Tuesday, March 21, 2017

FLYING BODY PARTS: My Experience with Chinese Theaters

Living in China is an eye-opening experience. It’s frustrating and crazy, but it’s also a really, really fun time. The people are friendly and welcoming, the food is amazing, and—as long as you don’t name-drop Taiwan, Tibet, or Tiananmen Square—everything is safe. I lived there for three years, and one of my favorite experiences was going to the local theaters.
Now, thanks to globalization (and the fact that China is the most money-obsessed communist country around), giant multiplexes have sprung up all over the country. If you want to see the latest Iron Man sequel, you can check out some 3D glasses and enjoy the whole IMAX experience with hundreds of other screaming movie fans. It’s a lot like American theaters, except people don’t laugh at the same jokes.
IMAX is awesome, of course, but there’s something extra special about the mom-and-pop theaters that spring up in rural areas. You see, because of lax bootlegging laws, small towns in China will probably have at least one independent cinema. Here’s how they work:
1)      There are no set times, so you can just go in whenever you want.
2)      At the snack bar, you can get flavored popcorn (mostly strawberry-flavored, never with butter), sodas, and teas.
3)      There’s a big book of bootleg DVDs at the front counter. Usually, the movies are at least three months old. You pick something that looks interesting.
4)      The clerk ushers you into a small side room where a computer projects the movie on the wall. Sometimes the chairs are plastic. Sometimes, they are equipped with “5D technology,” which means they shake.
5)      You leave the theater and promise to come back again.
It might sound low-rent, but watching movies in an independent Chinese theater is a blast. Take, for example, my experience watching My Bloody Valentine 3D. Now, this movie is a gory, fast-paced 3D extravaganza. Body parts fly at the screen at regular intervals. And aside from a nonsensical climax, the whole thing is wildly entertaining.
In three glorious dimensions!
Now, picture yourself in a cheesy plastic chair with a metal bar across the front. Whenever someone gets murdered, the chair shakes like a crazy person. Sometimes air will blast at your feet. You’re sitting next to an elderly Chinese man who apparently had no idea what movie he was about to watch. He’s busy laughing at all the gory stuff. The two seats in front of you are reserved for your coworkers, a Ukrainian couple that keeps making out. Loudly.
And when the movie finally ends, you have no idea what just happened. It felt like that creepy boat ride scene from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Oh, and you ate popcorn that tasted like strawberries.
I'm still woozy from that scene.
That’s pretty much the Chinese movie experience in a nutshell. While I went to lots of English-language movies when I lived there, my favorites were always the crazy horror movies. Final Destination 5, for example. Shark Night 3D. Those were the best movies to watch because the seats moved, the popcorn flowed, and there was always one elderly person who wandered into the theater without any idea what was going on.
Unfortunately, these movie houses are dying out. The government has cracked down and the Chinese audiences are opting for the big IMAX experience over the crappy projector-on-the-wall one. Nowadays, everything is so expensive and homogenized and… well, legal. The bootleg movie houses weren’t paying for their films, so no money was going back to the filmmakers. At least now, the right people are getting compensated for their hard work. Still, though, I’ll be sad when all these mini-theaters close down.
I’ll always remember the times I spent in a dark room, surrounded by laughing strangers, watching blurry jawbones fly at my head as my chair spun in circles.

1 comment: