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”:
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 Sure, some of the cultural and historical references are geographically specific, but here’s what keeps getting missed in these discussions: that’s part of why we watch foreign films.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.