Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Economy of fake

Phnom Penh's economy is built in large part on the manufacturing and sales of counterfeit items: reverse-engineered cellular phones, knockoff Rolexes, pirated movies and music, cheaply imitated designer clothes – even cash. When I went to pay my bill at a guesthouse one evening, the owner preferred that I give her two $10 bills instead of a $20, because she couldn't tell at night whether $20 bills were fake. She said she could wait until morning or – in the case of a counterfeit – until a few months later when the ink would begin to rub off.

Pirated movies were my favorite black market item. While the general selection at most corner bodegas consisted of straight-to-DVD releases and a ton of B-quality action flicks, there were also the occasional blockbusters and recent Oscar winners. Less than a month into my stay in Phnom Penh, the new "Wolverine" movie was readily available for $2 – packaged with cover art and all – two weeks before its cinematic release in the States.

But no matter what latest hit or timeless classic with which one whiled away an afternoon, it was always the English subtitles that stole the show. I don't know who is translating for these movie pirates, but it might as well be a parrot. Their meager efforts result in comedy for native English speakers. But for foreigners who depend on subtitles to follow along the experience can be frustrating. Take for example these translated lines from "Juno":

1. "My dad used to be in the Army" becomes "Daddy swing on me"
2. "Intercourse" becomes "into the cause"
3. "Particular" becomes "ridiculous"
4. "Penny saver" becomes "Pennsylvania"

These selections barely do the off-translations justice. Much of the phrasing was so divorced from what was happening on screen that it was often far more entertaining to just read the subtitles instead of following the movie.

Despite the prevalence of copied material, the country is starting to clean up its act and beginning to protect intellectual property rights. For example, a couple of years ago it banned the import of pirated movies from China. Realizing, apparently, that it was subsidizing another country's illegal manufacture of copyrighted material, Cambodia took a stand: now it pirates its own movies.

Such is the endearing blatancy of Cambodia's black market. Amid the piles of Levi's, stalls of Nokia's, cases of Citizen's and a myriad of other "brand name" products, one wonders – quite earnestly – if anything in the country is real.

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