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Musings from the Edge of Forever

Note: This blog expresses only the opinions of the blog owner,
and does not represent the opinion of any organization or blog
that is associated with RONIN ON EMPTY.

Bootleg Heaven, Filmmaker Hell

Jackie and Jackie

Which one is the real one?

After misplacing my driver’s license and harboring a belief that I needed to get some exercise, I walked to SF Chinatown three days in a row. During those trips, I browsed a number of DVD shops. While certain locations carried legitimate Hong Kong DVDs, I was struck by the number of stores that carried bootlegs. I guess that shouldn’t have been too surprising a fact in itself, but I have to say that the sheer quantity was astounding. After closer investigation, I realized every single Hong Kong film available on a licensed DVD was bootlegged. No official versions in sight.*

The prices, too, were pretty astonishing — 4 for $20 at one store or $4.99 each with a pricing deal based on bulk. I realize people just illegally download them for free, but for Bay Area HK cinema enthusiasts (and Chinese folks) who aren’t hip to technology or don’t want to go to the trouble, this seems like a real temptation. At sci-fi and comic cons you see bootlegs of hard-to-find or out of print films, TV shows, and Holiday Specials, but they aren’t usually that cheap. I’ve seen Chinese bootlegs side-by-side with official DVDs in certain San Jose DVD shops, but the prices weren’t that drastically different. How can legitimate DVD companies compete with this kind of piracy?

In the old days, a bootleg meant a third generation VHS tape at best or a shaky cam version of a movie still-in-theaters, but now the bootleggers just rip them from an officially licensed DVD. The image looks identical…because it is.

Even the box art is getting more sophisticated, coming very close to resembling the real thing.** An untrained eye — or someone simply willing to believe that they can get so much for so little — could easily be fooled, myself included. I guess that means that the days of this kind of box art are over:

Bootleg 01

Predator-era Arnold would have totally saved The Phantom Menace

_____________________________________________________________

*I’m almost certain that any DVD that had a US Tai Seng edition — Black Ransom and 72 Tenants of Prosperity for example — did not have an accompanying ultra-cheap bootleg version. Why were they the exception?

**To wit,  I once accidentally bought a bootleg of Memories of Matsuko with identical packaging to the official Hong Kong version. It was also selling for the manufacturer’s suggested retail price. Sure, when I got it home, the picture looked great, but the English subtitles were from a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT MOVIE. Strangely, it took me a while to figure that out. I thought, “Man, this dialogue sure is wonky. The director must be going for something really avant garde here.”

7 Responses to “Bootleg Heaven, Filmmaker Hell”

  1. Garvin Says:

    I’m not gonna lie, I’m one of the guilty ones that buy the bootlegs in Chinatown along with my dad. We frequent the one on Grant street.

    I always end up importing the movies I like on Blu-ray for ridiculously high prices afterwards so I guess that takes away some of the guilt.

    And about Tai Seng editions - I thought I saw a Black Ransom bootleg before, but it would be easy to understand why the shops would be afraid of selling US licensed movies on bootleg. Tai Seng is located in SF afterall.

  2. dvdjamm Says:

    That’s why i’m afraid to buy Blu-rays in SF Chinatown…I don’t want to buy one and I open it and it ends up being a DVD…

  3. TheMcGuffin Says:

    God I know what you mean. I’m originally from SF and moved away about 3 years ago now. Back when I used to go to Chinatown on a regular basis it was probably 90% legitimate DVDs to 10% bootlegs. Whenever I came back in the subsequent years and months it has just gotten worse and worse. My favorite DVD shop (the only one that ONLY sold movies) closed down and how sells scarfs and hats. Every other place either completely downsized the DVD areas or replaced them entirely with bootlegs…most did both.

    It’s really sad because the US is one of the few places in the world where most people would rather buy an official release over a bootleg

  4. TheMcGuffin Says:

    Yeah that is one of the weird things about Hong Kong movies…you can get them dirt cheap on DVD and VCD but I still haven’t found a place that sells Blu-rays of HK movies anywhere in the neighborhood of US Blu-rays

  5. Sanjuro Says:

    @Garvin — Don’t worry, I’m not judging you on this matter. But yeah, the whole US licensing plus location of Tai Seng’s headquarters in SF would go a long way in explaining why I didn’t see any bootleg versions of their films.

    @dvdjamm — I haven’t seen any fake Blu-Rays that have the actual Blu-Ray case, although I do see an occasional DVD-sized case (with the cardboard slipcase over it) that say “Blu-Ray,” but those are obviously bootleg DVDs. Their Blu-Ray bootleg packaging hasn’t gotten as sophisticated…yet.

    @TheMcGuffin — Yeah, I think the imbalanced ratio of bootlegs to official releases was what surprised me the most.

  6. Peter Says:

    Asian bootlegging is a disgrace here in Canada. I have been only able to find ONE legitimate distributor left in Western Canada, in Richmond. When I visited Toronto last year, I found one guy in Toronto with apparently legitimate stuff and he was also selling lottery tickets to make ends meet. He said he’d be going out of business soon if he couldn’t renegotiate his lease, so he may be gone by now.

    Even centres with relatively smaller Chinatowns here in Alberta in Edmonton and Calgary had at least one store selling legitimate product a few years ago but they have vanished and only the bootleggers remain. I talked to the operator of one store (Hon Sing) at their closing sale, and at that time the illegal downloads of Cantopop and Mandopop CDs had put them out of business.

    I confess that I did pick up some illegal DVDs at first, particularly as that seemed to be the only easy source of Japanese and Korean material, until the increasing poor quality of the subtitles and my conscience turned me off. I confess to being a bit conflicted, because often the prices for legitimate DVDs from these markets can reach over 30$ (Canadian, not that the currency difference is much any more). That’s a lot to gamble if you haven’t seen the film.

    There are occaisional outcries in the press about bootlegging, and some coverage of police raids, but only of Hollywood product. The bootleggers appear to be able to operate openly and even rent space in pretty large malls without fear of prosecution, as long as they don’t show the Hollywood product.

    I sure wish there was something we could do about it. I fear that even your sponsor will be driven out of business if we don’t.

  7. Marie Says:

    It isn’t just Chinatown shops that sell bootlegs. I always have grave qualm buying HK DVDs on E-Bay. Especially if something has been out-of-print for a long time and then I magically find it on E-Bay for a reasonable price, I am suspicious. But if something is out-of-print and the only legit discs cost hundreds of dollars, what’s a HK film lover with limited means to do but buy and hope that the quality is good? So far, the quality has been almost as good as the originals (well, except for the DVD of Leslie Cheung music vids from a HK internet merchant that was selling a poor Mainland bootleg that looked like it was shot through pantyhose that had first been used to brew milk tea).

    I bought what I thought was a legit copy of The Mission on Amazon (from a secondary seller), and it turns out it was a copy (with “Media Asia” emblazoned prominently across each and every frame). I am sure the seller wouldn’t have knowingly sold a bootleg, or they would eventually get kicked off of Amazon. But who knows where their supplier was getting their goods from? Because the quality is better on an original release, and I also don’t really want to knowingly support organized crime, I try and buy original DVDs. Sometimes its not as easy as it seems.

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