What is't but to be nothing else but mad?

I've been watching quite a few Singapore films lately, such as A Wicked Tale, which I liked very much, and Mad About English, which I didn't. My opinion of the latter seems to put me firmly in the minority, though. Other people say:
  • "This piece of work is huge fun from start to finish. It has more laughs, poignancy and warmth than any fictional movie in recent memory. And it beats any of this season's CGI-laden blockbusters for sheer enjoyment value." --- The Straits Times
  • "... a hilarious look at China as its people embark on a mad rush to learn English before the Beijing Olympics. ... this film shows how ordinary lives are changed as China flings its doors open to the West." --- The New Paper
  • "... does a great job capturing the charm and quirkiness of the people." --- movieXclusive.com
  • "Mad About English is highly recommended, and goes into my books as contender to be amongst the best of this year's theatrical releases." --- A Nutshell Review/Sinema
Uh ... no, no, no and no. The film aggravated me enough that I spent part of the weekend writing down what I thought of it (without being ranty, despite the aggravation). Your mileage, as always, may vary.

In a scene from the documentary film Mad About English that also appears in the movie trailer, a police officer in Beijing unleashes his repertoire of Brooklyn-accented English: "Hey, whaddya want?", "Fuhgetabowdit!", "What's up, man?", "Put yer gun down!" Yes, he sounds as if he's been watching too many Robert de Niro movies.

We laugh, of course, because of the incongruity between the chubby, pink-cheeked Chinese mainlander, and the harsh New York slang that he rattles off so unthinkingly. But in the film we never find out how he picked up this accent, when he thinks lines like "Fuhgetabowdit!" are going to come in useful in his daily patrols, or why he enjoys chatting with tourists while he's in uniform (he's supposed to be a police officer, not a tour guide). He's an object of curiosity, both to the tourists he meets and to us watching him as he rehearses his "Welcome to Beijing" lines in English, German, Japanese and other languages. And he remains just that: an oddity, a strange bird, nothing more than a funny little Chinese man.

Multiply that by 92 minutes, and that's the sum total of Mad About English. Every English learners featured in the film, from a 12-year-old cherub to a 74-year-old retiree, is introduced with all the fanfare of, "Oh look! Here’s another Chinese person who’s a little nutty about learning English!" Then we hear the person dutifully recite a few English sentences – with some incorrect pronunciation or grammar, or moments of pure misunderstanding for "comic relief", of course. Perhaps he or she gets some airtime to murmur something about how important it is to learn English so as to welcome foreign visitors to the Beijing Olympics.

Then the film cuts to the next character waiting in the wings. Lather, rinse, repeat.

No matter how many times we come back to any of these people, we never find out their full stories. Where do they come from? How do they feel spending so much time and energy to learn a language that is so historically, culturally and grammatically divorced from their own? What are the implications of learning English when China is on the ascendant? Are these people fringe elements or truly representative of English learners in Beijing (or, for that matter, the rest of China)?

So many questions, hardly any answers. There's only so long that you can watch people stumble over learning a foreign language before it starts to feel not only trite and tired, but also mean and cheap. Stick a camera in front of anyone learning a foreign language – especially a language with such different roots from one's native tongue – and you’d pretty much get the same result. There are signs in Paris that have just as entertaining (or apparently insipid) translation errors in English as they do in Beijing. There are Americans or Europeans learning to speak Mandarin who make just as egregious or laughable errors as these Chinese mainlanders stuttering their way through English. Mad About English doesn't tell us anything that we don't know already.

It was also ironic that all the Chinese interviewees largely spoke in English, whether they were being interviewed or interacting with other (Chinese) people. It felt as if they were constantly having to perform in English, with little opportunity to speak in their native tongue and say what they really thought and felt. Perhaps this was deliberate, to show exactly how "mad" about English these people are, but it only made them seem more inscrutable and kooky (ah, those inscrutable Orientals!), allowing them to be laughed at but not understood.

And really, why should we laugh? Because they make mistakes, as beginners always do? Because they speak English "wrongly", as shown by the bewilderment of the white man they’re speaking to? The laughter makes us complicit in the white man's criticism (not critique, which is what's lacking here) of non-native English speakers, without questioning if that criticism is justified in the first place.

Sure, it's funny for about five seconds to hear a little old lady struggle with saying "bowel movements" and "take off your shirt" (she’s a doctor learning phrases she’ll need to communicate with foreign patients). But the job she does, the life she's led and her determination to learn shouldn't be dismissed on the level of toilet humour. All these people learning English – they deserve better than this.

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At 8/27/2008 3:43 am , Blogger louist said...

That's interesting. I actually rather liked Mad About English myself - sure I laughed at the production errors made by the second-language learners, but I figured it was a good-natured sort of amusement, conscious that people would probably laugh at my attempts at learning a foreign language (or even my current grasp of Mandarin, haha).

That said, I was actually more impressed by how they have people who are so motivated to pick up the language. You're right in questioning how representative the individuals featured in the film were, but I find it hard to imagine such enthusiasm for learning, say, Mandarin, in Singaporean students.

Or even English, really.

At 8/27/2008 4:06 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I saw an interview of the policeman on CNN - he says he learn all this english pretty much from watching TV/DVDs. Which explains the NooYawk accent, cop movies and all. Even CNN thought he was a bit of an odd bird, enthusiastically yelling random phrases out at tourists and sometimes in an unintelligible manner.

He's definitely a bit of a mini-celebrity, he was featured on a Belgian or Dutch news segment too!

At 8/27/2008 7:56 am , Blogger Tym said...

lost > Yes, but what is the point of laughing at people making genuine mistakes for 90 minutes? As for one's motivation to learn a foreign language, that's precisely what I think the documentary failed to unpack. Is it all about money? Being "modern"? Being a "modern Chinese"? Is it ... ? Regardless of whether these reasons can be extrapolated to one's own society.

oiseauxbleu > Yeah, he does seem to be used as a performing circus act of the linguistic variety. Which is why I wish the documentary had revealed his backstory, instead of just making him do his tricks.

At 9/07/2008 5:49 am , Blogger Mavis Ang said...

i didn't catch mad about english, but i didn't like a wicked tale either. i thought it was pretty damn pretentious.


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