Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Celebrity, the CanCan and Chinese Subtitles

If you’re like us, there’s one issue that causes you to wake up sweating in the night, wavy lines of stress emanating from your head like spidey sense. While the talking heads of the world prattle on, gross injustices are going ignored, and we have only ourselves to blame. One distant day in the future, when our children ask about it, will we know what to say?

That’s right friends, I am talking about celebrity image rights. So often those selfless heroes of stage, screen and wireless find their efforts to make the world a more aromatic and beautiful place rewarded with chicanery, disdain and outright piracy. I, for one, am appalled.

We in Ulaanbaatar are reassured that some of our key cultural figures are ahead of the curve, and have taken steps to protect their precious public profiles, even in such marginal markets as Mongolia. These forward thinking entertainers have moved aggressively to diversify their market share before the photoshoppers and silkscreeners get in there and render their visages as cheap as a bootleg copy of Revenge of the Sith at Happy Shop (2.5 USD apparently- not that we’d know). Enterprising sorts that they are, some have opened wholly legitimate enterprises in Ulaan Baatar which are authorized to bear their likeness. Listed below then, are a few of celebs spotted around Mongolia, and what they’re peddling:

- Britney Spears- Ms. Spears invites you to play pool at her basement saloon. Don’t be put off by the proximity to the bus stop or drunks in the stairway- it’s a classy establishment.

- Rowan Atkinson- Mr. Bean, Blackadder, and Johnny English. But to pedestrians in the shopping precincts, Rowan’s rubber face is synonymous with quality sports trophies. He encourages you to reward the champion on YOUR team today.

- Angelina Jolie- In addition to her many chores as a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, Angelina has always felt strongly about poor quality photocopying. That’s why her face is plastered on street lights and hoardings all over town, testifying to the availability of quality copies at low low prices. Her sunny smile is free of streaks, paper jams or toner.

- Salma Hayek- Ms. Hayek knows that massage is no laughing matter, which is why she has endorsed the parlour near the carpark at Zanabazar. Her severe brow and humourless nudity do nothing to make one less tense- perhaps an inducement to go inside and get a massage? Only her marketing people know the whole strategy, but it is doubtless at work on many levels.

It is our hope that many others will join them in the weeks and months to come, and that soon the capital will have more selfless celebs supporting the efforts of local business.
Why not reward these capitalist pioneers for their generous efforts by consuming some of their latest product at recommended retail price?

And while we’re discussing issues of global cultural import (sic), let’s put to one side such twaddle as the thousands of years of tradition laid down by Chinggis Khan, the ancient art of embroidered Kazah wall hangings, the exquisite silks of the Mongolian del, or the saddlework on Mongolian ponies. Junk, the lot of it. Let’s talk about television. A wiser man than me once said “there’s something strange about watching tv in a different time zone.” Whoever than man was (I think it was Homer Simpson), and assuming I’m not inventing rubbish out of thin air, I’d like to shake his hand. Television, that great leveler-friend of the common man, comforter of the unemployed, the thing that does the thinking for you and tells you when to dance.

Hereabouts, in addition to Russian MTV, various incarnations of CCTV, Bollywood’s finest, and plenty of overdubbing of Hollywood product, tango fans will be glad to know that there is one Russian channel which shows a nonstop series of ballroom dancing competitions. Twenty four seven, seven days a week, they are shooting horses, aren’t they? Often these are under the guise of regional playoffs of one form or another. It is all packaged like a sporting event, with commentators clamped into huge headphones, league tables, and slow motion replays of especially choice manoeuvring. Perhaps most bafflingly, these events all seem to play to packed houses, waving national flags and chanting encouraging slogans. We have yet to develop a team allegiance, but you can be certain that we will. Even as we speak, somewhere in the world a couple are applying great putty knives full of makeup, donning spangles, and hitting the floor, with an eye on taking down those left footed losers from Estonia with a killer twirl in the quickstep. Come on Finland!

Now I can watch as much ballroom dancing as the next bloke, and I’m not saying that it’s not thrilling entertainment, but sometimes one wants something with slightly more in the way of plot. Step forward, Sansar Movies, the wonderfulest channel ever. Sansar Movies runs commercial free, has no evident editorial policy, no presenters, and no worries. Just movie after movie. Sansar’s playlist is made up of whatever happens to be on the market stalls of some of those more unscrupulous buccaneers of the digital age mentioned above, shot through with classics of the 80s, 90s and today like You’ve Got Mail.

This wide mouthed approach leads to some serendipitous programming, like a Blackhawk Down/Fog of War double feature. But most wonderful of all is the fact that Sansar either a) assumes its audience doesn’t speak anything except Mongolian, or b) really doesn’t care, because movies on Sansar are broadcast in a bewildering variety of languages, accompanied by subtitles in another language (which may or may not be from the same movie). This last element can really spice up run of the mill offerings- Snow Dogs (Cuba Gooding with a pack of dogs run in the snow together) was improved considerably by subtitles suggesting that all the cast has slept with each other at some point or another. Mush, you huskies.

It’s a good idea not to get too involved when viewing Sansar, as periodically the film will stop, the DVD menu will pop up, and an unseen hand will change the settings from English language with Russian subtitles to Chinese language and French subtitles. And on we’ll go. Sometimes it will change back, sometimes it’ll go round Asia, with characters and accents morphing from one scene to the next. Disney horsey movie Spirit of the Cimarron (?) was on the other night, and halfway through all the horses mysteriously learned to speak English. But they still all sang like Bryan Adams, which is still very unsettling.

And with the heartfelt notes of that troubadour ringing in our ears, we will close this entry. We hope you have learned a little bit more about life in other places, and might reflect that as much as we’re all different, we’re all the same on the inside.

Sain Amraaraa (which means have a nice rest, viewers),


Postscript: regular viewers will be glad to learn that at this morning’s lesson, it was revealed that Mongolian contains two sets of names for days of the week- one numerically based (first day second day, etc), the other based on planets (davaa, myagmar, etc.). Both sets are used interchangeably. There is also apparently a third set, based on Sanskrit names of planets, but this one is less commonly used. So sain duru dich uduur, puroo garig, and barkhasbadi to you all. Just don’t ask which month we’re in…

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