China: Alternative Film Showcase

You know what the cool thing about buying DVDs in China is? I mean besides them only costing US$1. You may get stuck with bad copies if you buy from unscrupulous vendors (or if you’re too impatient), and not every mindless comedy makes it to the streets of China, but I am continuously amazed at the obscure stuff that does make it here. Any China expat can tell you stories of finding some really random old movie from his childhood on DVD in the unlikeliest corners of China.

Just recently I found The Ewok Adventure (1984) on DVD bundled with Ewoks: the Battle for Endor (1985). I grew up in the 80s, so ewoks were an important part of my childhood. I picked up the two-disc set. I was disappointed to discover that the contents of the DVDs did not match the DVD covers; it was the short-lived ewok animated series I had actually bought. Laaaame. (I may have a soft spot for certain 80s nostalgia, but I do have my limits.)

Bad 80s made-for-TV movies aside, all the exposure to less mainstream films is great. Some DVD shops seem to specialize in obscure movies. I’m not sure if the selection is intentional or if they somehow get stuck with the “dregs” of the DVD shipment. I see quite a few French films, but stuff from all over as well.

Two movies I watched over the weekend:

Les Revenants, AKA They Came Back (France, 2004). I was intrigued because this was a zombie movie with very different zombies. French zombies. And they didn’t attack people or eat brains–they just came back… only they were a little odd. This had serious psychological consequences on the loved ones to whom they returned. Pretty interesting movie, but it dragged a bit in the second half and didn’t have a very satisfying ending. Also, I kept waiting for a zombie to flip out and chomp on someone’s living flesh, and it never happened. At least this movie had good English subtitles, so it was only weird French cinematic metaphors for life and death and acceptance (or whatever) that were confusing me, and not language as well.

Tsotsi (South Africa, 2005). I picked this one up because I really know very little about South Africa (ignorance is bad), and I kind of wanted to hear the African hip hop mentioned on the back. I also had the foolish hope that the movie would be in English, so I didn’t check for English subtitles. Instead I was treated to 94 minutes of Afrikaans, with no English subtitles. Actually there was very little dialogue in the movie, though, so the Chinese subtitles gave me more than enough to follow the story. I definitely enjoyed this one.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Find any TV series, like “Have Gun, Will Travel” w/ Richard Boone?

  2. I miss my weekend trips rifling through the eclectic assortment of Hollywood blockbusters, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese flicks, and the occasional Bollywood, French, or Iranian film. My local Blockbuster just doesn’t compare (sob!). It’s kinda cool to say that you watched a movie with a soundtrack in one foreign language and subtitles in another. I used to do that in Korea. In fact, one movie I watched was the Chinese film The Mask (not sure about the title, it’s the one with an old mask-switching street performer who buys a son and gets a daughter instead). The dialog wasn’t too hard anyway, and between the Chinese dialog and the Korean subtitles, I got most of the

  3. Da Xiangchang Says: June 12, 2006 at 11:04 am

    Highly interesting. I haven’t heard of the French zombie movie, but Tsotsi is famous. Alas, it ain’t going to be out on DVD till late July in the States. I wonder if it’s a little like City of God, that terrific Brazilian gangster movie–though that director went on direct that seriously crappy Constant Garderner. 🙁

    And I remember with great fondness searching through the DVD stacks in Shanghai. The most obscure movie I watched was Barbet Schroeder’s 1970s documentary of Idi Amin. Haha, I still can’t believe China had that one!

    And if anyone cares, the best movie I’ve seen so far in 2006 is Murderball.

  4. 6RMB,less than one dollar.

  5. i’m still looking for the first ‘national lampoon’s vacation’ know the one where they drive cross country to go to wally world!? great great movie! i alraady have the 2nd one, european vacation. if anyone can find it, please let me know!

  6. Dude! That animated e-wok series kicks ass. My friend bought the same one here in Dalian (i.e. contents and cover 不一样) and I was pretty quick to snatch them from him.

    Some notable stuff that I was pleasantly surprised to find here: The Smurfs, some Jim Jarmusch stuff, a Rufus Wainwright dvd, and a very cool Puffy Ami Yumi music dvd…

    Derek, try National Lampoon’s Van Wilder. It’s kinda lame, but funny. The indian guy is hilarious.

  7. Alright, it’s just weird that the three of us are posting in a row like this (for those that don’t know, Dezza, Panda and I all are born out of the Dalian scene. Yeah, we’ve got a scene… what of it?).

    I’m with ya John, the animated series sucked. And so did it’s partner in time-wasting saturday afternoon space, Droids. I would however love to find the ones you had hoped to have found. Those were great movies. (I was 8, so I KNOW).

    My happiest finds lately were Super Troopers and Cool Runnings. And I’ve rumours that my buddy’s got me The Dark Crystal as well…

  8. Tim P,

    That’s one I haven’t seen yet. I’ll keep you posted. (Has it ever even been released on DVD? That’s kind of a factor….)

  9. Dezza,

    Is that movie good? I’ll keep my eyes open for it. Can you even buy DVDs like this in HK?

  10. Humanaught,

    I found Dark Crystal a few years ago. Much like the Black Cauldron, upon viewing it as an adult I was very disappointed with it, even though I had loved it as a kid. I just found those movies so BORING. I almost wish I hadn’t rewatched them.

  11. Penfold Says: June 13, 2006 at 1:47 am

    Make this a fourth Dalian post. DVDs and Dalian, like good cheese and fine port, only you’ll actually find DVDs in Dalain, while good cheese is not here. Perhaps this leads to the DVD delight.

    Best recent purchase was ‘V for Vendetta’, recommended by the salesman.

  12. My most obscure buys were Ladyhawke, Robin Hood with Errol Flynn, and The Sons of Katie Elder.

  13. @John: Damnit… why’d you have to go and say that. I was all excited. I saw Never Ending Story a couple years back when it came to DVD and wasn’t let down, so maybe my tolerance for such things is higher?

    @Penfold: DVDs; tough to spread on a cracker. I’ve been waiting for “V For Vendetta” to come to DVD (quality). I’ll have to pick it up.

    @Al: Ah, Ladyhawke would be a good one!

    @Everyone: Just a note on DVD shopping. As we are all some what Internet savvy, a good thing to do is keep an eye on what is playing on the airplanes to know what DVDs will generally be good quality (without having to check each one in the shop). I am pretty sure the distribution path is as follows (best my memory):
    1) Theatres
    2) Airlines
    3) Pay-Per-View
    4) A Blockbuster near you…

    The logic being that someone in the airline industry (or one of the peripheral industries) will take it home, rip it, and it will wind up here in China.

  14. “is that movie good?” It’s the greatest comedy the world has ever seen with the European vacation a close 2nd! christie brinkley in a ferrari! how could anyone resist! you must buy it if you see it, john!

    you can buy pirated dvds but they are few and far between. heaps of pirated VCDs, but who buys those these days? i’ve never bought them here though, they’re around $20-25HK each and I live closer to Shenzhen than downtown HK anyway:)

  15. Karlene Says: June 13, 2006 at 9:33 pm

    Love your website.
    Speaking of the 80’s, did you see any horror flicks.
    “Let Scare Jessica to Death” for instance.

  16. Da Xiangchang Says: July 20, 2006 at 12:46 am

    Finally saw Tsotsi last night. I think it’s a good movie, though the plot is waayyy simple with an ending that was a letdown. But besides the numerous apartheid-is-hell movies made by Americans in the ’80s, I haven’t seen a South African movie, and it was fascinating to see the townships and the level of poverty. I’ve never seen a movie where whole communities of kids lived in unused sewer pipes! I wonder if there Chinese kids living like that in parts of China’s interior.

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