Sunday, October 5, 2008

Mischievous Dubbing (恶搞): US and China

Saturday Night Live's latest, 7-minute parody is an excellent and uproarious summary of Thursday's vice presidential debate. The best performer is Tina Fey, who looks totally like the real Palin, to the turn of her hair, or lip. CNN has a good comment on this – "It's starting to feel like Tina Fey is running for vice president."

Considering that Fey's normal picture is quite easily distinguished, I'd say she has the talent of an Oscar actress. She parodied Palin's body language and facial expressions extremely true to form; I had a very hard time telling her from Palin. But what made me laugh the most was how she captures Palin's incoherent and evasive speaking style. At one point the Fey-Palin says, "We are not afraid to get mavericky in there, and not got to allow that, and also to the great Ronald Regan." This way of randomly throwing together words and phrases without regard to grammar or meaning, was exactly my impression of Palin's speaking when I watched the debate Thursday night. Palin is worse than George Bush in this regard – though both appear uncultured, and Bush probably more often pronounces words incorrectly, he at least seems to genuinely mean what he says, even when I am almost sure he does not. Given how old McCain is, I would be extremely worried if McCain got sick and this lady became our president. Apparently this is also a main reason that many of my Chinese friends won't vote for McCain. Call it a shallow and intuitive way of reasoning. But what more can common voters do if not judge based on impression? I think McCain made his biggest mistake by choosing such a (...) running mate.

Now let's return to entertainment, and China. Such parody of public figures is one of those things I enjoy about America, a relaxed political culture that is missing in China. But in recent years, there has been a sort of Chinese equivalent called "e-gao" (恶搞), or, as a direct translation, "mischievous dubs." The Chinese Wikipedia interprets the term as "to disintegrate a serious topic and reconstruct it as prank entertainment, either comedic or satiric in style." The main difference to me, however, is that the Chinese dubbing videos, usually based on domestic and foreign movies and TV shows, almost never name real individuals, and avoid mocking political figures. Instead they focus on fictional characters or events, entertainment products, or businesses. Another notable feature is that nearly all of those Chinese dubs use the original video clips but switch the voices and subtitles, a creative approach to cut down the cost. The wide availability of the internet, of course, provides the platform for the "mischievous dubs" to reach its audience.

Apparently, in China the first notable "mischievous dub" occurred in December 2005, when an as yet unknown man named Hu Ge parodied the reputed director Chen Kaige's new movie, "The Promise," changing the story of an ancient Chinese prince to a modern murder case. Hu's short dub film spread apace, receiving more applause than the original movie. Chen Kaige, who apparently was unfamiliar with parody culture, bristled with anger and threatened to bring a copyright lawsuit against Hu. In February 2006, at the Berlin International Film Festival, where he was about to launch "The Promise" for Europe, director Chen said in indignation to reporters, "To be a man one can't be so shameless!"

The case attracted attention from lawyers nationwide, most predicted Hu would lose the lawsuit. From outside however, Richard Stallman, the founder of Free Software Foundation, concluded in an interview with a Chinese blogger that "Parodies like this one are legally considered 'fair use'. Courts have ruled that you don't need to get someone's permission before you make fun of him by parodying his work. It is lawful, pure and simple." The Chinese neitizens, meanwhile, were split. Supporters of each side argued noisily online.

In the end, there wasn't a lawsuit after all. The public debate calmed down after Hu made an apology to director Chen. But the damage was done: Hu's dub film started China's parody culture, which quickly became popular, and was everywhere by the summer of 2006. "Finally one day, someone could no longer stand it." NetEase reported in August 2006. The State Administration of Radio, Film and Television issued an "anti-parody" regulation. NetEase mourned the new pop culture's immature death by publishing the list of the "top ten mischievous dubs." It also suggested, "If we can't mischievously dub, at least we can kind-heartedly dub."

Mischievously or not, despite the regulation, Chinese parodies did not simply go away. As recent as last month, a new one surfaced on YouTube mocking the Hong Kong movie Red Cliff and making fun of a Chinese company named Zhifubao. It is hilarious if you understand Chinese. (Thanks to Ji Haidong who pointed it to me.)

What I'm hoping though is to see political parodies like those on SNL begin to appear in China. The day when that happens would mark a new era of China's political culture.


Anonymous said...

I feet the same way when I watch SNL, the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, the Corbet Report, Real Time with Bill Maher, and even The Orielly Factor...
and thinking about what has been missing in both the more serious political life and the more lighter entertainment life in China. Hope a day that these kind of shows can become norm in China comes soon.

Anonymous said...

It would be fun, but not necessary. The political culture don't have to be as lighthearted as the west. It would just be another way of doing things.

Micah Sittig said...

The Chibi/Zhifubao parody got taken off Youtube, but it's still on Ku6:

(came via ESNW)

Xujun said...

Bien, thanks for sharing your feelings.

Micah, thanks for the alternative link. Apparently the copyright law is more effective against parodies than pirates. :-)

Anonymous, if people only want to praise their leaders, but no one want to make fun of them, IMO something is amiss in that political culture.

Linda Austin said...

Hope no one's holding their breath... When Palin was announced as McCain's running mate, I commented to my family that she looked like Tina Fey. They pooh-poohed me.