Friday, May 2, 2008

Going to the Movies

Forbidden Kingdom, the new Jackie Chan-Jet Li pic, has been out for two weeks now and I really wanted to see it here in China. The cinema in Oriental Plaza shopping mall, on Dong chang 'an Jie right off of Wangfujing Dajie, is showing it with both Chinese and English subtitles. The mall is large, the equivalent of several blocks long, and on two floors. The cinema is towards the eastern side, on the lower level. Thursday afternoon I walked up to the cinema feeling oh-so-confident about being able to get a ticket easily. Hahahahahahaha.

The writing on the electronic display above the ticket counter was all in Chinese characters. Since I'm still illiterate, and likely will continue to be for quite some time, my hopes of getting into the movie were dampened. The only scrolling words not in Chinese were "English & Chinese subtitles" or "Chinese subtitles," depending on the cinema and the movie. There were no laowai (foreigners) around to ask for directions or help, and no one came up to me and asked in broken English if I wanted help. I was on my own.

Movie posters were displayed on the walls here, as in movie theaters worldwide. I walked up closely to see if any were for Forbidden Kingdom. No English. Just Chinese. One of the posters showed Jackie Chan and Jet Le, their familiar faces beaming out, in a scene that I've seen in the media. There were several Chinese characters written in large font on the poster. I analyzed the characters and made note of the most prominent features then turned back to the electronic display. The announcements under theaters one and three showed those characters, along with the words "Chinese and English subtitles." There was a screening at 13:20. The clock said 13:18.

I got on line to buy a ticket, loudly clearing my throat when someone tried to cut in line. They got behind me and watched the interactions of the two people in front of me with the ticket vendors while I waited. When it was my turn I said "Ye ge, ye, xiexie" (One (quantity), one, thank you), trying to communicate that I wanted one ticket, for theater one. The young lady brought the theater up on the tabletop screen so that I could choose my seat. The house was about half full, with all of the center seats taken, so I pointed to a place midway back through the house, on the side. The attendant told me the price, I gave her the money and she gave me my ticket. It was 70 RMB (approximately US$10), pricey for China. This is a modern theater in one of the most expensive areas of Beijing. Of course it was going to be pricey. I could have gone to a local neighborhood theater and paid less but the theater would have been dirty and the subtitles would only be in Chinese.

I took my ticket and walked to the escalators descending further underground. There was an attendant at the top who looked at my ticket, tore off part and returned the stub, then ushered me downstairs. When I stepped off of the escalator another attendant approached, looked at my ticket stub and pointed me to theater one. An attendant at the door again looked at my ticket then walked me inside and handed me to an usher who walked me to my seat. Commercials for cell phones and iced tea drinks were playing as I sat and made myself comfortable. After a few more ads, and a message from the state film board which I could not understand because everything other than the name of the agency was only written in Chinese, the opening credits began to roll.

The opening and closing scenes of the movie are set in South Boston. The conversation is in English. There were subtitles - both English and Chinese. They were good but not always accurate. It wasn't until later that I realized why - the English subtitles are translated from Chinese. This results in an English subtitle of "Will he be okay?" when the words spoken were actually "Is he going to be okay?" There were other places where there were similar errors. It didn't change the meaning by much but it affected the tone, and it would have been frustrating for someone learning English to try to follow along and not be able to match the sounds to the written words.

The entire movie was also subtitled in Chinese. There are many regional dialects across China, and while Putonghua (the so-called 'common language') is supposed to be used in schools and offices across the country there are many who do not speak it and cannot understand it. Movies and television shows broadcast in Chinese are all subtitled to enable people who don't understand Putonghua to follow along. The Chinese subtitles were placed just below the English subtitles on the screen but were obviously added on afterwards - at times they covered part of the English so that anyone trying to read them would have to make out the words by the top halves of the letters.

Forbidden Kingdom is a fun movie. I won't spoil your enjoyment by giving away the storyline but I will say that the movie is based on a Chinese story and there were some great kung foo scenes. There is also some gorgeous scenery. Go. Enjoy. And, enjoy the English subtitles.

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