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July 15th, 2002

 

The Mouse Wears the Pants -
What Disney does with HK Cinema is simply awful and sadly unavoidable

     This week we learned that Buena Vista Home Entertainment would be releasing John Woo's The Killer and Hard Boiled on brand-spanking new DVDs. These new versions will replace the current Fox Lorber versions, which replaced the earlier Criterion versions, as all the companies battle in a game of musical chairs over the right to make money off of John Woo's most famous films. Disney is the current winner, and their DVDs will likely feature new anamorphic transfers that will put all existing versions to shame.
     However, these new versions will be cut for R-rated consumption, and English dubbing is almost certainly in the offing. This will most likely cause the usual swell of online outrage, starting with those who decry Disney and their "discriminatory practices" and ending with those who defend Disney and say "they're just doing what they think is best."
     My take on this:
both groups are right. Now I'll retire to my DVD player, throw in my Universe version of Shaolin Soccer, and try to forget that all of this is going on.
     Here's the deal: I am totally for Hong Kong Cinema in its original form, i.e. original language, music, aspect ratio, the works. I love Hong Kong Cinema (hence the site name), so I want to see it the way it should be seen, which is the way it was originally shown.
     However, to Hong Kong film companies and their chosen partner Miramax/Disney/Buena Vista, Hong Kong Cinema isn't about love. It's about that which feeds people, clothes them, and breaks up families and friendships. It's about greenbacks, moola, Benjamins, whatever.
It's about money. And that's totally, absolutely, irretrievably the truth.
     Look at it this way: do the Hong Kong film companies care what happens to their films? No. Disney could leave them with their original language and subtitles and the HK film companies still get the requisite cash. Disney could add extra footage, or make them available only in Spanish. Hell, they could get all their licensed Jet Li movies together and call it one movie, for all Hong Kong cares. That's because the fine people at Media Asia or Chinastar or whoever have already got what they wanted: cash.
     Here's an example for you: Princess Mononoke. When Hayao Miyazaki sold all the rights to his films to Buena Vista, he stipulated absolutely that the films would not be cut - not one inch. He did allow them to be dubbed, but that was his perogative. Disney could have said "Screw you, Hayao," and dumped the deal. Miyazaki probably would have been fine with that. But, Disney agreed to the deal and both sides got what they wanted - sort of. Sure, Disney might have wanted to trim some of Miyazaki's work ("What American wants a 2-hour cartoon?") and Miyazaki might have wanted subtitles only ("Like I want Billy Bob Thornton voicing my characters!"), but both sides compromised to get the deal done. The leverage was there for both Disney and Miyazaki, so the deal was made.
     And therein lies the problem: Hong Kong Cinema has no leverage whatsoever.
     The films being sold are commercial films, not art films. They were made for audience consumption and not the pursuit of higher art (despite what many John Woo fans might say). As such, subtitling them and releasing them uncut to the US market indicates to the "highbrow" filmgoer that this is a movie that is unequivocably art. However, said filmgoer doesn't consider a two-gun bullet ballet art, nor do they consider the exploits of a martial arts soccer team art either.
     Then there's the other end of the spectrum: Joe Q. Public, the guy who goes to the movies every weekend to see either Bad Company or Minority Report. He sees a Hong Kong flick and it's got subtitles. "Aw man, I don't want to read!" So he doesn't and sees Bad Company, produced by that master of cinema Jerry Bruckheimer. Or maybe Scooby-Doo. Or in an extremely ironic world Kung-Pow. Regardless, subtitled cinema = too much work for Joe Q. Public.
     Hong Kong film companies could demand that the films be uncut and feature only subtitles. Jackie Chan could have demanded that Rumble in the Bronx be given the Babette's Feast treatment, i.e. yellow English subtitles and an uncut release. Art is preservered, or something like that.
     And then what would have happened? Simple: the deal would have fallen through, Disney would have saved money, and Hong Kong film companies would never have made any. Hong Kong Cinema is no position to be choosy about where and how their movies get sold to the US. They're just happy to see some foreign dough, and if they can get it by allowing Fong Sai-Yuk to be cut, dubbed and retitled Jet Li's The Legend, then they'll gladly do it. It's not like they're amputating a limb or castrating themselves.
     Which leads us back to square one. Disney buys the movies to make money. To make money, they have to sell the stuff. To sell the stuff, they have to find the right audience. To make the right audience watch the movie, they have to dub and cut and dumb down the film. Now Joe Q. Public watches the film, Disney makes money, and everybody goes home happy.
     Except the Hong Kong Cinema fan, who's dismayed that their favorite form of cinema has been desecrated by those who would try to make money from it.
     But that's just the way it is. It'd be crazy to assume Disney would change their stance on dubbing these films, or cutting them to suit "American" tastes. Just recently, Shaolin Soccer got re-titled Kung-Fu Soccer again (the first retitling was retracted back in April*), and will be foisted upon us next year sometime. Why? Because market research shows that Joe Q. Public would rather see a movie called Kung-Fu Soccer than Shaolin Soccer.
     And why should Disney care about our opinions, when there are likely very few of us? Think of all the bucks that could be made shoving those Disneyized versions into Blockbuster and Hollywood Video stores. Should they give that up for the HK Cinema masses, who probably couldn't even fill up your standard convention center ala AnimeExpo?
     The fact is, Hong Kong Cinema purists are few and far between. Calling us the bastard cousins of Anime fandom would be an insult to Anime fandom's actual bastard cousins, because there are so few of us. On the roadmap of niche cinema, HK Cinema gets good cred, but its artistic cred is lacking. It gets less respect than much of its PanAsian brothers and sisters. Indian, Korean and Japanese Cinema are much more respected than Hong Kong Cinema, and yet their films rarely get distributed here. The ones that do are firmly "art" films. Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love was firmly an "art" film. And, by no small happenstance it was the rare Hong Kong movie released in the US uncut in its original language.
     So, the fight seems hopeless. That is, except for one small factor which is deserving of every ounce of scorn that we fans can muster. It's the one thing that Disney has done that they shouldn't have - because it doesn't really take away from what they're trying to do. And that's preventing US retailers and importers from carrying the original subtitled region-all DVDs from Hong Kong.
     Disney's argument for this has to do with parallel imports. They don't want these other versions of their property taking potential money from their pockets. Why should they allow these DVDs to be sold when customers in the US should be buying Disney-produced DVDs?
     Well, how about because we wouldn't want to buy dubbed/cut versions anyway. And those who Disney's butchered versions cater to wouldn't stand for subtitles - or probably even the funky Asian characters on the packaging. Nope, the situation seems to be mutually-exclusive.
     So, what I say is this: Let Disney do whatever it wants with the movies. They're going to ruin them, but the alternative is for no one to buy the rights, and that just isn't going to happen. If money is involved, someone will be there. The Western bastardization of HK Cinema is practically a forgone conclusion.
     But if Disney isn't going to put out those original versions themselves, then they shouldn't try to stop those of us who care from getting them, either. Since we're so few, the money "lost" to Disney would amount to nothing. They wouldn't even have to publicly change their stance. All they would have to do is quietly allow it to happen. That's the fight that should - and could - be won.
     And if that doesn't work, I'll still buy the Hong Kong versions. I just won't tell Disney. - Kozo 7/15/2002

*the film has since been re-re-renamed Shaolin Soccer again.

 
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The opinions expressed within are merely the musings of the Webmaster, and as such should be taken with the requisite grain of salt. If you disagree with an expressed opinion please feel free to contact him here. If you feel he has insulted your favorite popstar, you can still contact him. However, your chances of receiving a reply will be reduced by half.
 
 
 
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