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Chinese films won top awards at the Venice and Berlin film festivals this year, but neither Jia ZhangKe's "Still Life" nor Wang Quanan's "Tuya's Marriage" lit up big screens here for much more than a week.

Jia's movie about the Three Gorges dam and Wang's, about hard living in Inner Mongolia, are widely available on illegal $1 DVDs with lousy subtitles, making it tough to sell legitimate discs for $3 and harder still to sell the theater tickets that, at $8.50, make going to the movies in China a white-collar date.

Censors here insure that nothing controversial gets released, and most theaters stick to Hollywood blockbusters and Hong Kong hits to make money, throwing in an occasional big-budget Mainland epic made with export in mind.

So where do the growing number of short-term expatriate executives with limited spoken Chinese go to see the cinema of their adoptive home with proper subtitles on a big screen?

One place: the Cherry Lane Theater, a 100-seater in a photography studio on the edge of town that's been a labor of love since the late 1980s.

"We wanted to show Chinese movies made for Chinese people to the expats who would go home someday and be considered so-called experts on China," says Michael Primont, a Seattle attorney who from 1995-2002 programmed the biweekly screenings at the theater named for the music publishing company for which he then worked.

In its heyday, before the public Internet was introduced to China in 1996, and before pirated DVDs mushroomed, Cherry Lane regularly packed a 500-seat auditorium for classics such as Zhang Yimou's "Red Sorghum" or Chen Kaige's "Farewell My Concubine."

"Beijing rolled up the sidewalks at night. There was nothing to do," says Primont, who took over the screenings from founder Sophia Wang-Boccio, the Hong Kong-born daughter of an actress who worked in Shanghai in the 1930s, the golden era of Chinese cinema.

Nowadays, film producer Cory Vietor screens movies Friday and Saturday off of tapes or DVDs as often as prints. He pays directors a $65 fee, "if they ask for it," he says.

Vietor remembers when director Zhang Yang's 1999 breakout "Shower" premiered at a 1,700-seat auditorium Cherry Lane secured for the event.

"I remember having to stand in the upper deck. It was packed," Vietor says. "Now we have more competition for eyeballs, but at least we still have freedom."

A Cherry Lane adult ticket costing $6.50 can buy admission to films the censors won't pass, such as the sexually explicit "The Wayward Cloud," by Taiwanese director Tsai Mingliang.

This month, Vietor will continue his efforts to restore Cherry Lane to its former glory, screening "Still Life" and translating for Golden Lion winner Jia as he takes questions from the audience.
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