Saturday night at the movies. Customers doing a little pre-film gorging line up at the candy counter for salted plums, rice candy and Pacific lemon crisp biscuits, with litchi nectar and soybean soda to wash it all down. Fortified, all troop to their seats and the credits roll -- past scattered and uncomprehending pairs of Occidental eyes.
It's an increasingly common scene around town, with Greek or Yiddish or Spanish variations on the theme, as our foreign-born population increases. Washington's real foreign films -- and that means everything from vintage Yiddish tearjerkers to wholesome Egyptian romances to quasi-mystical Chinese kick-'em-ups -- are flourishing.
And it's not just homesick immigrants buying tickets: Nostalgic Peace Corps veterans, foreign-language students, city kids looking for martial-arts tips, serious film scholars and the just plain curious are also regulars.
All this may come as a surprise to those who think of Washington as something less than an ethnic haven. But, say established theater owners and newcomers alike, the interest is indeed there.
"If there's a language they can show a film in, they'll call us," says Bob Mondello of the Roth's theater chain, which, along with the K-B chain, regularly rents theater space to ethnic groups. "There've been times when we've had Pakistanis in the afternoon, Thais at night and Chinese customers all day Sunday," says K-B's Randy Lucas.
Chinese movies are the most prolific, with at least five area theaters competing for weekend business. Martial-arts imports from Hong Kong, theater owners say, are guaranteed crowd-pleasers.
Rosslyn Chinese Theater manager Steve Chan has experimented with showing other types of films but finds that martial-arts fantasies are the best way to pay the rent. "That's what everyone wants to see," he says. "We've changed our policy recently. Two months ago we were showing romantic stories, or legendary tales, but the box office results weren't so good. It's kind of sad, because when we try to bring a good show nobody wants to see it."
Which sounds as if he's sunk to showing flaming x-rated flicks to lure people in. Far from it -- the lovers in Chan's movies don't do much more than stare soulfully at one another. Almost without exception, Washington's ethnic movies are family affairs.
"We get a lot of old ladies," says Carlos Rosario, whose family sponsors Spanish-language films at the Ontario each Sunday afternoon, so he says he makes sure his movies are suitable for family viewing. "Mothers and fathers come with their babies and their teen-agers and their grandmothers. We stick to comedies, Westerns, musicals -- everybody loves Cantinflas."
The irony-laden, melodramatic plots of vintage Yiddish movies are also big hits with families, who seem more than willing to set aside their modern-day cynicism to wallow in the sentimentality of the '20s and '30s.There wasn't a dry eye in the house when the lights came up after last year's showing of the 1939 film tevye, says archivist Audrey Kupferberg of the American Film Institute.
Congregation Beth El's Yiddish film festival was put together by Ruth Frank because she remembers her grandmother's speaking Yiddish years ago in New York and "I like to hear it spoken now." Apparently others agree: The successful series is in its third year. The Yiddish Film Library of the American Jewish Historical Society, which has been tracking down and reconditioning the films for three years -- "We find them in attics and all over the place," says archivist Sharon Rivo -- reports a national revival of interest in the movies. They were popular when they were made, Rivo says, but during the '50s and '60s "They became like the old pair of shoes that you took to the shoemaker to get re-soled and then decided weren't even worth picking up." Now they can't rent them out fast enough.
"The themes are fantastic," says Frank. "I took my daugher to see A Letter to Mother, and we ended up sharing a box of Kleenex."
But the movies aren't always so compelling. In fact, sometimes people don''t see much of the movie at all. "They come with their babies and their baby food," says a spokesman for the Young India Forum, which sponsors Indian films at Arlington's Wilson Theater each weekend, "and they'll go across the street and get a hamburger, drink some tea or coffee and wander back in. Their children play in the lobby. It's not a wild time!"
It was that sort of night recently at the Rosslyn Chinese Theater, where a martial-arts fantasy called "The Hot, the Cool and the Vicious" had attracted a motley crowd of Asians and a smattering of Westerners. A group of men stood around the candy stand drinking soybean sodas and catching up on the latest Vietnamese news, clusters of exotically dressed women chatted and someone's two-year-old raced around the lobby clutching a plastic baby bottle.
Some people even watched the movie, which, despite the snarly title, turned out to be the Oriental equivalent of an old-fashioned cowboy movie, with plenty of romance, revenge, pathos and comic relief. A good deal of the latter was inadvertent: A combination of typos and unfamiliarity with English made the subtitles frequently hilarious, on the order of a "Saturday Night Live" parody.
"You look like a local guy, where you from?" purred the sexy proprietor of the neighborhood watering hold as she sized up a new arrival. "Landlady, what a nice gal you really are!" he quickly decided. There was a framed good guy ("I haven't robbed or killed anyone! You gotta show me substantial evidences!") and, as a concession to the times, a liberated martial artiste bent on avenging her brother's murder. (But the townspeople know better: "Miss! Forget the idea of revenge. Lu Tung-chun is a real fine man.")
All this and fancy footwork, too, Hero Lu Tung-chun, the aforementioned real fine man, had his work cut out for him -- his opponent, a bleached-blond bad guy, walked with a limp but packed a mean kick nevertheless. For a while it looked as if the bad guy was winning, and at least one person in the audience was pulling for him. "My man don't walk too good, but he sure can kick!" cheered an American fan during one of the dazzling, slow-motion fight scenes.
In the end Lu Tung-chun emerged civtorious, as good guys are wont to do, and people stretched and wandered out to the candy stand to stock up for the next show. The two-year-old was still going strong.