.

See, Koreans and Chinese (and Taiwanese and those from Hong Kong) are among the many Asians whose names are not presented in the Western fashion. Whereas we present the personal name first and the family name second, they do the reverse. Korean names give me further pause, because they also have a hyphen in the personal name, and the second half of that hyphenated word is lower case, which defies my expectations of how a name should be presented, on a purely grammatical level. (Shouldn't the second half of the name be "important enough" to get capitalization?)

Take Na Hong-jin, the director of The Chaser. If I were shoehorning him into the rules of the English language, I would refer to him has Hong-jin on second reference. That could also be the easiest convention for the audience reading my reviews in English, because it would conform to their expectations. But it would also be unconscionable, becauase it's not correct. So he is Na on second reference, and every reference after that. (As a side note, calling him Na also strikes me as odd because Westerners generally have longer family names than personal names. Not so in Korea. So if I were writing a long piece, I might be referring to this man multiple times by an "insubstantial" two-letter word. I don't mean that as some kind of critique that would expose me as a xenophobe, just that it's another disconnect we Americans have when reading foreign names.)

So why is it so hard? It's not like I have to learn some new, third, totally counterintuitive rule. It's either last name second (in the West) or last name first (in Korea). You simply adapt to the appropriate convention based on the origins of the film you're discussing.

Except it's not quite that simple, and here's where the nice Chinese folks I mentioned earlier come in to play. If I were referring to the director of Raise the Red Lantern and Hero, I would call him Zhang Yimou on first reference, and Zhang thereafter. Except that doesn't work as a hard-and-fast rule. Take Ang Lee. You would never consider calling him Ang on repeat references, always Lee. Sure, Lee has been making Hollywood films for 15 years now, so molding his name to our conventions would probably have happened organically, even if it was not technically correct. But when he was directing Pushing Hands (1992), The Wedding Banquet (1993) and Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), would we have called him Ang? Would we? (In Lee's case, it probably would have been natural for Westerners to refer to him as "Lee," because we have plenty of Lees of Anglo heritage in the western world. Whereas we don't have many Zhangs or Yimous who came over on the Mayflower.)

Oh how I long for the simplicity of the Japanese naming system, which conforms to ours. Or does it? Never for a moment would I consider referring to Akira Kurosawa as Akira on second reference. Yet it's not actually correct to call him Kurosawa -- this is just how the Western convention has developed for referring to Japanese people. They actually have the same system as the Chinese and the Koreans, we just ignore it by convention. Which is fine with me, as long as it's the accepted method of doing things.

What I'm discovering by doing a little research is that it comes down to personal preference in a lot of instances. I downloaded a very helpful PDF from the Asian Pacific American Handbook, which states the following:

"There is one simple, sure-fire way for you to ensure you get the names right, in all references, of Asian and Asian Pacific American subjects: Ask them their personal preferences.

This point is especially important with new immigrants, because some may still list their names in the style of their homeland (often, family name listed first) while others may have already adopted American usages (family name listed last).

But it is also a worthwhile practice to inquire about name preferences of Asians still in Asia who have long-standing associations with this country. They -- or the American media -- may have adopted Anglicized usages. For example, former South Korean President Park Chung Hee (family name of Park listed first) was often named in the American press as Chung Hee Park."

That explains the baseball player Chan Ho Park, who would probably be Park Chan-ho according to the convention I've chosen.

Now I'm more worried. Should I be calling him Hong Jin Na, rather than Na Hong-jin? He's a first-time filmmaker (which makes The Chaser all the more amazing), so he doesn't have any real association with the western world, let alone a long-standing one. And wikipedia doesn't help, because he doesn't even have his own page yet, and he gets only one mention in the page for The Chaser. That helps with the first reference (they, like the website I write for, call him Na Hong-jin), but not the second. That's usually my method, to look up an interview with or article about the person in question, and steal whatever convention that writer used. But with a relative newcomer, it's not so easy.

And it's not something you just want to blow off, either, because it's all about respect. If you get it wrong, not only do you look disrespectful, but you also look ignorant. Discuss among yourselves which sin is worse.

Oh well. I guess my editors will correct me if they don't agree with my interpretation. Since Na is N/A in terms of my ability to ask him about it, he's Na in my book.

And in anybody's book, The Chaser is a movie you should seek out. Mind, prepare to be blown. (Love the poster, too.)


Don Handsome said...

Will they be remaking the chaser for Americans so I don't need to read any pesky subtitles or worry about how to refer to the parties involved. It all seems so complicated, and thus probably worth a remake staring Marks Ruffalo and Wahlberg.

In all seriousness, the Chaser is an amazing and rich film and its well worth whatever uneasiness watching or talking about requires. I've watched it more than a few times now that its on Netflix Streaming. Glad to see you pushing it, Vance. Thanks.

Vancetastic said...


Warner Brothers actually bought the rights to a Hollywood remake of The Chaser way back in March 2008 -- which may tell you something about whether you should include it on your list of 2010 films. ;-)

Wikipedia says that screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed) and Leonardo DiCaprio have both been attached, at least at some point. I know the man is talented, but DiCaprio as a pimp? I don't quite see it. Or maybe he'd be the killer. (Ha.)

Oh, there's no uneasiness talking about it per se -- as usual, this post was meant to blow out of proportion a very small idea (how do you correctly say/write Asian names?) and relate it to the world of film.

Yeah, it's great, and thanks for turning me onto it ...