My Taiwanese Laser Disc Adventure

An impulse buy at a Taiwanese recycle centre leads to a pizza-sized movie disc subtitle adventure

I’ve been a huge movie fan as long as I can remember. My bedroom walls used to be lined with VHS cassettes 錄影帶 (录影带 lùyǐng dài), and I spent most of my time watching, collecting, copying and trading VHS tapes with friends. Yes, the majority of my youth was wasted spent watching movies.

Looking back now, when compared to modern formats, the quality of VHS was awful. I doubt anyone could sit through a whole movie recorded on a VHS tape. You can’t even give them away. That’s why the Laser Disc format is so interesting to me – it was a format that was available at the same time as VHS (actually released before it), but that had a hugely better image quality. Luckily at the time I didn’t know about Laser Disc, otherwise it would have ruined VHS for me.

VHS tapes waiting to be recycled
Sacks of tapes wait to be stripped and recycled

Laser Disc in Chinese is known as 雷射影碟 (Léishè yǐngdié), which literally means “laser movie disc”, but everyone I’ve met in Taiwan just calls them “LD”. When I say “everyone” of course I mean someone of a certain age. Younger people I’ve asked have no idea what a Laser Disc is. Plus the fact that, like VHS was big in the west, VCD was the more common format in the late 90s.

So what makes Laser Disc special? Well, while it looks like a giant DVD disc, it’s actually an analogue 類北 (lèibǐ) format, and not digital 數位 (数位 shùwèi). This means it’s like watching a movie on film. There’s a certain feel to it, and if you can get past the softer image compared to a DVD, it’s very watchable.

Laser Disc and DVD disc size comparison
Cower under my shadow you measly DVD disc

With the discs being so big, this means they also need big covers. Movie artwork looks great at this size. It really feels like you have something substantial, and it’s fun just to flick through the movies and look at the cover art. This is something that I really miss with the demise of physical media. It’s easy to see why Laser Disc were special back in the day, and why there’s still a cult following now. When I watch a movie I stand the cover up next to the TV – just in case I forget which movie I am watching 🙂

Laser Disc and DVD cover size comparison
The Laser Disc cover of True Romance next to the Drunken Master DVD (one of my only DVDs)

The giant movie discs 影碟 (Yǐngdié) are almost comical now. You slide this pizza-sized disc out of the sleeve and place it in the massive tray that emerges from the front of the laser disc player 播放機 (播放机 bòfàngjī). It definitely makes watching a movie more fun than simply streaming something.

My experience with Laser Disc started while I was at a recycle centre 資源回收 (zīyuán huíshōu) in Kaohsiung. I saw stacks of what I originally thought were movie soundtrack LPs. On closer inspection I realised they were actually movies. I ended up buying the whole stack of about 250 movies – then had the troublesome task of bringing them all home on my scooter about 80 discs at a time.

With this massive stack of Laser Discs, I now needed something to play them on. 露天 (lùtiān) is the best place to buy second hand stuff in Taiwan. It’s kind of like an eBay, but most of the stuff is buy-it-now. I quickly sourced a Sony player and had it shipped to me.

Sony MDP MR1 on Ruten
The Sony MDP-MR1 I bought on Ruten. Not a bad price ($50US)

The majority of the movies I bought were US releases, which means they don’t have subtitles. That got me thinking – How were people in Taiwan watching these movies?

Taiwanese Subtitle Cards
Chinese subtitles were added to movies by way of subtitle carts

When I bought the Laser Discs I also got three subtitle cartridges 字幕卡 (zìmù kǎ). These plastic cartridges are reminiscent of old video games. Each had the name of a movie on the label. The three carts I found were for Independence Day, Men in Black, and The Crossing Guard. It’s a shame I only found three carts, and an even bigger shame that only one of them is for a good movie (Which one? I’ll leave that decision up to you).

Subtitle Cart Pins
The carts are like old video games

These carts are used in a subtitle machine 字幕機 (zìmù jī), or closed caption decoder box, and overlay the subtitles onto the movie.

What I assume was happening at the time, was that a movie was released on Laser Disc in the US, but might not have had an official Taiwanese release. This meant that the only LD version of a movie was in English and did not have Chinese subtitles. However, if you had a subtitle machine you could buy the US release of a movie, then simply buy the accompanying subtitle card. This makes a lot of sense as Laser Discs were expensive to manufacturer, local distribution companies might not have wanted to produce them, instead opting to make cheap subtitle cards.

After a bit of hunting around I found a secondhand subtitle machine for sale at BBbobo, a flea market 跳蚤市場 (tiàozǎo shìchǎng) shop with branches around Taiwan.

Subtitle Player
The subtitle player that I bought (yes that’s rust on top)

To watch a Laser Disc movie with subtitles you need to connect the video output from the Laser Disc player to the subtitle machine, then the subtitle machine connects to the TV. The audio goes directly from the Laser disc player to the TV. Insert the movie into the Laser Disc player, the subtitle card into the subtitle player, and press play on the movie.

Subtitle Cart in Slot
The subtitle carts stick far out of the slot

Through some magic the subtitle player knows when to overlay the subtitles:

Subtitles for The Crossing Guard
Jack Nicholson ponders the quality of the Chinese translation

Even if you fast forward, rewind, or jump to the middle of the movie, the subtitles are always correct. This means that there must be some data being transferred together with the video signal. Which is something I’d not thought about before, but actually standard captions are also stored in the composite video stream. Teletext, in the UK, also worked in a similar way.

This made me realise that the subtitle machine I’d bought could not only play the Chinese subtitle from the carts, but also decode the English subtitle data that is stored on the Laser Discs themselves.

English and Chinese subtitles at the same time
Don’t get on Jack’s bad side

Chinese, English, or both language can be shown while watching a movie. The colour and position of the subtitles can also be adjusted.

It has been fun watching the movies and having a chance to play with a technology that would have been far out of my price range at the time. Some of these movies were $100US when they were released. Imagine how the big Laser Disc collectors must have felt when DVD was released and LD discontinued.

The image quality on a large LCD screen is a bit soft, but still acceptable. As I mentioned above, there’s a certain feel to it that I like. Plus most of the movies were released in extended versions and in their original aspect ratio. The audio quality is also usually excellent.

I doubt I’ll keep hold of these, though. The size just makes them impossible to store anywhere. But for now I’m happy to keep working my way through. There are some gems in this collection.

For detailed information here’s a couple of Youtube videos on how Laser Discs work and an introduction to buying and playing Laser Disc.