When I was in Gongbei Monday, I finally found the DVD shops I'd been looking for. Shoddily packaged and otherwise iffy DVDs are widely available in the markets and even on campus, but they're nearly all recent Chinese, Korean, and U.S. hits; the type of store I was seeking offers a wider selection, arranged by category (Chinese, recent Hollywood, American classics, music videos, etc.) and professionally packaged (they don't look like bootlegs).
The DVDs in these shops cost a bit more, too, but they're still embarassingly cheap: I paid 15 yuen each (about $1.80), as opposed to anywhere from 6 to 10 yuen in the markets. And you get what you pay for: While you're taking something of a gamble with the discs in the markets (although at those prices, it's not much of a risk), with these you can be fairly confident that if they're labeled as having English subtitles they will, and they're relatively sure to play without technical hitches.
I'm always glad to find bargain-basement Criterion (or should I punctuate that "Criterion"?) DVDs in China. They almost never have all the special features — interviews, documentaries, commentaries, etc. — touted on the packaging, but enough of them remain that they're well worth the negligable price. The Stan Brakhage collection surprised me; can't see that there'd be an audience here for an experimental, nonnarrative filmmaker who's not even well-known in his own country, but at least there'd be no language barrier with his works.
Of course, I always sample the local fare when I'm here. Last night I watched Confession of Pain, a Hong Kong cop movie by the directors of Infernal Affairs starring Tony Leung, Takeshi Kaneshiro, and Shu Qi. The Banquet is a big-budget costume epic that was playing in theatres when Ling and I were here last year; I'd thought it might reach the States since it stars Zhang Ziyi, but that hasn't been the case. Likewise, I'd given up on seeing Jia Zhangke's Still Life on the big screen, so I bought the DVD. Unfortunately, it's the only one in the batch that lacks subtitles; too bad, because the film, set in the Three Gorges region, looks absolutely gorgeous, with an elegance that he had been moving toward in The World. (The disc also includes a documentary Jia shot concurrently, making my inability to view it all the more frustrating). At least I can watch the copy of The World that I bought; most of the special features are missing, although Jonathan Rosenbaum's video interview is intact.
No subtitles needed here, of course. The jazz discs are from a series of recently unearthed live performances from the 1950s and '60s. Watching the eccentric Mr. Monk on stage is always rather disconcerting — he was known for such antics as getting up from the piano and dancing oddly during the other musicians' solos — but somehow, viewing him over here seems even more strange and incongruous. On the other hand, Louis Armstrong did slam bebop by calling it "Chinese music". . . .