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Sunday, February 03, 2008

The Sunday Cinema: Annals of Russian Culture

Moscow Through Brown Eyes reports on Russia, the civilized and sophisticated country:

On a recent Saturday evening I sat in semi-darkness at the Piat Zvezd movie theater off metro Novokuznetskaia, observing the crowd that was steadily trickling in for an 8:30pm showing of Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution” (in Chinese with Russian subtitles). I was curious about the kind of audience the film would draw: artsy types, I reckoned, worldly, kul’turnye. By the time the film was about to start, the seats were nearly all filled. Wow, I said to my friend and fellow movie-goer, Russians are, like, interested in Chinese culture. He gave me an indulgent smile and said, “Do you really think they’re here for that?”

I thought that presenting the film in Chinese with Russian subtitles—as opposed to dubbing it over in Russian—would make for a more authentic viewing experience. Within the first fifteen minutes of the film, however, it was clear that I was wrong. The subtitles were poorly done, not only in terms of their content but also the timing. Although the screen would show one character saying something, the subtitles would show a translation of what a character off-screen said a few seconds ago. This, in addition to the terse, reductive translations, could only have made the film’s cultural content even more befuddling to the Russian audience.

In any case, the Russians in the theater never seemed to take the film or its historical background seriously and repeatedly laughed at parts that I did not think were at all funny. At one point in the story, against the backdrop of war against Japan, Tang Wei’s character Wang Jiazhi acts in a patriotic stage play. Her performance is apparently so powerful that the entire hall is moved to chant in unison, “China will not fall!” At this point, chuckles rippled through the real-life audience. I couldn’t help thinking, if this were a film about World War II in the USSR—the Great Patriotic War, 30 million Soviet deaths, and all that—would they have thought it was so amusing? I felt like I was with a bunch of self-professed Civilized white people watching funny-looking Asian people singing funny songs in their funny-sounding language and having kinky sex. The Russians in the audience snickered during scenes involving Chinese opera singing, they catcalled when Tang Wei first undressed ("Look! Armpit hair!"), and they chatted in stage whispers throughout the film—or made out, in the case of the couple sitting next to me. There was something voyeuristic and Orientalist about the whole viewing experience that was actually kind of offensive.

At first I was too busy being indignant at the audience’s immature reception of the film to form an independent opinion of it. But after considering it some more, I don’t think such a result was entirely unexpected. I do think that particular Russian audience was voyeuristic and Orientalist. But then, the film seems to lend itself to that kind of reaction. Despite the historical context and the portrayal of cosmopolitan Shanghai in the 1930s, the movie wasn't about the war at all. The struggle within the main character’s conscience about whether to betray her country or save her lover never seemed all that compelling. In the end I guess the film really was about the sex, so maybe one can't blame people for watching it for that very reason. There was just too much attention lavished on those scenes to be otherwise. It was about sex as a driving force in human relations and a subject of art—in all its brutality and ecstasy and decadence and whatever else. The historical background was just incidental. For some reason I had expected the film to say something profound about China’s wartime experience. How silly of me.

As for what watching “Lust, Caution” with a group of Russians revealed to me about Russians’ perceptions of China and the Chinese, it’s hard to say—but “China fever” is about the last phrase that comes to mind. Rather, the Russians in the audience reminded me of my elementary school classmates who made fun of my last name—Chu—and the pungent dumplings I carried with me to lunch. Diplomatic rhetoric aside, it will take a lot more than broadcasting television programs to foster cultural understanding. It will take time, a sustained commitment to promoting tolerance more broadly—and better subtitles.

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