|Go Ah-sung and Song Kang-ho, two of the foreigners who appear in Snowpiercer, a foreign movie that |
Harvey Weinstein thinks you wouldn't be able to understand.
For years now, Harvey Weinstein has been a major distributor of Asian films in the U.S., which is weird, because he doesn’t seem to particularly like them. He procured the distribution rights to: Chen Kaige’s Farewell, My Concubine (1993), Wisit Sasanatieng’s Tears of the Black Tiger (2000), Peter Chan Ho-Sun’s Dragon (2011), and Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster (2013), and he had them all abridged, because he thought Americans were either too stupid or too impatient to see them at their full length. The result was that they often became choppy and less coherent, which paradoxically made them less entertaining and therefore more likely to feel overly long.
Imagine then the horror experienced by myself and my fellow cinephiles when we heard that Weinstein had acquired the American distribution rights for Bong Joon-ho’s English-language debut, Snowpiercer. The film is 127 minutes long and, sure enough, Weinstein wanted to (a) abridge it by about twenty minutes and (b) add a prologue and epilogue so that it would make more sense for idiotic American audiences. Now, as it’s been pointed out elsewhere (I don’t recall by whom, forgive me), Snowpiercer is about the most linear narrative ever filmed. It is about a post-apocalyptic world where all of humanity lives on board a high-tech train, the poor people in the back and the rich people up front. It depicts a revolt of the plebs as they attempt to fight their way to the front of the train. It does not get much more linear than that.
But somewhere along the way, Weinstein must have thought the average American would get bored or confused (it didn’t help that a good twenty percent of the dialogue is in Korean, which would mean—quel horreur!—that Americans would have to read subtitles). And so Weinstein decided to butcher the film. Bong Joon-ho—director of such modern masterpieces as The Host and Mother—was understandably enraged. When Snowpiercer was shown to international audiences at the Pusan International Film Festival, Bong said of Americans (and Britons and Australians, who would also be forced to watch the Weinsteinized version upon its eventual release) that this was their last chance to see the movie as he had intended it to be shown. Something of a feud developed between Bong and Weinstein, and although I don’t pretend to understand the legal questions at issue here, Bong refused to edit his film in line with Weinstein’s wishes, which significantly delayed its release in the U.S. When it finally came out here (just last month), it initially had a significantly limited theatrical release.
Now, I can’t pretend to know what’s going on in Weinstein’s head, but it certainly looks like he set out to deliberately sabotage the movie; it would seem that he was hoping for it to fail at the box office, and then he would be able to justify his demands for Bong to abridge it. Luckily, fans and critics (those who got to see it, anyway) quite liked Bong’s original version of the film and Weinstein, likely understanding that there was money to be made, relented and allowed the movie a wider release. (It also appeared “on-demand” on Amazon, which is where I watched it). So Bong won out in the end, although I suspect the movie could have been much more successful at the box office if it had received the wide release and enthusiastic promotional campaign that an American movie with a similar premise (and budget) would have gotten. It’s worth noting that Snowpiercer has been wildly successful in Korea, where it has become one of the most financially successful Korean movies ever made (and this despite its being made mostly in a foreign language; the Koreans evidently don’t have a problem with subtitles).
So, are there lessons to be learned from this whole episode? Well, first, and this one is pretty basic: don’t sell your fucking movie to Harvey Weinstein. He’s a philistine and he doesn’t respect Asian cinema. He has a consistent track record of butchering it left and right. And second, and more generally: don’t assume that your audience is stupid. Foreign films don’t make a lot of money in the U.S. because they don’t get promoted or widely released. And then the distributors can say, “See, it didn’t make money, we were right not to promote it.” It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you were to take wildly entertaining Korean movies, like The Host or Oldboy or The Good, the Bad, the Weird, and promote them like you did their American counterparts, I think you could make plenty of money and the American movie landscape would be richer for it. It’s been done before. Chinese-language movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Hero (2004) were number one at the box office. There’s no reason why other foreign-language movies can’t be comparably successful. We just need people other than Harvey Weinstein calling the shots.