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A Man Called Sanjuro 2: Hate Miramax, but LoveHKFilm*

     Let's get things straight from the get-go: I am not a fan of Miramax. I don't like what they've done with Zhang Yimou's Hero, and I'm certainly not pleased that they will serve as the US distributors of the Shaw Brothers film library. And yet one of my favorite Hong Kong movies is in the sole possession of the Mouse House: Stephen Chow's comedy classic Shaolin Soccer. Like most fans, it pained me to hear that the movie's North American release would be substantially cut with a presumably atrocious English dubbed track. In recent weeks, however, Miramax has reversed that decision to the relief (or indifference) of many a Hong Kong film fan. Even so, at the risk of talking about a dead issue, I can't help but reflect on the strong reactions provoked by Miramax's poor handling of Stephen Chow's most successful film to date.
     As many of you know, plenty of folks wanted to boycott the Weinstein's bowdlerized edition, seeing it as yet another example of the studio's blatant ignorance, insensitivity, and greed. However, though I've grown tired of studios slapping Carl Douglas's hit song "Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting!" onto virtually every Asian-related film trailer, I have to admit that seeing Stephen Chow's image on the American big screen (via the theatrical trailer) brought a smile to my face. Of all of Hong Kong's brightest talents, Chow was once thought to be the least likely to achieve crossover success. Whereas Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-Fat, and Jet Li each had qualities that American studios could market, Stephen Chow's appeal relied mainly on his mo lei tau humor and hilarious Cantonese wordplay—a virtual kiss of death for international superstardom. But with Shaolin Soccer, Chow made a film that played to more universal themes, and after some delay, it's finally making its way to a theater near you. This, my friends, is a big deal.
     Most people who like Shaolin Soccer probably already own a copy—I know I do. That might explain why devotees were eager to boycott the English-language cut. Nowadays, most HK cinemaphiles in the United States can easily obtain their favorite films through the luxury of online retailers, their local Chinatowns, or friends who know how to download workprints of the latest Ang Lee flick. I, on the other hand, still remember the days when Hong Kong movies were few and far between in the United States. Back then, I had resort to mail order catalogs to purchase legitimate versions of my favorite Chinese films. Sometimes a two-hour movie spread over a couple VHS tapes could cost as much as $49.99! Now anybody can pick up an original language version of Once Upon a Time in China on DVD for a paltry $14.99 at the neighborhood Wal-Mart. Keeping that in mind, I think Stephen Chow's leap to the American silver screen could be yet another monumental step towards the mainstream acceptance of Hong Kong cinema in the United States—even if Miramax changes its mind and releases the dubbed version.
     At this point, let's talk about the dreaded "D-word," dubbing. In a perfect society, subtitles wouldn't deter the average filmgoer from seeing a movie. Regrettably, we in the USA do not live in such a society. For whatever reason, some people (even highly educated ones) think reading subtitles is just too much work for a night out at the movies. Though I'd rather unwind by watching a subtitled Hong Kong movie than sit through the latest J-Lo flick, sadly I might be in the minority. If dubbing can help get Joe Public in the seats and expose them to at least one iota of the genius that is Stephen Chow, then I guess dubbing is something I'm going to have to accept when it comes to major American releases.
     And to be perfectly fair, the redubbing and recutting of foreign films isn't a practice that's limited only to those bastards at Miramax. Can anybody name a foreign comedy that was given a major American release in its original language this year? How about this century? Or even the last one? I sure can't. And what about the reverse situation: American films sent abroad? For years, plenty of Hollywood movies have been cut, dubbed, renamed, or banned altogether in foreign markets due to the tastes and standards of a particular culture. How do American filmmakers and foreign audiences react to this sort of creative sabotage? Outrage? Despair? Boycotts? Not really. For those involved in the film, these modifications are usually seen as amusing, cross-cultural quirks, the stuff of mere movie trivia and nothing more. However, when Shaolin Soccer is altered for American consumption, we (and I include myself in that rabid fanbase) react very, very strongly. One need only bounce around various Internet message boards for evidence of that. And though logical, plain spoken debate exists, the controversy seems to bring out the worst in people, as I've had to wade through a variety of forum postings where "experts" swap insults of an increasingly vulgar and/or homophobic degree simply if someone disagrees with their particular agenda. Despite my distaste for Weinstein's practices, even I have to roll my eyes when people lambaste Miramax for compromising the "artistic integrity" of Stephen Chow's film, which—as great as it may be—is at the end of the day, about kung fu and soccer. I don't mean to demean anyone for his or her dedication to the cause; I'm just hoping to give some perspective.
     Now let me reiterate once more, I'm not writing this to promote Miramax or their policies. I'm sure some of my favorite bits from Shaolin Soccer would have been lost in the recut American version. I shudder to think what would have become of Stephen Chow's "Heeey!" serenade of Vicki Zhao or his much-beloved "Siu Lam Gung Fu Ho Yeah!" duet with Wong Yat-Fei. But even as I lamented the planned dubbing (or complete loss) of those scenes, I eventually became more concerned with what the man himself—Stephen Chow—thought. If he really wanted his fanbase to unite against Miramax and boycott the film, then why did he promote it? If he truly felt the altered movie was inferior and not worth watching, then why did he lend his voice for the dubbing? Not even Jackie Chan goes to the trouble of promoting or redubbing all of his American re-releases. Sure, maybe Chow is a slave to some sort of nefarious legal contract with Miramax, but somehow I doubt it. Though I don't profess to know the mindset of Stephen Chow, is it too much of a stretch to suggest he might be hoping for a smash hit?
      This controversy caused me to remember a similar, but far less contested situation in 1996. That year another dubbed Hong Kong film was released stateside. It was called Rumble in the Bronx. Thanks to that "Americanized" edition, Jackie Chan did more than just score his first U.S. hit and gain worldwide recognition. He was suddenly cast in big budget Hollywood movies, his Chinese films became more readily available to the American public (no more mail order!), and the interest in Hong Kong movies in the West hit an all-time peak. Perhaps I am naïve in my ideas of how the film business works, but I would suspect that if Shaolin Soccer does well at the box office, then that could mean big things for Hong Kong cinema this time as well. Yes, it might result in Miramax butchering more movies or exerting their overbearing creative control on Asian filmmakers, but it might also spur other, more culture-friendly American studios to pick up the Hong Kong movie slack. Furthermore, as with Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-Fat, and Jet Li, it seems likely that the success of Shaolin Soccer could very well mean that other, older Stephen Chow movies could someday be available at your local stores. Maybe I'm alone on this, but the very thought of seeing Fight Back to School or From Beijing with Love in a Wal-Mart makes me crack a smile. Though some would sneer at such mainstream acceptance, I still think the more people who get the chance to LoveHKFilm, the better.
     Now if Miramax would only get around to actually releasing the damn movie…

- Sanjuro 08/29/03

*DISCLAIMER: This piece was originally written when the dubbed version of Shaolin Soccer was an extremely hot topic of discussion, but due to the sheer unpredictability of Miramax, this article has been delayed, recut, and grammatically altered to keep up with current events. Consequently, for many readers, it may seem irrelevant, contain inconsistent verb tenses, or just make no damn sense whatsoever. Sorry. Honestly, the writer doesn't care whether you see or don't see Miramax's version of Shaolin Soccer, whatever it finally turns out to be. There are so many possible far-reaching consequences based on the success or failure of the film that he wouldn't dare tell his readership (all four of them) what to do. He just wishes people would be more civil about their viewpoints, no matter what side they fall on. Ultimately, the opinions expressed within this column amount to nothing more than random letters typed on a computer by a somewhat evolved, partially inebriated monkey. Those who were forced into a berserker rage due to said drunken monkey's viewpoints may reach him here, though he would much rather you direct your ire at Harvey Weinstein c/o Miramax Films or as a last resort, the Webmaster since he is far more accustomed to hate mail than this writer. Doh jeh!
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