I know I don’t have to tell you all that times are hard. Mortgage payments, gas and beer prices all seem to be rising while wages and employment rates, at best, stay flat. When you are a (fairly) responsible adult like myself with kids, pets and a wife all expecting to be clothed, fed and air conditioned the DVD budget starts dwindling fast! Of course, you don’t have to buy everything but Red Box, Netflix and the local library only have so many titles (yup, my local library really does have kung fu movies… in fact I even hear there is a kung fu movie club of some sort at the St. Louis County Library). If you are patient then you will be able to rent or borrow something new like Shaolin or Haywire and if you are lucky, they might even show up on cable. Unfortunately, if you are wanting something a bit more obscure, but still awesome, like a Stephen Chow movie besides Shaolin Soccer or Kung Fu Hustle or something from King Hu, you are probably going to have to buy it. Okay, I guess you could download it from some shady torrent site, but that is stealing… which dishonors you and your entire clan. We’ll just stick to buying what we want.
Buying kung fu movies on the cheap can be a real challenge. Some of the luckier folks have access to well stocked used DVD stores, or better yet, well stocked Chinatown used DVD stores. Of course most of us dig through eBay and Amazon for used copies or the odd great deal. If you shop around enough online or in little movie stores you are going to eventually come across a very tempting option: the VCD release. They are cheap, sometimes a third of the price of a standard DVD, and there are all kinds of titles available. Still, most of us seem a little reluctant to pull the trigger and plunk down even just a few dollars for the format. I’ll admit that I have been in that category; I’ve thought about it many times. Not only do VCDs provide me with many movie temptations but I often find myself looking at instructional VCDs on Chinese martial arts… but I have never quite convinced myself to buy one.
Today my wife came home from her weekly garage-sale expedition and announced that she had a stack of Chinese CDs for me. “I don’t know what they are,” she said, “but I think some are movies.” I quickly flipped through the stack: a CD of northern Chinese folk songs (I’ll listen to that… you wouldn’t believe what is in my iPod), another CD of what appears to be the Mandarin version of Yanni and what I think is a Ronald Cheng CD from the ’90s… a mixed start. Next up, Disney’s Mulan on VCD (with one disc missing) and a couple of VCDs of Chinese folk tales to either teach kids English or teach ABC kids Chinese. Either way, not the movies I had hoped. BUT WAIT: there’s more. Hero, which is kind of cool but I think I have it on both DVD and Blu Ray (and can’t honestly say I have ever actually watched it). Still, it is better than the second half of Mulan. Next up was an Anthony Wong and Raymond Wong movie that I didn’t initially recognize (it turned out to be Colour of Truth). Finishing out the stack of discs was Stephen Chow and Maggie Cheung in The Mad Monk (which even had a slip case). A quick inspection didn’t find any scratches and only Mulan was missing a disc. All of a sudden (and for an investment of less than $5) I had expanded my collection to include VCDs… and best of all, I did it without even getting out of bed. Garage sales are way too early for me.
Let’s take a second to go over the straight facts on VCDs. VCD means Video (or sometimes Viewable) CD because it is a video format for regular CDs. This means if you have an old computer that doesn’t feature a DVD drive (or if your boss thinks that only giving you a CD drive will keep you from screwing around and watching movies) you can still use a VCD; they will run on most DVD players and drives as well. The format allows for an image quality comparable to a commercial VHS tape before degradation sets in, which is below DVD but better than many highly compressed streaming or download formats. This does not, however, guarantee that the VCD producers will use a decent film print though so don’t be surprised if there are dirt specks and scratches in the video. A standard VCD will only hold about 75 minutes of footage so, like laser disks, you’ll be switching to a second disk about halfway through your movie. Stereo sound is supported but subtitles are not (but many are embedded into the film… more on that later). Some manufacturers will put one language on the left track and a second on the right to make the movie marketable to more customers which means your player may kick out two different languages if your player defaults to stereo! All in all, the VCD format is far inferior to the DVD (so don’t even bring up Blu-Ray). It held its own fairly well against VHS, though, especially since VCDs do not wear out over time.
There are a few sweet advantages to the VCD though. One, they are crazy cheap. A quick check on a popular Asian movie site revealed that it still carried over 2500 titles on VCD and, although I didn’t look through all of them, they seemed to average about $8 with nothing over $10 and some as low as $2.50! There is no region coding on VCDs so you can order from anywhere and play your movie. There are also many titles that are not available on DVD or Blu Ray that can be found on VCD. Although most modern movies can be at least found on DVD some older titles and many instructional videos (such as the Shaolin forms video I just ordered) can only be found on VCD.
Back to the movies my wife brought home: all my new VCDs are Chinese Mainland releases so they are in Mandarin with embedded simplified Chinese subtitles. Luckily, I speak Mandarin although I am not fluent and sometimes need a little assistance to follow conversations. Unfortunately, I studied traditional written Chinese and find the simplified characters baffling! I expect to be able to follow the movies I now have on VCD although the modern slang in Colour of Truth or puns of The Mad Monk will probably be lost on me. For fifty cents a piece, though, I can live with it. Still, if you are purchasing VCDs make sure that you are getting something with an audio track or embedded subtitles you will understand. From what I can determine many Hong Kong editions, particularly older titles, will carry both Chinese and English subtitles (just like the films often did during their theatrical releases) so these are probably the best purchases for most of us.
As you may have expected, the first thing I did with the stack of movies (after eyeballing them for scratches) was to throw them into my Samsung Blu Ray player. Even though I swore it was supposed to support about every format I could think of at the time it turns out my player, like many (if not most) Blu Ray players, will not play VCDs. Next I went for my Mac. I use it for video editing so I have QuickTime Pro installed along with a few thousand dollars of other video and audio editing programs. All three of the movies are set to autoplay using an executable (.EXE) file, which is not compatible with the Mac. Going into Colour of Truth, I went to manually run the video. Despite my abundance of video software, nothing ran the VCD format! A quick Internet search led me to a free program called VCL Player and within 5 minutes I was watching the opening credits of the film.
I also carry an inexpensive HP netbook, so I quickly plugged in its external DVD drive and threw in Hero Disk A. My netbook runs WinXP and it turns out the native Windows Media Player plays VCDs. Of course lugging around the external drive is a real pain in the ass so running VCDs with it will not be convenient… But then it occurred to me that the VCD format is not copy protected in any way. I copied the files from the disk onto my desktop, opened Media Player and nothing happened! However, I was able to manually run the video by using the OPEN command under the FILE tab. The funny thing is that Media Player does not consider the .DAT files used by VCDs to be media files so I did have to switch the search window to look for all file types. Now I know I can important any future VCD purchases directly to my hard drive which is probably how I will watch them.
All in all, I am not ready to say that the reduced cost of VCDs give them an advantage over DVDs or Blu Rays. If I get another chance to pick up some movies for less than a dollar or so, I will. My experiences with these three films has also nudged me over the fence I have been straddling when it comes to Chinese martial arts instructional VCDs. Most are simply in Mandarin without subtitles (but after over 25 years in martial arts I can generally follow a form) and cost less than $10. Now that I know I can transfer the videos to my netbook for easy reference I know that the VCD format makes sense in this case. I even ordered a Shaolin forms VCD while researching prices for this article! Another scenario that could draw me into VCD purchases would be cheap TV episodes, as long as I could get them with an English audio track or subtitles. After all, spending a few bucks here and there for shows that were meant to be broadcast on NTSC television seems like a fair trade off. So are VCDs a good addition to your collection? Maybe… based on the titles my wife brought home from the garage sale I would say they are at least worth considering.
- Shaolin Film Heroes (From Korea)
- Fist of the Philippines
- Swords Versus The Undead
- East Meets West
- Wuxia to Widescreen: Lost in Translation
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