I was an avid moviegoer when I lived in the States. I’d see good movies many times, mediocre movies once, terrible movies at least two or three times with the right people, though I don’t think I’ve ever seen any movie with an Olsen Twin. I relished the experience of a massive screen playing out these massive stories. It was, frankly, the one and only major splurge in my life. No restaurants, no sporting events, and no outings to bars.
But then I came to the People’s Republic of China, and going to the movies here is a special kind of experience. Besides the fact that a ticket costs the local equivalent, compared to the cost of living, of $120 (that’s without the popcorn that they infuriatingly dust with sugar rather than salt), they censor everything that wasn’t made in China. Including, Iron Man 2 and The Karate Kid. I think they censor movies because they feel that they have to, because if they didn’t censor each and every movie that came to this country then the Censorship Bureau wouldn’t be able to justify its operating budget. In Iron Man 2, they removed all references to villain being a Russian, and in Karate Kid they cut the kiss scene from the middle of the movie. Lest impressionable, rich young Chinese girls start thinking they should get into relationships with black Americans and kiss them.
But those aren’t the only differences between watching movies in the free world and behind the Digital Curtain. Given the recent guide for polite American moviegoing posted yesterday, I thought I would add a guide for those hoping to navigate the delicate social mores and customs of Chinese moviegoing. We could, you know, assemble a Travelers Guide to Moviegoing in Nations Free and Oppressed.
1. Never silence your cell phones. That’s right. Plural. Because if you’re rich enough to be watching a movie, it is very likely that you have more than one cell phone, and if you come into a movie theater, the best you can expect in the way of cell phone etiquette is for someone to look mildly put out before they answer it. I have been in a movie with someone who spoke quite loudly on two cell phones at once for several minutes, laughing and making no apparent attempt to keep his conversation short and sweet or step out of the theater.
Actually, this rule doesn’t just go for movie theaters. It is fully enforced in libraries, in the middle of conversations with friends, and in meetings. I had a boss who interrupted her well-rehearsed speech for several minutes to have a chat on her cell phone in Cantonese.
2. If you feel like talking (either on a cellphone or just to the person next to you), make sure to speak loud enough to be heard over the movie, and make no attempts to prematurely truncate your phone call or conversation. A low shout will suffice. There’s no need to take it overboard.
“I’m in a movie!… ”
“Some foreign movie! Iron Man!… ”
“It’s okay!… ”
“Yeah!… Yeah!… He’s shooting people now!… Yeah!… ”
“So, why are you calling?!… ”
3. Never ask anyone to stop talking during a movie. Not that I would know what would happen if you did, because no one ever does, because everyone scrupulously follows the rules on this list, unlike the unruly Americans who are so fond of violating the rules. I do have my suspicions, though. Every street fight I have seen between Chinese people is a lightning-fast battle of escalation. You begin by shouting “???!” (roughly translated as “fuck off”), and move swiftly into a brawl (which would be so much cooler if it resembled a Jackie Chan movie, but apparently real Kung Fu just looks like two assholes hitting each other). When the smoke clears, the loser will be escorted away by the Police and the winner will return to whatever it was he was doing to inspire the fight in the first place. Because in real life, the bigger asshole always wins.
4. Sit in your assigned seats. Because there’s an overpopulation problem, you know, and most movies, even at the absurd price you are paying, are going to be sold out. So every movie ticket has an assigned seat. And if you like sitting in the middle, make sure to buy your tickets a few days in advance because the day before, a bunch of enterprising assholes are going to buy out the middle seats cheap through some connection they have at the theater and then sell them on the Chinese version of eBay for a price modestly over what the theater asks and probably twice what they bought it for. This rule applies to everyone except Party bosses, who sit wherever the fuck they want, and if you argue with them, well, see rule #3.
5. Don’t pay very much attention to the movie. If you lean forward in your seat, attention rapt on the movie, watching this massive world unfold before you, you are bound to get some strange looks. To be fair, I’ve never seen a Chinese person watch a movie this way, so I don’t know if they’re staring at me because I’m staring at the movie, or if they’re staring at me because I’m white (the most common reason for Chinese people to stare at me), or both.
Now, if you diligently follow all these steps and still find yourself unable to appreciate that unique je ne sais pas of watching a movie in China, just go out onto the street corner and buy a ripped DVD. Or, better yet, download one from a Chinese torrent site. At that point, you’re better off just leaving the country entirely (seriously). The people in China who frequent the movies are quickly becoming the same people who imprison dissident artists and lawyers in concrete basements. The future for us sino-cinephiles looks dim, indeed.