Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Who's voice was that anyway?

Another in an occasional series of commentaries on the power of images, this time from the Summer Olympics:

Turns out that 9-year-old Lin Miaoke was lip-synching "Ode to the Motherland" at the opening night ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. (Not so bad.) The actual singing was done by Yang Peiyi, 7, who reportedly was deemed insufficiently cute to stand before the billions who watched. (More disturbing.)

Check out this explanation from today's (Wednesday) New York Times: "The reason was for the national interest,” explained Chen Qigang, general music designer of the opening ceremonies, who revealed the deception Sunday during a radio interview. “The child on camera should be flawless in image, internal feeling and expression.”

How exactly can a kid be flawless in internal feeling with someone else's voice? I'm not sure, but I found Chen's statement a little unnerving. In the age of Photoshop, image manipulation has reached new heights, but the Chinese may have gone too far. (For an interesting and only marginally related discussion of the ethical problems stemming from the alteration of photos, see filmmaker Errol Morris' blog, which runs on the New York Times site.)

Chen's quote seems to underscore the heightened fear of blemish that ran through the massive opening ceremonies, which were totally impressive and which I watched with drop-jawed wonder, particularly because they were produced by one of my favorite directors Zhang Yimou. Zhang has given us such classic movies as "Red Sorghum," "Ju Dou" and "Raise the Red Lantern," and more recently, "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers."

Overall, I thought Zhang had attempted something amazing and particularly relevant to the Chinese moment; i.e., he seemed to be searching for an aesthetic in spectacles involving masses of people: 2008 drummers, for example. What better typifies the artist's role in a country that's home to more than one billion people? Inevitably, this kind of presentation tends to obscure individuality, but I'm not sure how much individuality is possible when one is working on a stadium-sized stage.

Still, the task of singing of "Ode to the Motherland" fell to one little girl. Surely the billions of people who tuned into the opening ceremonies would have been just as impressed by Yang as they were by Lin. Did Chen really think that the world believes that China's face (or the face of any other country for that matter) can be depicted as flawless? By that measure, my face -- and probably yours, too -- would be unsuitable for presenting the United States to the rest of the world. What kid would we choose?

Why not go with the girl who actually sang the song? I looked at Lin's picture in the Times, and she seemed like the absolutely perfect Lin to me. Flawless.

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