If you're a fan of international cinema, chances are you know about region-coding. It's how DVD producers manipulate the value of their wares by planting special codes in discs, making, say, most discs sold in Bangkok useless in American DVD players. As a result, it's not enough for an industrious British company to decide to release your favorite obscure German film; if nobody Stateside has gotten around to releasing it, you're out of luck in the U.S. market.
Fortunately, we have the Internet. Certain go-getter entrepreneurs, realizing that Texans and New Yorkers would love to buy lots of stuff that Hollywood isn't bothering to release, have set up retail websites to trade in other countries' merchandise - and they're helping their customers beat the technological hurdles to enjoying those wares.
Most DVD players can be hacked to ignore the region codes implanted in discs. If you're the kind of person who hangs out at Radio Shack, you might be able to do this yourself; if not, type "region-free DVD player" into a search engine and prepare to be overwhelmed. Cool thing is, these universal players can be had for very little dough. If you're willing to shell out a few extra bucks, you can get not only region-free play, but instant conversion between PAL and NTSC, the globe's competing television formats, and many other features. For instance, there are DVD players that can zoom the picture out, compensating for TV's built-in tendency to project images beyond the margins of the screen. It's hard to explain without visual examples, but what this means is that you can now see slightly more picture on the left and right sides of the screen. (For movies whose cinematographers are very particular about composition, this can be a dramatic improvement.)
I got my fancy-pants player at www.hkflix.com, mainly because it had such a broad selection of exotic DVD titles. The truth is, the company hunts down lots of foreign releases that are "all region" - that is, intended to be viewable anywhere - but if I wanted to order import editions of Delicatessen or Jim Jarmusch's Night on Earth (movies that should have been available here long ago), I'd need a multi-region, multi-format player.
Astute readers may have guessed that "hkflix" stands for "Hong Kong Flix," and that's a fair reflection of the site's primary content. Most region-free enthusiasts are Asian cinema junkies, folks who want to get something like The Five Venoms, aka Five Deadly Venoms, one of many new Region 3 editions of Shaw Brothers kung fu classics. The movie is available in other editions, but from what I can tell, all are pan & scan or dubbed into English; the international edition is widescreen, in the original language, with optional subtitles, and is a vibrant, glorious transfer. (Compare this to the Xenon releases of such other kung fu classics as Killer Priest: Every Xenon title I've checked has terrible dubbing, and one disc rivals another for the title "worst DVD transfer ever"; they really must be seen to be believed.)
A site like HKFlix is indispensable even for cinephiles without fancy players. Wong Kar Wai fans, for instance, can find All Region discs of his early features As Tears Go By and Days of Being Wild (Mega Star), neither of which has been released here. As Tears Go By, WKW's first, is a reasonably straight drama set against a backdrop of criminal turf wars. It may have little to do with the content of later efforts, but it certainly displays some of the heavy stylization that the director would refine over the years, even if the effects are deployed with less finesse. Days, on the other hand, introduces longtime cinematographer Christopher Doyle and finds the director opening up in terms of character and mood. Unrequited love, soul-searching voyages, romantic actors: It's the Wong Kar Wai we know and love.
Also available is an all-region version of a title that is available in Region 1, but with far fewer supplemental materials: Battle Royale: Director's Cut (Starmax) is the kind of freaky Asian moviemaking that inspires fans to scour the planet for these DVDs in the first place. In this dystopian future, children have become so disrespectful that adults adopt an extreme remedy: They randomly pick a class of 40 seventh-graders, send them off to an island with weapons, and force them into a last-man-standing kill-off. The story is crazy but the film is enormously compelling.
Not every good Asian cinema release comes from across the Pacific, of course. Home Vision is releasing some decades-old titles like Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter and Bloody Territories, both of which came up in discussions of Kill Bill, and are continuing to release Zatoichi titles (as is AnimEigo). And Criterion has collected The Samurai Trilogy, often called the Gone With the Wind of Japan, into a discounted box set.
Like most people in the market for a universal DVD player, I'll take Samurai Trilogy star Toshiro Mifune over Scarlett O'Hara any day. •