Controversial American comedy film, The Interview, may never be screened in theaters in China, but that is stopping few from watching it.
Pirated DVDs, complete with Chinese subtitles are available at stores in the capital. And both Chinese and Korean subtitled versions can be watched online through websites offering pirated content.
DVD store clerks in Beijing say the film is a hot item. But eyeing a thick pile of copies on a shelf in one store, it was hard to tell whether that was just a sales pitch.
Foreign movies and television shows have long been available online in China, despite the censors, which have made many Chinese sophisticated media consumers. So there are no shortage of opinions on the American comedy that depicts that assassination of the North Korean leader.
Just a comedy
Zhang, a business student and his girlfriend say they both saw the film and thought it was hilarious. His girlfriend adds that even her father thought it was incredibly funny.
When asked about the more serious international reaction to the film and the cyber confrontation it has stirred up, Zhang said, “It’s no big deal. It’s a comedy.”
Song, a worker in his 20s has yet to see the film, but says he will soon. He says that by just looking at the title it is hard to tell what the film is really about.
“The United States is a country that has a good sense of humor, so really there is no reason to take this so seriously,” Song said.
But, he says that given that “North Korea is such a mysterious place, I am curious to see how the [two assassins] carry out their ‘mission impossible.’”
Most of those interviewed who had seen or planned to see the film were workers or students in their 20s. Almost all were male.
One young Beijing resident, dressed in black from head to toe and sporting a silver bracelet, necklace and safety pin earring says a friend of his saw the movie.
He says his friend says it was funny, but not as funny as he had hoped.
“My friend says that he had hoped Kim Jung Un would’ve been even more vicious,” he said. In the film, North Korea’s strongman is portrayed as having a softer sensitive side and secret adoration for American pop star Katy Perry.
Far cry from first blood
Some were obviously expecting much more from the film. One Beijing resident surnamed He, who claims he is a director of short films, says he was hoping it would be more of an action thriller like First Blood, starring Sylvester Stallone.
“In the end, it was just a comedy and really nothing much to get excited about,” He said.
A former Air Force communications officer surnamed Zhang, who now works in the IT industry, says the film was a big let-down because the plot was so unbelievable. “There is no way they could've gotten past his bodyguards and into the country so easily,” he said.
"When I started watching the film, I thought I had downloaded the wrong movie. It was nothing like a film about an assassination," said Zhang, who added the film never should’ve been made.
“If you have something to say about North Korea then say it directly, don’t make a film to insult another country. I think the film was insulting,” Zhang said.
Toll for activists
In South Korea, the film is also not being shown in theaters, but it is widely available for downloading online.
Activists such as North Korean defector Park Sang Hak are planning to use the satirical movie as a tool in their efforts to free the North. Park, who heads a group called the Fighters for North Korea, says he plans to send 10,000 DVDs to North Korea by balloon by the end of this month and another 50,000 DVDs and 50,000 memory sticks with the movie by the spring.
Park tells VOA’s Korean service that while some are urging him to send more copies of the film sooner, it will have to wait as the wind blows from north to south during the winter months, which would make it even more difficult to send them beyond the demilitarized zone to the North.
North Korea & China
For many in China though, the film was a chance to get a different - albeit satirical -perspective on their isolated neighbor.
One man surnamed Zhang who has yet to see the film, but was interested, says he was curious about how the film portrays the North.
“I am interested in seeing how Americans view North Korea and its political system,” Zhang said. He also says he’s interested in anything about the life of Comrade Kim.
Ma, a student in Beijing says that it is North Korea’s very nature that attracts interest in the country.
“North Korea is very different. It is so isolated. But it is that isolation and the way the country is run that makes it seem more mysterious and attracts more interest in it,” Ma said.
He, the short film director, says he would like to visit North Korea if he could do so and get out alive.
“North Korea is a mysterious place, it’s isolated and authoritarian. I would really like to go there. It’s much like China in the 1970s and 80s,” He said.