Thursday, August 28, 2014

Hipster Vampires: Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive

There are certain filmmakers who lay such a heavy emphasis on style and atmosphere that they tend to overlook making “things” happen in the richly textured worlds they’ve created.  The best example of this approach is the oeuvre of Bela Tarr, whose intensely atmospheric, ghostly films rarely find a subject matter to match their richly stylized settings (the great exception being Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), in which the “action”—if his movies can be said to possess action—finally meshed with the style such that they complimented and enriched each other).  On the American front, the foremost practitioner of this type of cinema is probably Jim Jarmusch. 

From this 1979 debut Permanent Vacation through to the present day, Jarmusch has specialized in stylish films where very little “happens,” at least externally.  This is certainly the case in his first supernatural outing, 2013’s Only Lovers Left Alive.  The film takes us into the lives of British expat vampires Adam (Tom Hiddleston), a reclusive rock musician, and Eve (Tilda Swinton) a much more cheerful, extroverted kind of bloodsucker.  The world they inhabit is as richly textured, in its own way, as any Bela Tarr film.  Adam’s house in Detroit is full of musical gear, old pre-21st century recording equipment and classic guitars.  When Eve leaves her abode in Tangiers to join him, his musical paradise becomes an ideal sanctuary for the two lovers to retreat from a world in chaos and decline.  Jarmusch has always been fond of depicting deserted cities and post-industrial Detroit affords him ample opportunity to do so.  One can hardly blame Adam from seeking escape from its desolate streets and the “zombies”—the vampire term for “normals”—who roam them.
Aside from our protagonists, there are relatively few people in this movie, but there are two supporting players who add a great deal to the film.  First, there’s Eve’s sister, Eva (the names are deliberately confusing), played by a spirited Mia Wasikowska (for whom I came to have a deep regard after seeing her in Park Chan-wook’s Stoker).  Eva’s arrival on the scene in Detroit is the catalyst that sets the film’s minimal plot into motion.  Eva is a disruptive force who cheerfully up-ends Adam and Eve’s quiet lifestyle.  There’s also, waiting in the wings, the figure of Christopher Marlowe—the Christopher Marlowe—played by John Hurt and whom we find out was a vampire and who survived by several hundred years the knife-in-eye incident that conventional history tells us led to his death.  Marlowe is a benign paternal figure waiting in the wings in Tangiers, casting his benevolence throughout the vampire world (I guess; the film provides remarkably few details on vampire society, as we only meet a bare minimum of its members).

So nothing much happens in
Only Lovers Left Alive.  Adam and Eve move languidly through their vividly realized world, exchanging witticisms and being effortlessly cool (Tilda Swinton is the living embodiment of cool; she couldn’t not be cool if she tried).  It’s a very charming affair and it’s a pleasant setting in which to luxuriate, but I don’t feel any particularly desire to return to it.  I’ve always had mixed feelings on Jarmusch and the kind of cinema he represents, and although this is certainly one of his stronger outings, I can’t help but feel that it could have been far more satisfying if he’d found action to match his atmosphere.  I feel the same way about Joyce’s Ulysses: “Wouldn’t this be delightful if he actually had an interesting story to tell? If his exalted style wasn’t wasted on drab realism and banality?” Now, admittedly, there’s nothing drab or banal about hipster vampires, but come on, they’re hipster vampires, give them something to do.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

A Repugnant Type of Beauty: A Survey of the Films of Kim Ki-duk and, to a Lesser Extent, Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke

A filmmaker can have appallingly bad taste and still make good movies, even if only from time to time.  Take, for instance, Korean auteur Kim Ki-duk.  Kim, much like his contemporaries Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier, is widely reviled for the tastelessness and deliberate attempts to offend and disturb that pervade his films.  With von Trier especially, he shares a predilection for torture and mutilation, including a willingness to depict genital mutilation and unsimulated violence against animals; von Trier killed a donkey on the set of Manderlay (2005), while Kim—although he’s never killed anything that big, to my knowledge—has tortured a number of fish and reptiles in his films, especially The Isle (2000).  Haneke, to his credit, has never killed anything.

Kim Ki-duk.
The subjects of Kim’s films run the gamut of unpleasantness: loan sharks torturing debtors, teenage prostitution, abused housewives, deranged soldiers murdering civilians.  But he is also capable of depicting episodes of remarkable tenderness, like the loving relationship between the monk and his ward in Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring (2003) or the courtship between the silent wife and her equally silent lover in 3-Iron (2004).  He also sometimes tempers his more troublesome narratives with great visual beauty, although there are noteworthy exceptions to this: 2002’s Coast Guard is one of the ugliest movies I’ve ever seen, and 2012’s Pieta is quite willfully as cold and repellant as its psychopathic protagonist.
There is a similar inconsistency in the films of Lars von Trier.  The cinematography for Antichrist (2009) and Melancholia (2011) is quite unabashedly gorgeous.  Now, some of his other films—specifically, the so-called “Dogme 95” films—don’t look as nice, but they’re not supposed to.  And Dogville (2003) and Manderlay (2005) also required a certain Brechtian austerity in their treatment.  But what excuse, pray tell, is there for the unrelenting grime and ugliness of Nymphomaniac (2014)? I get that it’s set in modern England, which is just asking for a bleak approach, but still, there’s no need to luxuriate in squalor.
Lars von Trier, seen here demonstrating maturity and good taste.
I can’t speak as well to the films of Michael Haneke, as they don’t have as much appeal to me (the despair on display here is just too much and too unredeemed), but he seems to have shifted his visual palette from the garish ugliness of The Piano Teacher (2001) to the austere but nonetheless elegant atmosphere that reigns in films like Caché (2005) and Amour (2012). (Of course, The White Ribbon (2009) was quite beautiful, but it was in black-and-white, how could it not be beautiful? As von Trier would say, Haneke cheated).

To return to Kim Ki-duk, it is difficult for me to chart his more recent progress, as most of his films since 2006’s Time have not been made widely available in the U.S.  Prior to Time, his filmography is pretty well represented on DVD, but of the seven features he’s made since then, only two of them—Dream (2008) and Pieta (2012)—have appeared here, streaming on Netflix.  I am especially interested in seeing 2011’s Arirang, which appears to be a documentary in which Kim, shamelessly narcissistic, airs his personal and professional problems to the world in full confessional mode.  Every critic I’ve seen discuss it seems to hate it, but that didn’t stop it from winning in the un certain regard category at Cannes.  In fact, even at his most tasteless, Kim’s films—and von Trier’s, and maybe to a lesser extent Haneke’s—are always worth seeing.  They are not always worth seeing again, but they’re worth seeing.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Love Among the Ruins: On Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds

I have spoken in the past of J. M. Coetzee’s
The Life and Times of Michael K (1983), a singularly unpleasant novel which has nonetheless had a considerable impact on my moral thinking, as it suggests—to me, anyway—that a person has every right to “resign” from history.  Historical forces are cruel and impersonal and if a person wants to escape from them, one can hardly blame him or her.  In the novel, the titular Michael K is a borderline mentally impaired, mixed-race man trying to escape from a civil war that has broken out in his native South Africa and Coetzee charts all the horrors and indignities to which Michael K is subjected as he tries to evade forces that he can neither understand nor control.
I had Michael K in mind as I watched Polish director Andrzej Wadja’s Ashes and Diamonds (1958).  Widely considered one of the greatest works of Polish cinema, the film follows a young anti-communist partisan named Maciek (Zbigniew Cybulski) as he attempts to assassinate a communist official in the immediate aftermath of WWII (its action takes place mostly on May 8, 1945, the day of the German surrender).  Now, Maciek and Michael K are not perfect analogues.  Maciek is not mentally impaired and he signed up voluntarily for what he’s doing, but as the film progresses, he begins to have significant doubts about his mission.  Following the opening sequence, in which he and his superior, Andrzej, murder two factory workers whom they mistake for the communist official and his assistant, Maciek and Andrzej set up shop at a hotel where Szczuka, the communist, will be attending a banquet.  Now, although Maciek has been tempered in the forge of war—and the war was bloodier in few places than it was in Poland—he is still a young man, prey to the enthusiasms and exuberance of youth, and so he quite naturally falls in love at first sight with the pretty bartender, Krystyna.  And he certainly can’t pursue a long-term romance with Krystyna if he kills Szczuka, and anyway, why kill Szczuka? Haven’t they killed enough people already, including innocent people?  Even if he signed up for this, is Maciek still obligated or duty-bound to his partisan group?  If a person’s conscience changes, can their loyalties change accordingly?

One of the things that distinguishes Ashes and Diamonds from its predecessors is a much lighter tone.  Which isn’t to say that it’s not a serious movie—Maciek’s moral and personal stakes couldn’t be higher—but Wajda and co-writer Jerzy Andrzejewski sprinkle the movie with humor and romance, which don’t detract from the grim matters at hand, but rather place them in the context of a much wider world.  The banquet that occasions Szczuka’s presence plays out with the absurdity of Miloš Forman’s Fireman’s Ball (1967) and Maciek shares the stage with several background players pursuing their own interests while largely oblivious to the assassination in the offing.

Ashes and Diamonds
is the most morally ambiguous entry in an informal “war trilogy” that Wajda directed in the mid-fifties, starting with A Generation (1954) and continuing with Kanal (1956).  A Generation follows a group of naïve young people (including a not-yet-famous Roman Polanski) as they join the Polish resistance and become exposed to the grim realities and moral exigencies of war.  It depicts the sacrifices made by the Polish people with great sadness and pathos, but it never doubts that these sacrifices were fundamentally noble and justified.  The mood has changed when we get to Kanal, which has to be one of the bleakest films ever made.  Set during the general uprising in 1944, the film follows a group of doomed Polish partisans as they attempt to escape the Nazis by fleeing through the sewers of Warsaw.  The movie opens with a famous voice-over which intones: “Watch them closely, for these are the last hours of their lives.” There is no room for heroism in Kanal, just the desperate, thwarted will to survive, as the partisans are picked off by the Nazis, incapacitated by the sickening miasma of raw sewage, and overpowered by despair.

I would like to note that I have no idea how a movie like this—with its willingness to treat anti-communist militants as complex, sympathetic human beings—could have been made in communist Poland.  Perhaps we can attribute it to the Khrushchev thaw and de-Stalinization.  Whatever the circumstances of its production,
Ashes and Diamonds presents us with the same grand question raised by The Life and Times of Michael K: are we not within our rights to resign from the inhuman and destructive processes of history?  Can Maciek fall in love and go back to the normal life of a young man, or is he morally obligated to kill Szczuka, in accordance with his commitments to his partisan group?  Are our consciences free to change, or must we be forever bound by our decisions once we’ve made them?  I know how I’d answer these questions. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Calm Surface and a Raging Current: On Mikio Naruse’s Scattered Clouds

If you ask someone to name the three greatest filmmakers of Japanese Golden Age cinema, they will almost certainly say: Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Yasujiro Ozu, maybe not in that order, but those are the names that almost all of them will mention.  But a few lone rebels, drunk on the audacity of their own iconoclasm, will include Mikio Naruse.  And you will be hard-pressed to argue the point either way, because if you’re an American, chances are you have had very few opportunities to see Naruse’s films.  On Region 1 DVD, the fine people at the Criterion Collection have released When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960) and an Eclipse Collection of several of Naruse’s extant silent films, but that’s it as far as DVD’s are concerned.  And just in the past few years, if you have Hulu Plus, you can access a more generous helping of Naruse films to which Criterion evidently has the rights but which they have not (yet) released on DVD.
Kurosawa—whose position in the Holy Trinity of Japanese cinema some would like to see Naruse usurp—famously said of his rival’s films that they were “like a great river with a clam surface and a raging current in its depths.” The surface of these films is the domestic melodrama; in this respect, they are like more eventful variations on Ozu’s cinema.  In their focus on the plight of women in Japanese society, they recall Mizoguchi (they are both some of the greatest feminists in Japanese cinema; if the greatest feminists in Japanese cinema are men, this is a sad reflection on the egregious sexism in cinema in general and Japanese cinema in particular).  Naruse’s films focus on women, often of the working class, trying to elevate their positions in society or just trying to get by.  Or, if he’s in a more Ozuesque mood, he depicts middle-class women in unsatisfying marriages.  This is the case in Repast, starring Setsuko Hara, and The Sound of the Mountain, adapted from the novel of the same name by Yasunari Kawabata.  And speaking of adaptations, he frequently drew from the work of Fumiko Hayashi, whose writing often shares Naruse’s concern with working-class women.

Naruse on the set.
Naruse’s career spanned the silent era to the late 1960’s, and although many of his silent films are lost, his oeuvre is still vast, and the patchiness of its availability in the US has made my exposure to it both limited and rather scattershot.  So I’ve seen all his feature-length silent films—No Blood Relation, Apart From You, Every-Night Dreams, and Street Without End—and then I’ve seen about five or sex of the dozens of sound films he made.  And one does not need to see too many Naruse films before one picks up on one of his favorite melodramatic plot devices: the car accident.  Naruse’s women, or their children, or their husbands, are constantly getting hit by cars (woe to the heedless pedestrian in a Naruse movie!)  There are enough car accidents on display here that J. G. Ballard himself would say, “Whoa, dude, ease up on the car accidents.” But the car crashes are not gratuitous—or not just gratuitous; nobody can deny that a good car crash is a great way to shake up a story—but, like the car that strikes Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men, they are messengers of the universe, demonstrating to us the reign of random chance and its utter indifference to us.

This was amply on display in
Scattered Clouds (1967), Naruse’s final film and the only color film of his that I’ve seen.  Something of an old-fashioned throwback upon its release—bearing in mind that Naruse was now a contemporary of Nagisa Oshima and Yoshishige Yoshida—Scattered Clouds follows the tribulations of a woman, Yumiko, whose civil servant husband is struck and killed by a car shortly before he was to begin an assignment at the Japanese embassy in Washington.  So there’s chance for you.  But it strikes again when Yumiko begins to have a series of random encounters with the driver who killed her husband and, wouldn’t you know it, they begin to fall in love.  Now, this may sound like a melodramatic and one could even say exploitative story, but not the way Naruse tells it.  Remember, this is a “great river with a calm surface.” Everything is calm and understated, like in a Kawabata novel, the pacing of the movie leisurely and the colors a subdued mix of pastels and earth tones  The second great theme, along with the role of chance, is the capacity for forgiveness.  I recall that Evelyn Waugh said of Brideshead Revisited that he wanted to depict “the operation of grace” and I think a similar operation is on display in Scattered Clouds, where two decent people whose lives have been upended find the capacity for love and compassion in the most unlikely of circumstances.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Gertrud and her Men: On Carl Th. Dreyer’s Final Film

The cinema of Carl Th. Dreyer is—at first glance, anyway—distinctly uncinematic.  Dreyer worked primarily with adaptations of stage plays and the theatricality of his cinema is strongly on display in his last film, 1964’s Gertrud.  This was Dreyer’s third sound film—he made a grand total of three of them over a twenty-one year period—and it marks a departure from many of the more overtly religious themes that marked some of his best cinema (The Passion of Joan of Arc, Day of Wrath, Ordet).  In telling the restrained story of an upper-class woman and her unraveling marriage, Dreyer has in many ways returned to cinema degree zero in a way that, incongruously enough, anticipates Godard’s Le Gai Savoir (1968).  This Godard film consists largely of Jean-Pierre Léaud and Juliet Berto talking.  It’s two actors and a camera and that’s it.  Now, Gertrud isn’t nearly as Spartan, but the basic principle—that of reducing cinema to its simplest gestures, so that it resembles a stage play, with all the limitations of setting that that implies—is the same.

 Leaud and Berto in Godard's Le Gai Savoir.
Gertrud is about the title character’s relationships with several men (it abysmally fails the Bechdel test; aside from a brief appearance by Gertrud’s mother-in-law, there are no other women with speaking roles in the film).  They are: her husband, Kanning, a lawyer about to become a cabinet minister; Erland Jansson, a self-destructive composer; Gabriel Lidman, a melancholic poet; and Dr. Axel Nygren, friend and confidante.  Her interactions with these men will provide a Strindbergian panorama of the various ways in which people can hurt each other.  I found myself thinking of a preachy George Harrison song: “Isn’t it a Pity?” It goes: “Isn’t it a pity? / Now isn’t it a shame / How we break each other’s hearts / And cause each other pain?” Which, ok George, step off the pedestal, but! Point well taken.  It’s already hard enough just being alive.  We have to contend with pain, illness, and death.  Must we torment each other on top of it?
Gertrud has fallen out of love with her husband, who is consumed by his work and neglects her.  She has transferred her affections to a younger man, the composer Jansson, but he’s just playing with her; he doesn’t take the liaison seriously.  And all the while she lives in regret over her failed relationship with the poet Lidman, who still loves her and has never recovered from her rejection of him.  There’s a scene where he and Gertrud reunite for the first time in several years and he reflects on the dubious situation she finds herself in with Jansson, and to see her like that, she whom he has elevated to such heights in his imagination, breaks his heart.  And to see him desperately trying to restrain himself and avoid weeping in her presence is deeply moving.  Based on Lidman—played by Ebbe Rode—and Max von Sydow, I have concluded that Scandinavian men excel at manly tears.  When they cry, there is always great dignity in it.
Really, the only man with whom Gertrud has a healthy relationship is Dr. Nygren, and this is because Nygren is the only man who has never asked for anything romantic/sexual from her.  He doesn’t make emotional demands on her, he’s not expecting her to fulfill some dramatic role in his life.  He just enjoys her company and respects her personality.  Which isn’t to denigrate romance or sexuality, mind you, but it’s important that we take care to carve out relationships that tone down the intensity and that are predicated on companionship and tranquil affection.

To return to the theatricality of the film: upon its release, it was something of a catastrophe.  Dwight MacDonald, the American contrarian who made a career of hating things decades before Slate, said of it that “Gertrud is a further reach, beyond mannerism into cinematic poverty and straightforward tedium. [Dreyer] just sets up his camera and photographs people talking to each other.” What I suspect MacDonald missed and Dreyer understood is the elegance that can come through achieving dramatic ends with the least possible fuss.  I’m not saying all filmmakers should do this—we’d all get sick of it pretty quickly—but there is something to be said for telling a dramatic story without superfluous camera-movements and musical cues.  Gertrud is that rare thing: a quiet movie.  And it’s not like we have too many of those.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A Slapstick of Cruelty and Despair: On Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle

Several decades after the advent of the talking picture, France produced two of the last great silent film stars: Jacques Tati and Pierre Etaix.  Now, there’ s a good chance you’ve never heard of Etaix, as his films were unavailable for many years due to legal bullshit, and were only just released in the United States last years by the Criterion Collection.  But Tati is well-known and universally beloved for his most famous character, Monsieur Hulot.  Like Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp before him, Hulot finds himself adrift in a world of cruel people and equally cruel objects that conspire against him (as the protagonist of Yuri Olesha’s Envy succinctly puts it: “Things don’t like me.”)
But the Little Tramp had a certain clumsy elegance to him, whereas M. Hulot is anything but little.  He is big and gawky and always in the way.  He doesn’t fit, both in literal physical terms and in terms of society.  Tati made four films starring M. Hulot—M. Hulot’s Holiday, Mon Oncle, Playtime, and Traffic—and from Mon Oncle onward they set themselves the task of exploring the theme expounded in Chaplin’s Modern Times: man’s battle with technology.  M. Hulot is a Luddite, perhaps even a Poujadist (Poujadism was a brand of reactionary conservatism popular in France in the ‘50’s).  He is also what the Russians would call a “superfluous man.” There is neither room nor need for him in French society.
Now, I have just seen Tati’s Mon Oncle (1958)—on which, fun fact, Pierre Etaix served as assistant director; this was before he made his own feature films— and while it was pleasant enough, I did not enjoy it as much as I’d thought I would.  Part of the problem is that Tati takes his animus against technology too far.  Now, don’t get me wrong, nobody hates technology when it doesn’t work more than I do.  But on the whole I love technology.  I love air conditioning and central heating.  I love my laptop and my internet.  I love my dishwasher and my refrigerator and my washer/dryer.  All of these things make a positive contribution to my quality of life.  I suspect Tati would despise them all.  In Mon Oncle, M. Hulot’s main adversary is the high-tech, futuristic house of his wife and brother-in-law.  The house, which is beautiful and which I would love to live in, is fall of gadgets and has a button for everything.  Hulot can’t handle it (and to a certain extent, neither can his relatives, even though they’re quite proud of it).  But if one got a handle on it, I think it could be convenient and pleasant.

The house.

The second problem with
Mon Oncle is that, while it is ostensibly a comedy, it isn’t particularly funny.  I think this can be attributed in large part to how bleak M. Hulot’s situation is.  He has no place in the world, everyone treats him like shit, he’s gawky and socially inept, his brother-in-law tries to get him jobs and he routinely, immediately fucks them up.  How badly does it hurt him? It’s not clear.  I may be mistaken, but I believe he speaks, at most, a single line in the entire movie.  This is a slapstick film in the great silent tradition of Chaplin and Keaton, and although there is sound—and it is used with great precision—the dialogue isn’t terribly important.  It’s just background noise.  But the brother-in-law and sister, for all their inane blather, are still at least speaking, from which we can gain a certain insight into their character.  But Hulot is opaque; like Buster Keaton, he is stonefaced.

There is, however, one scene of such sublime beauty that it could justify the entire movie.
  It comes early on: Hulot is in his apartment and he sees a caged bird in a window across the street.  He finds that by carefully positioning his opened window, he can reflect light onto the bird, causing it to sing.  We watch him experiment with positions for the window and the realization that he, like Hideyoshi Toyotomi, can make the bird sing, is downright enchanting.  If only the rest of the film offered comparable pleasures.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Bong Joon-ho vs. Harvey Weinstein, Arch-Philistine: On the American Distribution of Snowpiercer

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.