In September of last year, Barnes & Noble was having a sale: 50% off of Criterion DVDS. This would never happen again, I rationalized, so I carried home a nice haul of Antonioni, Godard, Oshima, Roeg and Pialat—films that I could watch over and over again. I paid about $18 to $30 per disc, and I thought I was getting a bargain.
A week later I went to Shanghai, where I *theoretically* purchased a complete Godard box set (52 DVDs in all!) for the equivalent of $30 USD.
I had heard stories that the DVD stores in China were full of such unknown pleasures, but I didn’t truly believe them until I was there. Most people assume that they primarily sell new releases, similar to the vendors who hawk their illegal wares from garbage bags in Chinatown and on the subway. Most people are also afraid that the the quality will be poor, and that the films won’t be subtitled. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Imagine going into Kim’s Video before the it closed, and then imagine that all the titles are for sale, for the equivalent of $2 USD. (When I was there, the going rate was 14 RMB, which works out to exactly $2.05). Then imagine being able to purchase regionless arthouse films that were never available in your country. And then imagine seeing films that haven’t even been released yet on the shelves.
There are some drawbacks: sometimes the subtitles are poorly translated, and sometimes you do end up with a screener. But for the most part, the packaging and the quality of the DVD is indistinguishable from its full-price counterpart. Along with the Godard box set, I picked up box sets of Almodóvar, Renoir, Wong Kar-Wai, Mizoguchi, Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Francois Ozon.
(So I *might* have purchased so many DVDS that they gave me a VIP card.)
I was also able to find some truly rare films. But the holy grail was undoubtedly a disc that contained both Pasolini’s Appunti per un film sull’india (Notes for a Film Towards India, 1968) and Appunti per un’Orestiade africana (Notes for an African Orestes, 1970). I shrieked out loud when I saw this, because I had seen each of the “Appunti” films only once (If you’re curious, India was screened at a Yale conference on the cinema of ’68, and African Orestes was screened at Anthology). I would have given anything for a chance to see them again, in order to compare them side-by-side. However these titles are rarely shown (especially India) and the print I saw at Anthology was projected with powerpoint soft titles. Now I was holding a DVD of some of the most sublime cine-poetry ever created. (Sadly, the disc did not contain the final “Notes” film, which I have not seen: Appunti per un romanzo dell’immondezza . I would kiss the dirtiest New York sidewalk to see this, so if you know someone who knows someone, please do share.)
It’s interesting that in China, you can get some of the most insurrectionary and revolutionary cinema from the pirated DVD store, but the films in the movie theaters are censored by the government. Going to the movies costs more than buying a illegal DVD, and for students and laborers, it’s still considered a “fancy” thing to do. One of the reasons that Baidu (a Chinese search engine) has a larger market share than Google is that pirated material is available readily; Google puts restrictions on allowing blatantly copyrighted material to surface in search results (or at least they try to). The culture of piracy is so rampant and the government truly doesn’t give a damn that it’s actually hard to get a legal DVD in China. You probably couldn’t tell the difference anyway: some of the illegal DVDS are actually manufactured in the same factory as the legal ones; they are known as “third shift” goods and in that case, there is absolutely no difference between the original and the copy. I like to think of a budding director watching the best cinema the world has to offer, each purchased for less than a subway ride in NYC. Film School? Forget it. Just go to China.
An excellent analysis of the practice by Tom Doctoroff from The Huffington Post
Planning a trip to Shanghai? Dagu Lu is the place to go
piracy, simulacrum and forgery in china: a beautifully written and illustrated essay by Andrew Doro from sheepish dot org. (Bonus: It includes a reference to the piracy scene in Unknown Pleasures)