The Art of Bootleg DVDs

I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a real DVD in China. By real, I mean legitimate – one actually produced by the company that owns the film, the sale of which will generate money for all the people involved in making the film according to the provisions of their various contracts.

Ha! That’s a good one.

In the store called Book City, which has three or four locations throughout Shenzhen, there is a DVD section which, presumably, carries official releases. They retail for anywhere from thirty renminbi to upwards of two hundred, which translates to between about five and thirty dollars.

Does anyone actually buy these? Or is it just for show? The selection at the various bootleg outlets – located on neighborhood side streets or in pedestrian malls a step below the fancier malls where Gap and Nike hawk their Chinese-made goods for import prices – is far better than at Book City. They’ve got everything. A few years ago I wrote about seeing The Water Diviner before it was even released in theaters. Subsequently, other leaked films like The Expendables 3 and The Interview (thanks Mr. Kim!) showed up in perfectly legit-looking sleeves, indistinguishable from the other legit-looking sleeves with all manner of alternate cover art and questionable credits.

None of which are actually legit. But perhaps they should be, because I don’t recall ever getting this good of a laugh at Book City, let alone any retail outlet in the U.S.

The bootleggers are pretty good at choosing the right pictures for the DVD sleeves. They also get the names of the stars right most of the time, though matching the actors’ names to the right photos is sometimes too much to ask. When we get to the credits, forget about it. Every other sleeve has some other film’s credits on the back. TITANIC. A Steven Spielberg Film. Starring Harrison Ford and Karen Allen.

And then there are the descriptions. While the Chinese descriptions are probably accurate (I wouldn’t know), the English is often pulled at random from a website and copy-pasted. Sometimes it’s from a good review and it kind of works. Sometimes it doesn’t.

Of course, if you don’t want to risk using a negative review because you don’t speak English and don’t know what the writer is saying, you can use Chinglish instead.

Finally, even if you get everything else right, you have to be careful about which font you choose, as with this cover for the 2012 Hong Kong film Love in the (ahem…) Buff.


My Interview on Stark Truth Radio

I had a great conversation with Robert Stark and his co-host Pilleater on Robert’s podcast the other day. We talked about my book Paradise Theater and the background that led to my writing it, as well as different aspects of life in Shenzhen and Hong Kong, and comparisons of East and West in culture and philosophy.

Stark Truth Radio is one of the most interesting and eclectic mixes of opinion and information from the fringes of politics, culture, and art, and it was a privilege to be on the show.

Check it out here:

The Wild East, or Don Draper in China

Years ago I read a fascinating book called You Can’t Win by Jack Black. It’s the autobiography of a low-life criminal who lived around the turn of the last century. The book has had a cult following for years, having been a major influence on William S. Burroughs in his youth, and more recently even being made into a film by Michael Pitt (apparently not-yet-released.)

Jack Black (not the actor)

I was struck by something Black wrote about being a criminal in the days before they invented fingerprinting, about how easy it was because, basically, unless somebody directly saw you committing the crime or you were stupid enough to leave your wallet at the scene, you were going to get away with it.

Fast-forward a few decades – and into the alternate universe that is television – and we have the story of Don Draper / Dick Whitman in Mad Men, who assumes another man’s identity after World War 2 in order to break with his personal past. I doubt it was quite as easy to do as the show makes it out to be, but I’m sure such things did happen.

It’s easy to forget how different the world was before the invention of today’s technology – from fingerprinting, to ID cards that need more than an Exacto knife to alter them (ah, the glory days of underage drinking) to the NSA watching me write this and you read it.

In The Dark Knight Rises, the character of Selina Kyle is desperate to acquire computer software that would completely erase her identity and give her a “clean slate,” a fresh start. In this day and age, it seems nearly impossible to do such a thing.

But a hundred years ago – and any time before that stretching back to the dawn of our species – all one had to do was go away and find a new town. You could travel to another city or village where not only did no one know you, but probably only a few people even heard of where you came from. You had a clean slate – you could be whoever you wanted to be, at least within the limits of your talents and abilities.

This desire to start over, to build a new life from scratch, has been a driving force in American history from the very beginning. Many of the earliest European settlers had dollar signs in their eyes (or rather pound signs, since the dollar didn’t exist yet) when they set sail for the New World, fueled by dreams of getting rich. There’s an excellent scene in Terrence Malick’s film about the Jamestown settlement in which Captain Smith has to deal with a motley crew of idiots who would rather dig for nonexistent gold on the beach than plant food to ensure their future survival.

Later, the Gold Rush of the mid-1800s drove tens of thousands west. If you were one of those migrants, there was likely nothing stopping you from pulling a Don Draper and becoming someone different from who you were. You didn’t have to worry about changing the name on your credit cards, or even your paperwork, and you certainly didn’t have your whole life story encapsulated and preserved on Facebook. Your name was whatever you said it was, and your job was whatever you could show yourself able to do.

If that was the situation in the Wild West and before, then there’s a case to be made that China, and perhaps Asia in general, has been the Wild East. I’ve lived here for four years now and have met a lot of travelers from all over the world. People come for many different reasons, but a significant number come to start over, to become someone other than who they were back home. (There’s even a pejorative term for those who are a little too obvious about this: LBH, “Loser Back Home.”)

And while you can’t change the name on your passport or escape your credit history or debt, the fact is that many people do change their lives when they find out that they are much more free to reinvent themselves here than they are back home.

There’s a problem in America with fake resumes – people who put false information on their CVs in the hope that no one will check it. If it’s a problem there, where it’s quite easy to verify an employment history or college degree with a simple phone call or internet search, then how much of a problem must it be in a foreign country, where employers are for the most part completely unable to verify anything on an applicant’s resume because they don’t even speak the same language?

A man with no teaching experience whatsoever works his way up to being the head of a department in an expensive private high school. A woman with no tech experience works her way up to become essentially the third-in-command, and partial owner, of a software company with dozens of employees. And those are just the people that I know. For many expats from America and Europe, China has been the fresh start that Selina Kyle was looking for.

But of course, not everyone who seeks a clean slate does so for noble reasons. Some come to succeed, but others come to hide. Some come to start over, but others merely to do the same bad thing again in a new place, like a traveling snake oil salesman looking for a new town that he hasn’t swindled yet.

The foreign kindergarten or training center teacher who takes the money he makes teaching little kids and spends it all on drugs, booze and Chinese prostitutes is so commonplace as to be cliché. Likewise the old-timers, the dirty old men who have been here for who-knows-how-long, who do who-knows-what for a living, and who fit right in with the lowest of the locals in their slovenly dress, unkempt appearance, and expressionless indifference. They waddle down the street in the same slow manner as the old Chinese peasant men, wearing oversize shorts and flip-flops, a cigarette dangling out of their mouth and a large bottle of Tsing Tao in their hands, unless of course they’re headed to the store to get one rather than returning with it.

Meanwhile, a foreign man in an expensive suit dines with his Chinese co-workers at an upscale restaurant. He got hired for the job – in finance, or electronics, or perhaps marketing – because he has a top notch degree from Harvard, or Princeton, or Yale. Or does he? Fake diplomas from any university in the world are available here for under a hundred dollars. They won’t check out if anyone bothers to inquire with the institution, but how often does anyone actually do that, especially here?

How many Don Drapers are there in Asia, pretending to be someone they’re not because, ultimately, they can, since they get the job done well enough for all involved? (And sometimes in China, “well enough” means nothing more than showing up to work with a white face.)

There’s no way of knowing. But if reading this has sparked your imagination with dreams of a journey to the East to reinvent yourself, I’m afraid you might be too late. Earlier I wrote that Asia has been the “wild east,” but every day there are more and more signs that it will not continue to be. The Chinese government has been slowly getting more and more strict in enforcing the requirements for foreign teachers of English, which state that you have to be from an English-speaking country and have an actual education background. (Which is too bad for the Chinese, because the best English teachers here are all eastern Europeans who come to work hard and save money, not the degenerate wannabe-playboys from the U.S. and U.K. who are just here on a poor-man’s holiday.)

As China continues to develop, they will weed out more and more of the various kinds of fakers and frauds who have heretofore had a fairly easy time of things. And technology will make it easier and easier to do this.

For the most part, this will be a good thing. But someday, someone might look back and long for the days when there were still ways to escape one’s past and reinvent oneself somewhere else, like ol’ Jack Black pining away for the easy days of being a crook in pre-FBI/CIA/NSA America.

Pop Songs: From English to Chinese to Chinglish

I understand just enough Chinese to be annoyed at what I perceive to be the stupidity of some of the things said around me. This is especially the case with Chinese pop songs. I hear the same few songs over and over again, at restaurants, at coffee shops, in malls, and even blaring out of open storefronts as I pass by them on the street. I’ll hear a word or phrase that I understand, translate it into English in my head, then think to myself, “Well, that’s dumb.”

But it occurs to me that I’m being unfair. Song lyrics are poetry, and poetry is about finding the exact right words, both in terms of meaning and even in terms of how many syllables they have and which particular vowel and consonant sounds they have and how those work, or don’t, with the surrounding words. So in order to really know whether a song has good lyrics or not, you have to be a native speaker of the language it’s being sung in.

The big song last year in China was Xiao Pingguo – “Little Apple.” The chorus is: “You are my little apple.” “Well,” I thought, “that’s dumb.” But on the other hand, in America we have a classic song where the chorus says “You are my sunshine,” and that song is still taught and sung in grade schools all over the country. Or at least, it should be if it’s not anymore, because it still makes me happy when skies are gray.

But maybe if you translate it into Chinese, it would sound dumb. I don’t know. What I do know is that a lot of the really bad English translations one finds in China are the result of Google Translate and similar computer translators, which Chinese people use in lieu of paying a foreigner like me a few bucks to tell them that “Egg With Fungus” is probably not a good choice of words for a food menu.

So I got to thinking: What if the lyrics to some popular songs in English were translated into Chinese, then re-translated into English using Google Translate or whatever god-awful thing they use to produce the bastard hybrid we know and love as “Chinglish?” I think they would look something like this:

Let It Be – The Beatles

When I discover that I have the era of problems,
Mother Mary comes to me,
Saying smart words:
Allow it to exist.

And in the black time,
She stands directly in front of me,
Saying smart words:
Allow it to exist.

Heartbreak Hotel – Elvis Presley

Since my infant departed from me,
I have discovered a new location to inhabit,
The place is under the end of the lonely road
Called Broken Intestine Hotel*

Where will I be?
I will be so lonely, infant,
I am being so lonely
I will be so lonely I am able to die.

(*The Chinese expression for “heartbreak” – changduan – literally means “broken large intestine.”)

Get Lucky – Daft Punk

We have come very far to renounce Who are we?
Therefore let us lift up the tavern and our cups to the celebrities

He* is awake all night for the sun
I am awake all night to obtain something
He is awake all night for proper amusement,
I am awake all night to become fortunate.

(*The Chinese 3rd person pronoun ta is gender-neutral, hence one cannot know if it refers to a man or woman without context.)

Jia Zhangke, The Man With His Fingers on the Pulse of China

I was first introduced to Jia Zhangke a few years ago when I chanced to purchase a quasi-legit dvd of his 2013 film A Touch of Sin (天注定 tiān zhù dìng) from one of the street shops in Dongmen Plaza.  I’ve seen quite a few Chinese movies in my four years here in Shenzhen, and for the most part I’ve been unimpressed – with an honorable exception going to the Hong Kong cinema of the 1970s and 80s, which I absolutely love, though for very different reasons.

A Touch of Sin is the Taxi Driver of Chinese cinema, which would make Jia Zhangke its Martin Scorcese.  If that seems like high praise, it might actually not be high enough.  In his heyday, Scorcese had his fingers on the pulse of New York City – Jia has his fingers on the pulse of his entire country.

Most of Chinese cinema is marked by fantastic unreality.  That’s not necessarily a problem, and in fact, can even be a virtue.  If I have to choose between cheesy heroism with a nationalist subtext, and the nihilistic, vapid degeneracy of much of contemporary American cinema, I’ll take the former, thank you very much.  But one can only take so much superpower kung fu and Japan-bashing at one time.

By contrast, A Touch of Sin, and pretty much all of Jia’s other films, are almost straight cinéma vérité. I have never seen the look and feel of 21st century China, both its urban environments and its countrysides, captured better than in Jia’s films.  His characters – none of whom are played by established actors, though some have become more well-known because of his films – are entirely realistic, and their life stories mirror the lives of hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people in this rapidly-changing country.

The four stories woven together in A Touch of Sin were all inspired by real people and events.  Most will be unknown to Westerners, with the possible exception of the suicides at Foxconn, where iPhones are made – but that won’t matter.  The characters and stories are emblematic of deep problems in Chinese society, such as the systemic corruption which President Xi Jinping has targeted in recent years.  Also dealt with are the problems of migrant workers from the countryside who come into China’s cities and must struggle to earn their living and survive in an unfamiliar environment.  Finally, the film also touches on relations between men and women in a society in which concubinage and prostitution are both long-standing traditions.

Jia’s most recent film is 2015’s Mountains May Depart (山河故人 shānhé gùrén).  While its reviews have not been quite as favorable as A Touch of Sin‘s, I frankly fail to see why.  It is every bit as thoughtful and thought-provoking, and every bit as relevant to a discussion of the complexities of life in contemporary China.  Though lacking the violence of its predecessor, the problem it addresses is arguably even more fundamental than those in A Touch of Sin – the dissolution of the family.

Mountains May Depart tells the story of one Chinese family, in three different blocks of time.  In the first, which takes place in 1999, the main character, played by Jia’s muse and wife Zhao Tao, faces an archetypal choice between love and money.  In the second and third acts, she must live with the consequences of her choice.

Divorce, once a rarity in Chinese society due to the ancient cult of the family, has become increasingly commonplace, especially among the wealthy and middle-class, for whom it seems to be simply another aspect of being modern and cosmopolitan.  But the material abundance being enjoyed by the nouveaux riche isn’t always able to act as a buffer against the consequences of dehumanized behavior in a world devoid of values.

Another problem that China faces is the number of its wealthy citizens who are leaving, or who want to.  I recall a conversation between two Chinese people that I was privy to.  One, a young woman, had just returned from her first trip to America, while the other, an older woman, had been there several times in the past.  The older woman said to the younger, “Doesn’t it make you feel like we live in a garbage dump?”  She was in the process of sending her daughter off to school in Canada, and was making plans to expatriate her entire family to there or the U.S.

The third act of the film is set in 2025 and contains some interesting speculations about the future.  It is set in Australia, where a part of the family has relocated, as indeed many Chinese already have.

While Jia’s films are distinctly Chinese, as is their subject matter, it is precisely in their intimate specificity that they transcend cultural and linguistic boundaries and become deeply meaningful stories that anyone can relate to.

In English, “to have one’s finger on the pulse” of something means to have a good understanding of it, or be aware of its most recent developments as they happen.  In Traditional Chinese Medicine, pulse diagnosis is a fine art which allows a skilled practitioner to diagnose the ills of the entire body, by simply feeling the pulse of the radial artery at the wrist.  I have experienced this myself, and can verify that someone skilled in the art can have remarkable insight into a person’s state of health.

New Yorker film critic Richard Brody called Jia Zhangke simply “one of the best and most important directors in the world” today.  He’s not wrong.

Jia’s other films include:

The Pickpocket (小武 xiǎo wǔ) 1997
Platform (站台 zhàntái) 2000
Unknown Pleasures (任逍遙 rèn xiāo yáo) 2002
The World (世界 shìjiè) 2004
Still Life (三峡好人 sānxiá hǎorén) 2006
24 City (二十四城记 èr shí sì chéng jì) 2008