The Clearing

Obtained: Wulumuqi Street, just past the #830 bus stop
Price: 7 RMB

One of the worst releases this year, in terms of DVDs bought out of a cardboard box on the street.

The colors are so blown out, we can’t see the pockmarks on either Willem Dafoe’s or Robert Redford’s face. The sound is all high-end hiss. (Is it really that hard to bribe a projectionist?) Turning on the subtitles does nothing, as they’re from a different movie, one that sounds much more interesting—a lot more swearing and mentions of Czech intelligence operatives.

Halfway through, the DVD hiccups and dies. A real disappointment to see Redford and company associated with such shoddy pirating.

Team America: World Police

Obtained: Yan An pedestrian overpass
Price: 10 RMB, but came with a coupon for “Half Off Double Happy Massage at DragonWing Men Club for Men”

Amateur work throughout. We can see the edges of the bag in which the camera is hidden. But there’s also an unintentional artistry here that adds welcome layers of complexity.

As Team America blows Egypt apart, the silhouette of a man in a cowboy hat looms in front of us in the theater. He’s probably just going for popcorn, but his exiting archetypal shadow plays like a sharp rebuke to the frontier justice being meted out on the screen.

Also, during the extended sex scene, the sound drops out entirely. Is this in the original version? Is it censorship? We have no idea. But the combination of graphic puppet sex and silence creates a moving portrayal of loneliness and sexual desperation.

Hotel Rwanda

Obtained: Shop in People’s Square metro station
Price: 7 RMB, but only after walking away twice

Packaging is nicely done, complete with festival laurels and a favorable blurb—from a nonexistent magazine called Rair. The DVD has good color and no pixilation, even on the bouncy shots. For example, when Don Cheadle accidentally drives over all the bodies littering the road, the picture is crystal clear.

Our only substantial criticism is of an occasional title across the bottom: “For Awards Consideration Only.” This is easily covered with a few books propped against the screen.

Be Cool

Obtained: Cab driver
Price: Pack of Morning Smile cigarettes

The wide-angled lens used by whoever shot this in the theater makes Travolta seem particularly jowly, a vision of what he would look like if Pulp Fiction hadn’t been a hit. Sound quality is remarkably good. The cameraman likely used a separate microphone with a DAT deck, eliminating camera noise entirely.

Blurb on the back reads: “Cool simply suffers from farm-team casting when compared to the major league players that populated Shorty.”

Ends with the credits from Shredder, a slasher movie about snowboarders.

Bad Santa

Obtained: DVD Café around the corner from Westin Hotel near the Bund
Price: 8 RMB

The woman at the DVD Café told us there’s a money-back policy if we aren’t satisfied. Fourteen minutes into the movie, just as Billy Bob was getting into a fistfight at the beach bar, the screen disintegrated into very large squares of color, then the disc stopped completely. We took the disc back to the DVD Café and the woman refused to honor her stated policy, offering us instead DVDs of Badder Santa and Without a Paddle. After protracted negotiations, we settled on Badder Santa and a pair of fake Nike socks.

Sin City

Obtained: Guy standing on Maoming Road, next to guy selling puppies
Price: 8 RMB

In several climactic scenes, including the Jessica Alba dancing segments, the anvil-headed guy in front of the cameraman gets up to go to the bathroom. His big flat head blots out a good 10 percent of the screen. Damn you and your excitement-sensitive bladder, anvil-headed guy. We’re looking for you. We’d recognize that jug anywhere.

Ten minutes in, the DVD starts skipping. Repeated cleanings with bottom of T-shirt fail to improve performance. It plays normally again at the 21-minute mark, leaving us confused about where the Bruce Willis character went. After the movie is over, we’re still not sure.

Film also ends with credits from Shredder.