Monthly Archives: October 2011

Five years ago, a relatively unknown (and unhinged) director began one of the wildest experiments in film history. Armed with total creative control, he invaded a Ukrainian city, marshaled a cast of thousands and thousands, and constructed a totalitarian society in which the cameras are always rolling and the actors never go home

November 2011

The rumors started seeping out of Ukraine about three years ago: A young Russian film director has holed up on the outskirts of Kharkov, a town of 1.4 million in the country’s east, making…something. A movie, sure, but not just that. If the gossip was to be believed, this was the most expansive, complicated, all-consuming film project ever attempted.

A steady stream of former extras and fired PAs talked of the shoot in terms usually reserved for survivalist camps. The director, Ilya Khrzhanovsky, was a madman who forced the crew to dress in Stalin-era clothes, fed them Soviet food out of cans and tins, and paid them in Soviet money. Others said the project was a cult and everyone involved worked for free. Khrzhanovsky had taken over all of Kharkov, they said, shutting down the airport. No, no, others insisted, the entire thing was a prison experiment, perhaps filmed surreptitiously by hidden cameras. Film critic Stanislav Zelvensky blogged that he expected “heads on spikes” around the encampment.

I have ample time and incentive to rerun these snatches of gossip in my head as my rickety Saab prop plane makes its jittery approach to Kharkov. Another terrible minute later, it’s rolling down an overgrown airfield between rusting husks of Aeroflot planes grounded by the empire’s fall. The airport isn’t much, but at least it hasn’t been taken over by the film. And while my cab driver knows all about the shoot—the production borrowed his friend’s vintage car, he brags without prompting—he doesn’t seem to be in the director’s thrall or employ.

I’m about to write the rumors off as idle blog chatter when I get to the film’s compound itself and, again, find myself ready to believe anything. The set, seen from the outside, is an enormous wooden box jutting directly out of a three-story brick building that houses the film’s vast offices, workshops, and prop warehouses. The wardrobe department alone takes up the entire basement. Here, a pair of twins order me out of my clothes and into a 1950s three-piece suit complete with sock garters, pants that go up to the navel, a fedora, two bricklike brown shoes, an undershirt, and boxers. Black, itchy, and unspeakably ugly, the underwear is enough to trigger Proustian recall of the worst kind in anyone who’s spent any time in the USSR. (I lived in Latvia through high school.) Seventy years of quotidian misery held with one waistband.

One of the film’s 210,000 extras.

The twins, Olya and Lena, see nothing unusual about this hazing ritual for a reporter who’s not going to appear in a single shot of the film—just like they see nothing unusual in the fact that the cameras haven’t rolled for more than a month. After all, the film, tentatively titled Dau, has been in production since 2006 and won’t wrap until 2012, if ever. But within the walls of the set, for the 300 people working on the project—including the fifty or so who live in costume, in character—there is no difference between “on” and “off.”

One of the twins admiringly touches my head. Before coming to wardrobe, I’d stopped in hair and makeup. My nape and temples are now shaved clean in an approximation of an old hairstyle called a half-box. All to help me blend in on the set. Only, from here on, I can no longer call it that. According to a glossary of forbidden terms posted right in front of me on the wall, the set is to be referred to as the Institute. Likewise, inside the Institute, there are no scenes, just experiments. No shooting, only documentation. And there is certainly no director. Instead, Ilya Khrzhanovsky, the man responsible for this madness, is to be referred to as the Head of the Institute or simply the Boss.

Khrzhanovsky greets me in wardrobe dressed in a black vest over a dark gray shirt, tousled 1950s hair, and decadeless Ray-Bans with a strong prescription. He leads me down one of the endless hallways of the Dau compound to the Institute and, en route, spots a female extra being made up in one of the many makeup rooms.

“Tear off her eyelashes,” he says without breaking stride. “She looks like an intellectual whore.”

“Well, that was the idea!” the makeup artist yells to his back.

“Sure,” says Khrzhanovsky, pivoting on one heel like an ice dancer. “But try to make her look less whorish. Impossible, I know.”

A few moments later we reach a passageway between worlds: the door connecting the film’s modern production offices, where people are free to eat junk food and peck at laptops, with the time warp of the Institute. A silent guard observes my typewritten pass bearing the Soviet hammer and sickle and date-stamped April 28, 1952. Another frisks Khrzhanovsky, without betraying any deference or even recognition. After a security wand roughly passes over my back—a cell phone; sorry, can’t have that inside—I finally step through the door and onto the set. I’ve heard the tales and seen some pictures. I still gasp.

Before me is an entire city, built to scale, open to the elements, and—at 1 a.m. and with no camera in sight—fully populated. Two guards walk the perimeter, gravel crunching under their boots. Down the fake street, a female janitor in a vintage head scarf sweeps a porch.

The set is roughly the size of two football fields, surrounded by a five-story fantasia of oppressive architecture. One edifice, a woozy take on Lenin’s tomb, has an irregular ziggurat leading up to it. A coliseum-like stadium looms over two drab residential buildings. Atonal cello music squalls across the city, issuing from pole-mounted loudspeakers. The sole purpose of it seems to be to make one tense, uncomfortable, on edge.

“Are you going to augment the city with CGI later?” I ask, just to ask something.

Khrzhanovsky jumps in place and winces. “See, if one of the guards heard you, he would fine me a thousand hryvnias [about $125],” he says. “Because you’re my guest. It doesn’t matter that I am the boss. I get frisked like everyone else. You can’t use words that have no meaning in this world.”

“Like CGI?”

“Now he would fine me twice.”

The fine system is the Institute’s latest innovation. Khrzhanovsky decreed it a few months ago, fed up with staffers smuggling cell phones and talking about Facebook. Other finable offenses include tardiness, which costs a whole day’s pay, and failure to renew the fake Institute pass. The program has been a hit. Not only has morale improved, a whole new euphemistic vocabulary has sprouted up. (“Google” is now “Pravda,” as in “Pravda it.”) The fine system has also fostered a robust culture of snitching. “In a totalitarian regime, mechanisms of suppression trigger mechanisms of betrayal,” the director explains. “I am very interested in that.”

Khrzhanovsky throws open the front door of one of the residential buildings, and here I gasp again. The guts of the set are as elaborate as the set itself. There are hallways that lead to apartments, and in the apartments there are kitchens, and in the iceboxes food, fresh and perfectly edible but with 1952 expiration dates. Again and again, Khrzhanovsky opens cupboards, drawers, closets, showing me matchboxes, candles, loofahs, books, salami, handkerchiefs, soap bars, cotton balls, condensed milk, pâté. He proudly flushes at least three toilets. “The toilet pipe is custom width,” he says, “because it makes a difference in the volume and the tenor of the flushing sound.” He looks completely, utterly delighted.



Khrzhanovsky came up with the idea of the Institute not long after preproduction on Dau began in 2006. He wanted a space where he could elicit the needed emotions from his cast in controlled conditions, twenty-four hours a day. The set would be a panopticon. Microphones would hide in lighting fixtures (as they would in many a lamp in Stalin’s USSR), allowing Khrzhanovsky to shoot with multiple film cameras from practically anywhere—through windows, skylights, and two-way mirrors.

The Institute’s ostensible goal was to re-create ’50s and ’60s Moscow, home to Dau‘s subject, Lev Landau. A Nobel Prize–winning physicist, Landau significantly advanced quantum mechanics with his theories of diamagnetism, superfluidity, and superconductivity. He also tapped epic amounts of ass. Landau’s views on sex and marriage anticipated the Summer of Love by decades. (He and his wife, Kora, lived in an open arrangement he called a “spousal nonaggression act.”) His life, ready-made for a biopic, received a nightmarish final act after he crashed his car near Moscow in 1962. The physicist spent two months in a coma. The Nobel Prize ceremony was moved to his bedside.

Before reading about Landau, Khrzhanovsky didn’t know a thing about physics, but the story, with its rich currents of sex, genius, and doom, mesmerized him. He promptly formed a production company with the express purpose of bringing Landau’s life to the screen. Around the same time, his first feature film, a Béla Tarr–like fever dream called 4, won a surprise victory at the Rotterdam film festival, and, based on that success, Khrzhanovsky negotiated for total control on Dau. His contract with the film’s Russian and European producers gave him final cut, no deadline, and the ability to fire anyone without explanation. Most of the crew would consist of people from the art and theater worlds who had the right “energy.” The only acting professional in the cast is Radmila Shchegoleva, who plays Landau’s wife; before shooting began, she spent a full year working at a chocolate factory and a hospital, a regimen devised by Khrzhanovsky to beat the actress out of her. For the lead role, he had one stipulation: It had to be played by an actual genius, regardless of the discipline. “I needed people who would have those energy levels,” he reasons. “Geniuses to play geniuses, the powerful to play the powerful.” He ended up casting Teodor Currentzis, a lushly maned Greek pinup of a classical conductor, even though he had a busy touring schedule and his Russian was shaky at best. “All geniuses are foreigners,” Khrzhanovsky tells me cryptically.

Olya, a cafeteria worker, gets her Stalin-era makeover before going on-set.

Professional extras didn’t suit Khrzhanovsky either; instead, a team of photographers roamed the streets of three cities looking for fresh faces. Their efforts resulted in a database of 210,000 candidates. When the cameras aren’t rolling, this is all Dau‘s costume and makeup departments do: process extras. Fifty a day, day in and day out. Each one gets costumed, made up, photographed four ways, and—Khrzhanovsky’s idea—videotaped answering the questions “What does happiness mean to you?” and “What do you live for?” It’s hard to say whether this is busywork to stay sane between bouts of actual filming or genuine work. One by one, the director’s cohorts take offense when I ask them this. Attempting to distinguish between the film’s photography and everything else that goes on around the set, I am told, is a “philistine,” “cynical,” and finally “American” thing to do.

From the beginning, Khrzhanovsky knew he was doing something crazy. “Taken one by one, all these details are pure delirium,” he told me on my first night, fanning out a stack of crisp prop rubles with Lenin portraits, each note individually numbered. “Taken together, however, they create an otherwise unachievable depth. When you get paid in this money, and you know it has buying power and an exchange rate, you start treating it differently when the cameras are on. When the cleaning lady had to mop the same toilet floor every day for two years, she will do it differently when she’s doing it on-camera.”

Life on the project has a way of sucking people in. Since 2008, more than a few crew members stopped pretending this was a temporary gig and have moved to Kharkov. Most are fresh out of film school, but several have left behind serious careers. Some moved their families to Kharkov. Others started new families right here. Anton, a sad-eyed, bearded young man who minds the project’s database of extras, has spent two and a half years on the project. His wife, whom he met here, had given birth two weeks before I arrived.

People come and go in disorienting waves. When Khrzhanovsky likes someone—more often than not a young woman—he offers them money and an important-sounding title at once. When someone rubs him the wrong way, he fires them midshot. Sveta, the film’s comely “executive producer,” came here two years ago to interview Khrzhanovsky for a book on young Russian directors and stayed, divorcing her husband soon after. When I meet her, Sveta has just returned from a ten-day trip to Warsaw—the longest she’s been away from the set since moving here. “I had to go see my parents,” Sveta says, sounding irked. “It is sooo good to be back.”



In a way, Khrzhanovsky’s life story mirrors that of his subject, with its mix of the lofty and the louche. His father is a well-known animation director, his grandfather was a famous painter. The young Khrzhanovsky grew up with a direct line to the best in Russian art and culture. “I was a late child, so I mostly interacted with my parents’ friends,” he says. “Those interactions shaped me.” As he openly volunteers, he lost his virginity at 13. A few short years later, he was a dedicated club kid and one of Moscow’s premier pickup artists. The legends of his exploits still make for party-chat fodder. One friend recalls the 16-year-old Ilya approaching strange women, on a dare or a bet, and saying in his soft voice, “Come suck me off in the bathroom.” (It somehow sounds even worse in Russian.) And they would. Some of them, anyway. Khrzhanovsky hit on everyone. It cost him friendships. But it also got him laid, again and again. “His main driving force in life is crippling, animal lust,” one Moscow friend says. To his male peers, Khrzhanovsky’s sex appeal seemed incomprehensible, a cosmic joke: He was a slight and homely Jewish boy, given to wearing terrible crushed-velvet jackets. Round glasses dominated his round baby face; you could draw a decent likeness of him using nothing but circles. It was obvious, though, that Khrzhanovsky possessed an unruly magnetism.

For someone so clearly questing after control and adulation, Dau was the best thing that could possibly happen. Building the Institute gave Khrzhanovsky more than a film to shoot. It made him king, with all the kingly prerogatives—like picking his court. A typical case is Yulia, a wispy, beautiful graduate of a prestigious directing workshop who was brought to Kharkov to interview for one of Khrzhanovsky’s seemingly limitless “assistant director” jobs. What her duties would be remained unclear. Once at the compound, Yulia waited for over six hours; finally the director showed up. “Hi,” said Yulia, “I’ve been waiting for you the whole day.” “Thank you,” answered Khrzhanovsky, “I’ve been waiting for you my whole life.”

They had a two-hour conversation about art, after which she was sent to the wardrobe department to be dressed in 1952 garb. (“Make her a beauty,” ordered Khrzhanovsky.) The hairdo alone took two hours. Finally, by 1 a.m., Yulia was shown the set.

There they talked for two hours more, until 3 a.m., this time in private. The questioning quickly switched from art to sex. When did you lose your virginity? Can you come up to a guy in a club and fuck him without finding out as much as his name? Are any of your friends whores? (“I couldn’t understand whether he meant professionals or just slutty,” Yulia says. “By that time, I was well into my second sleepless night. I just wanted it all over with so I could go to sleep.”)

The director wouldn’t make an actual move—that wasn’t his style—but clearly expected her to throw herself at him. “When I got out,” remembers Yulia, “everyone was like, ‘Did he ask you about sleeping with other women?’ That seemed to be an important part of his interview process.” In the morning, when she saw Khrzhanovsky, she started uncontrollably shaking with disgust. Soon after, an assistant curtly told her to leave: “You and Ilya have very differing outlooks on life.”

People like Yulia number in the many dozens. Some lasted a day, others a month. Some say they’d happily work with Khrzhanovsky again, others claim something akin to PTSD. “It’s almost slavery,” writes one former crew member in a blog. “But Ilya managed to make everyone think they were part of something truly great.” “Working here,” notes another, “is like being that guy who wanted to be killed and eaten, and finding a maniac who wants to kill and eat you. Perfect reciprocity.”



A day into my stay at the Institute, I begin to feel its pull. The repeating rituals of dressing up and passing the checkpoint lose their absurdity and become something like a fact of life. A reminder of the outside world arrives that morning in the rotund shape of the GQ photographer. He is a squat bearded man named Sergey, fizzing with cynical mirth. He’s shot everyone from Putin to Castro. Right away there’s trouble. Sergey’s modern camera will not be allowed inside unless it’s covered with some sort of period-appropriate cloth: leatherette, linen, burlap. Four hours pass while a workshop fashions a black skirt for the camera. Sergey simmers. This is his hazing stage, like my haircut. When we meet Khrzhanovsky, I find out just how much of a panopticon the set is. Everyone I had talked to on the first day has ratted me out to the boss. The twins mentioned that I had qualms about the costume. Another employee reported that I showed little interest in mood boards—one of which catalogs hundreds of Soviet manhole covers. Khrzhanovsky, taking visible pleasure in the situation, casually lets me know that he has been duly alerted. “You must be interested in the same things everyone else is,” he says derisively. “How much money I have spent, and when will I be done.”

There is even worse friction between Khrzhanovsky and Sergey. Once inside, Sergey refuses to take the rules seriously; forbidden words—”shoot,” “scene,” “lighting,” “makeup”—fly out of his mouth by the dozen. I suddenly realize that each of his anachronisms is making me cringe. Less than twelve hours at the Institute and I’ve already accepted the rules of someone else’s game.

Our program for today is a dinner at the Institute’s fully functioning cafeteria and a tour of the physics laboratories. As befits our status as guests of a totalitarian state, Sergey and I are surrounded by minders and stoolies every step of the way. At the cafeteria, we find an oasis of Commie opulence—period-accurate sweets, Soviet versions of Roquefort and Swiss cheese, and a lovely counter girl named Olya. Olya has been living here “since 1949,” a pat answer everyone gives this week; in reality, she’s been on the set for four months. She works at the cafeteria from noon to 10 p.m. and spends the rest of her time in a communal apartment she shares with a “physicist” named Konstantin. On what I imagine is Khrzhanovsky’s signal, she invites us over later that night. Outside for a quick Soviet cigarette, far from the director’s gaze, Olya doesn’t let the facade crack for a second. “Do you want to be an actress?” I ask. “What? No! I want to be a scientist.”

At Olya’s on-set apartment, the party starts around midnight and consists of Olya, Konstantin, Khrzhanovsky, his two female aides, Sergey, and me. For two incredibly awkward hours, we make stilted 1952 talk. Sergey has a trove of photographer’s war stories, all wildly anachronistic (“When I was in North Korea…the north part of Korea, I mean”). Sometimes all of us—including Khrzhanovsky—crack up, and sometimes we don’t; Olya holds the facade the best. When the vodka bottle is empty, Olya pulls me aside and shows me her room, with a lonely cactus and a nightgown thrown over the narrow bed just so. It’s an intensely erotic and odd moment, this tiny pet showing off her cage. She asks me to write in her journal, and I scribble four rhyming lines in English. Pleased, she invites me to come back and see her tomorrow. Alone. This is a setup, the crudest and most obvious setup of all. And against all reason—there is a microphone in the ceiling, for fuck’s sake—I consider it. For a second. The cello blares from the outside.

“Doesn’t it drive you mad? This constant music?”

“No, I like it. Sometimes I even sleep with windows open.”

Of course you do.



Clearly, Khrzhanovsky is not the first filmmaker to go off the cinematic deep end. The Runaway Film Shoot is, by now, a staple of cinematic lore. Without the occasional director growing a beard and heading into the jungle, our relationship with the movies would be poorer: We need these stories to remind us that film is art, after all, and can drive its creator to madness. Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now shoot lasted only 238 days—mere moments compared to Dau‘s. Kubrick had Cruise and Kidman sequestered for fifteen months for Eyes Wide ShutDau, by comparison, is entering its sixth year; the money well has run dry several times. Each time, Khrzhanovsky managed to sweet-talk another investor into adding more, ending up with a salad of money from Russia, Ukraine, France, Germany, and Switzerland.

The director himself told me the project is 80 percent done. He even permitted me to watch about an hour of its raw footage, in a room under the set reachable only via a staircase from his office. The bunker featured a digital editing bay and a caged live dog. What I watched was a vertiginous mix of avant-garde sensibilities, Hollywood sweep, and reality-show techniques. One sequence, a riot at a train station, looked like Michael Bay crossed with Hieronymus Bosch—a long, tightly choreographed journey through a massive crowd in tumultuous motion. Another piece was a forty-minute-long improvised squabble between Landau and his wife. The film that will someday emerge from this footage can be anything—a great historical epic or a tedious tone poem—or nothing at all. Because Dau is not just a runaway shoot. It’s a shoot running away from itself: the first film project in history whose director doesn’t seem to want to make a movie. “What’s going to happen to the set after the shooting is over?” I asked Khrzhanovsky once, and watched him plunge into an instant funk. “I don’t know,” he said, caressing a faux-marble wall of the cafeteria. “Right now, shooting is the only thing that justifies the enormous costs of keeping it up. I don’t know what to do later.”



By my third day on the set, the dress-up no longer feels like dress-up. I expertly tug on my suspenders, work the cuff links into place, and head in: I have signed up for a massage at the barbershop. This, of course, is the most seductive part of totalitarian living: Once choice has been taken away, you quickly readjust to be grateful for the little things on offer. Mmm, cheese! Classic prison mentality, and I’ve developed it after all of forty-eight hours. Khrzhanovsky stops me just as I’m about to dive into the tunnel separating the wardrobe from the set. His face is deep red, with a violet tint. He is midscream.

“I don’t give a shit about GQ, I don’t give a shit about America,” Khrzhanovsky yells. “He is asking people to pose. He is not observing life, he is staging it. And I can’t have that. My people are not puppets!” It seems that Sergey has asked to shoot Olya taking a bath. That was apparently fine. But Sergey asked her to take a bath wearing a towel as a turban. Khrzhanovsky throws himself down onto a chair and slams his fist against a lace-covered tabletop. Various underlings look on from the corners, a silent chorus.

“Olya,” he says emphatically, “does not bathe in a turban.” Khrzhanovsky takes a breath and switches to a polite half whisper. “We are ending our collaboration,” he informs me. “Let me finish, and then you can riposte in any way you see fit, not that it matters, because it’s my decision. You are, after all, on my territory. In short, please leave.”

And this is when it happens. My brain turns off with a dry click. I am halfway through my answer before I realize what I’m saying.

“I understand,” I answer calmly. “I agree completely. I am not this man’s colleague. I don’t know him. I’ve only met him yesterday. If you feel that you need him out of here, I have no objections. All I care about is the article. If you have some file photos of the set we can use, then there is no need for the photographer.” Yes, I have been reduced—in all of two days—to a sniveling Soviet stukach, a snitch. It was the suit. The boxer shorts, they did it to me. The cafeteria food. Something.

Suddenly, Khrzhanovsky grins. So do I. This is an extremely strange moment. We both know what happened. He gave me a carefully crafted self-portrait of a tyrannical genius. I gave him the satisfaction of seeing my total self-abasement. We’re even.

With nothing left to say, I put on my fedora, flash my pass to the perspiring guard, and walk out into the April sunshine. There’s an hour left before my massage appointment. I’ll just take a walk around the Institute, then. Maybe visit Olya. To my right, a guard is reporting on another guard to a third guard. To my left, a hunched-over janitor monotonously sweeps a patch of gravel in wide arcs, changing nothing in its appearance, just sweeping to sweep, like he did yesterday and will, I am reasonably sure, do tomorrow.

Michael Idov wrote about Alex Ovechkin in the November 2010 issue of GQ.



By Naseem Randhawa | From Cinema Online Exclusively for Yahoo! Newsroom – Mon, Oct 17, 2011 5:44 PM SGT

17 Oct – Former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s criticism of local horror films corrupting Malaysian society had generated enough controversy that now the Malaysian Film Producers Association (PFM), held a press conference to speak on their behalf to defend against the accusations, according to a report by The Daily Chilli’s website.

The controversy arose a few days ago when Tun Mahathir was quoted as saying “The prevalence of ghost stories was responsible for the hysteria attacks among Malay female students”

Shortly after, the National Fatwa Council went on to describe local horror films as “counter-productive to building a developed society, especially among Muslims because they encouraged a belief in mythical beings.”

This in turn led the Malaysian Film Producers Association (PFM) that saw speakers comprising of local filmmakers Shuhaimi Baba, Ahmad Idham, Norman KRU and Pasha, to counter those claims.

“With due respect to Tun Mahathir, it’s not fair to blame horror films for any social problems that we have,” director-producer Ahmad Idham was quoted as saying to defend his films who have been accused of glorifying the ‘mat rempit’ (‘illegal racer’) subculture and the mocking of Quranic verses in his latest movie “Hantu Bonceng”.

“Some people are more easily affected by horror films, but that does not mean film-makers should be blamed for their fears,” he added. “Some horror films might even end up reinforcing audiences’ faith. Malay horror films, especially, advocated the Quran and Islam as a means of fighting evil.”

Filmmaker Shuhaimi Baba then added that she believed there are attempts by several “powerful groups” who are eyeing to sanction horror films in Malaysia.

The director of “Pontiank Harum Sundal Malam” said, “We need to correct the wrong perceptions of local horror films. This genre can attract a lot of investment and has good export potential for our country.”

The group concluded that PFM would be meeting with Tun Mahathir, Finas and the Malaysian Censorship Board to talk and said “Why blame us when we have so many imported, more horrifying films from Hollywood, Korea, Japan and Thailand?” “Our local horror films are mainly comedy horrors anyway. Like “Hantu Bonceng”, “Ngangkung and “Hantu Kak Limah Balik Rumah”. Real horror films don’t do well at the Malaysian box office,” she added.


By Sam Holmes, OCTOBER 21, 2011, 5:53 PM SGT
Viki, the Singapore-based web startup, makes foreign language television content accessible to historically untapped audiences.

Singapore has long struggled to incubate a home-grown Silicon Valley-style startup scene. But at least one new Internet outfit in the city-state has succeeded in attracting a lot of eyeballs – and some venture capital, too.

Called Viki, the Singapore-based web startup pools the linguistic talents of thousands of its users to help push world television content into markets historically impenetrable to all but a handful of foreign-language productions. It screens premium licensed content in much the same way Hulu does in U.S. markets, but from a much wider range of providers than its larger U.S. counterpart, many of them from Asia.

The service relies on an active community of translators proficient in 158 languages to caption the footage, and in doing so helps remove language barriers that have typically stopped all but a tiny sliver of non-English speaking and non-U.S. television content from crossing into foreign markets.

“For the first time people in Egypt are watching Korean drama in Arabic and that’s a growth market for us surprisingly,” Viki chief executive and co-founder Razmig Hovaghimian says.

The translation community creates and edits the subtitles in much the same way Wikipedia’s user base collaboratively creates and polices its content. Mr. Hovaghimian says the volume of user activity is now such that the turnaround time for subtitling some clips can be a matter of hours.

For instance, the Taiwanese TV drama “Drunken To Love You,” also known simply as “Love You,” is one of the most popular television shows on Viki and has been translated into 26 languages.

With about 5,000 hours of video content and a membership base of close to 600,000 people — of whom about 10%-to-20% are active translators- the site is becoming a go-to point for the growing fan bases of Asian language television now emerging outside the traditional domestic markets of these media.

While Japanese animation has long commanded the passionate affection of fans outside of Japan, the vast improvement in production values in Korea’s entertainment industry in recent years means it is now also establishing much wider loyalties, even beyond Korean diaspora communities.

And Viki’s own internal data show some interesting trends that would challenge many marketing paradigms: Venezuelan novellas have a strong following in the Philippines while 70% of viewers watching Korean drama in the U.S. are not Asian — in fact, 20% are African American and 30% are watching in Spanish subtitles, Mr. Hovaghimian notes. Meanwhile, Arabic ranks as one of the top-five languages that content is translated into despite there being only a relatively small amount of Middle Eastern content on the website. Indonesian horror movies have also found surprising success in the U.S., according to Viki’s viewing stats, which also show the number of unique monthly viewers at around 10 million, up from three million late last year. The site picks up some fees and revenue shared from distributors such as Hulu and Netflix, which run some of Viki content. It also has some ad revenue share agreements with content providers.

Mr. Hovaghiminian, who previously worked at NBC Universal in both the U.S. and Singapore, describes the process of taking the prime-time content from each television market to foreign markets beyond the traditional distribution channels as “content arbitrage.”

“There’s a billion people watching premium content online and 85% of what they’re watching is not from Hollywood – we’re going after that 85%,” he says. The company currently has content agreements with TV networks and content providers such as Hong Kong’s TVB, South Korea’s SBS, Japan’s Fuji TV and Russia’s Amedia.

Viki exited its beta phase late last year and has just completed its second round of venture capital financing, securing US$20 million from its existing investor base and new investors BBC Worldwide — the British broadcaster’s commercial arm — and SK Telecom’s mobile spinoff SK Planet.

The group has also struck a suite of agreements with English-speaking content providers such as BBC Worldwide, NBC Universal and A+E Networks, who are keen to see their programs reach wider markets through Viki’s translation community.


beauty class.jpg

So there’ll be less of this, then? Sigh.

By Horace Lu 

A new “Entertainment Restriction” (限娱令) has been issued by the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) to impose further restrictions on entertainment shows of provincial TV stations. Dating and other 6 kinds of programs will be restricted, and only 2 entertainment shows will be allowed to air during prime time (7:30pm to 10pm) on one provincial satellite channel weekly.

SARFT also says no more than 10 TV talent shows can be approved annually on provincial satellite TVs, and they shall not repeat in categories.

Due to Taiwan’s boycott against Mainland artists and its impact on Mainland market, there will now also be restrictions on the appearance of Taiwanese artists, according to Netease. (Update: The Taiwan Affairs Office has since denied that this is true.)

34 provincial satellite TV stations will be affected, while China Central Television, the national state TV will not, and all regulations will take effect after Jan. 1, 2012

Over infotainment?

While SARFT regularly imposes restrictions on shows that are “about criminality” and document “social evils and conflicts”, it encourages “harmonious, healthy and main melody” shows, such as art appreciation, history, geography, astrology and charity, Southern Metropolitan Daily reports.

SARFT also requires all provincial satellite TV to have at least one “moral program”.

The restrictions come on the heels of a recent People’s Daily condemnation on “excessive entertainment” on China’s TV , saying “boycotting excessive infotainment is TV media’s duty”.

The official mouthpiece names and shames several popular TV shows and urges restrictions on the air of dating shows, talent shows, emotion shows, games, varieties, talk shows and reality shows during prime time.

No surprise

The restrictions on entertainment shows on provincial satellite TV comes as no surprise, and follows a spate of restrictions that have been occurring this year.

In September, Hunan TV’s “Super Girl”, a Chinese version of American Idol featuring girls, was pulled permanently off the air, despite its popularity among Chinese youngsters.

This past July, there was a rumor going around that SARFT would announce that China’s national satellite TV stations’ entertainment programs would only be allowed to air three times a week, and only at non-primetime hours (5pm to 10pm). SARFT later denied the rumor.

And in 2010, the dating show “If You Are the One”(非诚勿扰) was forced to rectify itself amid criticism from state media, while several similar programs were pulled off the air.

But in all honesty, this won’t affect most young people’s access to entertainment, who’re the main demographic being targeted by the controversial shows in the first place. Hardly any college student or teenaged migrant worker owns a television, which is seen increasingly as mere furniture amongst Chinese people under 30, rather than the place to watch their favorite shows. We’ll give you one guess as to where all those eyeballs went.




Chad Batka for The New York Times

SM Town Live Super Junior joined a cavalcade of South Korean groups at Madison Square Garden on Sunday.

Published: October 24, 2011

Think of the work required to make just one Justin Bieber. The production, the management, the vocal training, the choreography, the swagger coaching — all that effort to create one teen-pop star in a country that’s still starving for them. South Korea has no such drought, thanks to several companies that specialize in manufacturing a steady stream of teenage idols, in groups of various configurations. One of the longest-running of these companies is SM Entertainment, which on Sunday night hosted SM Town Live, a sold-out showcase at Madison Square Garden for several of its acts, any one of which any American reality-TV talent show or major-label A&R department worth its salt would be thrilled to have discovered.

Chad Batka for The New York Times

Members of the South Korean boy group SHINee, with the aid of multicolored leather and copious amounts of hair products, added their sex appeal to the mix.

American teen-pop at its peak has never been this productive. K-pop — short for Korean pop — is an environment of relentless newness, both in participants and in style; even its veteran acts are still relatively young, and they make young music. Still, there were subtle differences among the veterans, like BoA and TVXQ, and the newer-minted acts like Super Junior, Girls’ Generation and SHINee.

Members of the younger set are less concerned with boundaries, drawing from the spectrum of pop of the last decade in their music: post-Timbaland hip-hop rumbles, trance-influenced thump, dance music driven by arena-rock guitars, straightforward balladry.

Of these groups, the relative newcomer SHINee was the most ambitious. From the looks of it, the group’s men are powered by brightly colored leather, Dr. Martens boots and hair mousse. Their music, especially “Replay,” “Ring Ding Dong” and “Juliette,” felt the riskiest, even if it only slightly tweaked that polyglot K-pop formula; these vocalists were among the night’s strongest.

But SHINee came in a recognizable format, the same size as American groups like ’N Sync and the Backstreet Boys. But what K-pop has excelled at in recent years are large groups that seem to defy logic and order. Super Junior, which at its maximum has 13 members, was one of this show’s highlights, appearing several times throughout the night in different color outfits, shining on “Mr. Simple” and the intense industrial dance-pop of “Bonamana.” (K.R.Y., a sub-group of Super Junior, delivered what may have been the night’s best performance on “Sorry Sorry Answer,” a muscular R&B ballad.)

Super Junior was complemented by the nine-woman Girls’ Generation, which offered a more polite take on K-pop, including on “The Boys,” which is its debut American single. Girls’ Generation gave perhaps the best representation of K-pop’s coy, shiny values in keeping with a chaste night that satisfied demand, but not desire. (It was an inversion on the traditional American formula; in this country young female singers are often more sexualized than their male counterparts.)

Male and female performers shared the stage here only a couple of times, rarely getting even in the ballpark of innuendo. In one set piece two lovers serenaded each other from across the stage, with microphones they found in a mailbox (he) and a purse (she). In between acts the screens showed virginal commercials about friendship and commitment to performance; during the sets they displayed fantastically colored graphics, sometimes childlike, sometimes Warholian, but never less than cheerful.

In the past few years K-pop has shown a creeping global influence. Many acts release albums in Korean and Japanese, a nod to the increasing fungibility of Asian pop. And inroads, however slight, are being made into the American marketplace. The acts here sang and lip synced in both Korean and English. Girls’ Generation recently signed with Interscope to release music in the United States. And in August Billboard inaugurated a K-Pop Hot 100 chart. But none of the acts on the SM Town Live bill are in the Top 20 of the current edition of the fast-moving chart. This is a scene that breeds quickly.

Which means that some ideas that cycle in may soon cycle out. That would be advisable for some of the songs augmented with deeply goofy rapping: showing the English translation of the lyrics on screen didn’t help. The best rapping of the night came fromAmber, the tomboy of the least polished group on the bill, f(x), who received frenzied screams each time she stepped out in front of her girly bandmates.

If there was a direct American influence to be gleaned here, it was, oddly enough, Kesha who best approximates the exuberant and sometimes careless genrelessness of K-pop in her own music; her songs “Tik Tok” and “My First Kiss” (with 3OH!3) were covered during this show.

But while she is simpatico with the newer K-pop modes, she had little to do with the more mature styles. Those were represented by the Josh Groban-esque crooning of Kangta, lead singer of the foundational, long-disbanded Korean boy band H.O.T., who made a brief appearance early in the night, and the duo TVXQ, a slimmed-down version of the long-running group by that name, who at one point delved into an R&B slow jam reminiscent of Jodeci or early Usher. BoA, the night’s only featured solo artist, has been making albums for a decade, and her “Copy & Paste” sounded like a vintage 1993 Janet Jackson song.

She’ll also star in “Cobu,” a 3-D dance film to be released next year, previews of which induced shrieks before the concert began. The crowd also screamed at an ad for Super Junior Shake, an iPhone game app, and for the SM Entertainment global auditions, which will take place early next year in several countries, and will keep the machine oiled for years to come.


Coffin Joe Lives On: Larry Rohter discusses the horror films of José Mojica Marins, otherwise known as Coffin Joe.
Published: October 19, 2011

SÃO PAULO, Brazil —  SEATED on a sofa in the living room of his modest apartment here, dressed in shorts and flip-flops, José Mojica Marins seems inoffensive. He is mild mannered and soft-spoken, and nothing suggests he has made a career of writing, acting in and directing provocative horror movies with titles like “Hallucinations of a Deranged Mind.”

Lalo de Almeida for The New York Times

The Brazilian filmmaker José Mojica Marins.

A still from “This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse.”

A scene from “At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul.”

But Mr. Mojica’s cinema alter ego, Coffin Joe, a crazed and sadistic undertaker who always appears in a uniform of black, complete with top hat, cape and gruesome fingernails, is a different story altogether. His extreme behavior and demented look, starting with a pair of low-budget black-and-white 1960s films, “At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul” and “This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse” — enhanced versions of which are to be released next year on DVD with new subtitles and improved prints and supplemental material — have made him a cult figure for fans and creators of the horror genre all over the world.

Some admirers see Mr. Mojica, who has directed, written or acted in more than 50 movies, as a kind of South American Roger Corman, a B-movie auteur whose films contain references to Nietzsche and Dante. Others view his work as pure camp — more in the tradition of Ed Wood and “Plan 9 From Outer Space” than Luis Buñuel or John Waters — or simply trash.

“I’m an original, unlike anybody else, but it’s been a hard road,” said Mr. Mojica (pronounced moe-ZHEE-kah). “I know that because of Coffin Joe I’m considered to be crazy, a blasphemer, and that some critics spit on me, but I’ve maintained my independence. I’m not connected or beholden to anyone.”

Mr. Mojica was born here, in South America’s largest city, on a Friday the 13th in 1936, into a pair of Spanish immigrant families. His parents were circus performers who, tiring of life on the road, became managers of a movie theater, where Mr. Mojica intently observed every film that was shown, sneaking into the projection room to watch those his parents did not want him to see.

“You know the kid in that Italian movie ‘Cinema Paradiso’? ” he asked, speaking in Portuguese. “Well, when I saw that movie, I said ‘Jeez, that kid is just like me.’ That was my life. There wasn’t a movie I wouldn’t watch.”

An only child, he was given his first camera when he was 8 and never thought of anything but a life in cinema. His big break came when he acquired an abandoned synagogue here and turned it into a studio and academy, where he trained actors and technicians.

Both “At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul” and “This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse” were partly shot there, with scenes that featured eyes being gouged out and snakes and other creepy critters crawling over actresses’ faces; later films would even show cannibalism. But Brazil was under a right-wing military dictatorship, so Mr. Mojica’s eccentric look and activities aroused suspicions: in the name of authenticity rats, spiders and scorpions were allowed to roam the studio, and episodes in which actors or crew members died during production (though the deaths were unrelated to filming) added to his reputation for the macabre.

“The police thought it was all a facade behind which terrorists could be hidden, and it was hard to get that idea out of their heads,” Mr. Mojica recalled. But his biggest problems were with government censors, who were shocked and disgusted by his mixture of gore, sex and blasphemy, perhaps most notably a scene in “I’ll Take Your Soul” that has Coffin Joe eating a plate of lamb as he mocks a passing Good Friday procession.

“This film is of terrible bad taste, using and abusing beatings, torture, sex and extreme violence” one censor complained in a report that the writer and director André Barcinski obtained for his biography of Mr. Mojica, “Damned: The Life and Films of José Mojica Marins, Coffin Joe.” As a result several of the films had to be “mutilated,” as Mr. Mojica put it, in order to be released; one was prohibited, and an injunction prevented him from even beginning to shoot another.

Broke and with producers unwilling to finance projects that ran the risk of also being banned, Mr. Mojica was forced to put aside his own scripts and become a director for hire. He initially did low-budget westerns, science fiction and adventures, but as the 1970s wore on, he drifted into soft-core pornography, shooting movies like “The Virgin and the Macho Man” under the pseudonym J. Avelar. When even those opportunities dried up, he worked as a master of ceremonies at parties and dances.

“People confuse him with his character a lot, and it’s his fault,” said Mr. Barcinski, who is also the co-director of the documentary “Damned: The Strange World of José Mojica Marins.” “He used it as a means of making a living for 20 or 30 years, and it makes him a magnet for all kinds of strange people any time he is in a public setting.”

Over the years Mr. Mojica also dabbled in comic books and television, as the host of shows with names like “Beyond, Far Beyond the Beyond.” At the moment he is the host of a weekly horror-oriented talk show called “The Strange World of Coffin Joe” on a Brazilian cable channel, but he admits to being hopelessly incompetent with his own business affairs, so he has never made much money from any of his endeavors.

Mr. Mojica seemed destined to remain in obscurity, but technology and globalization eventually came to his rescue. As the Coffin Joe films became available, first on VHS and then on DVD and YouTube, inquisitive horror fans outside Brazil discovered them and, beginning around 1990, started inviting him to film festivals in North America and Europe, where he would appear in character and invariably make a strong impression.

“There was no real analog to him in American horror films,” explained Michael Gingold, the managing editor of Fangoria, the leading magazine covering the genre. “He grabbed a lot of attention, because these films were more extreme than many of those being made in America at the same time, and Coffin Joe was a singular figure, a precursor to characters like Freddy Krueger and Jason, in that he was a human being who chooses to do evil, and not a monster like Frankenstein or Dracula, for whom you could feel sorry. So there was a sense of great surprise that a rich collection of films had not yet been discovered.”

Mr. Mojica said the distinctive look of the Coffin Joe character first came to him in “an awful, violent, heavy nightmare” in the early 1960s. At that point he had filmed a couple of dramas and cowboy movies, with titles like “My Destiny in Your Hands” and “The Adventurer’s Fate,” but the dream made him realize that Brazil had no tradition of horror films, and that he could easily transplant the genre from the castles and forests of Europe to the plazas and streets familiar to the audience he wanted to attract.

“I was being taken to the cemetery to be buried, but I was still alive,” Mr. Mojica recalled of the nightmare. “I remember that I was wearing all black, so I started filming that way.”

The character’s other trademark is his impossibly long fingernails. Mr. Mojica said that from 1964 to 1999 he never once cut his nails, so that “at their peak they were nearly a yard long, with curves that made them look like strands of spaghetti.” Since then he has stored the fingernails at home, gluing them back on when he slips into character.

Coffin Joe has always held a strong appeal for musicians, especially among punk and heavy-metal bands. The Ramones were such dedicated fans that on a tour of Brazil the guitarist Johnny Ramone gave Mr. Mojica a prized leather jacket, autographed by all four members, as a token of the group’s esteem. Members of the Cramps have also sought out Mr. Mojica when their tour schedule brought them here, and the drummer of the British band the Horrors has even adopted Coffin Joe as his stage name.

In the heavy-metal world Mr. Mojica’s best-known disciple is probably the singer and film director Rob Zombie, who used dialogue from “Awakening of the Beast” on the White Zombie song “I, Zombie” and has inserted oblique tributes to the Coffin Joe films into his own movies. Groups like Sepultura, Necrophagia and Faith No More have also written songs that refer, directly or indirectly, to the Coffin Joe movies.

“All horror characters go against prevailing mores, but part of Coffin Joe’s appeal is that he actively sets out to attack and dismember mainstream societal and religious values,” Mr. Gingold said. “So it’s hardly a surprise that punk and metal, which often do the same thing, should embrace him.”

In 2008 Mr. Mojica was finally able to make “Embodiment of Evil,” which he had conceived more than 40 years earlier as the last part of a Coffin Joe trilogy. With a budget of $2 million — the earlier parts of the trilogy had cost less than $20,000 each to make — the film, which recently became available in a DVD and Blu-ray combination edition, proved to be as gory and deliberately offensive as anything he had ever done.

“He was very much into the idea of coming in with a very brutal and harrowing piece,” said Dennison Ramalho, who wrote the script with Mr. Mojica. “He was very angry and resentful, bustling with fury, at having to wait all these years for it to come to life, so he wanted to out-evil the previous ones. He is still breaking boundaries.”



Sticky Fingers, Male and Female

Published: October 22, 2011

Rachel Shteir is the author of “The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting.”

Lisa Hanawalt



WHEN I began my research on the cultural history of shoplifting, I set out looking for women. After all, ever since the first wave of shoplifters was recorded in late 17th-century London, the guilty were presumed to be female. The idea seemed to be that petty crimes like stealing from stores and pickpocketing were the provenance of the “lesser” gender, while men indulged in more violent crimes like highway robbery and manslaughter. Even today, many of the shoplifting cases we read about involve female celebrities — Winona Ryder, Lindsay Lohan.

But instead, I kept finding men.

They ranged from a Wall Streeter who regularly swiped Vanity Fair and Sports Illustrated from the newsstand to a 20-something in Portland, Ore., whose shoplifting reminded me of Abbie Hoffman’s “Steal This Book,” in which theft is a political statement — he nabbed books from Barnes & Noble (“a conglomerate,” he sniffed), but not organic groceries from the food co-op. The sales executive who stole silk neckties from Saks was both particular and generous. “I never took ties that were worth less than $90,” he said, adding that he used to give some of his gorgeous heist away.

In other words, I learned that shoplifters aren’t all bored, lonely women or people who steal because they’re broke. In fact, a large study published in The American Journal of Psychiatry in 2008 found that men shoplifted more than women.

But the old stereotypes are powerful, thanks in part to the 19th century, when kleptomania was first classified as a mental illness. It was believed to be connected to repressed female sexuality and psychic injuries women suffered as children. Freudians read erotic signals in stolen gloves, purses and handkerchiefs.

Now that psychopharmacology has replaced psychoanalysis as the therapy du jour, researchers have tried to locate the origin of the urge to steal in order to chemically quiet it. Kleptomania is grouped with other compulsive disorders like gambling, drinking and sex addiction. So far, only Naltrexone, best known for helping alcoholics stop drinking, has been found to be significantly helpful in reducing the urge to shoplift.

But despite high-tech treatments and many studies on shoplifting — including one released this month by the Retail Industry Leaders Association, showing a recent big jump in shoplifting — most researchers have failed to explore the question of who is doing the lifting, and why.

It’s a difficult question to answer, but in my research, a clear, if symbolic, pattern emerged: the items people stole provided enormous, almost embarrassing insights into their deepest wounds and desires.

A high-flying I.T. consultant with a tumultuous family story told me she had spent decades shoplifting household items — lavender, hand towels, sage. A divorced former flight attendant working hard to start over stole a heavy doorstop shaped like a monkey, as if she hoped the hot item would anchor her in place. A young director who lived in Hollywood shoplifted a DVD player. Even the more mundane stories were revealing. One housewife, who had shoplifted for over three decades, told me she took “almost anything,” including Advil and steak — which happen to be two of the most commonly stolen items.

For some, stealing was a way to inhabit a more generous persona. Many shoplifters gave their heist to a beloved. A writer bragged that when he was a grad student, he’d filched 400-thread-count Egyptian sheets to please a lover. A nurse gave her son, a policeman, a shower curtain she’d lifted from Macy’s.

And I learned that although men’s fingers were stickier than women’s, there was a difference in what they took and where they took it from.

2005 study, conducted by Joshua Bamfield at the Center for Retail Research in Nottingham, England, may be the only one to show that men and women steal different things. While women took clothes, groceries and perfume, men grabbed TVs, household appliances and power tools. According to Mr. Bamfield, men tended to hide their power tools in backpacks, while women were more likely to smuggle the perfume out in strollers. Men also saw shoplifting as a transitional crime, a pit stop to more profitable criminal pursuits, whereas women sometimes shoplifted for years — though many stopped after marriage.

Not surprisingly, the men and women I spoke to also talked differently about shoplifting. The men sounded as if they saw themselves as heroes in video games; one described the excitement of racing through the aisles of Target, outwitting the sales staff, security people and cameras. On the other hand, the women I spoke to sounded more like Emma Bovary, if she had fallen, not for Rodolphe, but for purloined salt and pepper shakers.

Still, we’re a long way from identifying what prompts men or women to shoplift. The source of this apparently primal urge remains elusive. I believe that it may be more poetic than scientific, that behind a seemingly simple, petty crime, lurks a mysterious world of hidden desires and obscure longings.