Film and the World: Movies for Import

Louis Oh, Blogger

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Last week I wrote about how Hollywood is making movies for overseas audiences. On the flipside, Hollywood has been doing the opposite to incoming films, changing how movies from overseas come to American viewers. Unlike the extended Chinese version of “Iron Man 3,” the Hong Kong martial arts film “The Grandmaster,” which features Tony Leung as Ip Man (a legendary figure who was Bruce Lee’s teacher), appeared in American theaters late last August more than twenty minutes shorter than its original Chinese theatrical cut.

Wong Kar-Wai, the director of “The Grandmaster” (as well as other critically lauded pieces, such as “Chungking Express”) reportedly did have a direct hand in re-editing and truncating the film, which not only cut scenes but also added explanatory inter-titles and character identifiers. Many were still suspicious of the Weinstein Company, the film’s American distributor, which is notorious in the film industry for demanding extra cuts. The Hong Kong director is reported to have said he made the decision to do so because the film was considerably specific and would be difficult for those without a historical background of Chinese history. However, many critics found the sentiment condescending, arguing the added information tends to state what is already evident in the film, and the result rather detracting, as it removed a significant plot element of the film. The movie still received praise for its stylistic cinematography and epic choreography in typical Wong Kar-Wai fashion.

A few months since the film’s American theatrical release the issue of “dumbing down” films flamed up once again with the news of the American DVD/BluRay release including only the reedited American version, followed by the report that “Snowpiercer,” a film directed by South Korean Bong Joon-ho (who gained an international cult following with “The Host” and “Mother”), would also get a twenty minute cut in its American release. The latter report especially garnered outrage from movie fans as the Weinstein Company claimed it would do so to make the film “understood by audiences in Iowa … and Oklahoma.” This argument was especially bewildering for many as the film is not culturally specific to Korea or any country at all, mainly featuring American and British actors (Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris and numerous others), and is mostly in English. The themes of the movie are certainly complex and dark, but signs seemed to show the American distributor was hoping to gear the movie towards a more blunt sci-fi action film, neutering the absurdist dark humor and social commentary Bong is known for. Recent interviews with Bong Joon-ho seem to suggest the Weinstein Company has backtracked and is in talks with the director, this time to seek “pacing improvements.”

Although sentiments toward “The Grandmaster” and its multiple versions are somewhat divided among critics, and “Snowpiercer” is yet to be seen in its American theatrical release, such issues pose questions that will increasingly be important to answer as film industries grow more global (exemplified by productions like “Snowpiercer”). Differently edited versions of films may be somewhat inevitable due to differing regulations but it may be necessary to reconsider what artistic implications such decisions may have when entire chunks of films are discarded in the process of importation. Some have argued films have benefited from studio interventions in the name of concision. Other movies have been the unfortunate subjects of tampering of a director’s artistic vision. The French thriller “Leon: The Professional” (a.k.a. “Leon” outside the U.S.), which was directed by Luc Besson and starred Jean Reno, Gary Oldman and a young Natalie Portman, is widely regarded to have become a lesser film by being shortened more than 20 minutes. In other cases, it’s somewhere in between or tough to really judge at all. For one, Hollywood does need to stop underestimating the American audience’s taste in intelligent filmmaking. “Dumbing down” foreign movies is not only insulting to artists involved in the film but also to the viewing public who are likely mostly made up of audiences of higher expectations anyway. On the other hand, cinephiles are also guilty of equating longer with better on a number of occasions. At the end of the day, it’s a tricky issue to draw a solid conclusion, but perhaps Hollywood should remember it chooses certain movies to be imported for a reason. Box office records certainly aren’t always signs of cinematic quality, but when films like “The Grandmaster” and “Snowpiercer” smash domestic box-office records and are helmed by some of the most widely respected directors in the world, maybe give these world-class talents, and American moviegoers while we’re at it, some more credit.