Why Does IMDb Mangle Asian Names?

Monday, August 31, 2009

Zhang Yimou Zhang Yimou is one talented guy. He’s directed everything from “Raise the Red Lantern,” “Ju Dou,” “Hero,” “The House of Flying Daggers,” to the whiz-bang opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 China Olympics.

Knowing his accomplishments, it’s surprising that he can’t get a simple thing like his name right:  in all his movie credits, posters, ads, trailers, reviews, articles, and photo captions—his name is always written incorrectly. 

Just check out IMDb.com. His name isn’t Zhang Yimou: it’s Yimou Zhang.

And he’s not the only one. One of my favorite directors is South Korea’s Park Chan-wook, maker of “Oldboy” and his amazing new film, “Thirst.”  As per IMDb, his name is actually Chan-wook Park.

Other Asian filmmakers that IMDB flags for their flawed nomenclature include Kaige Chen, Ki-duk Kim, Hsiao-hsien Hou, Woo-ping Yuen, Hark Tsui, and my personal favorite, Kar Wai Wong.

It is part of the language and culture of countries like Russia, China, Korea, and Singapore, to put last names first. But screw ‘em. We are the west and we know how to fix their mistakes. Let’s not mince words—this is cultural imperialism.

Gong LiOn one hand it’s an unwillingness to respect the way people in other lands prefer their names to be written. On the other it’s an insult to the users of IMDb: it makes the tacit point that they won’t be able to make use of these names otherwise.

I recognize that it is much more complicated than this. Not all Asian countries do this. And within cultures, some people flip their names around themselves, and some don’t. There’s no clear logic for it in every case, and many people have struggled with it. Some sought clarity through a consistent use of capital letters for the surname, as in ZHANG Yimou. That allowed the name to stay the same, but only worked if you were in the club that knew what the capitalization meant.  I assume the rationale behind the IMDb name switcheroo is to keep everything consistent, with first names always first, and thereby assist the user. But this strategy isn’t something that would ever occur to any film professor, museum curator or serious critic.  It’s much more like the thought process Internet Technology departments use when they create forms to input data: Put your first name in blank one and your last name in blank two.

Before IMDb “solved” this problem, it wasn’t a problem. Everybody used the name they saw on the screen, the reviews, and the ads.   Nobody needed to know what the real last name or first name was, any more than they were required to have any other knowledge about the culture of the film they were watching or reviewing. While it’s true that you come off as more sophisticated if you say Mr. Zhang rather than Mr. Yimou, you aren’t going to get into a lot of hot water unless you are a critic or attend a lot of parties at the Asia Society.

My question is: “Who is this for?”  The meaning of the order of the first and last names of an Asian film director or actor is something nobody needs to know unless they play roles in film culture like film critic, festival programmer, or museum curator, i.e., people who already know this stuff.  Everyone else could soldier on with the names on the prints of the films, as they always had done. 

Orson WellesWhy am I making such a fuss about this? Names are very important things. Most people are very touchy and proud about their names—they could be named aftere a relative, or their name could have other resonances. They might want it to stay exactly the way it is. On the other hand, Zhang Ziyi starred in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon;” lately she has taken to calling herself Ziyi Zhang. But that is a choice that she made for career or other reasons, whereas Gong Li and Bai Ling have chosen not to. It’s Ziyi’s real name now, at least as far as the movie business goes. But reading Li Gong and Ling Bai in IMDb makes me nuts.

The distinction is vital. It’s wrong to rob people of their right to change or not change their names as a crutch for lazy movie fans. Some do and some don’t, for cultural pride or for whatever reason, just as some women keep their names after marriage. Some keep their Asian names and then invent one for Westerners like Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh or Joan Chen. Whatever each human being’s personal choice is, it should be respected.

It doesn’t make sense to me to have 99% of the information wrong to eliminate “confusion” that wasn’t confusing anybody pre-IMDb. What they are actually doing is manufacturing linguistic mayhem in a sweeping intercontinental way, as so many of us have come to rely on IMDb, even if we often discover errors there. I doubt I’m the only film person who’s knocked for a loop every time they go to an IMDb page and are confronted with these topsy-turvy names.

This is something that is of particular concern to me lately as I’m trying to make SpeedCine a good reference and there are now untold mashups of Asian director names in it. That bothers me, and it will take me a long time to get it straightened out, if indeed I ever can. This bizarre decision they’ve made has seeped like sewage into Netflix and all sorts of online references, where it flows into our DB.

I do admit that when I was working on “Crouching Tiger,” a journalist requested an interview with Mr. Ang. He was attempting to be polite and got it wrong. I set him straight: Ang is in fact Ang Lee’s first name. I don’t think that situations like this will be improved by IMDb’s approach. In fact, I think exactly the opposite: people who are interested in Asian cultures often know about the naming syntax, so they will instinctively turn an IMDb name around. So if they see Yimou Zhang in big type at the top of the page, they will make the logical assumption that his last name is YIMOU. 

The only way you can find Asian names correctly using IMDb is if you happen to know the way it should be and ignore what’s there.

But if you don’t feel confident enough to do that…look it up in Wikipedia.


There have been a lot of changes made at SpeedCine recently.  Most of the iTunes titles are already in and they should all be in by tomorrow.  We now have 16,000 films in our database and the Search Engine has undergone a lot of improvement.  There is now a Directors’ Search function in the box that was formerly for movie titles only.   Also, when you search for a favorite director, not only do you find out what he or she has available online, you also find out whether there are any free titles from that director (try it out with Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Altman and Roger Corman).    We will keep adding features and films in the months to come. We are actively seeking to form relationships with more downloading and streaming websites.   If anybody reading this has relationships with the operators of downloading and streaming websites, please tell them about SpeedCine and encourage them to get in touch with me at  business@speedcine.com.