I'm planning to review a number of Asian DVDs in the coming months, and many of these are only available with certain restrictions. I felt I should explain how I attempted to overcome these restrictions, in case anybody else out there is experimenting along the same lines.
As most DVD enthusiasts already know, many DVD discs and players have Regional Codes built into them. This prevents certain discs from being played in parts of the world where they are not licensed. The US and Canada form Region 1; Region 2 comprises Europe, the Middle East, South Africa and Japan; Region 3 is Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan and much of Southeast Asia, and so on. This is to prevent, for instance, a domestic movie from being sold in other parts of the world before or during that film's local theatrical release. This system also allows domestic distributors from being beaten to the market by overseas releases of the same titles.
Whether the Region system is a genuine protective measure, or just another way the entertainment industry seeks to fill its pockets, I can't say. However, there are plenty of DVD manufacturers who choose not to regionally encode their discs. What's more, it is not illegal to modify your player to change regions, or override region encoding entirely. Provided your player can be modified, and provided you have the knowledge and equipment to perform the modifications, you're perfectly entitled to de-regionalize your player. The industry doesn't like you doing this, and you'll usully void your warranty by even opening your player's case... but so far, it hasn't been declared a crime.
Some manufacturers of DVD players have even gone out of their way to help de-regionalizers. Some machines have hidden menus in their systems which allow the savvy user to switch the protection on and off. Others allow you to change your machine's region as many as five times before shutting down permanently. And some third-party companies deal either in modified machines or in parts, like programmed EPROM chips or firmware CDs, which help in the conversion process. On the other hand, some companies in the entertainment industry have attempted to slow down the region-free movement by making their DVDs inaccessible to re-programmed players.
This ongoing struggle doesn't mean much to the average American consumer, even the consumer of genre flicks. So many obscure titles are appearing every week on DVD that it's hard to keep up with them. Who needs to go too far afield when so many great movies are already appearing domestically? What's more, many other countries use a different kind of video signal (PAL) than the kind we use in the US (NTSC). Discs recorded in one format will not play correctly on machines which read the other. So what, really, is the appeal of a region-free player?
Part of it, of course, is the desire to blow a resounding raspberry to the entertainment industry. Perhaps this is why so many of the easily-configurable DVD players come from Chinese companies like Oritron or Apex: subvert the capitalist pigs! On the other hand, some people find the ability to widen their viewing horizons worth spending some extra time and money. Many foreign films remain unreleased here, or at least aren't available at your local mega-chain video store. Those that are are frequently edited or dubbed into English. More rarely, but often enough, domestic movies will be released in other countries which are not yet available on DVD here... often less expensively, and in widescreen versions. Some of us will go to great lengths to see movies and versions of movies that we otherwise wouldn't be able to see.
Some of us. Me, for instance. And this brings me to the love-hate relationship I currently enjoy with my region-free DVD player.
I spent a long time comparing several players and their options. The best alternative, I considered, was the Apex 500-W, which could be found for as little as $100. This machine could (apparently) convert between PAL and NTSC without an external convertor, and was in all other ways a solid, capable player. On the down side, it required a new, specially-programmed EPROM chip to become region-free. True, I could have obtained a blank chip for about $8, and there are services which offer to re-program them for free if you pay the postage... but I am lazy. I want my instant gratification. So I began investigating machines that could be de-regionalized without being taking apart.
Most of the region-free instruction sites I found on the Net were UK-specific, so I wanted to make sure I had information that was applicable to US machines. The one brand that seemed to combine low purchase price with ease & reliability of setup was Oritron; so when I found the Oritron 600 for sale for $99 at Target (now readily available for $89), I decided to get one as my backup DVD player.
A quick word about what went into this decision: I found most of my useful information concerned the 600 model specifically. About the more recent 810 model I could find little reliable information. The earlier 200 model was, according to reviewers, a dismal failure, prone to all sorts of mechanical failures in addition to Oritron's standard, wacky design problems (I allude to some of these later in this page). So, in the balance, it seemed like the 600 was a safe bet for easy customization.
When I brought my new player home, I didn't have any non-Region 1 discs to test in it. I figured I could still try to re-program it, using instructions I got off the Net and the player's remote control. I had two different sets of instructions, one (I think) for UK machines and one for US machines. I wasn't sure which was which; also, the instructions were specifically for firmware releases 2 and 3, while the machine I bought ran version 5. The first combination I tried didn't work at all. The second allowed me to disable the region coding. Success!
The next step was to enable the player to read video CDs, or VCDs. Oritron had apparently been unwilling to pay the license fees to make its players VCD compatible. However, another combination of keystrokes on the remote would allow me to change the setup. To do this, I had to first put a music CD in the player's tray. Then I began the sequence of entries that would complete the transformation of my player...
Chagrined, I tried it again. Nothing. I figured I had got the sequence wrong, so I very carefully tried one more time. Still no result. That's when I noticed the real cause of the problem, and an indication of the nature of many other problems I'd have with my new toy: the remote was falling apart.
The body of the remote was actually coming apart at its seams. As the gap between the top and bottom widened, the batteries slipped out of their places. My remote codes weren't working because the remote was losing power. Once I snapped the remote case back together again, I was able to turn on the VCD mode on the first try.
Heartened by my success, yet discouraged by this evidence of poor workmanship, I decided to take stock of my new purchase. The region-free capability is a huge plus, naturally, and in many other respects it's a decent little machine. But I've found it has some significant drawbacks:
So here I am, nearly six months after acquiring my region-free DVD setup. You might reasonably ask how many non-Region 1 discs I've watched since then. The answer is: two. That's right, and probably not surprising... in six months I've watched two movies that I couldn't have watched on my regular player (that's about to change, though, as my Region 3 copies of several new films are in the mail even as I write this).
What will surprise most of my readers is which movies I've been trying to watch... specifically, which movie it was whose release prompted me to go through all this time and expense. A Japanese monster movie? you ask. An Italian gore film, perhaps? No; neither one. In fact, it's a romantic comedy from Korea called The Art Museum by the Zoo. The movie won several awards, and was the overwhelming favorite of female viewers in South Korea in 1999, but it is currently only available on either Korean or Hong Kong Region 3 DVDs. It's a charming film about illusion and expectation, and it has some pointed things to say about the relationship between life and the movies.
Don't worry, though: next came Godzilla vs. Megaguiras. I haven't changed my priorities that much.
So was it worth it? All things considered, yes. I have a region-free machine, and even if it's a shoddy little thing, at least it's still under warranty. I may not use it very often, but it's good to have a backup player. My wife and I can now watch different movies at the same time -- which is good, since we never agree about what to watch.
Here's How to Do It
Once again, let me state that I can't guarantee this will work for anybody else; nor can I guarantee that this will be harmless to your system. Proceed at your own risk!
To change regions:
Please note that certain discs will not play in region-free players. If you want to go directly from your import DVD of Gamera vs. Barugon (direct from Japan, letterboxed with English subtitles) to certain mainstream features -- for instance, Charlie's Angels or Mel Gibson in The Patriot -- you'll have to go through the process again to convert the player back to Region 1. Now wait a minute -- I'm laughing too hard -- oh, my sides... whoo. Where was I?
Oh, yeah: to enable VCD mode: