Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Chan Likes Mariachi Music

One thing that really struck me about Chan Is Missing was the musical score. I found the choices of songs quirky, amusing, and very, very interesting. To me, the soundtrack of a movie really sets the mood, the tone, the scene... this was no exception. The music, I found, was an unexpectedly eclectic mix of genres. But, I suppose, Chan is Missing incorporates a similarly eclectic mix of Asian and "American" culture.

The film opens with Joe driving the taxi, his face obscured by a glare on the windshield, and a Chinese-language version of "Rock Around the Clock", a classic, all-American, catchy tune by Bill Haley and the Comets. I'm sure any viewer of this movie when it came out would have recognized the melody instantly. So while this song is playing, we can't see the taxi driver's face. Is he white? Is he Chinese? Who is he? Then, as we realize what this American song is, we see that this taxi driver is Asian, as his face is finally revealed. 

At the Manilatown Senior Center, Presco, a man who worked there and remembered Chan as "Hiho", recounts, "Chan's crazy about all different kinds of music". I thought this was the perfect line -- it was almost as if Chan had created this film's soundtrack. I appreciated the inclusion of the Spanish-language mariachi music during the scene at the senior center.

I don't speak Chinese, so I feel that I really missed out on the meaning of the Chinese language lyrics of Jenny Chan's heavy metal music. But I was curious -- does Chinese heavy metal have the same subject matter as American rock? Was the Chinese "Rock Around the Clock" about rocking around the clock, or did it just appropriate the melody and transform the message into something completely different?

The subject of translation comes up a few times over the course of the film. Many of the Chinese-American characters say that in Chinese, ideas themselves are transmitted differently when one is speaking (such as the Asian-American lawyer in the beginning of the movie, and the man working at the English language center). But in the Chinese version of rock around he clock, the skeleton of the song (its melody) is the same, but the words are foreign. It seems, in translation from Chinese to English, that even the structure of the thoughts are different, the way of explaining an event is really a whole other language.

Chan is Missing really embodies a dilemma that many immigrants face -- how to preserve one's culture? Chan, much to the chagrin of his wife, was "just too Chinese!" But should he have been forced to assimilate? By listening to "all kinds of music", Chan was appreciating culture in a different way. As the "brains behind his brother's invention of the first word processing system in Chinese", maybe the only "problem" was that Chan wanted to preserve his usage of Chinese language. 

Chinese apple pie? Chinese "Rock Around the Clock"? "Samurai Night Fever"? Chinese-language heavy metal music? What are we to make of these cultural blends? Certainly, they enrich our understanding of what culture means in America -- an amalgamation of different ethnicities.

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