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March|April 2006
Finders Keepers? Christopher Heaney
Shanghaied Sasha Issenberg
Bigger Is Better Paul Wachter
Jack of All Plants Daniel Kurtz-Phelan
The Vigilante in the Kitchen Josh Rosenblum
Cases & Controversies
The Prudent Jurist William H. Simon
Roma v. Romania Doug Merlino
Off the Res Ellen Thompson


Mr. Liu keeps film buffs in Fassbinder, Kurosawa, and Antonioni. Cheap.

Sasha Issenberg

TYPICALLY, A VISITOR TO SHANGHAI'S VAST BAZAAR OF ILLICIT GOODS at Xiangyang Market is welcomed with hawkers' strident cries of "DVD!" and, these days, proudly brandished copies of Wedding Crashers and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. So an American tourist stopping to peruse the DVD selection on a sidewalk table just two blocks away, along one of the tree-canopied one-way streets of the city's old French Concession, might find himself surprised to be welcomed by the sweet yelp, "Fassbinder!"

The exclamation came from a man who identified himself only as Mr. Liu and who has created an art-house specialty in the city's vibrant bootleg-movie scene. If competitors' selections appear inspired by weekly box-office numbers, Mr. Liu curates a well-chosen inventory that seems more informed by Cahiers du Cinéma. Along with his wife, Mr. Liu works out of a ground-floor 10-by-10 room, selling hundreds of DVDs each day. For anyone who needs a boxed set of Kurosawa films for under $10, or wants a copy of The Olympiad but wants to be sure the Riefenstahl estate will never share in the proceeds, Mr. Liu is the man to see.

On a recent Monday at noon, soon after President George W. Bush visited China with copyright issues on his diplomatic agenda, Mr. Liu sat on a tattered black leather chair wearing jeans (Calvin Klein logo), a maroon sweatshirt (Adidas), and socks and sandals. Film piracy in China costs American studios $300 million annually, according to the Motion Picture Association of America, which has been a leader in lobbying Beijing to crack down on pirates. Chinese efforts at enforcement, however, tend to be weak at best. Above the entrance to Xiangyang Market, a sign warns shoppers to "Maintain Intellectual Property," in order to help China—where, according to industry estimates, 90 percent of DVDs sold are counterfeit—"strive to be a civilized nation." The buzz of the counterfeit economy makes clear that mission's futility. The underground market has become so sophisticated that someone can carve out a cineaste's niche and thrive.

Local police make routine inspections looking for pirated merchandise, but merchants are usually tipped off about their operations, as Mr. Liu was on this day. To evade police detection, Mr. Liu had brought his table from the street into the apartment house where he pulled down the blinds. Three loud Frenchmen entered the store. The proprietor welcomed them familiarly and tossed a copy of The Beat That My Heart Skipped to the first, a tall, shaven-headed chef of a local French restaurant. That recently released French drama had been selling swiftly, and Mr. Liu was relieved to have received a new shipment. One of the other Frenchmen headed toward the section where Mr. Liu groups Japanese and Korean films, so Mr. Liu leaped up and handed him a copy of Blood and Bones, about a violent Osaka loan shark, and patted it twice as a recommendation. "I don't know why there are so many German movies here nowadays," the chef mused to his friends in French as he fingered the stacks. After 10 minutes, each had assembled a small pile of DVDs sheathed in thin cardboard sleeves that were facsimiles of the film's actual DVD packaging. Mr. Liu tallied their purchases. Unlike other vendors, he will not engage in haggling, though he does offer volume discounts to regular customers. The grand total for each of the Frenchmen was seven yuan, or about 85 cents.

Mr. Liu, 32, drove a car for a state-owned company until six years ago when some friends introduced him to the DVD business. "I wanted a life with more freedom, and you can watch movies during work," Mr. Liu said in Mandarin, as a Hong Kong mah-jongg farce played on a TV screen across the room. At first, he sold big-name Hollywood fare on the street, but when customers asked about more obscure films he tracked them down from suppliers.

Mr. Liu estimates that 40 percent of his customers are foreigners, and many of the rest are white-collar workers in Shanghai's booming office sector. "Maybe because of their level of education, they are interested in these kind of movies with deep feelings and meaning and filled with spirit," he said.

An elfin Japanese woman with a beret walked in. She sought out Mai 68, a three-disc compilation of French documentaries about the 1968 student revolts, and asked Mr. Liu if she could take a look at the quality. He played one of the discs, and the woman pronounced herself impressed by the clear, sharp picture. She continued browsing, picking up Antonioni's L'Avventura and a documentary about the history of the Chinese rail system. Mr. Liu reminded her that Broken Flowers would be coming in the day after next. "Jim Jah-mah-shh!" he exclaimed in an approximation of the director's name.

Every day, Mr. Liu receives a long roll of old-style fax paper filled with a list of titles available from his five suppliers. All of the discs are produced in China, he says, but the selection and quality among the country's 20 or so counterfeit-DVD factories vary widely. (The biggest difference is between those shot off a theater screen—typically on opening weekend in New York or Los Angeles—by a handheld camera and those copied digitally from studio-released DVDs.) Based on Chinese film magazines, his customers' requests, and his own viewings—he watches 15 movies a week—Mr. Liu puts together daily orders and each afternoon goes out to pick up new products. Some of these are new releases, some old films. Mr. Liu's suppliers recognize his boutique operation and reward him appropriately: He is proud that he is one of only four shops in Shanghai to offer a set of 27 IMAX nature films, in a special metal case designed like a 70-millimeter film canister.

Many Shanghai shops sell movies alongside other (not necessarily illicit) merchandise, and larger stores specializing in counterfeit DVDs are doing a robust business—promoted in part by tourists who return home and spread word on the Internet, drawing more tourists. But Mr. Liu sniffs at those bright stores, lower prices, and prosaic inventories. "If you want to choose a good DVD, you don't choose it because they have good decoration or a good environment," he said. The archetype of the indie video-clerk, lover of all things hip and recherché, scornful of all things corporate, is a dying breed in America. In China, it's alive and well.

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