Friday, November 12, 2010

3:10 to Kamchatka

My Chinese DVD collection consists primarily of whatever movies the girl before me left behind in the apartment: You've Got Mail, Feast of Love, Married Life, The Other Boleyn Girl, A Love Song for Bobby Long. I have no shortage of beer coasters. Then there are the handful of movies I brought from home, a couple that I bought in Chengdu, and There Will Be Blood, which I stole from Jacob and am holding hostage until a day in the distant future when he can appreciate it for the masterpiece that it is.

I don't buy many DVDs in Nanchong, because I don't really know where to buy them. There are no sprawling bootleg DVD markets here. I have seen them in Chengdu and Chongqing, and on the east coast of China. But in Nanchong, we have proper DVD shops that are strictly legitimate and almost exclusively domestic. It's slim pickins for Western films. They can be found in the darkest, rankest corner of the shop, hidden behind the softcore pornography and the instructional ping-pong videos. They're pricey, these laowai DVDs, about the same as they would cost in the States, and the selection is some pretty lowbrow shit - and overdubbed lowbrow shit to boot. So unless watching Mariah Carey's Glitter in Mandarin is your thing, your best bet is probably the internet.

But when it comes to streaming movies, my laptop is no better than my toaster oven. If I want to watch a movie, I have to splurge on an overpriced DVD of less than exacting taste. Or at least I had to, up until a couple weeks ago, when I finally found a DVD shop that caters to my impoverished American sensibilities. It is called the "Open-Hearted Video Store."

The owner smokes excessively, even for a Chinese man. At the same time, his accent and his mannerisms aren't Chinese at all. Perhaps he's Japanese - but around these parts, that is not exactly the kind of question you want to ask if you're interested in keeping a full set of teeth.

As I enter, Mr. Openheart will grunt and gesture with his cigarette at a couple of cardboard boxes stashed under the legitimate DVD rack. This means that he has gotten a fresh shipment of bootlegged foreign DVDs. Or he will smoke and say nothing, which means that no new shipment has arrived. Either way, Mr. Openheart has already amassed an epic collection of bootlegs, and I can easily while away several hours of the evening sifting through DVD slips until my hands are coated in an invisible but palpably grody dust. Call it the dust of piracy.

Yesterday, Mr. Openheart grunted and gestured, and indicated not one but four new boxes of DVDs. Jackpot. I rubbed my hands together and squatted down on a little wooden stool. I cracked open the first box. And I sifted through the schizophrenic rubbish.

Mr. Openheart has eclectic taste, which is not to say that he has good taste. No, it does not seem as though Mr. Openheart has any taste at all. His is the DVD collection of someone who simply buys movies at random, regardless of quality, popularity, genre, rating, or country of origin. A typical sequence of titles goes something like this:

The Talented Mr. Ripley (in Portuguese), Toy Story 2, bondage film from Hong Kong, Predator 2, Singin' in the Rain, Ceausescu-era propaganda film from Romania, Saw 6, Season Three of Bob the Builder, bundle of anime porn, The Godfather Part III (in Korean), Bushwhacked (starring Daniel Stern), Little Women, bundle of anime porn, art flick from Latvia, City Slickers 2: The Legend of Curly's Gold (in German) ... und so weiter.

The DVDs are organized in no way that I can tell. Maximum entropy seems to have been Mr. Openheart's filing criteria. This makes DVD searching a tedious process, but at the same time an engrossing one. I am never quite sure what I'll find. It's the thrill of the hunt, I suppose. There have been evenings where I've browsed for two hours and left without buying a thing. Other times, it's as though Mr. Openheart imported an entire box with my Amazon Wish List firmly in mind. The Stanley Kubrick Criterion Collection? Meeting People Is Easy? Blue Velvet? Weekend at Bernie's ... 1 and 2? When that happens, I shoot Mr. Openheart a suspicious glance across the room.

Mr. Openheart might be openhearted, but he ain't cheap. Sketchy and disorganized as his DVDs may be, they go for three bucks a pop: a pretty Peace Corps penny. So whichever movie I finally decide on, I'm liable to watch it at least seventeen times before my service is up. Better make it a good one. On an openhearted shopping day, I will reject about 98% of the available DVDs and place the remaining 2% in a "maybe pile" on the floor.

Yesterday, after sifting through the four new boxes and several of the older ones whose contents I pretty much have memorized by now, I set out the following maybe pile: Good Night and Good Luck, How the West was Won, 3:10 to Yuma, and Gangs of New York.

I wrote off Good Night and Good Luck because it was too short. I knew it was going to be a long, cold night in the apartment. I needed some filler. Back in the box with ye, George Clooney. How the West was Won I ruled out because I was feeling fidgety and I needed a movie that would hold my attention, nothing with panorama shots or substance. Gangs of New York, at a whopping 163 minutes, was about to get my final nod when I read on the back of the case that the soundtrack included a new song from U2. Shuddering, I put Bono back in the box. And I decided that I'd take the 3:10 to Yuma.

Mr. Openheart, having smoked and watched over my shoulder for the duration of my two-hour hunt, sensed that I was either autistic or a man of discriminating taste, so he offered me a cigarette. He asked me a question that I didn't understand, then smirked and told me that he was giving me a discount. Then he lit my cigarette for me and bid me adieu.

On the walk home, I passed a woman hawking bootleg DVDs on the corner. A rare thing in this town. Most of her movies were overdubbed, but as I approached, she produced a stack of 10-in-1 DVDs.

The 10-in-1 DVD is a modern marvel of intellectual property theft. Ten movies for the price of one. Ten movies on a single disc. How do they do it?, the reader wonders. Easy enough. The bootleggers use state-of-the-art software to drop the video integrity down so low that it's like watching multicolored bits of sand dancing around on the screen. (Mel Gibson actually looks less insane this way.) And they chop out all the mid-levels of the soundtrack, such that the dialogue is only barely audible but the gunshots ring out so loudly that your neighbors will come knocking on your door, just to make sure you haven't offed yourself. But it's still ten movies for the price of one, even if you'll never watch eight of them, even if you need to hold a magnifying glass up to the screen to make sense out of the other two.

My favorite thing about the Chinese 10-in-1 DVD is the cover artwork. There is a picture of some half-naked (or naked) woman, or some greased-up action hero like Jean-Claude Van Damme, looking his most constipated. And there is fire everywhere. And some embossed, shiny letters screaming ... screaming ... something at you.




If you squint long enough and hard enough, you can deduce the unifying theme of the ten movies. It's like a Magic Eye, or Where's Waldo? Ah, yes: these are romantic comedies. Okay, these are horror movies, I guess. These are movies about ... Neanderthals? Oh, wait. No. These are movies starring Nicholas Cage.

They will sometimes try to fit an actor's entire body of work on a single DVD, but they get mixed up every so often, especially when it comes to black actors - and Tom Cruise for some reason.

(Included on the DVD are about three Denzel movies, Driving Miss Daisy starring Morgan Freeman, Ghost Dad starring Bill Cosby, and everything in the Orlando Jones oeuvre.)

Ben Stiller, Robert Downey, Jr., Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Adam Sandler, and of all people, Mr. Bean. I guess we all really do look the same.

I settled on the special edition THE KICK THE BLOCK FLYING DOWN MASTER OF THE ANKLE! DVD, which consisted of five b-movies with the word "fighting" in the title, Karate Kids 1 through 3, and Kill Bill Volumes 1 and 2. The nice lady sold it to me for a buck.

I went out for dinner. All the restaurants were packed with college kids who were already standing up to heckle me as I passed. So I walked until I found a truly filthy little dive that was completely empty except for the owners and their son.

While his parents were back in the kitchen, the kid approached me and snatched my DVD cases off the table. He opened 3:10 to Yuma, tried to fit the DVD in his mouth, then threw it on the floor. He moved onto the 10-in-1, which he started rolling along the floor, going vrooooooooom.

When my food arrived, I was bent over, trying to pluck the DVDs off the floor with my fingernails, sweeping all the sauce-soaked packaging into a pile. The parents were watching all this. The kid was watching me and giggling with his fingers in his mouth. I grinned at him, as if to say: boy, are you in trouble. But nothing happened. Papa set my food on the table and sat down next to his wife in front of the television. I sat down to eat. The kid came over and took my chopsticks right out of my hands. I fetched another pair, but he took them, too. Then he pulled something out of his pocket. It didn't appear edible, but he put it in his mouth anyway and started chomping on it with his mouth wide open, right in front of my face. My twice cooked pork was getting to be mighty unappetizing.

The kid went for my backpack. He unzipped the flap and started taking my papers out.
"No, no," I said. "Don't do - ... I need those!"

Then he discovered my Kindle. I glanced up at the parents. I wasn't about to discipline their kid for them, but from the looks of things, their baby was about to discipline my baby.

"Hey, boss!" I called. I gestured at the kid.
The mom came rushing over.
"Come on," she cooed. "Don't do that."
He kept rummaging.
She tapped him on the shoulder.
"Come on," she said. "Don't play with Foreign Uncle's bag."
He wasn't listening. He had successfully freed the Kindle, and whether he'd smash it on the floor or start reading Nabokov was anyone's guess.

Just then a cat came tumbling out of a styrofoam box in the kitchen. The cat lay there stunned for a moment. Then he made eye contact with the kid. His tail poofed and the poor critter booked it out into the street. The kid gave chase. Ah, yes. Another animal to torment. I was off the hook. Me 'n Kindle could breathe easy again. I could eat. There is a lot happening in China, so when worse comes to worst, and it often does, rest assured a deus ex machina is always waiting in the wings.

When I got home, I tidied up the living room just enough that I could bring myself to sit down in it for two full hours. I dusted off the TV screen with a dirty sock. Then I popped in 3:10 to Yuma. A Western backdrop came up on the screen. There were gunshots, the clip-clop of horses. But when Russell Crowe's mouth moved, a funky cocktail of consonants came tumbling out. The title faded into view. "3:10," I read, "... to where, exactly?"

It was a Russian DVD. Easy enough, I figured. I know at least six letters of the Cyrillic alphabet. I'll just find the language menu and squint for a while and then switch the DVD back to English somehow. No problem. But only Russian Dolby Surround Sound was available. And Russian subtitles. Also, Ukrainian subtitles, from the looks of things. And my Ukrainian is no better than my Russian. My shoulders slumped. It was a Russian DVD. There was no English.

I flew at the television.

"Nyet! Nyet! Nyet!" I raged. "Confound you, you scoundrel! Foo!"

And the television merely blinked back at me with screwed-up eyes. I nearly succumbed to the brain fever right there on the spot. Instead, I heated up some coffee in the samovar and had myself a nice, long Dostoevskian sulk.

I rewound back to the scene at the DVD shop. Mr. Openheart. The cigarette. The discount. The smirk on his face. I replayed the transaction frame by frame and found that I could decipher what he had asked me. Yes. He had asked me: can you speak ... Russian? It was all clear to me then. I had been taken for the proverbial ride - on the 3:10 to Kamchatka.

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