Lost in Translation?
by Yasmin Huda
Is Magic Realism in film best suited to foreign language cinema?
It seems that when the term 'Magic Realism' is used in conjunction with film, people start to get a little nervous. Despite being bandied about in the world of art, literature and even in music, it is a 'label' yet to be embraced whole-heartedly by the film industry. Which got me thinking; what is it about the genre of Magic Realism that makes it such a tricky customer when it comes to translation into the medium of film? More importantly, of the few films that do manage to achieve this successfully, why is it that so many originate from the territory of foreign language cinema?
Over the past few years, audiences have been wooed and wowed by such visual and storytelling masterpieces as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Pan's Labyrinth and Warm Water under a Red Bridge; all foreign language films, which can be said to be in the vein of Magic Realism. Although these and other such cinematic offerings can't quite compete in terms of commercial success with polished Fantasy blockbusters such as Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings, each has gained critical acclaim in its own right and with this, secured a loyal following. Perhaps it's because modern audiences are discovering in this type of cinema the kind of enchantment and thought provoking storytelling that is sadly missing from so many of the glossy Hollywood movies being churned out today; or possibly they're drawn to the fresh perspective that Magic Realism has to offer on topics that have been worn out by other genres. Either way, every once in a while when films like these come along, audiences sit up and take notice.
The charming tales brought to life by Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki also seem to have captured the imagination of children and adults alike. Both Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle, prove yet again that Magic Realism can help transcend a story well told into something that cuts a little deeper, without the sacrifice of viewing pleasure.
But my question here is: Is it purely coincidental that these examples are all products of the foreign language movie market?
I've always believed that much of the success of Magic Realism in foreign cinema has a great deal to do with the strong oral storytelling tradition that many of these countries still have. Weird and wonderful tales borne from folklore, fables, myth, legend and fairy tales have been told for centuries all over the globe. But this tradition is something that seems to have died out in much of the English-speaking world. We're no longer exposed to the kind of 'tall tales' that have captivated previous generations; from tales of how the Sun and the Moon agreed to share the world, to stories of talking animals and spontaneously combusting lovers, but these stories are still fairly commonplace in countries like Spain and Mexico, and all over Latin America, Asia and Africa. Perhaps it is this enduring relationship with folklore and storytelling (which, in the oral tradition, manifests itself in an incredibly aesthetic manner), that makes this type of narrative ideal for the transition to Magic Realist film.
Admittedly, for all the recent success of Magic Realism in foreign language films, there have been equally accomplished offerings previously, from the makers of English language cinema. Terry Gilliam has had great success in this respect with films such as Brazil, and The Fisher King, not to mention Tim Burton's adaptation of Big Fish and more recently, Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Science of Sleep (directed by Michel Gondry). Nevertheless, in my opinion there is a marked difference of style in these English language Magic Realist movies, which tend to rely less on cultural mythology and folkloric narrative. Despite this difference though, both focus on the allegorical aspect of storytelling through the use of the inexplicable, in order to get their messages across. Be it a touch of the supernatural or the subconscious, destiny or consequence; these films use the extraordinary to make observations on everyday life, human nature, society, religion and history. In Guillermo del Toro's film, Pan's Labyrinth, this relationship between the fantastic and actuality is played out between its heroine Ofelia's 'fairy-tale reality' and the 'everyday reality' of life during the Spanish Civil War. What del Toro achieves here is a compelling ambiguity between the two 'realities' so that in effect, we are left with two possible endings, depending on what we as an audience choose to believe.
And this brings me to my next point; could it be that as an audience, we are more prepared to accept ambiguity in foreign language cinema than we are likely to accept in our own English language films? The foreign language film has always held a certain amount of kudos with niche audiences, for its 'arthouse' credentials. Somehow, the exoticism of foreign cinema doesn't seem to have to follow the same conventions that we as an audience have come to expect in our own English language films. And let's face it, the general viewing public can be very demanding. We expect resolution and clarity; all loose ends should be neatly tied up by the end of the film. We like to be able walk away feeling that we've fully grasped the meaning or purpose of the film. Ambiguity, though stimulating, can be pretty scary. But in the case of foreign cinema, there doesn't seem to be the same kind of pressure to have it all figured out. It's almost as if there is a general acceptance of the possibility that we may not comprehend every aspect of the film and in terms of foreign language Magic Realism, if the ambiguities elude us, we're less likely to beat ourselves up over it than if we'd just walked out of a movie like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
On the whole though, I'd argue that Magic Realism in film translates equally well whichever language it is made in; after all, it is the story, its message, and the way it is told that is key to the concept of Magic Realism. If anything, the only advantage that foreign language Magic Realism may have in film, is that it has in a way, a ready-made audience that recognise the culturally familiar traditions of folkloric storytelling.
Perhaps the real question we should be asking ourselves is not whether Magic Realism in film is more suited to one particular language or another, but rather; whether the audience itself is receptive to that particular style of film-making on the whole. And this, it would seem, comes down to culture. The majority of English-speaking audiences are possibly less willing to accept the ambiguous nature of the genre and perhaps, struggle to place it in a world where the all-encompassing genre umbrellas of Fantasy and Science Fiction have the monopoly.
Happily however, whatever the reason, Magic Realism in film is slowly breaking through the ranks to establish itself maybe not as a film genre in its own right, but as a style which audiences are able to distinguish as being outside the normal conventions of Fantasy, and I for one hope to see a lot more of it in cinemas, whatever its origin.
Story Copyright © 2007 by Yasmin Huda. All rights reserved.
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About the author
She can't put up a wonky shelf, but can do a mean 'running man' and near perfect impression of a monkey. Yasmin talks to cats, is an aspiring artist, writer and diva. She went to Goldsmith's University of London but never became a goldsmith and has regretted it ever since.