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Why Do Foreign Films Have to Be Dumbed Down for American Audiences?

The Grandmaster, the new film from lyrical Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai (In the Mood for Love, Chungking Express) is his greatest financial success to date, grossing $50 million in China, where it was released back in January. But that is not the film appearing in American cinemas this Friday. It has been cut by more than 20 minutes, from its 130-minute Chinese edit to a 108-minute US version. Scenes have been reorganized and deleted; new voice-over narration was recorded. And most egregiously, extensive intertitles and documentary-style character identification captions have been added, often to “clarify” narrative turns and new characters that are already abundantly clear to anyone paying attention to the picture. The result is like trying to read a book while someone is sitting next to you reading aloud from the Cliffs Notes. Who thinks we’re this dumb?

When word started circulating about the extensive changes to Grandmaster’s American version, fingers were immediately pointed at Harvey Weinstein, co-chairman of The Weinstein Company, the film’s US distributor. Weinstein has a bit of a history here; back in the early 1990s, when he was the head of Miramax, he was given the nickname “Harvey Scissorhands” in honor of his penchant for purchasing foreign films and drastically editing them for American release. Asian movies were particularly likely to make trips to Weinstein’s chopping block: Shaolin Soccer, The Protector, and numerous Jackie Chan films got sliced and diced, while pictures like Princess Mononoke were Americanized via new dubbing and framing narration.

But a representative of the Weinstein Company tells me that the American re-cut was “definitely a decision by Kar-Wai,” who “reconfigured the movie to make it so that it was more understandable to the US demographic.” And the filmmaker has taken pains to make this distinction clear, telling Variety that he made the decision to re-cut himself, since “The Grandmaster is very specific. Because (non-Chinese viewers) don’t have much information or knowledge about the background and history, you have to give enough information for them to get into the story.”

In the Wall Street Journal, the actors concur — and here’s where it starts to get a little insulting. “I think it’s wise for him to do a version for Americans,” says star Tony Leung. “It’s much easier for them to follow.” Co-star Zhang Ziyi agrees: “It’s clearer. Easier for foreigners.” Yes, because we Americans can’t handle films with narrative complexity and historical elements. Just give us more kung fu! Zing! Pow!

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And in true WSJ style, writer Don Steinberg opens his article by sneering at those who might like to see the new movie by one of film’s foremost artists in its original iteration: “Cinema snobs have been suggesting that the US version of The Grandmaster… is dumbed down from the original version that made its debut in China earlier this year.” You don’t have to be a goateed, beret-wearing “cinema snob” to suggest such a notion; you merely have to have good common sense. Here are a few of the most obvious examples of the American cut’s “clarifications”:

  • Shortly after the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War, Ip Man (Leung) is offered immunity by the Japanese — with a catch. The scene plays out, and is then followed by a title card reading, “The Japanese offer Ip Man immunity…” that proceeds to explain what happened in the scene we just saw.
  • Late in the film, Ip Man tracks down Gong Er (Zhang). His voice-over explains that she has, in the years since they last met, become a doctor. He arrives at what is clearly a doctor’s office. A caption comes up on the screen: “Gong’s Clinic.” No, really?
  • Gong asks Ip Man, “Do you know what happened ten years ago?” Cut to stock footage. A title comes up on the screen: “Ten years earlier,” for those who can’t take a chronology cue from dialogue and editing.

And so on, and so on. The film is full of that kind of thing, gratuitous graffiti mucking up Wong’s beautiful images, filling in nonexistent blanks, under the assumption that its audience is either epically stupid or cursed with a killer case of short-term memory loss.

I’ve seen both the American version and the Hong Kong cut, and make no mistake, both versions are sumptuously photographed, thrillingly choreographed, and touched by the hands-off eroticism and unrequited love that the filmmaker does so well. It is a gorgeous and compelling picture, even in its bowdlerized form. Yet why is that form necessary? I’m no expert in Chinese history, but I didn’t find the original cut particularly difficult to follow. Sure, some of the cultural and historical references are geographically specific, but here’s what keeps getting missed in these discussions: that’s part of why we watch foreign films. In his book Down and Dirty Pictures — which is, it must be said, less than flattering to Mr. Weinstein — writer Peter Biskind wrote about the mogul’s habit of “McMiramazing foreign films,” “boning” them into “easily digested filets, safe from the kinds of cultural idiosyncrasies that might stick in the throats of American audiences.” It’s shortsighted, Biskind argues, because “it is just those unfamiliar customs, linguistic usages, or behavioral tics that contribute to the sense of difference that makes foreign films foreign, windows onto unfamiliar worlds, and not just another mirror held up to ourselves.”

This discussion of The Grandmaster occurs amid circulating rumors about Snowpiercer, a new film from director Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Mother); the Weinstein Company is reportedly asking for 20 minutes of cuts before its American release. (TWC had no comment on that film.) Whether Snowpiercer’s recutting occurs with Joon-ho’s cooperation or under his duress is almost inconsequential at this point. After all, when filmmakers of Wong’s stature automatically assumes that they have to repackage, streamline, and simplify their films for dullard American audiences, it’s no longer necessary for American distributors to keep asking them to. The message has been delivered, and received.

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