16 March 2018


If you look in the middle there are actually a couple empty seats. Must not be a popular movie. 

I actually had a request from a reader (and thank you sir)  for me to follow up on a self suggestion about doing a post on why I no longer go the the cinema here in China. It was a gradual process and there are a few reasons for it. When I lived in Seattle I went to the movies as often as I could, usually paying for one movie then sneaking into a few others while there like some sort of teenage punk. Seattle also had a lot of art house cinemas, little theaters seating twenty or thirty people at the most and I did my fair share of those sorts of films during my ten years there. When I first arrived in China in 2004 it was quickly apparent my cinema house days were all but over. Back then there were not that many movie houses or theaters in cinema and most of them only played Chinese movies anyway. And when I say Chinese movies I mean weird, low budget stuff you have never heard of. Dreadfully bad anti-Japanese propaganda war films and dismal romance comedies or yet another goofy Monkey King epic. Also at that time if I remember correctly the limit for all foreign films total, not just Hollywood films, was about twenty films. That went up a couple years ago to thirty five or so films, with no foreign films at all being shown in February. Only films from the nationalist driven motherland will be shown during February every year. 

Can never get enough noble Chinese soldiers butchering the evil Japanese or Nationalists. 
These are the number one films produced in China each year in terms 
of total number made and revenue earned. People love 'em. 

And while I like movies I must say that over the years here I have seen only about a dozen films in the theaters. There are lots more theaters now and most are of the super metroplex variety, and there are are also quite a few iMax theaters here now. There is an iMax and large metroplex now about fifteen minutes by bus from where I reside now. But, I have not been to a movie here over five years I am sure. I cannot even remember the last movie the wife and I watched together in China though I think it was either some Marvel thing or Prometheus (which I actually liid and have seen a few times). If I think about it the last film we may  have seen in a theater was one in Bangkok Thailand, and that was that Coen Brothers b/w film about some jaded folk singer and a runaway cat. I liked it but forget the title now. I could look it up on IMDb to make myself sound professional,   but it is not that big a deal. So, why the heck did I stop going to the movies here? And how do I watch any at all then? Well, I will try to sort those puzzling questions  out in this soul searching post. I think the best way to do this is to try and remember what I wrote on a yellow stickie note that I left in another room and just do a list type of thing, since there are a few reasons. 

1) Just too many people going to movies anymore - In the early days my wife and I had some near empty theaters to watch movies in. Especially this was true of foreign films in English and other languages because, to be direct, Chinese people hate other languages. We also went in the afternoons on workdays a lot so in some cases the theater was practically empty back then. But all that began to change around maybe 2008 to 2010 or so.  Suddenly everybody wanted to go to movies in droves. There are a lot of damned people in China, so even if a “few” decide to see the English language version that few can be a packed mob.  It is a country where a small, quiet city is a place with only one or two million people. Soon I just felt like it was not any fun. Even the once empty afternoon shows were getting packed. 

2) The odd ticket buying process - I have a picture here of people lined up in front of the ticket stand. Lots of people. Like everywhere here. I can be hard to adjust to completely for an American who grew up on a farm in Texas and then moved to Seattle. While the line might look normal there is something different if you look closely at the computer monitors. They have to choose their seating. People here cannot just choose their own seats without it getting all out of hand I guess. I suppose there are other reasons for that here but it really friggin’ slows down an already slow process to have each person or group have to decide where it is they want to sit. This what you do when you are buying tickets to a rock concert but you do it weeks in advance! Chinese people have no issues with taking their time once they are at some counter. And the all the people behind the ones at the counter huffing and puffing in frustration will do the same thing once there are up there. It can take about five minutes or more if there are more than two people in the group. Too much to endure. And all the while you will have, of course, people breaking line in front of you and forget about telling them to get in line. If you do you have just insulted all Chinese people and five thousand years of sacred Chinese history and it can get hairy. Oh, that is one of those cultural difference that give the place its charm. 

All this to see Spiderman: Homecoming? 

3) The snack food sucks - They just do not eat the same stuff here we do and it is no joke they have chicken feet and oily, spicy tofu in the snack area. They have sugarless cotton candy and the most grisly little sweet tasting hot dog served on a stick with red pepper powder. Cokes usually do not ice, but ice is bad for your health. So do they at least have popcorn? Yea, only it is some weird sweet, sticky sweet popcorn. The way you can get it in China. There is no options other than some fancy, expensive popcorn shop (yea, a popcorn shop) that might have seaweed flavored popcorn. They have no idea you can have plain popcorn or salted or buttered popcorn. People here never eat butter. Scares them. They may drench their food with  recycled vegetable oil straight from the bottle as flavoring,  but not that weird yellow foreign stuff. And salt, bad for your health. Tons of MSG, no problem. No candy. Nothing. Maybe a Snickers bar for like five dollars. They even have hot water stands for the instant noodles in a cup. And then it is so fun to sit in the packed theater and hear the people slurping and smacking on those greasy chicken feet and sweet popcorn all through the movie. Yea. A couple times we were given complementary popcorn and I just left it on the floor it tasted so crappy. 

There is a myth Chinese people do not eat junk food or snack food.
No, they love it. It is just that all the snack foods here suck.

4) Movies here are expensive - When I say expensive I am talking about like twenty American dollars and up to see a movie in a crowded theater with no buttered popcorn. You may retort "yea, well that is what they cost in America too!" But most people here actually probably make about two or three dollars (6 to 12 rmb) an hour at their jobs. The only reasons we even went is because my wife is adept at finding things online, like discount movie tickets that were only like about six dollars for the movie. I think the last time we paid about sixteen bucks each at that was towards the end. Who ants to pay like forty bucks (240 rmb) for two people in China to see Captain America? But people here are willing to fork it out. You don't want to be the only one in your social group not to have seen Avatar ten times. You will be weird then. 

5) Chinese people can be really loud and love their smart phones - While many of our early movie ventures were cool because we went in the afternoon on a weekday we started to get more and more situations with packed theaters. And man sometimes it was too much. While many people are quiet and polite it only take a few dozen around you to spoil the experience. People just talking at the top of their voices. Chinese people actually often bellow to one another while standing a foot or two part. I used to think they were about to start fighting, but my wife would explain they were just discussing what to have for lunch. And yea, Chinese people are totally addicted to their smart phones and watching a movie is not going to keep them from chatting with friends. While it is usually in the form of texting on QQ or WeChat (the Chinese instant messaging services) it is still annoying because of the glow and the constant finger tapping sound. If you say anything, which I would not, it will only incite a scene and confrontation because, well, some poor soul just lost face. 

6) Foreign movies get edited here - My best example of this would be our trip to see Jurassic Park when it was re-released. I did a post on that adventure here. They cut out every jump scare. Like the goat leg scene, and Samual L. Jackson’s arm falling on Laura Dern, and even the lawyer on the toilet getting eaten scene.  Ridiculous. It was deemed to harsh for delicate chinese people.  As well they will trim anything the government decides makes China look poor or unsophisticated, like panning camera shots of old buildings in Shanghai, like in one of the Mission Impossible films.  China only has shiny modern buildings you know. 

7) They only promote Hollywood blockbusters - Remember, I said earlier they only allow about thirty five foreign films a year here. This includes films from South Korea and Japan and everywhere else as well.  Chinese people do love what is called 美国大片mei guo da pian, or basically Big American Movies. Blockbusters. The theaters and most movie goers here have no interest in independent films or art films. That is not to say all Chinese movie watchers feel this way and many young people seek out old movies like The Midnight Cowboy or A Streetcar Named Desire online through streaming sites or as downloads and share there thought on sites like Dou Ban, the Chinese IMDb. My wife leaves her opinion on very movie she watches there and shares the comments with me since I cannot read Chinese.  

But theaters only want what people will pay that twenty to thirty dollars to see, sometimes over and over. Some people here saw Avatar like dozens of times. Oh, I saw that one in the theater here too. They wold have continued to see it over and over, but the government pulled it from the theaters because, strangely, it was too popular and making too much money and made the Chinese movie about Confucius (Kong Zi) look bad at the box office. They love brainless action packed 3D stuff. And since you have barely have two dozen films you can choose to show ( actually the government will make that choice for them) then you probably do not want to take a risk with artsy b/w Coen Brothers or Jim Jarmusch  stuff. And I just do not alway want to watch a blockbuster. I am not anti-blockbuster, but it is all they offer here from the US. The same way the only western food you find here is McDonald’s or KFC or a strange mutation of what was once Pizza Hut (you could rename it Noodle Hut here I think) they only provide fast food movies as if that represents all of American culture. I do not think they think about it that deeply. They want what will make lots of money. 

I'll bet you I've seen more versions of The Monkey King than you ever will. Lucky you. 

8) And while I could go on I will end with this - English movies are often dubbed and English language versions play at select times and for more money - That’s right. Out of, let’s say, six showings of a Hollywood style film that day maybe one one or two, or even none, will be in English. They are dubbed and foleyed (not sure how to spell the past tense of foley here) over in the worst ways imaginable. My wife tells me they use about six Chinese actors and actresses to dub all the films into Mandarin with one actor often doing several characters. And many people here dig it. They hate the sound of other languages. The very sound of something other than the precious mother tongue sickens many people here. But luckily some Chinese people have class and want to see the original language, whether it be English, French or Japanese. In some instances foreign films have run here without one single showing in the original language. What a load of crap.

Before closing one vapid argument I have encountered in situation like this is something like “well, since you’re in China now have you considered just watching Chinese movies?” (or eating just Chinese food, etc, etc…) “ to which the response is “no, because most Chinese movies suck!” I am not talking about ALL Chinese films and I have reviewed a few here from a couple Sixth Generation filmmakers that were very decent movies, like Night Train and Blind Mountain, but those movies do not play in the theaters here. They do better abroad and are often financed and distributed, abroad, by foreign companies, with the filmmakers sometimes being punished here at home if they are released abroad before official approval has been granted. But, I am not talking about those  few under the radar films that one has to sniff out like a pig searching for truffles, I am talking about all the stuff at the theater’s here competing for a Golden Rooster (the Chinese Oscar). No. I will not watch that brain drain drek. I liked a couple of Zhang Yimou’s early films,  like Not One Less and Raise the Red Lantern, but nothing of his newer ones. Meaning from Hero onward. Including Hero. What a pretentious mess. I find all of modern Chinese cinema appalling and superficial. Boring period pieces. Propaganda films. Vapid romances and brainless comedies. All of it CCP approved of course. I do not include Hong Kong films in with those films nor the independent, underground type films here. 

I actually saw some of this on a streaming service. It was, uh, pretty bad man. 
Not so bad it is good bad. Just bad bad. It was a hit. 

And so, then how, exactly,  do I watch movies here? Netflix is blocked here in case you don’t know, like almost everything. Like Google and Blogger for example. Well, why don’t I save that for a follow up post. But in closing I will say it is unlikely I will ever go to a movie theater again in China. 


Tom Dulski said...

WOW, that was a remarkable post. Very interesting stuff. I love reading about cultural differences and this article was full of them. I live in NYC and your observation about Chinese people speaking at a loud volume really struck a cord with me. It's something I have seen my whole life but never really noticed until recently. I guess the two things that surprised me most was the fact that they are still making WW2 films. I admit war films and specifically WW2 films are my favorite genre and it is one that has almost completely disappeared here in America. We are lucky if we get 1 a year. I wonder why on a cultural level they are still stuck in that genre.
The waiting in line until people can choose their own seats is absolutely maddening. I have never heard of that outside of booking a seat on an airplane. That alone would keep me from ever setting foot inside a theater in China.
Again great work.

Bill Dan Courtney said...


Thanks for the support. I am really trying to get back to writing and blogging with a good attitude after having almost gave it all up a few times. But remarks like your makes me remember why I started doing this way back in like 2005 or so. Just for fun and because, despite my jaded cynicism, I actually enjoy all of this stuff. I sort of focus on the downside of the movie experience perhaps, but in the end it is the downside of things that influence many of our decisions.

Thanks. I will get back with another post soon about how I do in fact watch movies here, which is interesting in and of itself.

Tom Dulski said...

great, looking forward to it. I find this kind of stuff very interesting.

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