Friday, September 23, 2005

Bootleg Movies in Shanghai

Anybody who knows me knows I love the movies, of all kinds. I never got around to installing an antenna in my old apartment in Oakland, but I did my part to catch up on America's 4.5 hours/day average of watching TV by maxing out my rent-by-mail account. I'm convinced the owners held a little celebration when I cancelled.

I also made a little side business of re-selling Asian movies shipped from Hong Kong. It bothered me a little, was I importing bootleg materials? The boxes came with holograms and it all seemed legitimate, but I really had no way of telling if they were real, or just high-quality bootlegs.

Well, there's differences between Hong Kong and Mainland China, but still my mind has been put at ease about the whole experience. There is no way I could possibly have mistaken a bootleg for the genuine article. Not when a bootleg looks like this:

If it looks legitimate at first glance, that's the point. If you look closer you'll notice that it's a box for Hitchhiker's Guide the Galaxy, but "WatDisney PPrsents" it, and it supposedly stars "BruceWills Disney s The Kid" along with "LilyTomlin."

And the video quality? It's a very good camcorder recording of a theater screening. Watchable, but not so great.

I can't speak for the 15-20 million Shanghai residents, but from the people I've talked to, it seems most people skip TV, and opt instead to watch the bootleg DVDs. It's about as easy and convenient as turning on the television. On my 10 minute walk from the subway to my apartment, I can pass maybe 6 or 7 different stores dealing bootleg DVDs. The cost is about seventy five cents per disk, before bargaining.

These DVD sellers take many forms. Often they'll just set up a small dinner-tray size table with a couple shoeboxes, but you'll also see closet-sized storefronts packed full with disks. These larger stores will also sell computer software, video games, and maybe some Hong Kong pop CDs. This store is about as large as they get, though:

The quality is a crapshoot. Movies more than a year old are often ripped from DVDs and can be as good as the original DVD, although generally missing the extras. Newer movies, though, are usually from camcorders in the theater, and they may not be American theaters. My copy of "Batman," was in Russian, with Chinese subtitles. This copy of Van Helsing may look OK, but I didn't use any computer program to make the picture smaller - it's this image, blown up to the size of a TV screen.

The selection is surprisingly eclectic, especially considering how small the stores are. Of course the biggest Hollywood movies are represented, but French and Italian art movies seem to have a following. Korean movies and TV-dramas are well-represented, although only a few of them will have English subtitles, unfortunately. You also see movies you just don't expect, like the gonzo Blaxploitation comedy "Petey Wheatstraw - the Devil's Son in Law," starring Dolemite. Who would have guessed? One thing you don't find so much of is Chinese movies. This includes HK movies. Maybe the movies in the theaters will be available on DVD, and there will be some HK pop star concert DVDs, but that's often about it.

There's also large stores and, that's where it gets a little murky. You'd think large chain stores (equivalent to a Target) would be on the level, but I can't believe the movie cover I saw with three Darth Vaders fighting each other was legitimate. The government-owned foreign bookstore also seems legitimate, but their copy of "Children of Paradise" claims to be the prestigious Criterion edition, but was compressed to one third the proper size and stripped of any features. Regardless, even if these quasi-official DVDs cost twice as much, they tend to be less of a crapshoot and are probably worth the extra money. Their American movies tend towards the old classics, though - Alfred Hitchcock or "My Darling Clementine."

One thing kind of fun at the bigger stores is the old Cultural-revolution era movies. So far I've only seen Hai Xia. I can't quite understand it but it has something to do with a cute woman who carries an assault rifle around her village.

They also have legitimate DVD releases of movies that came out in the theater just a week or two ago - since everybody's bootlegging the movies anyway, I guess the studios realize they're forced to compete with the bootleggers. The movie on the left has an English name of "Drink Drank Drunk" but is just a typical romantic comedy, not a Chinese "American Pie."

One thing you do have to watch out for with "foreign" movies is the English subtitles - half of them have them, half of them don't. You look on the box for the characters near #2 here. If you're in the US buying movies at a Chinatown (which really everybody should be doing), you also need to make sure it's NTSC and encoded for Region 1 or 0 - most of them are. I'd recommend looking for movies directed by Johnny To or Wong Kar Wai to start with.


Oaktown Crack said...

Damn you and your piraty ways!

BTW, no sooner do I post a notice about you on Oaktown Crack that you start getting fan mail:

Catnarok said...

Haixia is based on a really cool book called "Island Militia Women." Fisherman's daughter not only fishes but fights capitalist oppressors by rising up and forming a women's militia! I'm trying to track down a copy of the film!