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Easy Trips to Other Film Capitals

Fans of Indian and Chinese movies needn't leave the Southland to find DVDs.

July 01, 2001|DAVID CHUTE | David Chute is an occasional contributor to Calendar

The people of India and elsewhere in Asia are voracious consumers of cinema, so it should come as no surprise that expatriates likewise hungrily devour titles from their respective homelands.

Indians, in particular, are legendary film fanatics, snapping up many of the more than 400 new releases a year from the glamour factories of Bombay (also known as Bollywood) and from regional film capitals such as Madras (Mollywood?).

So perhaps it's not surprising that a two-block stretch of South Pioneer Boulevard in Artesia's Little India can sustain six well-stocked music and video emporiums, all of which were crowded with happy shoppers when we took a stroll through the neighborhood a few Saturdays ago.

It was immediately apparent that DVD is the current format of choice in Little India. In store after store, VHS cassettes have been shoved into a corner or against the back wall to make room for wire racks full of jewel boxes. Just in the last year or so, it seems, hundreds of Indian movies have begun to be released on DVD. More than half of these have been embellished with crystal-clear, closed-captioned English subtitles.

Let's step back a moment to ponder the significance of this. When the blazing Hong Kong action movies of John Woo and Jackie Chan began to attract droves of grass-roots fans in the U.S. in the late '80s and early '90s, the Hollywood-influenced familiarity of the slam-bang genre stories had a lot to do with it. But so did the subtitles. Anything they made over there, we could watch, from the classiest art movies to the cheesiest skin flicks.

The Indian commercial cinema has a lot in common with Hong Kong's: Both are throwbacks to an earlier, less-self-conscious era of unabashedly exuberant entertainment. And films in Hindi (and India's other major regional languages) are already widely distributed to ethnic communities around the world. The only thing missing, until recently, was the subtitles.

As it has in the rest of the U.S., the DVD format has soared in popularity among Indian video customers here during the last 18 months or so. According to Lavina Ludhani, who manages the Tips Music franchise at 18709 S. Pioneer Blvd. in Artesia, hundreds of Bollywood films are available on DVD. Most of these are clearly marked "Not for Sale in India," indicating their target customers are the millions of NRIs, or Non-Resident Indians, around the world. Subtitle options on the snazzier packages can include Spanish, Arabic, French and Japanese in addition to English.

DVDs have not caught on as quickly in Hong Kong, where production volume is the third largest in the world behind India and the United States, but fans are no less devoted. "One reason," says Bey Logan, a managing director at Media Asia, a leading Hong Kong film distributor, is the local "tendency to regard film as a disposable commodity." Instead, a cheap format that was barely noticed in the U.S., the VCD, or Video Compact Disc, became Hong Kong's home-video medium of choice. Logan explains, "They cost about the same as a video rental, but you can watch them whenever you want and then throw them away."

Most of Hong Kong's DVDs, like India's, are export products, aimed at emigre audiences in Europe and North America.

Many Hong Kong DVD packages are handsome, letterboxed presentations of a crisp, unfaded image. The discs issued by Media Asia, in association with the Universe Laser & Video Co., offer alternate dialogue tracks in Cantonese and Mandarin, and a choice of subtitles that can include English, Malaysian, Vietnamese, and the Simplified Chinese characters in use in mainland China. Surprising discoveries can be made even in familiar pictures when the presentations are this lush. For example, the jaunty satirical pop theme songs created by pioneering 1970s Cantopop star Sam Hui, for the popular comedies written and directed by his brother Michael, can now be enjoyed with their lyrics rendered in English.

"I'm working like a dog and things keep on going wrong," Sam sings, on the Universe/Media Asia DVD of the top-drawer Hui brothers comedy "The Private Eyes" (1976).

Ground zero for Hong Kong video activity in greater Los Angeles is the district known as China Valley, the older suburbs strung along the 10 Freeway in the San Gabriel Valley, from Monterey Park to Rosemead. Devotees of Chinese and Vietnamese food have been haunting the area's hundreds of dim sum palaces and noodle shops for decades, but the area boasts almost as many Chinese-language video stores.

Among the larger and better-stocked outlets, a few stand out.

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