Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Kino-Eye (Hearts) Twins

(These young women may look innocuous, but don't be fooled - they have a David Koresh-ian hold on their millions of devoted followers.)

Many of you have probably visited one of Chinatown's many DVD stores. You've probably picked up a few flicks. And, as you were paying, you might have wondered where all the DVDs came from - a residential basement somewhere in Markham? A factory in Kowloon? And how come they're so damn cheap? But really, you were just glad they were selling '2046' for the price of a Starbucks coffee.

The Chinatown DVD store has become a fixture of Toronto's video store community. Specializing in East Asian (primarily Hong Kong) cinema but increasingly branching out to include Thai and Filipino films, the Chinatown DVD store serves as a conduit through which we in Toronto may access the cinematic pop culture of Asia. If you're hungry for the latest mahjong comedy, Korean horror flick, or Japanese drama, you don't head to Queen Video - you head to Chinatown. Long before audiences were able to catch Jet Li's 'Huo Yuan Jia' (known here as 'Fearless') in theatres, the local Hong Kong DVD store was carrying an uncut, subtitled copy for the fraction of the cost of a movie ticket. I still remember taking the Greyhound bus up from London for day trips to Toronto back when I was in high school and planning my entire budget around my requisite trip to the Chinatown DVD store. There, I'd stuff my knapsack full of '80s heroic bloodshed and '90s New Wave wu xia flicks. Probably my best find was a rare VCD copy of Fruit Chan's first film, 'Made in Hong Kong', starring a young Sam Lee. (I lost it a few years back and haven't been able to find another copy since.)

Given how much we in Toronto owe these stores for introducing us to commercial East Asian cinema, I thought it appropriate to hit the streets and see if I could secure an interview with the owner of one of these stores. After being turned down no fewer than three times, I finally managed to find a proprietor who was willing to speak to me. His/her only conditions: that I preserve his/her anonymity and that of his/her store. Fair enough. With cops routinely shutting down DVD stores in Chinatown, he/she had a right to be wary of a white dude with a digital voice recorder.

Here's what he/she had to say:

Kino-Eye: So how long has this shop been in business?

Shop Owner: Five or six years.

KE: And how long have you worked here?

SO: Same.

KE: Is your clientele primarily Cantonese and Mandarin speakers?

SO: Mostly nowadays they are Mandarin. But a few are Cantonese.

KE: Is there a strong sense of community in Chinatown and, if so, do you feel you and this store to be part of that community?

SO: I'd say yes.

KE: Chinatown DVD stores sell movies at the price of 10 for $20, even 11 for $20. Is there strong competition among the various DVD stores in Chinatown?

SO: These days, there is a lot of competition, it's very strong.

KE: How do you decide which movies to stock and sell?

SO: Well, we stock the latest ones, and in terms of the older ones, we stock the blockbusters.

KE: What kind of films would you recommend to a person who is unfamiliar with Hong Kong cinema?

SO: Hong Kong movies are mostly comedy and kung fu or action, so I would recommend one of those (films).

KE: Toronto used to have a Chinese-language movie theatre that was owned by Golden Harvest but it closed down years ago. Do you think a similar theatre, if opened, could be successful today?

SO: I don't think so. Asian people don't go to the movies that much. They prefer to watch DVDs.

KE: Did you ever check out the Kung Fu Fridays screenings that used to be held at the Royal and the Revue theatres, the ones that would show classic martial arts films from the '70s, '80s and '90s?

SO: I heard about it but I never went.

KE: I was in Hong Kong in 2005 and Twins, Gillian Chung and Charlene Choi (see above photo and link), were everywhere - on the TV, on the radio, in the movies. They were like an industry unto themselves. Are they still ridiculously popular?

SO: Um, I'm not a fan of them but, yeah, they're very popular in Hong Kong and parts of China. They have a new movie out - 'Twins Mission'.

KE: Recently Celestial Pictures bought the rights to the old Shaw Brothers films and has set about re-releasing them on DVD. I notice you have an entire section devoted to these films. Are they quite popular and, if so, who tends to buy them?

SO: Yeah, they're popular. Mostly middle-aged people (buy them) because they like (movies from) the '60s and the '70s.

KE: Why do you think the Hong Kong film industry is doing so poorly these days?

SO: Because DVDs come out so quickly and people don't often go to movie theatres to watch (the movies).

So there you have it. Now grab some loose change and head over to Dragon City and pick up the latest Ronald Cheng comedy.

(If you want to learn more about Hong Kong cinema but don't know where to start, check out 'City on Fire: Hong Kong Cinema' by Lisa Odham Stokes and Michael Hoover or 'Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment' by David Bordwell. (Bordwell is actually in a bit of a feud with noted philosopher/social critic Slavoj Zizek. It's kind of like the Notorious BIG and 2Pac beef of the mid '90s, except it's between old white dudes without gats.) You might also want to head over to LoveHkFilm.com. The guy who runs it reviews nearly every movie that comes out in Hong Kong. And I mean every movie - not just the latest Johnnie To flick, but even the Hong Kong version of 'Sweet November'. That guy has nerves of steel.)

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