Watching brief
Peter Calder at the New Zealand International Film Festival in Auckland

Watching Brief: The subtitler's challenge

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 The Round Up . Photo / Supplied
The Round Up . Photo / Supplied

Couldn't make it all the way through the Korean film The Day He Arrives at the Rialto yesterday, partly because the main character was so irritating.

An apparently adult filmmaker, he regarded acting like a baby (as in crying while lying in the foetal position) as an acceptable way to relate to his girlfriend.

But I also bailed early because the subtitles were half-illegible.

I don't mean that half of the subtitles were illegible but that in the case of some of the subtitles half of the text was illegible: it was a black and white film - actually a rather beautifully saturated grey and white, perhaps shot in colour and dialled down - and the white subtitles were produced in a very fine font.

In one early scene, as four people talked in a restaurant booth, the words ran across a blindingly white plate in the foreground. They could be discerned only by a process of staring so intensely that the veins stood out on my forehead and employing all my skills as a enthusiastic solver of cryptic crosswords - if that is a "v" and that is an "l" then the letter in the middle has to be a vowel and - oh, whoops it's gone - I wish I could look at the actors' mouths to see who was talking but I have to - oh, whoops that's gone too and so am I.

It makes you wonder about the subtitler's art, which I accept is a challenging business.

In the very light and very funny French comedy Nothing to Declare which I saw yesterday morning, the comic premise is the rivalry between two customs agents, one French, one Belgian.

Many of the jokes consist in the Frenchman imitating the Belgian's French accent - not something that is easy to represent in writing. The subtitles settle for adding "waffle" to every sentence which is a bit wet but the performances are so good that it doesn't matter and if you have any ear at all for French you can hear what they are doing.

But it seems to me that when you sit down to subtitle a movie, your mission statement would consist of only two items: produce titles that mean the same as what the characters are saying and make it possible for filmgoers to read them.

I don't think I've missed anything out.

I don't really get how it happens that somebody subtitles a film and does only one of those two things (for all I know the subtitles may have failed to do the other one too; I don't speak Korean).

I mean, did nobody actually look at the film afterwards and say "Excuse me, I think we have a wee problem here?"

I am pretty sure that if I filed copy to the online editor with half of every second sentence written like this #%^$ ?&$^$? ???%^&*^ &*%$^&%$, I would get an email asking me to reconsider and refile.

Just saying.

Anyway, I spent the rest of the running time enjoying an excellent margherita and a glass of shiraz at Archie's Pizzeria in Newmarket before hopping on the scooter and making for SkyCity to enjoy the dazzling, absolutely marvellous Harry Belafonte documentary Sing Your Song.

The audience gasped out loud at some of the revelations in the film - the horror of network bosses when that purty white girl Petula Clark actually touched Belafonte's arm while singing a duet with him (what was she thinking?) was the most memorable - but it was mainly memorable as a portrait of a man who from the beginning of his career has regarded celebrity as a tool to advance the cause of social justice.

Would that some of the self-absorbed and self-regarding tossers who litter the social pages in 2011 took the same attitude.

I note that director Susanne Rostock's background is in film editing - she goes back to Michael Apted's wonderful Incident at Oglala in the early 90s - and the quick cutting rate made for an engaging if sometimes dizzying watch. I'm also not sure that using a long interview with Belafonte as the film's only voiceover was entirely successful: the sceptical mind might be encourage to wonder what was left unsaid and the absence of an inquiring voice tended to create distance rather than intimacy. But it is a great and enduring social document for an age when we mourn the deaths of drug-addicted pop stars more than those of starving children.

SUPER SIZE THAT: Morgan Spurlock's in town to talk about his product-placement-funded film about product placement POM Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (screenings today and tomorrow).

The serious film of the day is The Roundup, the excellent French historical drama about the round-up of Parisian Jews in July 1942.

It is one of a clutch of recent French films - last year's Korkoro and the more recent Sarah's Key are others - in which French filmmakers confront the truth of the country's shameful complicity with the occupying Nazis, a matter that France has long swept under the carpet.

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