In the Garage

Going to the Movies in China

December 06, 2015 | 6 Minute Read

A few years ago, I wrote a blog post about going to the movies in Germany. I lamented at the fact that there are breaks for long movies and that people don't audibly react whatever they're watching. I also mentioned the fact that movies are either dubbed or not, and you're forced to watch them in 3D. Now that I've been in China for over a year and seen a few movies, it's given me more perspective on seeing movies in the theater here, but it's also made me realize that how people watch movies is actually cultural.

My local Chinese movie theater

The first thing to know about seeing movies in China is that there's actually a strict limit on how many movies are imported every year, which is currently set at 34. Then there's the fact that movies need to be approved by censors and even then, movies might be altered in order to comply with restrictions. There doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason why certain movies are shown and why others aren't; one good example is that Mockingjay Part 1 wasn't released here at all, but Mockingjay Part 2 was. Piracy is rampant here in China anyway, so even if a movie you want to see is banned, you'll likely find it at your corner pirated DVD shop or you can stream it online somewhere.

The nice thing about foreign movies here in China is that they're not dubbed. All movies have subtitles in Chinese, but even if it's a Chinese movie, subtitles are required anyway due to differences in dialect (written Chinese is the same everywhere). The only time there's a chance that it will be dubbed is if it's a children's movie (I might've panicked and forgotten to check if Inside Out was in English, but luckily it was).

Ticket prices for movies here can widely range, depending on what theater you're going to, if you're buying your ticket online or not, or if it's 3D/IMAX/IMAX 3D/4D (yes, 4D, more on that in a bit). I actually quite like the system here because it's more organized than in Germany. If you buy online or on WeChat, you pay half the price (50 RMB at my theater, so just under $8 USD, instead of 100 RMB) and you print your ticket at the theater from a machine. Snacks are also fairly cheap when comparing them to Germany or the U.S.; a bag of popcorn and two sodas might cost only 40 RMB (about $6.25 USD). Though the downside is that the theater I go to across the street doesn't have salty popcorn; however, they do have other Chinese snacks like dried beef.

3D glasses in China

(China has weird 3D glasses. The ones you get from other cinemas like in Hong Kong or in Germany don't work here. These 3D glasses make me laugh every time because they're so ridiculous.)

So yeah, 4D. That's actually a thing here in China. I thought 4D cinemas were limited to amusement parks (think: Muppets 4D in Disneyworld), but no, they're not. I've actually only seen one movie here in 4D, which was Jurassic World, and seriously, that was a good one to see in 4D. The chairs shook every time a dinosaur walked by, there was wind, a little bit of water, the usual stuff. But the chairs shaking totally made the movie so much more engaging as if the dinosaur were actually there. OK, I realize I'm a huge nerd, but I actually enjoyed it so much I went to see the movie twice in 4D. When else will I ever be able to do that?

But what about actually sitting in the movie and how Chinese people react (or not react, in the case of Germans)? To be painfully honest, I actually really don't enjoy going to the movies here in China. Firstly, there's no ratings system here, so people bring their kids to movies, regardless of the content. Even worse, they bring their kids even to really late showings, like at 10 pm. When I saw Jurassic World, the guy sitting next to me had his six-year-old son with him at a late night show. The kid was freaked out and cried a lot and because it was late, he was also very restless. Heck, the grown woman next to me was crying because she was freaked out by the movie! Eventually the kid actually fell asleep, so that was ok, but why are you bringing such a small child to a late night showing of this particular movie? When I saw Mission:Impossible 5, again, there were several families with small children. I always ask myself two questions -- 1. Can these kids read the subtitles fast enough (because they likely don't speak English well enough to watch a movie) 2. Do they understand the content or story at all? I still don't have an answer.

Generally, I think Chinese audiences' attention spans are very, very short. This is why only these huge blockbuster action movies seem to be released here. Any slow dramas probably wouldn't do so well; for example, yesterday I saw The Martian and you could tell the entire audience wasn't really paying attention until the scene where the Chinese space program was shown. The reason why I think this is that people constantly check their phones for WeChat messages or even just surf online in the middle of the movie. It's extremely distracting to have a glowing screen in your face when your neighbor can't pay attention to the movie. And saying something doesn't solve the problem; your neighbor might put their phone away for a good 20 minutes, but as soon as there's a lull in the action, their phone will come back out. I've also encountered people answering their phones in the middle of the movie and have conversations, not to mention people actually taking pictures of the movie they're watching and uploading it to WeChat. Finally, people continually talk throughout the movie. As I mentioned in my original blog post about movies in Germany, yeah, Americans will make comments, but it's as a reaction to what they're watching. Chinese people actually just talk and it's not as a reaction to the film. They'll talk about everything but the movie.

In short, going to the movies in China is awesome when they have things like 4D and it's still pretty cheap to go. Admittedly the 3D glasses are weird and annoying and really heavy on your face, but it's not as bad as having people constantly pulling out their phones and checking them. However, I think it's just a cultural difference with what's acceptable behavior or not. It'll be interesting to see how movie-going behavior is in Australia since I've got tickets to see The Force Awakens, though I'm guessing it's more similar to how it is in the States or Germany.