y friend’s wife is no longer allowed to come to the movie theater with us, ever since she talked all the way through a movie we’d been to see. Sitting on the other side of my friend, I didn’t have the chance to tell her to pipe down, as she happily nattered her way through the entire film. I thought he would say something – but it turned out he was in fear of marital strife, so he put up with it. At the end, I said to her, quite vehemently, that this was the last time I’d see a film with her. She replied that it was only a Hunger Games film, so she didn’t think it mattered. But, I said, I’ve still paid money for this, and I wanted to see and hear it without being constantly distracted, instead of seething with rage throughout the running time.
Then there was the time she came in a good 15 minutes late to the last James Bond movie, Skyfall, disturbing the whole row in the packed theater as she squeezed through to her seat. Now, my friend uses me as an excuse for why she can’t come with us. “Kath won’t like it,” he tells her. I have pointed out that this is not quite true, as I would be willing to let her come – as long as she sits a few rows away.
If only this were the worst of it. For a movie lover like me, who likes the experience of seeing a movie on a big screen, China can be frustrating. First, there’s the policy of only allowing a certain number of movies to be shown in a year – currently 34 – and many of these have to be in 3D or IMAX format, which naturally favors the blockbuster type of production, not to mention having to wear those awful glasses. So I find myself going to films such as Hunger Games, which I might not otherwise bother to see elsewhere. Although I drew the line at the Transformers franchise. Sometimes, Oscar-winners are shown – but a year late, as in the case of the King’s Speech or The Artist.
On the plus side, there are now many choices to view the latest Hollywood offering. There are several movie theaters within cycling distance of my apartment, and I can book discount tickets on my smartphone – I managed to see the last Star Wars movie, Rogue One, for a mere 12 yuan (US$2) at a cinema in its “soft opening” phase. As all the cinemas are so new, the chairs are comfortable, the screens large and the sound booming. An American friend is pleased by the popcorn offerings, which now come drenched in caramel – a step up from lemon or green tea flavored chips.
But the real problem is cinema etiquette. The worst is the smartphone addiction – and it’s not just confined to youngsters. Business calls taken, messages viewed – this is just the tip of the iceberg. Some people even film the whole movie so they can upload it to pirate streaming sites.
Most cinemagoers in China are addicted to social media. They are unable to switch their phones off, for even a couple of hours. Many (but not all) will silence their phones at least, but then something worse happened – a bright flashing light to indicate a message had been received. My popcorn-loving friend had huge rows with people in theaters over misuse of phones, and I once inadvertently hit a man on his arm – what was intended as a gentle nudge came out a bit harder than intended.
The lack of a ratings system leads to children being brought into inappropriate movies. Having got tickets to Logan, the R-rated (in the US) ultra-violent offering in the X-Men franchise, not only were some people sitting in the seats I’d booked, but they were a family, with a boy of around nine. The movie started – the kid wasn’t happy. He ran up and down the aisle. His parents let him. The dad took him out. Back in. Then they seemed to leave. Then the dad came back for forgotten items. It took about 20 minutes.
People often sit in the seats you’ve booked, and move around after the movie starts. It’s the same on airplanes. Going to see Arrival, a thoughtful and relatively quiet sci-fi movie, again a man was in our seats, and my friends were too polite to ask him to leave. But it turned out he had an entire three-course meal with him, in several plastic bags. He rustled and chomped all the way through. But that was still better than at the showing of Thor: Ragnarok, when the sound of drills came screaming into the cinema – the next door place was being remodeled.
I’ve tried to avoid much of this by going to quieter, daytime screenings. It doesn’t always work. Then, I saw on my smartphone app that a “VIP” theater had opened not far away. The auditoriums have only 40 seats – comfy armchairs that recline. It was showing Bladerunner 2049 in 2D. A little expensive, I thought it would be worth it for peace of mind. Halfway through, I suddenly became aware of a plinky-plonk tune, endlessly repeated. Strange soundtrack, I thought. But no, it was the mall music, turned up high, and once heard, an earworm that could not be gotten rid of.