One of my favorite things to do in China (and Asia in general) is to go to the bustling electronic markets and look for counterfeit DVD’s. Anyone who has been to our house would recognize this passion in the hundreds of DVD’s in our collection, most (all?) of them illegal. I enjoy the DVD hunt, the bargaining, the never-knowing-what-you-will-find aspect of the whole adventure (a boxed set with all of the works of Hayao Miyazaki for $10!!!, the complete Hitchcock filmography for $25!!!!!!!!!) , etc. Buying counterfeit DVD’s has some important advantages, the most obvious being that they are incredibly cheap (around 50 cents a piece, although they can be more expensive, depending on their quality and the city in which you buy them: Chengdu is much cheaper than Beijing, for example).
There are, nonetheless, a few things you need to accept when buying DVD’s here: the labeling, for example, is not always reliable. It is typical for a DVD to look like the original (the cover, the title, etc.), only to discover after close inspection that you are looking at a composite of many different movies. For example, the copy of “Celeste & Jesse Forever” (alright, I have a weak spot for romantic comedies) that I bought the other day looks like the original (see pictures below), but if you look closer, you will notice that the credits on the back are only partially right. Somewhere in the middle of the credits, whoever prepared this copy got distracted and switched from “Celeste & Jesse Forever” to “Think Like a Man“, the movie based on Steve Harvey’s book Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man (if you don’t know who Steve Harvey is, you should check out this hilarious SNL sketch about him here). I am not really sure why, but this merging of two movies in the credits area is a very common phenomena here.
The labeling of DVD’s can also be completely wrong. I remember several years ago, having come back exhausted from one of our Tibet excursions with SIT, Pam and I spent our first day home after a grueling month of camping, trekking, cold weather, and long days, in bed (this was, obviously, before kids!) watching the first season of 24, which I had just bought in Lhasa for a ridiculous price in a beautiful boxed set. After watching something like twelve episodes in a row (in which Jack Bauer nearly died twice and his daughter kept getting captured by terrorists, only to escape and get caught again), we realized that there were many references we could not really make sense of…maybe we were tired, maybe the show was a bit too fast… It was only after a few days, when looking up the show online, that I realized we had in fact been watching the second season!
Another, more recent example of the problems you can face with DVD labeling is the Walt Disney Boxed Set (see picture) that I just bought the kids: DISNEY AFI’s 100 YEARS (with a 100 movies for $15.87). For starters, I am still trying to figure out what Disney AFI means (ideas??), but let’s skip that one for now. The second challenge I faced was that with my limited Chinese it was impossible to figure out what the contents of the boxed set actually was, since all of the titles are in Chinese (that’s my fault, since I am in China, I know). Only after opening the set and trying out a few of them did we realize that not all of the movies are Disney: there is Felix the Cat, Barbie movies, DreamWorks films, and, a pleasant surprise, a few Chinese cartoons. Some of the DVD’s are good copies, while others were recorded by camcorders in movie theaters (hence, the occasional jacket over the camera, blocking the image). There was also an unwelcome “Easter Egg” in the set. In between a Winnie the Pooh movie and Shrek, there was a preview for a Russian movie in which a couple was completely naked and going at it, oblivious of the fact that my kids were watching them. I had to quickly turn off the DVD and justify what they saw as a problem with the Chinese DVD.
Finally, a quite amusing and charming feature of fake DVD’s is the excerpts of reviews that are usually included on the DVD. While these blurbs are supposed to be positive (“Great Movie,” or “Thumbs Up”), here you can find blurbs like “this movie was the legal definition of torture” or “A mostly ghastly spectacle”). They are usually included in capital letters and with exclamation marks at the end, so I believe whoever included them thought they were inserting a positive review of the movie. My guess is that they just go to sites like Rotten Tomatoes and copy whatever is there, thinking that they are all raving reviews.
It would be easy to reduce the existence of counterfeit DVD’s in China to an issue of piracy. Piracy is an important aspect (no denying that), but the issue is also more complicated. As you can read in this article from the LA Times, China does not allow more than twenty foreign movies a year to be shown in their movie theaters (you can call that cultural protectionism), which leaves the Chinese public without access to a lot of the movies produced every year in the international market (this number may change soon to 34). As a result, pirated DVD’s have allowed Chinese to have access to movies (and TV shows) that otherwise they would not be able to watch. The other explanation could be that pirated DVD’s allow Chinese to circumvent censorship (on how Hollywood deals with this obscure board you can read a very interesting article here). Movies shown here (like in Spain during Franco’s era) have to be morally wholesome and politically correct (towards the Chinese government that is), so many of them are seriously edited (a recent case of dramatic editing has been Cloud Atlas), or are completely banned. American studios are also getting more savvy and creative trying to curtail piracy by using more of a carrot and less of a stick in their dealings with China, like filming some of their Hollywood blockbusters here. The upcoming Iron Man 3 is a good example of that with part of it being filmed here in Beijing.
The charm of hunting for DVD’s, though, may become a thing from the past: for the first time since my initial visit to Asia in 1999, it has been quite difficult to find any DVD stores. Is it because of Chinese New Year that a lot of the stores have been closed? Is it because this is Beijing, and there is more pressure to not sell and distribute counterfeit materials? It could also be that original DVD’s are already quite cheap here, making the purchase of counterfeited ones more of a hassle than anything else. I actually bought what amounts to my first legal purchase of DVD’s I have ever made in China when I bought a few Sesame Street (3 for $6.80) and Dora (for $13) DVD’s at Wal-mart, with both Chinese and English Audio. The labels, languages, and subtitles are all as they should be with no unpleasant surprises.
One of my friends at Minzu University provided another possible answer when I asked him about DVD stores in the area: “Why do you want to buy DVD’s? I always download whatever I want.” It may be that in a time of Netflix, Hulu, and Spotify (or their Chinese equivalents, like Tudou and Youku) the old fashioned practice of buying DVD’s may be disappearing. Piracy, it seems, is moving online.
Who knows, maybe this will be good for me and will, finally, make me an honest man.