Easy Trips to Other Film Capitals

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.

The SUP Bookstore (111 N. Atlantic Blvd. Suite 228, Monterey Park, [626] 293-3386), in the big pink shopping plaza at the corner of Atlantic and Garvey Avenue, always seems to have a couple of sale tables piled high with DVDs that rarely sell for more $12, with many priced at less than $10. Recently there were some great buys here: Tsui Hark's comedy "The Chinese Feast" and Patrick Tam's groundbreaking 1979 wu xia swashbuckler "The Sword" for $9.95 each, and several Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung martial arts pictures for about $11 each.

Sing Young Music World (140 W. Valley Blvd, San Gabriel, [626] 571-8333), in the mammoth San Gabriel Square shopping center (a.k.a. the Great Mall of China), is primarily a home-theater and karaoke emporium. But it also has a solid selection of Chinese-language DVDs. Sing Young is mostly a rental outfit, and sale prices are consequently a bit steep, around $40 per disc.

The one indispensable DVD outlet in China Valley, though, is the astonishing Five Star Laser (1045 E Valley Blvd., San Gabriel, [626] 281-7676), which is tucked into another small mall near Walnut Grove Avenue. Five Star carries several hundred Hong Kong titles on DVD, and as many again on VCD, arranged in loose groupings by star, director and period. Prices at Five Star top out at about $30, with most hovering in the $20 range.

Bargain hunting is much more practical in Artesia's Little India, than it is in China Valley, because the scene here is confined to two short blocks. Also, because the competition is stiff, stores frequently resort to spot sales and discounts. In one bin, older releases were marked down to $9.99 each at Music Warehouse (18624 S. Pioneer, [562] 402-4890). A high-quality disc of the vintage Raj Kapoor vehicle "Anari" (1959) with subtitles was priced to move at $11.99 on an outdoor sale table at Melody Makers (18332 S. Pioneer, [562] 924-7672), the area's oldest and funkiest home-entertainment retailer.

Serious fans shouldn't miss Raaga (18625 S. Pioneer, [562] 865-6070), which boasts an impressive selection of DVDs, or Tips Music (18709 S. Pioneer, [562] 860-2707), which has the most helpful employees and the most comfortable shopping environment. A franchise operation of one of the leading Bombay music and video companies and one of 11 outlets recently established in North America, Tips claims to have in stock, or to be able to order, every Indian movie currently available on DVD--and it displays them alphabetically down the full length of one long wall for easy browsing. Raaga, by contrast, is squeezed into a smaller space and tends to jam titles together.

For those who would rather rent than buy, there are rental outlets for Indian videos scattered all over Southern California. These days even your neighborhood Indian grocery store has a few DVDs available for rent. Near Fairfax Avenue, India Spices and Groceries (5994 W. Pico Blvd., L.A., [323] 931-4871) has a representative selection; it charges $2 a day, secured by a $20 cash deposit.

One company that consistently turns out world-class product on DVD is Yash Raj Films Home Entertainment, a video distribution outfit owned and operated by top Hindi producer-director Yash Chopra. The Yash Raj Forever Classics series, in particular, which showcases older landmark movies, is rapidly growing into an impressive library of collectibles.

It is also worth noting that while subtitling is now common on Indian DVDs, it is by no means universal.

Store staffers aren't always knowledgeable either, so you might want to do some homework. For starters, check out the Web site of an Indian video e-retailer such as DV4U ( http://www.dv4uonline.com ), which includes subtitle options as standard information, or better yet try Indiaplaza.com ( http://www.indiaplaza.com ), which has a separate database page listing subtitled DVDs.

Other useful online resources include the rental service NetFlix ( http://www.netflix.com ), which has hundreds of Indian discs available for rent by mail. (Its selection of Hong Kong films is much spottier.)

See also the impressive fan site Indian DVD Reviews and Moreat http://www.geocities.com/shahrukhkhan.geo/index.html , which offers comprehensive technical assessments that include notes on subtitles. (The site maintains a separate page listing discs with subtitled song lyrics as well as dialogue.) The Indian DVD Newspage ( http://welcome.to/indiandvdnewspage ) has up-to-date information on new releases.

The leading online retailers for Hong Kong DVDs include DiscCover (http://www.disccover.com), Bluelaser ( http://www.bluelaser.com ) and AsianXpress ( http://www.asianxpress.net ). These sites also offer scoops on new releases and disc extras. San Gabriel's Five Star Laser also has a Web site ( http://www.fivestarlaser.com ).

Several Asian DVD companies also have informative home pages. The Mei Ah Laser Disc Co. ( http://www.meiah.com ) and Tai Seng Video Entertainment ( http://www.taiseng.com ) list more than 2,000 Hong Kong titles between them in their DVD, VCD and VHS catalogs, with plot summaries and cast lists attached. You can also connect online with the Indian distributors Tips Music ( http://www.t-series.com ), Eros Entertainment ( http://www.erosentertainment.com ), and Baba Digital Media ( http://www.babadvd.com ).

The impressive Yash Raj Films catalog can be browsed at http://www.yashrajfilms.com .

But for me, nothing beats shopping in an actual store, with the scents of the native cuisine wafting over from the restaurant next-door.

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