Lodestone Theatre's first musical production revamps 1885's controversial opera, The Mikado, and celebrates Asian American theatre with dose of politics and sweet harmony.
Spring is festival season here in Los Angeles, especially for fans of Asian and Asian American cinema. But rare is the new festival that combines innovative programming with a love for contemporary world cinema.
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As movie distributors cautiously battle their way into the broadband game, APA shows how downloaders can play along legally, but still feel like they're getting away with something.
Traditionalist critics have scoffed at efforts by Apple, Wal-Mart, and other companies to make feature films available for download, the argument being that consumers don't want to watch films on tiny computer screens. Personally, I don't have a problem with my 17" laptop screen; my TV isn't much bigger. What I do have a problem with is paying for the downloads, especially since it's so easy to illegally download the same films, only with fewer technical and geographic restrictions (which, um, isn't to say that I do).
Because of distribution agreements, legal movie files can't be migrated (you can play them on your computer, but you can't burn them as DVDs for your DVD player), or copied (they're licensed to only one computer), or played in the wrong region (much like region-coding on DVDs). But who would pay for a movie that they can only watch on one computer, using special video software that may or may not support Dolby Digital surround sound, subtitles, and the other goodies that have made DVDs such an innovative medium?
Wal-Mart currently charges near-DVD prices for their legal downloads, which essentially means that Wal-Mart and the studios make the same revenues but spend zero on manufacturing, while the consumer gets a neutered product that may or may not work on all systems. As far as I'm concerned, there's only one reason anybody should want to pay for legal downloads: to see films they can't see otherwise. Which makes Wal-Mart's pay service absolutely useless, since all of their offerings are from major film studios and TV networks.
A recent special section in the New York Times made a similar argument, with critic A.O. Scott flaunting the democratic potential of the new medium and Manohla Dargis suspicious but willing to give it a chance. Inspired by their enthusiasm, I decided to give one of their featured services, Jaman, a spin on my Windows XP laptop.
Jaman is billing itself as an alternative online distributor for lesser-known films, and its offerings reflect that ongoing digital dilemma: now that anybody can be a filmmaker, there's an abundance of films that nobody actually wants to see. Jaman in particular is encouraging filmmakers to submit their works and "join the world" of indie artists. The "good" films -- or rather influential and discussed films in their respective (sub)cultures -- remain in traditional spaces of distribution: theaters, Wal-Mart, the "international film festival." Meanwhile, upstart venues like Jaman become stigmatized as a new kind of "straight to video."
But as cult-audiences and the Grindhouse-set will tell you, there are plenty of gems to be found in "straight to video." These are the films too extreme, too foreign, too "niche." To navigate these specialized offerings, there is thus a renewed necessity for film criticism to make sense of everything that's out there and guide consumers into the kinds of niche films they might not have heard of, but are exactly what they want.
I'm assuming that the Asia Pacific Arts reader is interested in Asian cinema, which is why I chose Jaman. While other sites may have more selections, I don't think any can touch Jaman in terms of quality Asian cinema. The jewel in the crown is the 49 films from the Celestial library: Shaw Brothers films from the 1960s onward, including such classics as The Love Eterne (listed in their database as The Love Eternal), Hong Kong Nocturne, The Bastard Swordsman, and many others. Jaman also has a great selection of Bollywood films, from classics such as the original Umrao Jaan to contemporary films like the Amitabh Bachchan vehicle Black.
The film that convinced me to sign up was Taiwanese director Lin Cheng-sheng's 2001 drama Betelnut Beauty, which won best director and best actress (Angelica Lee Sinje) at the Berlin Film Festival, but is to my knowledge unavailable with English subtitles anywhere in the world, except on Jaman. I had two options for payment: for $4.99 I could "own" the film, meaning it would be downloaded onto my computer and I can watch it anytime I want on the Jaman Player software. For $1.99, I can "rent" the movie, which is the same as "owning," except the license runs out in a week, when the video is disabled.
I chose to "buy" Betelnut Beauty and was mostly impressed by the video quality. The Jaman player enables full-screen playback as Windows Media does, although there is a slight pause when you toggle between viewing options. The biggest glitch I encountered was that the sound and image were slightly out of sync, and because this didn't re-occur on subsequent videos that I downloaded, I'm guessing it might be the specific video file. However, there are various times when the video stuttered during playback, and I wasn't sure if it was the video, the player, or my computer creating the problems. With computer playback (as opposed to DVD) comes the problems associated with RAM capacity and multi-tasking.
It perhaps doesn't help that the 22 megabyte Jaman player itself comes with all kinds of bells and whistles. Essentially an internet browser, file library, and video player (not unlike iTunes), the Jaman player is meant to be an all-purpose console for engaging with Jaman and its cyber-community. Taking a hint from the TV networks and movie studios, which have recently learned to create and maintain avid fan communities for franchises like The Matrix and Lost by encouraging and even housing internet participation, Jaman has come up with a number of ways to transform its customers into active members of an online community of film lovers. One way is to allow users to create member groups with their own discussion forums. Another way is to encourage and reward feedback on films: as in YouTube (currently the ultimate participatory video distribution system), users can rate videos and leave comments. And like MySpace and other online communities, users can have personal profiles, complete with picture and list of favorite films and filmmakers.
The most original kind of participatory engagement is to allow users to type comments on films as they watch them; on the right side of the window is a field where users can type their thoughts on what they're watching on the left side. Personally, I found the comments uninteresting, irrelevant, and sometimes obnoxious; for the same reason I don't like people talking during a movie I've been dying to watch, I don't need to watch videos in the context of a chat room. Luckily, Jaman allows users to disable comments.
In terms of customer service, I was left cold. A few days after downloading Betelnut Beauty, the video stopped working: the image became ugly green static, while the sound played back fine. I emailed Jaman, but only got a generic "Please hold on" e-mail response. I had to do my own rudimentary online troubleshooting and found that it was probably a problem with my QuickTime player (I'd just upgraded to the new version). I fixed the issue by disabling an unnecessary feature on the player; Jaman never responded. [Clarification (4/17/07): Soon after this article was first published, I received an email from a customer service representative noting that he had in fact sent me technical instructions, but it appears that I never received them. In any case, it looks like there are still issues to be worked out...]
At the end of the day, I "owned" a video file (no disc, no case, no booklet) that I could play back on a piece of software that works with my current computer. If Jaman went out of business and stopped updating its software, and say I changed to a future operating system not supported by Jaman, I will have essentially wasted my money. And if QuickTime (which the Jaman Player depends on) upgraded to a new technology incompatible with the Jaman-encrypted mp4 file, I'd be similarly out of luck. So the $4.99 I paid to "own" Betelnut Beauty hardly feels permanent, but rather a technological novelty to give me a quick fix for a film I currently crave. File types and software come and go, but while they're around, they serve their function. And that is the general feeling I have about video downloading: it's above all a temporary patch for an annoying hole in the film distribution system.
Date Posted: 4/13/2007