Kung Fu Pander: a play for local audiences

Lee ZachariahWhile Americans have mastered the art of including characters from local markets as a ploy to get audiences on side, Aussie film-makers and local audiences are yet to get on board, which may be a good thing says Lee Zachariah in a piece that first appeared in Encore.

If you were one of the thousands of audience members who added to Iron Man 3’s box-office blitz earlier this year, you may well have enjoyed the work of Bingbing Fan and Xueqi Wang as Chinese doctors tasked with helping Tony Stark.

Don’t recall that scene? Then you clearly didn’t watch it in China. In an attempt to crack the Chinese market – one that notoriously limits the number of Hollywood films that may be screened – Marvel crammed in about four minutes of China-only scenes that reportedly bore zero relation to the overall story. Before you wipe your brow at not being subjected to such nonsense, it’s worth noting that America panders to us just as much, although not for the transparently economic reasons it does with China. Disney’s upcoming Planes, a spin-off from the money-printing family-friendly animation Cars, will feature former Packed to the Rafters actress Jessica Marais as a Tasmanian plane in what is being called a “localised” version of the film, only to be seen in Australia and New Zealand.

This is not new ground for animated films. 2004’s Shark Tale was altered from country to country, focusing on aquatic news reporter “Katie Current”, played by Katie Couric in the original US version. In Australia, however, six year olds across the country were no doubt delighted to recognise reporter Tracy Grimshaw’s voice emanating from the microphone-wielding fish. The UK got GMTV’s Fiona Phillips, and Italy heard anchorwoman Cristina Parodi.

The success of these attempted nods at colloquialism is yet to be determined. Chinese audiences were reportedly unimpressed by the awkward wedging of unnecessary Iron Man 3 scenes. But is there a deeper issue at play here? One that Hollywood is incapable of guessing at?

Americans are used to seeing Americans in blockbusters. Hometown accents in summer tentpoles is the norm for them, so it’s natural that they’d expect the rest of us to enjoy a similar recognition. What they fail to realise is that for Australians, seeing another Australian suddenly turn up in a big-budget film – one in which they’re not playing a Gladiator, or a superhero, or anything that requires an accent – is as awkward as if you saw your Uncle Jack wander through a shot in Pirates of the Caribbean. Seeing or hearing the familiar instantly takes us out of the moment in a way it doesn’t for Americans.

When Ten newsreader Hamish Macdonald suddenly appeared as a newsreader in Olympus Has Fallen, a mildly embarrassed titter flowed through the audience. Macdonald was fine in the part, but the audience was watching a patently ridiculous film about Gerard Butler single-handedly saving President Aaron Eckhart and all of western democracy from some absurd Asian stereotypes as all of Washington exploded around them. The last thing we wanted to see was something resembling our real lives.

Maybe this is what’s wrong with the films we are making locally. God knows we love to pander to foreign interests, but we’re clearly not doing it right. Is it too late to add a scene in which The Sapphires perform for an appreciative Chairman Mao? Should the Snowtown murders have been solved by a hard-bitten New York detective who plays by his own rules? Could quintessentially Australian tale Red Dog have starred American Josh Lucas? Oh. Scratch that last one.

To America, we thank you for the thought, but please stop. Really. It’s not necessary. For you, the events of Olympus Has Fallen may be largely indistinguishable from the coverage of the Obamacare vote, but we still value a barrier between real life and the movies. A Chinese wall, if you will.

Lee Zachariah is a writer and critic best known for ABC comedy The Bazura Project and the film podcast Hell Is For Hyphenates. Find him on Twitter @leezachariah.

Encore Issue 26This story first appeared in the weekly edition of Encore available for iPad and Android tablets. Visit encore.com.au for a preview of the app or click below to download.


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