Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Miscellaneous Musings – On Seeing a Movie in Taipei

September 7, 2010

On Seeing a Movie in Taipei

About five years back, a co-worker told me that she and a friend were going to see the latest Harry Potter movie later that day, and as I was also interested in seeing it, I inquired about tagging along with them. Here was her answer.

“But we’ve already bought the tickets.”

Just how should I have interpreted this statement? Perhaps she did not want me to go with her. It was also possible that she thought her friend would be uncomfortable with me there, as I was a complete stranger to her. I then wondered if it had been rude of me to ask in the first place. It never occurred to me to try to understand the comment in a more positive light, for based on my moviegoing experience in the US, such a comment surely indicated that she did not want me to go with them, and so I responded with a completely unwarranted mix of sarcasm and annoyance. What I didn’t understand at that time was that in Taipei, tickets to movies come with a seat assignment, much the way tickets to Broadway plays in New York do, and audience members can be quite insistent that they sit in the precise seat indicated on their ticket, even if a theatre is less than halfway full. If a particular row and seat are printed on a person’s ticket, odds are that that’s where he is going to sit – at least initially.

Seeing a movie in Taipei can be a frustrating experience at times, whether it’s the result of the long lines to get tickets, the way the lights turn on the moment the credits begin to roll, the rapidity with which a movie can open and close, or the fact that many films simply never make it to Taiwan in the first place, either in theaters or on DVD. I’m still waiting for films like Extract, The Girlfriend Experience, Skin, and The Stoning of Soraya M to make it here in some form. I’m slightly positive though, seeing as how films such as The Headless Woman, Broken Embraces, and The Song of Sparrows all made it here eventually.

Seeing a film is further complicated by the fact that a complete listing of theatres does not appear in any of the English-language newspapers. The China Post, the self-proclaimed leading English-newspaper in Taiwan, includes only a partial list of theatres and the films they are showing, and its chief competitor, Taipei Times, is no better. If a theatre is showing mostly new releases out of Hollywood (or what Hollywood has seen fit to release here), the theatre is probably listed in some way in English newspapers. However, if a theatre is showing only independent or second-run films, you’re more than likely out of luck. One has to either look for these theatres on the Internet or ask around.

There are four kinds of movie theatres in Taipei: the first-run theatre, the second-run theatre, the slightly hard-to-find “art house” theatre, and the infamous U2/MTV rooms.

First-run theatres generally cater to younger moviegoers eagerly awaiting the latest Hollywood blockbuster, and these films are often given as many screens as are deemed necessary. Therefore, movies such as Iron Man 2 and Sex and the City 2 may have three or four screens devoted to them at one time. First-run theaters are also the place to go to see locally-made films, as well as the occasional film from Europe or Asia. However, there is a catch. Those movies tend to disappear quickly if they don’t immediately find an audience. And I mean quickly. For example, I.O.U.S.A. and Me and Orson Welles each played in first-run theatres for about a week and a half. No Country for Old Men and The Wrestler had slightly longer runs; they each played for about two weeks, which for the latter film was not entirely surprising seeing as how it was only given three screenings a day during its opening weekend.

Every movie released in theatres in Taiwan, even local productions, has Chinese subtitles. This means that many, if not most, foreign language films do not have English subtitles when they are released in theatres. If you can’t speak or read Chinese and you want to see a film from France, you probably have to wait for the film to be released on DVD. However, a DVD release does not automatically guarantee that you’ll be able to watch the film either. Let me give you an example. Some time ago I finally got around to watching the most recent version of Lady Chatterley. It took me as long as it did because in order to watch it, I had to buy it. The film was released on DVD in three versions: a single-disc DVD that did not have English subtitles (NT $199), a two-disc special edition that also did not have English subtitles (NT $499), and a two-disc super special edition which miraculously did come equipped with some much cherished English subtitles (NT $599). It’s quite a lot to pay for something I had no intention of keeping, but I bought it none the less, checked it off my list, and then handed it off to my co-workers, never to be heard from again. Local rentals shops all stocked up on the NT $199 version of the film, an understandable economic choice given the circumstances.

Second-run theatres are scattered throughout Taipei. The one I frequent from time to time gets new movies on Saturdays and is a pretty good deal, all things considered. Here’s how it operates: An NT $120 ticket is like a one-day pass to a theme park, entitling you to view as many films as you can sit through in one day. The theatre has four screens, each showing two randomly paired films, and customers move freely from screen to screen, occasionally entering a theatre halfway through a film because they didn’t like the film they went into originally. The hallway between screens can be quite noisy at times as well, and some of the noise can be heard in the back rows of the theatres. On occasion the air conditioner in the theatre is a bit too loud, drowning out quieter moments. I may have watched Valkyrie, but I can’t say that I heard it all. Customers are allowed to bring outside food into the theatre, and some of the food people bring with them has a rather distinct scent, one that Western noses, much more used to the sweet buttery smell of popcorn, may not be all that familiar with.

On my most recent trip to the theatre, I was surprised to see a rather long line stretching down the hall. This crowd just happened to be for the film I was seeing, so my girlfriend and I took our place at the end of the line. After about ten minutes, the crowd was allowed into the theatre. We were lucky to find decent seats in the fourth row, and no sooner had we sat down but all of the seats in front of us were completely filled, making it a sold out show. And yet the crowd continued to pour in. Behind them suddenly appeared a slightly older man in clothing that clearly labeled him a member of the theatre staff. As soon as he arrived on the scene, he began to spread a row of small, almost child-size plastic chairs along the side of each aisle, and those people standing quietly took a seat in them, making it nearly impossible for anyone to enter or exit the theater without bumping into someone or something. I imagine several fire codes were broken on this occasion, yet somehow the event seemed perfectly appropriate for the movie that was about to begin, Woody Allen’s Whatever Works, a film that had been given the peculiar Chinese translation Meeting Love in New York.

Art-house theatres are hard to find, as not all of them are listed in English newspapers. I’ve never seen a full house at any of them, but patrons to these theatres are rather loyal. These theatres usually change films on a weekly basis, and some of them are showing double or triple bills, although customers must buy separate tickets for each film. The screens are generally smaller, but that’s an rather insignificant price to pay to see some great foreign language and independent films. Without these theatres, few people here would have a chance to see films like A Serious Man, Away We Go, This Movie is Broken, and Ajami on the big screen.

The final kind of theatre in Taipei I know only by reputation, and that reputation is unfortunately a mixed one. Much like KTV parlors, U2/MTV parlors are small rooms in which customers can sit on a couch and watch a movie on DVD or possibly even on laserdisc. In Taiwanese films, the rooms are often depicted as being both a place for groups of friends to gather and hang out and a place where couples starving for private time go to share brief moments of intimacy. I have heard complaints that they are not always as clean as they should be, and newspapers occasionally report on drug use and sexual assaults taking place in them. It appears that the old adage about there being safety in numbers applies to these places as well.

On a side note, movie theatres here were recently banned from preventing customers from bringing outside food into theatres. Some theatres have grudgingly accepted this new ordinance, while others continue to inform unsuspecting customers that the cup of coffee that they just bought from the coffee shop next to the ticket counter is not allowed past the usher. It can be extremely frustrating for customers, but I’m with the theatres on this one. After all, most of the money from ticket sales goes back to the movie studios, and theatres have to make money somehow. Consider it our contribution to the preservation of the theater-going experience.

No comments: