Spout Mavens Disc #14, Part 4 of 13: Shorts! Volume 3 - My Name is Yu Ming [Yu Ming Is Ainm Dom] (2003)

Director: Daniel O'Hara
Irish, 0:13, color
Cinema 4 Rating: 5

I have no facility for foreign languages. Some would say that even English gets the better of me most of the time. Even in a situation where it would behoove me to learn Spanish -- such as at work, where we often publish stories, sometimes my own, in what seems to be the predominant tongue of this region -- I find myself unable to negotiate my way through the Spanish language, except for a handful of words I absorbed through umpteen years vegging out in front of Sesame Street (peligro; abierto; cerrado...) I know that it would be wise to learn it, and it would greatly enhance my situation at work were I to get it down at least part of the way. Most of all, even achieving some small form of fluency would make it easier to converse with people on the street, and especially in my own neighborhood. But until I get a little pro-active and take a real course or at least hook up with that Rosetta Stone thing, I am a man displaced.

My chief fear in learning another language is in never getting the pronunciation of words correct enough to be even partially intelligible. A secondary fear is in getting the accent right, but not so much to avoid being mocked back by the targets of my international discourse, but more so that I don't appear that I am mocking them. You might think that I exaggerate these fears -- and it also might seem strange since I usually seem to revel in nothing but the mocking of others -- but I really have had nightmares about this recently. Even at work, after being introduced late last year to our new employee Jorge (but hearing him introduced as "George" to we gringos), I asked him which one he would rather I called him, Jorge or George. He said, "George. The way you say my real name is wack." Thus, in my ongoing tradition of dealing with things in my way, and not being comfortable calling him "George," his nickname of Proty was engineered (for reasons I have gone into elsewhere). I would rather invent new names than screw up the real ones.

And so, momentarily, I am keeping away from Spanish. My fears of being misunderstood or, far worse, insulting the ears of those with whom I wish to converse is running far too high at the moment. But my fears involving my transplanted acceptance are peanuts compared to those experienced by the lead character of the short film
My Name is Yu Ming, the fourth entry on the Shorts! Volume 3 DVD collection. I moved from one state to another, where the official language remains the same no matter what is perceived politically to be the majority of residents speak here. Yu Ming leaves his native land of China to start his staid, boring existence over in an entirely new and foreign country, Ireland. A spin of a globe, the placement of a finger, a peek at the map, and Yu Ming is suddenly studying Gaelic (which he determines to do due to the atlas stating that Gaelic is the official language, where, in fact, according to the UNESCO site and charter, it shares that duty with English, with Gaelic as the first official language properly, and English as the second).

Yu Ming leaves the drudgery of his supermarket stocker's job and packs up for Ireland, momentarily suffused with renewed spirits from the knowledge that he has supposedly commandeered the helm of its native language, and is ready to pull into port and begin his life anew. (Actually, he takes a plane.) The signs of the airport and on the streets are all equally laden with slogans in both English and Gaelic, and so he is able to find his way easily wherever he wishes. But once he gets to his initial destination -- a small hostel, seeking shelter -- he is in for a rough time. No Gaelic spoken at all, just a very rough approximation of the Queen's English by a Billy Idol-type running the front counter, and the impression to all who surround Yu Ming is that he is not speaking Gaelic at all, but is actually speaking the language of that which his facial features corner him as representing. The Irish only hear the native language of their land pouring from Yu Ming's mouth as that of his own homeland. We find out later, through the timely interruption of a wizened pub-frequenter, that Yu Ming has, indeed, mastered Gaelic to such a degree that he is now amongst its most accurate deliverers.

It is an amusing prospect, and there are a handful of light laughs to be found in My Name is Yu Ming. Much of this is due to Daniel Wu's naturalistic portrayal of the lead character, who has a wide-eyed appeal that works well for Yu Ming's naive delving into a new land. Thanks to the juxtaposition of clashing cultures and tongues, and even the prospect of one language being mistaken for the other though being separated by many thousands of miles and continental and racial origin, the germ of the idea here is one which would be fun to explore deeper. But, in line with what does work here, My Name is Yu Ming is all surface, especially when taken through repeated viewings.

After my initial amusement at the predicament of this stranger in a strange land made even stranger by the fact that he arrives as one of its most fluent Gaelic speakers , there grows the realization that one is actually watching a 13 minute version of a Guinness commercial. Cut each of the scenes down to their primary elements and necessary exchanges, and down to five to ten seconds each at that -- something akin to editing this short into a trailer for it instead -- and a Guinness commercial is what you would have. Or, if shown during the just finished Beijing Olympics, it could have served as a Visa ad. Tack on the overly assured and slightly smarmy ending -- ignoring the fact that the scene takes place in a pub -- and you could easily mistake this for a Latter Day Saints happy-happy-life spot.

One could take this film to task for perhaps understating just how prevalent the use of the Irish tongue remains. One is led to believe here that only those who live in the farther reaches of the island continue to speak it at all. One is also led to believe that no one can understand a single word he is saying. I understand the conceit is that they believe he is speaking Chinese, but even later, when the elderly Paddy character is introduced, he lays down what are supposed to be the facts concerning the use of Gaelic -- that no one really speaks it anymore, that the signs using it are doing so out of tradition, etc. And even the bartenders, who are clearly familiar with the old man and should know full well that he speaks the old language of their land, think he is speaking Chinese just because he talks at length easily with Yu Ming. I also find it ridiculously hard to believe that at a youth hostel in a major Irish city, which revolves around serving tourists from a great many different places, backpackers of all types and curious travelers, that there wouldn't be someone on staff that spoke a smattering of Gaelic, if only to greet tourists in a polite and educational fashion.

Furthermore, I don't care what sort of superbly obsessed nebbish Yu Ming is, I just can't believe he can master the Irish language in only six months, and especially to such an extent that he is more fluent at it than the Irish themselves. If the film is, say, an Ace Ventura-type film, and Jim Carrey spits out a language mastery for Tlingit that he got down in a fortnight, you tend to believe it given the crazed proportions of the comedy already at hand. It's unbelievable, but so is everything surrounding it, and you therefore accept it. But this film is not the broadest of comedies, and its structure is far more natural and understated. In their efforts to bring their film to a cute, surface-satisfactory conclusion, the filmmakers undermine their structure and the whole thing crashes down with the slightest second glance.

Still, if anything, the film made me start thinking about my own second language attempts again. I am certain that if I just applied myself, and given the fact that I am already surrounded by co-workers and neighbors who gnash through it every day, that I can get Spanish down in three, four months. It will come out sounding like Chinese to their ears, but I will believe that I am speaking their language. And since it will sound like Chinese, they will look at my white-boy face and lightly reddish-blond hair, and they will think I am actually speaking Gaelic. And then, in my desperation to be understood, I will move to Ireland, where no one will understand me.

Except Yu Ming...

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