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On Casting Non-Actors

July 1, 2008

Usually it's easy to tell when a film makes use of non-professional actors. The untrained actors are supposed to imbue a movie with a rough edginess, perhaps a greater sense of "the real" (whatever that means.) More often than not, though, the performances come across as wooden and self-conscious, as was the case with the recent movie Once, for instance.

So I was quite surprised to emerge from a screening of the Golden Bear Award-winning Mongolian movie, Tuya's Marriage, at the weekend, to discover that I had been watching a cast of mainly non-professional actors at work. All the male characters in this absorbing film, directed by Wang Quan An, are played by non-actor, I found out from reading a synopsis of the film by New York Times movie critic Stephen Holden. These characters have the same names as the people who play them. Only the female lead, Tuya, is played by a professional actress -- Yu Nan.

What's curious is that unlike most English-language films that use non-professional casts, I couldn't tell the quality of the performances apart. Every character in this film depicting the harsh lives of Mongolian sheep herders living trying to eke out a living in an inhospitable world, touched me. The character played by Yu Nan does most of the "heavy lifting" in the film -- both literally as Tuya's family depends upon her for income, as well as as figuratively as she is the emotional center of the drama and is in the most scenes. But the supporting cast members all kept up with her in terms of engrossing us in their characters' journeys.

But I wonder if I would feel the same way if I could understand Mongolian? In the past, I've been similarly taken with foreign language films which use non-professional casts. One example is Carlos Sorin's moving Spanish-language film set in Argentina, Historias Minimas. If my knowledge of Spanish were as good as my knowledge of English, would I be more sensitive to the quality of the performances?

My guess is probably yes. In Tuya's Wedding, I was unable to detect halteringly-delivered lines, tripped-over phrases or intonation problems, whereas these linguistic issues stand out to me when I can unerstand what's being said.

Of course, an actor's performance, from a vocal perspective, isn't just about delivering words. There are all sorts of non-verbal elements that convey meaning such as the actor's facial expression on any given line. Audiences latch on to these cues, even if they can't understand the language. But beyond reading subtitles, which rarely convey the detailed nuances of speech, there's no telling how the body language truly relates to what's being said.

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