Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The Problem With Piracy

Last month I wrote a piece for a popular American radio show defending piracy in China. Here's the (relatively) short piece:
Last summer I went to a workshop on digital video production. A professor from the Beijing Film Academy reminded us one day to rush out and buy pirated DVDs of all Hollywood classics. The government would start cracking down on piracy sooner or later, she said, and it would become harder to learn about film making.

In China, I hear all kinds of pro-piracy arguments. Some argue that in a country where the average annual income is around $1000, legal Hollywood DVDs are simply too expensive. Or there’s the “quality-of-life” argument: that without piracy, entertainment options would be reduced to bland Chinese television, anemic domestic movie productions and the 20 blockbuster movies imported from overseas every year.

I’m a documentary film maker, so my argument is different: truth is, I need pirated DVDs to keep up with the latest in the industry. China has no Blockbuster, NetFlix or a meaningful public library system. As a result, without piracy, I’d never see the likes of Inside Deep Throat, Supersize Me, or The Grizzly Man. Ditto for young Chinese musicians who are getting exposure to the international music scene from pirated CDs.
In a country where media is still tightly controlled by the government, piracy seems the only way for un-fettered information access other than the Internet.

Still, I’m willing to pay a LITTLE extra for the legit stuff. Or at least I was. Last year, when Warner Brothers lowered the price of some DVDs in China to RMB 23, a little less than 3 dollars, I bought a copy of Batman Begins. But there were no DVD extras or even language selection. And Chinese censors had cut short a scene in which a woman’s dress fell off her shoulder.

I didn’t care about the bare shoulder of the beautiful actress, but I’ve decided to stick with piracy for a while. If we only had access to legal media products that have passed the censors, we would only get the likes of Titanic, Backstreet Boys and Batman with no shoulder exposed, products as mind numbing as the communist propaganda.

So maybe, Hollywood should stop being so afraid of piracy in China. Maybe corporate benefits could take a back seat for a while, in the name of the grand ideal of promoting democracy and open societies all over the world. When China has become truly open and the economy has improved for all of its population, not just the lucky few, then Hollywood can easily come in and reap billions more in rewards.
My point seems to have been further validated by what happened to two films in the past month: The Chinese government retracted the approval for Memoirs of A Geisha, citing the possibility of its release fanning anti-Japanese sentiment; it also refused to allow importing Brokeback Mountain due to the movie’s “inappropriate” content, in sharp contrast to our “compatriots” across the strait in Taiwan who are going to the theaters in droves to support director Ang Lee, their native son.

Luckily piracy comes to the rescue. All over China DVDs of both movies can be found from every street corner vendor and every neighborhood DVD shop. No anti-Japanese protest or sexual delinquency has resulted from their wide availability.
But piracy does have its problem – the subtitles for new releases (usually pirated from festival screeners thus have no official subtitles) are often misleading, if not outright mistaken. Sometimes I wonder if a Chinese high school kid is being caged somewhere in a pirated DVD factory and just types whatever English words s/he recognizes from the movie dialogues.

For Brokeback Mountain, there are many confused fans. One sought help after reading a review of Brokeback Mountain online:
[translated] Every one please advise – what has the death of Ennis’ father to do with his relationship with Jack? … Is Ennis’ father gay?
Apparently the fan watched a DVD with a subtitle telling Ennis’ father as one of the gay killing victims in the film, which is completely false.

Another reviewer wrote:
[translated] Jack opens his wardrobe (at the end of the movie) and sees a photo of the Brokeback Mountain and two blood-stained shirts. He murmured in tears: “How could you leave me?” The delicate directing of Ang Lee renders one unable to hold back tears.
Hmm. “How could you leave me?” is too Asian-soap-opera-ish to be anywhere near delicate. When a reader pointed out that the last line of the movie was “Jack, I swear…”, another reader responded defensively:
[translated] “I wear…” includes many possible meanings. As to whether subtitles need to be accurate, the standards for a typical audience and a movie critic are probably different…
It is amazing how the audience can be moved to tears simply by the sound and image; story and dialogue be damned.

Ang Lee should be really proud.

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