Read My Lips
Hong Kong action films remain an acquired taste for some. The genre still hasn’t entirely abandoned cheeseball love stories, melodramatic slow-mo shots, and corny ballads. This despite the fact that recent, mature exercises like Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a film largely rebuffed in China, have upped the storytelling ante somewhat.
Indeed, as with all genres, you have to pick and sift through the lame stuff to dig up the goodies. And once you find them—such as Tsui Hark’s brilliant Peking Opera Blues, or any film starring the magnetic Brigitte Lin—you not only develop the taste, but also the hunger. Next thing you know, you’re burning your Blockbuster card and coming home from your local indie video outlet armed with eight or nine tapes. That is, if you want to see the real film. But if what you want is to watch a Hong Kong action movie made years earlier updated with some contemporary (and sometimes underground) hip-hop soundtracking and hard-to-keep-a-straight-face dubbing, then stick to Blockbuster’s peddling of films like Contract Killer, a diluted reissue of Tung Wai’s Hitman.
It’s the same film: same eye-popping Jet Li hand and foot speed, same breathtaking action sequences, same masculinist super-villain, same Eric Tsang comedy, same shorthaired angelic love interest, same indulgent blood and gore, same Everyman narrative. A mysterious Robin Hood-like hitman called the King of Killers lays a bloody hit on a Japanese tycoon/scumbag, inspiring a slew of international professionals (as well as Jet Li’s poor-but-noble mainland solider/neophyte) to roll into Hong Kong looking to cash in on a $100 million reward. The same American ass-kicker wearing rings and shoes equipped with flashing lights (in order to blind his opponents) still growls like a dog when he gets pissed. And, of course, Jet Li still kicks his ass. Bad.
But Contract Killer is a completely different film at the same time, simply because the DVD is dubbed. And although your stereotypical Ugly American may not like to read and watch films at the same time, the fact that the subtitles option isn’t even offered by Columbia Tristar is an immense disservice to the genre, the actors, and their skills. Contrary to what the market may dictate when it comes to action cinema—especially anything originating somewhere else besides the States—film is not exclusively a visual medium. And although Jet Li may not be Hong Kong’s finest actor (even within the action genre, which he more or less owns), the fact that you can’t listen to him do his job devalues what the guy has to offer, to say nothing of his talented colleagues.
These include Eric Tsang as Ngok Lo, the streetwise hitman whose comic relief lightens up an action movie about guys. Along with Fu (Jet Li), he is so poor he resorts to putting hits on human targets just to get by. The finest aspect of Contract Killer is the two characters’ teacher/student relationship, a hilarious inversion (Fu means “teacher,” among other things) that pays dividends when the green country boy Fu saves Lo’s blustery hide more than once. The fact that Lo spends more time hitting women than men shows just how in above his head the wannabe pimp is. Whereas the fact that viewers have to spend the whole movie listening to someone else’s voice mangle his own impressive comedy suggests U.S. audiences are not interested in seeing all dimensions of the creative process.
Truth is, the original actors’ voices transmit the same amount of indirect information (emotion, dissatisfaction, cool, etc.) that their dubbed dopplegangers do; it’s just in another language. When you usurp those voices, you get problems. Like an entire movie’s worth of verbal American cheese and tough-guy wisecrackery from Kwan (the charismatic Simon Yam), the straight-arrow officer trying to catch the mysterious King of Killers while stopping a convention of hitmen from soaking Hong Kong in blood. Simon Yam’s performance is relaxed, something that is blurred by his dub’s insistent reliance on a Bogart-esque smart-ass tone.
While some feel that this is splitting hairs, there are further complications, including one I noticed back when I was digging up every Jet Li film (that hunger thing I mentioned earlier) I could find. In another action film starring Jet Li—Fist of Legend, Matrix choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping’s excellent remake of Bruce Lee’s Fists of Fury—a Japanese sensei asks Jet Li’s Chen Zhen the quickest way to disable an opponent. When Zhen responds with the standard rigamarole involving kicks, hits, and defenses, the teacher shakes his head and corrects him: “A bullet.” It’s an enlightening moment in a film that is centered not only on the continual nationalist friction between China and Japan (who’ve been going at it longer than the Capulets and the Montagues) but hand-to-hand combat as cultural history as well.
I was thinking specifically about that scene when I bought the Buena Vista release of Fist of Legend in 2000 for my brand-new DVD player, as well as when I tried picking my jaw up off the floor when I not only found out that there were no subtitles, but also that the line was excised completely in favor of the same standard rigamarole about achieving ultimate skillhood that the sensei was rebuffing in the first place.
Who knows? It could be that the subtitle itself was a mistranslation of the script’s original meaning. But the fact remains that the more you dub, doctor or alter a film (regardless of its native language), the more you screw with content and context. Sometimes to the point, as in Fist of Legend, that you neutralize the film’s philosophical thrust. It’s a dicey business, this dubbing.
So, until U.S. audiences (and the distributors looking to provide them with “foreign” entertainment) get wise to the subtitle game, I’d skip out on any reissues involving the immensely gifted Jet Li, Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Brigitte Lin (especially), Donnie Yen, Sammo Hung or any other major Hong Kong talent that I forgot to mention (maybe even Jackie Chan). Simply put, you paid for the whole movie, not just the action, right? No hip-hop soundtrack is going to change the fact that you’re still missing the whole picture.