Life in the gray zone

As I mentioned a few months ago ("Tales from the everything's-slightly-substandard economy"), there is a strange trade-off in a lot of daily life in China. Nearly everything's cheap. But a whole lot of everything is a little bit off, marred in some subtle but grating way, not quite legit, and, well, cheap.

Today's illustration: On my trip to the U.S. last month, I saw that a 14-screen theater near the office in DC was playing a whole bunch of movies I had heard about and wanted to see. Juno. There Will Be Blood. The Great Debaters. No Country for Old Men. Charlie Wilson's War. American Gangster. Sweeney Todd. Eastern Promises. A revival of I'm Not There, about Bob Dylan. And some others I'm surely forgetting now -- whatever was popular a month ago. (Even Golden Compass???)

I thought: hey, I'm here on my own, I'll see a bunch of these. Life got busy, and I saw only one. But this weekend, on the street in Beijing, my wife and I found a good video store -- they're slightly more discreet than in Shanghai -- and loaded up on every movie I've just named, plus a bunch more, at a little under $1.40 each. Extortionate, compared with Shanghai, but the best we could do.

The good news is, we get to see these movies, and they don't cost much. The bad news is, there's something a little bit wrong with all of them. For instance: tonight's showing was The Great Debaters, with Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker, which we actually liked. Here is a typical scene, featuring Denzel Whitaker (no relation to the other Whitaker, or to Washington) as a young Wiley College debater, going up against some snooty Harvard boys:

Sigh. I assume it was a "for your consideration" Oscar-promotion version of the movie. At least it hadn't been dubbed into Russian, like a lot of the cheapo movies we see here. For another time: consideration of what this gray-zone existence might mean for the Chinese economy in the long run.