By the time you read this, the Beijing Olympics 2008 is already in full swing, and the news leading up to it have been the concerns about the pollution levels affecting athletes' performances, as well as how the authorities have taken measures to ensure that all visitors get to enjoy an experience they'll never forget. Local documentarians have found the run up to the Olympic event monumental enough to craft documentaries around it, and earlier this year we have seen Tan Siok Siok's Boomtown Beijing, which provided some insights into how the Games had impacted and inpsired the ordinary folks. Lian Pek's Mad About English too get set during this period of preparation in Beijing.
As mean as we can get, we usually poke fun at other people's language (dis)ability, and if I may be politically-incorrect, usually the mistakes pointed out are genuinely funny. But when others poke fun at ours, we get up in arms protesting and finger pointing back. Take for example when a Taiwanese variety show made fun of our English language ability, we hit back with a tit-for-tat. But if you think Mad About English is about poking fun at others' expense, then you are in for a great surprise, and probably at the end of the, emerge a little afraid.
You see, this film is not about the Chinese people's inability to deal with the English language, or to show you signboards with grammar and spelling mistakes, or about having a field day with mispronunciations and unclear diction. This film shows you how relentless they are in spirit to ensure that as a community, they are working in tandem in their own little way to ensure that they be able to communicate with the influx of millions of visitors to the city and country. It's about national pride, to be able to host the Games, and to allow visitors to leave with a memorable experience. And what more than to shore up the obvious gap in communications. Realistically they couldn't expect that everyone coming will be proficient in Mandarin, but as sure as hell the Beijing-ers are pulling out all the stops to ensure they work every day at getting themselves fluent.
It's inspiring to see how age is not a barrier or excuse. From a young girl enrolled in a boot camp, to a retiree playing an active role in the community and volunteering his services, everyone seems to be in a doggedly persistent pursuit to ensure they improve their language skills everyday. Even professionals like the cab driver and the physician, understand the value of being able to hold a conversation, and although they make mistakes, it never deterred them from humbly understanding and correcting themselves. The policeman fluent in many languages, is no doubt a crowd favourite (especially when he puts on his New York accent), and the documentary also follows a self-styled English coach along the likes of Anthony Robbin's self-help seminars. And it's not just the locals getting into the act. Foreigners too like the self-appointed Grammar Crusader also lend their time and effort in weeding out bad language from signboards and menus, whose concern, and a valid one, is to remove possibilities of misunderstanding when foreigners should come and chuckle when they come across bad English, and be misconstrued as being disrespectful by the locals, to have made fun of their culture.
It's pretty amazing to see how a lot can be achieved through collective will, encouragement and spirit, and at a macro level, serves as a reminder to every one of us of the adage that we are probably weak when alone, but together, we are strong. Learning is indeed a lifelong journey, and it served as a reminder that nothing is difficult and cannot be learnt, as long as you put your heart into it. Forget about losing face, as one instructor had made mentioned, and the best way is to first lose your face and practise, and before you know it, you'll earn that back in no time.
Pek Lian's documentary is stylishly executed, and one which I didn't want it to end, at least not as soon as it did.The camera had a very keen eye at capturing snapshots without getting too intrusive into the personal lives of its chosen subjects, who were individually all very interesting people, and covered an excellent spectrum of professionals young and old, from students to instructors, to volunteers and those in the service industry. I'd tip my hat toward the successful run of the Games, and to everyone featured in the documentary that they should now be confident in playing hosts to their guests during this Olympic period, and pass with flying colours in their daily conversations, of being able to understand, and be understood.
Mad About English is highly recommended, and goes into my books as contender to be amongst the best of this year's theatrical releases.