Whatever else you may accumulate in China – unopened Chinese textbooks, part-time English teaching jobs, Ming dynasty bronzes - almost all foreigners in China accumulate massive amounts of DVDs. Most of us rarely go to movie theatres – tickets are expensive and subtitles are rare, but DVDs are plentiful, sold off of blankets on bridges or out of cardboard shoeboxes by the supermarket exit. DVD stores abound as well and beyond the selections on the walls there are usually stacks of the newest English language releases behind the counters.
DVDs tend to vary widely in quality. Advance screening copies flash an advance screening notice across bottom of the screen at the beginning of every DVD chapter but tend to be good quality and often come out in China weeks to months before the official western cinematic release. The best DVDs are regular DVD quality movies without any kind of warning text and perfectly synched English dialogue.
At the other end of the quality spectrum are the bootlegs actually shot in the movie theatre. I recently watched a shot-in-the-cinema bootleg of “Bangkok Dangerous” that was fairly well done, considering. The camera was on a tripod and I kind of thought the slightly out of focus quality of the film was supposed to represent the Nicholas Cage character’s sweaty sociopathic downward spiral, until, during the sign-language flirting scene between Cage and the mute pharmacist/con-artist object of his affection, two men several rows in front of the camera got up and walked out. They returned a little while later while Cage’s terse negotiations with the Thai politician/kingpin were expressed in dubbed Russian – the English subtitles did little to help the situation, in fact, the mystifying subtitles only enhanced the feeling of approaching the brutal end of fifteen-year bender in a tropical country.
While the worst part of bootlegs can be the subtitles –if it’s a foreign language movie you want to ask if it has English subtitles and, optimally, try it out at the DVD store – the best part is often the text on the DVD sleeves. The title of this article comes from a copy of “Blood Xing” I once bought (yes, I know). In big dripping white letters on the cover the designer of the DVD sleeve had accidentally advertised the consensus on “Xing’s” cinematography to anyone considering the DVD. Just as some read Playboy for the articles, I’d like to claim I bought “Blood Xing” for the cover, but I did actually want to watch it. Unfortunately it turned out to be in French – depriving me of what would have no doubt been a significant cultural experience.
Periodically you find DVDs where the text on the back, or sometimes the cast listing on the bottom of the back cover, is clearly from a different movie. Sometimes the sleeve designer will accidentally quote from an unflattering blog review. The producers of “Meet the Spartans” probably didn’t want their movie to be advertised with, “Although I usually enjoy juvenile humor…” followed with a scathing dissection of the boob and vomit jokes.
On the other hand if you were wondering what “Smart People” is about my DVD nails it:
“Professor Lawrence * bosom Chinese zither bold Germany is that literature great master's typical representative, he has one fully is the wisdom head melon seed, scintillation, in Queen Victoria in the middle of the time literature's domain, is the authority who deserves.
But Lawrence in treatment person and matter's time all around, is too actually despotic, has a swelled head, already the self-restraint to a little indifferent degree, he such teacher, naturally was that kid is loathed by the student. “
If you’re living in an area with fewer foreigners it’s harder to get English DVDs. Although DVDs usually run from 5-15 yuan Chinese students mostly download movies or watch them online using a streaming movie program. If you’re determined to lug your 800 DVD collection home with you, throw away all the covers, even the really funny ones, and place the discs in a DVD binder. Still, customs agents may make you ditch your “Lost” DVDs and may even fine you for the pleasure. Even if you get them home you’ll have to watch them on your computer – regional encoding on DVD players often makes watching foreign DVDs impossible.
Still, there are treasures to be found. A DVD store near the Beijing Meishuguan sells reissues of old Chinese propaganda movies, old American films, sets of films by Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman, and BBC documentaries. I’ve bought “Nina Simone Live at Montreaux”, a BBC series on art, “The Wire”, a collection of every film Jim Jarmusch ever made, and a reissue of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” there. And that is by no means an exhaustive list.
I’d love to write more on this subject but I’m afraid I have some movies to catch up on. Yesterday in Lidu I bought: a Jet LI box set with almost every movie he ever made (35), Jennifer Baichwal’s ”definitive six-hour history of modern China”, and “A World Without US” – a documentary on what would happen if America pulled all its troops out of everywhere. The young man at the store recommended all three of these films. He wouldn’t admit to watching Steven Seagal’s new film about battling vampires with a katana or the film I’m about to watch: “The Minis”.
The front of the sleeve is in Italian but the back gets right to the point:
“Dwarfs playing basketball… with Dennis Rodman. You can imagine? Dennis the Rodman side no longer is the beautiful woman and the automobile, but is group of lovable dwarves, is not a Snow White and seven dwarf’s story, but is a wild animal and four dwarf’s story.”
The dwarves may be small but this movie, like my DVD collection, is going to be huge!
Find English language movies in theatres near you in our new What’s On > Movies section: Beijing | Shanghai | Shenzhen | Guangzhou
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