My first weekend in Chengdu I needed a movie. The student hostel I was staying at was cleaner than I could have hoped for, and with 24 hour hot water to boot. But its tidy virtuousness – a wall-sized 9 point statement of its scholarly ideals hung in the common room – left no room for a TV. In the concrete and grimy-sheet hell-holes I had been in the last two weeks, there had at least been the distraction of the TV, with its soap operas, tear-jerking tell-alls of self-sacrifice for the nation, pop songs, and lectures on the legal aspects of riding in taxis. But all I could hear lying in my clean bed in Chengdu was the squeal of bicycle brakes worn through to the rim, on the street outside.
So when I passed the “Chengdu Theatre” Saturday afternoon I stood there a while looking at the selection of 10 or so movie posters posted about. The eager old woman in the chair by the entrance told me the price was ten yuan. And the movie times, I asked. Any time you want – which meant it was all DVDs. For ten yuan I was less willing to try “The Ranch,” with its posters of women in lingerie and big hair kneeling on a brass bed, or “Snake Woman,” a Big Money Thai-US Joint Production that promised lust, horror, lust, shock, and finally carnal desire. There were three that offered the possibility of a story: Closer, Unfaithful, and a state-funded bio-epic of Mao in the early ‘60’s (before he messed around with revolutionizing culture, that is). The first two had obviously been chosen for their titillating topic, Westernness, and/or poster. “Closer” had been slyly translated as “Love on the Sly.” Neither one was to offer much in the way of sex, a real head-fake to any poor fools hoping for more for their ten yuan.
On Saturday I chose “Closer.” I was led up the stairs to a pitch-black room. I could see a projection room up in the wall; it had once been a real theatre. I flipped on a lightswitch and sat near the screen, just under the VCD projection unit. When the movie started, there was no sound – just Chinese subtitles. I sat patiently as Ms. Portman got knocked down by a taxi and she and Mr. Law got to know each other silently in a clinic. The problem was, reading Chinese at this frantic pace detracted slightly from some dramatic nuances, such as the set design, or which actors were on the screen. I did not realize the old woman felt my pain until a menu box flipped on on the screen and – there was English!
Mr. Law was being photographed by Ms. Roberts, and then being kissed by her, when a most distracting thing kept poking up into the action: English subtitles – from a movie that had nothing at all to do with love, on the sly or otherwise. I thought it was a prison movie at first, with frequent references to “detention,” coupled with words like “motherfucker.” But this interpretation did not quite fit. Mr. Law was in the back of a bus telling Ms. Portman, dully, about his dull job at the obituary page, when a shadow speaker in the parallel movie said, “It’s a fucking skateboard, but I’ll stick with your rules.” The shadow dialogue was fast and furious.
I’m a poet.
Oh, so you’re a lover, not a fighter, right?
I finally got it with “Fuck you, Alicia, that make-up test didn’t write itself.” A high school movie, about high schoolers gone bad! It was hard to pay attention to the foursome’s painful entanglements, with outrageous B-movie high school dialogue popping up right and left. Mr. Law tells Ms. Roberts, wielding her camera, “You’re beautiful.”
Just below: “Disgusting.”
Later in the movie, Ms. Roberts’ hastily married husband shouts in anguish, “Don’t you want children??”
Below: “I have enough trouble with students having sex like rabbits.”
Mr. Law later asks Ms. Roberts, “So you’ve got an exhibition?”
Ms. Roberts says to Ms. Portman, “I hear you’re a waitress.”
Below: “So you knocked up Alicia!”
When Ms. Roberts first meets Man Two at the aquarium, she says, “Its my birthday.”
Below: “Hold on, Thugs-R-Us is here!”
When Ms. Roberts, after a year’s secret affair with Mr. Law, confesses to her husband, “I am in love with him,” my shock was thrown off by the line below: “Thanks. You saved my ass, Pussycat.” By this time, with the movie half over, I was having a hard time getting absorbed in the story, so I redoubled my efforts to only watch the top half of the screen. However, I could hardly help noticing, as poor Mr. Law went through the ringer, that foreign gangsters were somehow caught up in the high school action. Such lines popped up as, “Man: speaks Hungarian.”
“We use English here, motherfucker.” No doubt somebody bought it shortly after that. It must have been a U.S.-Hungarian Big Budget Joint Production.
The next day to my surprise I found myself back at the same ex-theatre. The old woman smiled and suggested “Snake Woman.” I wavered. A man I met, a wanderer who spoke English, said, “She suggests the movie because she thinks that foreigners, you know, like . . .” And she is damn right, I thought. But not for ten yuan. The Mao movie was no longer being offered, if it ever had been, and the man told me the Hong Kong movie, “No More Thieves,” was not very good. That left “Unfaithful.” I paid at the window, and the man officiously stamped my ticket and handed it to me. The woman insisted on taking my ticket and tearing it in half, even though I was the only person around. Then the man left the booth and led me around the corner.
I guess I get the basement because it is after 6, I thought, and higher-drawing flicks get the big room. We entered a dingy corridor, ducked under a steel door, and walked past an eerie video arcade with no one in it, around a corner, and into a gust of stale, chill air. We came to a chained door. The man shone his flashlight on a puddle of water. “What a mess,” he said, and lit me a path around it. We entered a den of small, karaoke-type rooms with red sofas in them. “What a mess,” he said again, sweeping away some bottles and cigarette butts. I looked closely at the sofa before sitting down gingerly. He adjusted the language and pulled shut the curtain that served as a door.
“Could you leave the hall lights on?” I called out as he left.
“Unfaithful” began forebodingly, with a wind storm. There was little dialogue. When Diane Lane bumped into a hunky Frenchman, however, the subtitles once again began to distract me. They were at least intended for this movie, but they must have been composed by a graduate student somewhere with a vast vocabulary and a brass ear. Lane and Gere’s elfish boy liked to say, in the way movie directors think is suburbian charm and precociousness, “Mom, you’re driving me bonkers.”
The underfed grad student heard, “Mom, you’re driving me pompous!”
When a flustered Lane makes a wrong turn trying to leave the seductive Pauls’ place, he says with a smile, “That’s my bedroom.”
The underpaid grad student typed, “That’s my bafflement.” The lines were so absurd I had to wonder. Maybe the grad student is fed up with the work, or the boss, and is knowingly doing a half-assed job, subtly sabotaging the subtitles in a way we American grad students often term “subaltern forms of resistance.” What gangster boss in charge of pirating knows anything about English anyhow? The grad student probably thinks.
Paul teasingly responds to Lane’s joke about needing medical attention by saying, “I don’t take charity cases.”
The grad student types in, “Can I ask for a kiss?” before looking back at the stacks of problem sets he needs to correct by 10 pm. By this time he is just glancing at the scenes and free-interpreting. But the Chinese guido won’t wait, this movie is Hot Hot Hot!
Halfway through the sound cuts out. I try to enjoy the silent movie but I am too caught up in the story. I run out through the musty maze, up to the street, past the noodle house and around the corner, and then back down again. The man comes and restores the sound and backs it up to where the sound cut out, where Gere climbs into the tub with a reluctant Lane. This time the subtitles are in Chinese – and equally wrong. I thought of the poor non-English speaker tricked into forking over six yuan to some guy by the side of the road, taking the disc home excitedly, only to scratch his head in puzzlement when Lane shouts (“What did you DO?”) at the distraught, accidental murderer Gere and he reads, “Where did you put my shoes??”