Continuing our look back on the last seven years of MostlyFilm, here’s the final part of an occasional series in which Spank The Monkey travels to foreign countries, watches films in unfamiliar languages, and then complains about not understanding them. This episode: Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Egypt, Denmark, Italy and Japan, 2012-2017.
“I hope the title’s the only thing you’re copying from Joss Whedon,” said The Belated Birthday Girl to me, ominously.
The passage of time is an odd thing, isn’t it? And to be fair, it’s an idea that Whedon exploited ingeniously in the structure of his 2009 show Dollhouse. Most of its episodes centred around a corporation which used creepy technology to temporarily reprogramme human beings for numerous dodgy purposes, effectively making it a hypersexualised Joe 90. But in the two season finales the show managed before cancellation – titled Epitaph 1 and Epitaph 2 – the story flashed forward a decade or so, to a point where this very technology had literally brought about the end of civilisation as we know it.
So, let’s make this a season finale. And let’s flash forward to the several occasions where, some time after struggling to understand a subtitled movie, I got to watch it again with subtitles. (For the purposes of structure, let’s say that the exact value of ‘several’ is ‘seven’.) How close was my original guess at the plot? What did I miss? What did I get completely wrong? Let’s find out together, shall we?
New Kids Nitro (reviewed in The Dutch Angle, January 2012)
We’ll start with the first MMC film I ever reviewed for MostlyFilm. I enjoyed the violent comic energy of its visuals so much that I ended up importing an English-subtitled DVD from Holland some months later. In retrospect, I may have been better off remaining ignorant of the dialogue. Obviously, I wasn’t expecting it to be tasteful: any film which disposes of its zombie antagonists in this fashion is already dealing in industrial levels of wrongness. And sometimes, you can’t help but admire the offensiveness, like the happy ending in which the New Kids are rewarded with a royal decree to “fuck whores and never work again.” (Cue the end titles song, Hoeren Neuken Nooit Meer Werken.) But when (for example) a woman is attacked offscreen with a broom handle, and a casual line of dialogue makes it brutally clear that it’s a sexual assault, that’s a rare example of understanding the language actually making the film less enjoyable.
Kon-Tiki (reviewed in Pining For The Fjords, September 2012)
This is an odd one: a film that I watched subtitled in its country of origin, and unsubtitled back in the UK. To answer a question posed in my original 2012 review, it turns out that most Norwegian films are routinely subtitled in their home country to cover the two forms of the language that exist side by side, Bokmål (“book tongue”) and Nynorsk (“new Norwegian”). Meanwhile, when Kon-Tiki was theatrically released in the UK, it was in a different version from the one I watched in Oslo – the directors literally shot every dialogue scene twice, once in Norwegian for the domestic market and once in English for the rest of the world. Both versions work just fine: to be honest, there isn’t much important detail in the dialogue, although it provides a degree of characterisation which stops you thinking of the crew as six interchangeable guys with beards. Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg subsequently went on to direct Pirates Of The Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge, which is definitely a progression for them in some direction or other.
Call Girl (reviewed in The Guldbagge Variations, March 2013)
Part of the appeal of Call Girl was always the nostalgia factor: these days, sadly, it’s nostalgia for 2013, a simpler time when ‘politicians should not be sleeping with underage girls’ was an uncontroversial opinion, rather than a hindrance to you getting elected in Alabama. It still amazes me to this day just how much of the main conspiracy plot I picked up on first viewing: maybe political sex scandals are the real international language. The stuff that I picked up later, on the film’s UK release, was largely the deep background – how all of this was happening at a time when Sweden was in the process of decriminalising many sex acts, while the people responsible for the laws were indulging in those acts themselves. Its grim message of how the establishment will always prevail is even more relevant today: the process of young Iris’ gradual grooming into her role is incredibly tough to watch now. What keeps you watching is the tautness of the script’s thriller structure, as well as Mattias Bärjed’s deliciously retro score, which was available on UK iTunes long before the film was.
Qalb al Assad (reviewed in The World, Under Construction, September 2014)
A common thread running through these reviews has been my ongoing struggle to appreciate Arabic cinema. All too often, it seems targeted at the lowest common denominator, particularly when most of the films I watch are crude Egyptian comedies. The one flat-out action thriller I’ve seen from Egypt, it has to be said, was much more entertaining. I subsequently got to see it subtitled as an in-flight movie with Emirates, and it was a fairly similar experience second time round: the broad strokes of the story still comprehensible, the occasional plot holes still less so. Emirates, however, frequently edit films for the mildest sexual content, and even a film like this ended up losing the scene where the heroine is tormented by neck-licking baddies. On the same flight I managed to catch up with another MMC subject, the Swedish thriller Tommy, and that was notable for Lykke Li’s promiscuous character being told in crudely altered subtitles “you need to stop thinking with your bottom.” It’s possible that the Emirates censor might have accidentally provided a bowdlerised translation that’s even ruder than the original.
Men And Chicken (reviewed in The Copenhagen Interpretation, March 2015)
To quote from my original review: “I may have just misread all the signs and come up with an ending that bears no relation at all to [writer/director Anders Thomas Jensen]’s intentions. And if that’s the case, then holy crap I have a film script that I need to start writing…” Well, bad news: that script is not going to be my pension plan, because at the film’s subsequent London Film Festival screening I learned that my guess at what the ending meant was spot on. Mind you, I assumed from the unsubtitled version that the visuals were the most disturbing part of the film, and boy was I wrong about that. But the dialogue isn’t just another ingredient in the gross-out: as with Kon-Tiki, it gives the five brothers distinct characterisation through their personal verbal tics, where previously there were only facial deformities to separate them from each other. It humanises them to an unexpected degree: rather than being figures of fun, there’s a mounting sense of tragedy at what’s been done to them.
Mia Madre (reviewed in Live At Pompeii, July 2015)
I missed Nanni Moretti’s film on its original UK release, but luckily it’s still available on Curzon Home Cinema for a ridiculously cheap £2.50. (Or, if you’re reading this before March 13th, it’s on the BBC iPlayer for absolutely nothing.) It’s already got a small amount of English dialogue, thanks to its main character Margherita having to deal with an English-speaking actor on the film she’s directing. The subtitles make the movie business satire even sharper, as it becomes clearer that Margherita is just as confused a director in Italian as she is in English. As for the other strand involving Margherita’s dying mother, it’s treated with the pleasing lack of sentimentality you’d expect from Moretti. It’s not quite as unsentimental as I’d originally thought, though – the ‘dark twist’ I mentioned in the review was a complete misinterpretation on my part, as I’d callously assumed that Margherita breaks down at the end because she’s now got to care for her mum at home. Even with subtitles, there’s still no real explanation as to how John Turturro’s actor character keeps behaving so appallingly on set with no apparent consequences. It has to be said, though, that the scene where Turturro claims to have had a nightmare about being attacked by Kevin Spacey plays rather differently now.
Blade Of The Immortal (reviewed in Tales Of Asian Vengeance, May 2017)
I can’t finish with the final film I reviewed in this series – an honour that goes to the inevitably shite Egyptian heist comedy Bank El Haez – but I can at least give you a film that made its debut in UK cinemas as recently as December 2017. As ever, action movies are the ones that work best when stripped of their dialogue, although subtitles did at least clear up my major concern about the film, to whit: how do you maintain suspense when your lead character is immortal? (Answer: you give him anti-immortality poison, which feels like one of those terrible dodges you pull in childhood games. “Well, my gun fires special bulletproof-vest-penetrating bullets, so you’re dead.”) Less surprisingly, the addition of dialogue stops the film being merely an episodic collection of swordfights, and turns it into an actual story.
So, is this the end for Monoglot Movie Club, after six years and thirty-odd posts? Probably not, if we’re honest. After all, there were fourteen MMC style reviews on my own blog before MostlyFilm ever started, so I suspect I’ll still be confusing myself in overseas cinemas for some time to come. MMC may look as if it’s died, but that’s merely for contractual purposes: in reality, it’s just going to transfer over to a less visible platform, and ramble on for a few more years to diminishing returns. I feel that a parallel for this may already exist, but it temporarily escapes me.
Monoglot Movie Club
It Travelled The World