May 17, 2010
Last weekend, I left Taipei to administer tests to about forty elementary school students. Testing took place on both Saturday and Sunday, but I had enough time to do some hunting for hard-to-find DVDs. This is much harder to do here in Taiwan than it is in the States. Here, a movie may be available one minute and gone the next. I remember trying to find the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs on DVD for a co-worker only to be told by numerous cashiers that the film was “tai jiu” (too old). Never mind that the film two sequels were still available. This was also my experience with most of Woody Allen’s film, even his more acclaimed ones such as Crimes and Misdemeanors and Bullets over Broadway. Seeing a movie in theatres can be equally challenging. The Cove opened and closed within a week, No Country for Old Men lasted two weeks, and The Wrestler was gone from most first-run theatres after a week and a half. Then there’s the little matter of subtitles. Most foreign films that do make it to Taiwan do not have English subtitles. It’s understandable, yet still frustrating. And so, many people here have turned to downloading to be able to watch their favorite TV shows, movies that came and went in the blink of eye, or films that simply never came at all.
Late Saturday, I paid a visit to a small DVD rental store on the outskirts of town. From the outside, the store appeared a bit run down. The inside of the store was not well lit, and the tables and chairs on each side of the door were mostly vacant with the exception of what looked to be a father and son waiting for the rain to stop before they ventured back out. On one side of the first floor rested three rows of CDs, mostly movie soundtracks that I’ve actually never heard playing either time I’ve been there. Directly opposite the CDs was an area that in better days may have been where a waitress would serve coffee or tea to customers eager to talk about life’s latest details. It didn’t appear to be in use while I was there.
Upstairs was a different story. There, books lined the walls, and the floor was littered with stack of recordable DVDs in sleeves, as well as the kind of DVD one usually sees someone trying to prevent a reporter from filming on the evening news. There were two computers on a counter to the right, both of which were in use at the moment. The owner sat at one of them, shifting his glance periodically from the French film playing on the TV in the center of the room to the computer screen in front of him. With just the slightest of greetings, he motioned me toward a small doorway on my far left.
There, I found a plethora of DVDs loosely organized by country. Mixed between them were numerous small DVD albums marked with the names of such popular actors as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and acclaimed directors like Chen Kaige and Martin Scorsese. The first time I came, the owner had proudly boasted of having every movie I could think of. It was hyperbole, to be sure, but for a moment, I had believed it, for here, a film enthusiast could actually find copies (and I do mean “copies” for I could not find a single authentic DVD in the entire place) of all of Ingmar Bergman’s films, every film from Federico Fellini, and even obscure Japanese films from the 1950's and 60's. However, on my first trip, he had not had the hard-to-find Gong Li film I had been looking for.
On my second trip, I was there to look for two films in particular, Zhang Yimou’s film Keep Cool and an Icelandic film called Cold Fever, neither of which has ever been released on DVD in the United States. Luck was unfortunately not with me. The former did not have English subtitles, and the latter he did not have at all. So I was O for 2. I suddenly remembered to ask about a Russian/Mongolian film entitled Urga, better known in the States as Close to Eden, but the version he had turned out to not have English subtitles or be viewable in any DVD player outside of Region 2. O for 3.
And then came the temptation, that feeling of moral ambiguity, for I knew that within my reach were films I had long wanted to see - films like Scorsese’s Mean Streets, Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie, and Danny Boyle’s Millions, films that are not available in Taiwan. These and many other films are on a list I keep of films I intend to see at some point. And here they were. More importantly, they could be had for just NT $100 (roughly U.S. $3.00) each.
I didn’t buy them, though. To me, there’s just a difference between a film that is not available in any other form and one that can easily be gotten at any time from Amazon.com. It’s too bad, though. I found myself itching for a Mel Brooks comedy tonight, and all I had at home to watch was Goldfinger. You can see what I did instead.