LETTER FROM CHINA: “12 MONKEYS” STARRING BLUE WILLIS Image

I hadn’t been in China long when a student asked me if we might watch her newly-purchased copy of “Harry Potter” (or “Halibut”, as they pronounce it here – it took me a while to figure out what the hell this film “Halibut” was, which they had all seen) on my computer. It’s well-known that piracy is rampant in China but you’d think, the industry being as big as it is, that it would be at least good piracy. It doesn’t even manage to be bad piracy. The Chinese have VCDs (Very Crummy Discs) as their version of DVDs.

The quality is poor overall, even from the professionally produced ones. The picture on the Harry Potter movie was terrible – you couldn’t see a thing in any of the dimly lit scenes. The sound was also appalling. And the movie started straight from the title “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” so the pre-credits sequence had been cut out. There was also a background hum or ‘rushing’ sound all the way through it. I finally realised what it was. Air conditioning! Yes, along with the sounds of people coughing, kids laughing and food packets rustling it became clear to me that the film had been taped straight off a screen by someone with a camcorder!

As it turned out, this was one of the ‘better’ bootlegs, as I later watched others where the camcorder operator would (a) sit in the very front row, tilting the camera up to give everything a trapezoid appearance, (b) appear incapable of holding the camera steady for the duration of the movie, (c) record people getting up from their seats and walking in silhouettes in front of the screen, (d) cover the lens with a hand, presumably whenever an usher would walk past, or (e) go one step further and drop the camera right out of sight.

These VCDs are rushed into Chinese stores immediately after the film is released in cinemas, making the hastily-written subtitled translations extremely suspect. By ‘extremely suspect’ I mean to say ‘woefully incompetent’, as practically all English translation throughout China is done by locals instead of anyone actually born in an English-speaking country that might know the language (there’s no guarantee it would turn out right in the latter case anyway: I have been editing a translation of the “Arabian Nights,” but the proofs still have all kinds of errors despite my corrections). Not surprisingly, the VCD covers are equally sloppy. The blurb on the back of the Harry Potter movie (the part of it that was in English, anyway) described it as a biography of Jackson Pollock.

Potter/Pollock. Easy enough mistake. Halibut/Pollock; even easier.

“Engaging Lonely Between,” as the tagline on the front cover tells us. I discovered such arbitrary write-ups are standard practice, and all the bootlegs use absolutely anything as the blurb, just as long as it’s a paragraph and it’s in English. Here’s what it says on the back of “The Lost World: Jurassic Park”:

“Joe White is the screenwriter heads up the crew, a man with traditional, puritanical values. When his lead actor begins a steamy affair with a local high school gir, (sic) White is thrown for a loop. Meanwhile, the rest of the cast and crew have gone wild, resulting in one silly.”

I must have missed that version. Oh, and it stars Zulian Moere and Xiffu Gaobolin, in case you’re interested. And nobody else, apparently. But at least they got most of the spelling right. Check out this sentence from ‘The Shawshank Redemption’:

“The seasoned convicts here, headed by Red (Morgan Freeman 1989 Best Actir Issaur inubeemDruvubg Nuss Daust) mbaje bets ge wib;t kast tge furst bugt mybt Abdt is full of surrises.”

My spellchecker is having a fit.

And then there are the taglines found on the covers of the VCDs but not on any movie posters you’re likely to ever see:

“True Lies” – “The broken hearts club in a comedy that really” (starring “A schwarzenneger” – what, only one?)

“American Pie 2” – “Anarchy rules when Their Tyrannical camp Director Incapacitated”

“Braveheart” – “Who she believes to be her long lost love life”

“Jerry Maguire” – “When the guillotine finally arrives, the army captain defies orders and calls off the execution” (Giving new meaning to the film’s catchline “You complete me”)

But what all these VCDs have in common, and what really takes the cake, is the dutiful reproduction of the copyright warning printed on the back.

The official versions, however, aren’t much improvement. Names of actors are still misspelled, and the writing is just as irrelevant: There’s the Tom Hanks comedy “You Are Got Mail”; the Sci-Fi hit “12 Monkeys”, starring Blue Willis and Madelins Stone; “Taxi Driver”, a film about a ‘psychatic new york cobby’; that well-known horror film about marauding mallards “From Duck till Dawn'” and “Bridges of Madison County”, which, as everyone knows, is “a documentary about the Canadian band Barenaked Ladies on tour”.

“Bowfinger” does indeed have pictures of Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy on the slipcase, but they are from “Father of the Bride” and “Holy Man” respectively (Leslie Neilsen is also on the cover and he’s not even in the freakin” movie).

But it’s not just the packaging that’s remiss. Let’s not forget the actual discs themselves. After I told my fellow foreigner/neighbor about the Harry Potter ripoff, she told me that she had watched a good quality VCD of “Fellowship of the Ring’’ a couple of days earlier (which she hadn’t had a chance to see in a cinema) but that it was only two hours long, not three. Of course she has no idea what was cut out (or maybe just one of the discs was missing!). The manufacturers like to get everything on two VCDs if they can (this totals a couple of hours), so they just divide the total running time by two and chop it brutally at the halfway mark. When it’s time for the first CD to finish it may happen in mid-sentence; there’s no sensitivity regarding the material.

That doesn’t mean you can’t get long movies in their entirety. “Gone with the Wind” has been seen by nearly everyone, and “Titanic” is a huge hit here, both the movie and song by Celine Dion (or “Sardine” as she is pronounced, just to perpetuate the fish misnomers). The local populace are huge suckers for anything romantic. And, funnily enough, “Pearl Harbor” is a favorite too, but since there’s an element in this country that remains critical of the US and still resent the Japanese from pre WWII it’s probably their idea of a perfect movie: a love story that features the Americans and the Japanese beating the s**t out of each other for three hours.

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