I feel like I’ve been off the computer for weeks.
My husband traveled to Philadelphia for four days last week, including the weekend. In his absence, I went a little crazy with our new Blu-ray machine and its streaming capabilities. I watched half a dozen movies, some I’d seen before, some I hadn’t, some I watched with my 12 year old son, and some most definitely without.
Although the films were old, new, for families, not for families, sad, happy, violent, and sentimental, they all had one thing in common–China.
I’ve been watching Chinese movies and those that deal with Chinese themes for more than half my life now, but in watching these six films over the weekend, I thought quite a bit about the role of language.
In Dim Sum, an early Wayne Wong film, the dialogue switches between Cantonese and English. The older generation speaks Cantonese, whereas the younger ones speak English. Some don’t even understand Cantonese. In Combination Platter, the mainland Chinese and Hong Kong waitstaff cling to their identities–and battle one another–through their use of Mandarin or Cantonese. Only Robert, the main character, compromises and tries to speak Mandarin to a mainland colleague who doesn’t understand Cantonese.
The two films I watched alone were Lust, Caution and The Lover. I loved how language was used in Lust, Caution. The mainland China-born resistance members speak Mandarin amongst themselves, but when they carry out an operation in Shanghai, they speak in Cantonese, the language of their university years in Hong Kong, so bystanders can’t understand. And the protagonist speaks a little Shanghainese to win over her target’s wife. Four Chinese dialects (Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghainese, and the Suzhou dialect) are used in that movie.
In Election, a Johnnie To film, the Hong Kong gangsters travel into Guangdong province in search of a wooden baton that yields power to its possessor. Although the Guangdong police understand Cantonese (because that’s the main regional dialect spoken in that part of the China) they insist on using Mandarin in an authoritative way to show their Hong Kong brethren who’s boss.
Of all these films, only The King of Masks uses one language. And that was my son’s favorite. But even with this film, two languages came into play: the Mandarin in the dialogue, and the English subtitles we read to follow along.