Some Hollywood titles are acquired wholesale, meaning the foreign distributor is bought out for a lump sum. There have been some successes—The Expendables earned the domestic distributor nearly seven times its $500,000 purchase price—but mostly this floods screens with mediocre star vehicles like bougie mope-fest Last Night. The film barely registered at the U.S. box office, but at least Keira Knightley and Sam Worthington look pretty on the poster. Similar logic couldn’t be applied to Double Identity, an inept, direct-to-DVD movie with a heavily Photoshopped poster of an aged Val Kilmer clutching a rifle, striding away from a big explosion and a nonplussed babe on a muscle bike. Ninety minutes and a box of caramel popcorn later, I can report that none of what’s on the poster appears in the film. Bearded and bloated Kilmer plays a physician with “Doctors Beyond Borders” who’s mistaken for an American spy in St. Petersburg, forcing him to flee both Russian thugs and a mysterious English espionage organization. Some of the plot’s incoherence may have been externally created: Thanks to the Chinese censors, who trim away extreme sex, violence, even police procedures, the film clocked in at a full eight minutes shorter than the listed running time.
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Investment and development are just as heavy in Shanghai as they are in Beijing, but you can still find traces of the city’s movie-palace past. Long neglected by the PRC as an embarrassing reminder of less autonomous times, Shanghai’s resurgence seems less a negation of its fin de siècle cosmopolitanism than an appropriation of it. Which means that certain tree-lined, bourgeois districts have been largely left intact, along with theaters that made Shanghai one of the capitals of cinema before WWII. The Xinguang Film Art Center, the country’s first sound theater, still operates, exhibiting headshots of classic Chinese movie stars in its small lobby; and the majestic art deco façade of the Cathay still towers over its French Concession intersection, though its screening room has been shoddily quartered and a hair salon is awkwardly sausaged into its lobby.
Fortunately you can still visit one of most beautiful cinemas in the world, the aptly named Grand Theatre at the north end of the People’s Park. Built in 1928, the Grand survived all manner of Maoist incarnations, and has now been restored as a living monument to cinema. Its scalloped facade takes up half a block, gleaming white marble coats the floor and dual staircases of the lobby, and its main theater seats over 1,500, with a balcony that goes on forever. When I saw The Green Lantern there, I couldn’t keep my eyes on the screen—not because of the shoddy, seemingly secondhand 3-D glasses I was issued—but because of the majesty of a space that makes the Ziegfeld in Manhattan seem twerpy by comparison.
But Shanghai is also as gaga for multiplex construction as Beijing. In the Xujiajui shopping district, the Metro City mall sits across an eight-lane intersection from the Grand Gateway mall, each with a multiplex on the top floor, each offering an identical slate of films. Confusing signage sent me through the back door of Grand Gateway’s Yonghua Cinema City, which was just as well, because not even journalistic due diligence could have gotten me to hand over 120 Chinese yuan (roughly $20) for The Green Lantern in 3-D, 150 yuan to experience the film in jostling 4-D, or 120 yuan to see Limitless in the VIP room. (According to domestic sources, the average ticket price nationwide hovers around 45 yuan.) Most new theaters feature some version of VIP, offering priority seating and peripheral perks as a reward for repeat business (while stoking an emerging pride in earning-power privilege). I tried sneaking into the VIP room, but a polite young usher intercepted me. When I asked what was so special about the room, he replied, “Very big, soft seats.” That’s all? “Also lots of Coke and popcorn.” Limitless, indeed.
Such exorbitant ticket prices can be hard to fathom considering how commonplace bootleg DVDs are around both cities. For less than $2 apiece, on Shaanxi Road in Shanghai I picked up copies of Captain America—the same week I saw it on the big screen—and the then-yet-to-be-released Real Steel. The ubiquity of bootleggers, despite a general crackdown in recent years, attests to the fact that people still watch movies this way, degraded video and audio be damned. (After my 4-D experience, it was truly disorienting to watch Captain America through a camcorder.) But the new class of cinemagoer—and class is definitely the word for it—is in it for the spectacle, the plush seats, the sleek interiors, and the VIP exclusivity.
Not that there are no true fans among the mall shoppers, or that a knowledgeable, passionate class of cinephlies won’t eventually shape the future of Chinese moviegoing. There’s already strong evidence for that, from the Chinese movie mags that put the latest David Cronenberg and Clint Eastwood joints on their glossy covers, and the lively debates at mtime.com, ground zero for Chinese cinephilia, to Beijing’s beautiful new arthouse, Broadway Cinemateque MOMA, where the latest festival-feted films from a new generation of Chinese auteurs—like Lu Sheng, Lixin Fan and Teng Yung-Shing—actually get shown on Chinese screens. The state, however, is still plenty skittish about independent voices, evidenced by the fact that this fall’s Beijing Independent Film Festival was forcibly exiled to a far-flung suburb, where press and attendance could be minimized.
You wouldn’t know that Chinese tastes are so varied from what’s playing at the CGV or UME. But the same could be said of American multiplexes. And whether it’s courtesy of strict governmental oversight, cowardly low-risk capitalism, or de facto theater-chain collusion, it still amounts to a dismaying lack of choice. No wonder Hollywood feels so at home in the Chinese market. In strictly regulating what and how people watch, you’re also teaching them what to want. In that sense, maybe something positive can be gleaned from the thin crowds I encountered at Beijing and Shanghai cineplexes. Mammoth screens and luxury upholstery are all well and good, but who wants to see 1-star movies in a 5-star setting? Of all the foolish gimmickry of 4-D, which included wind machines and incessant pokes to the back to simulate bullet wounds, my favorite was when my seat vibrated for no discernible reason. Eventually China’s theater owners will have to find a better way to keep their patrons from falling asleep.