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Well, here we go again. With the “news media/noose Medea” equivalent of a shit-eating grin, The Weinstein Company (TWC) have announced that they are intending to, not only produce a CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON prequel but, remake two classics from the Shaw Brothers Studio library – King Hu’s COME DRINK WITH ME and Sun Chung’s AVENGING EAGLE – all scripted by John Fusco, the clearly kung-ignorant writer of that monument to misunderstanding, FORBIDDEN KINGDOM.
This is not the first time TWC made such noises. Reports surfaced a few years back that they were eyeing FIVE (DEADLY) VENOMS, among others, for a reboot. Nothing came of that, and hopefully nothing will come of this either. It could be the time-honored technique of crafty producers everywhere: run it up the flagpole and see if enough people salute to make it financially feasible. Or, worse, it could be just another part in the Weinsteins’ perplexing, long-running, and strangely obsessive quest to seemingly minimize the effect of Asian film on Hollywood and audiences in America. Because make no mistake: they have spent many years, and many, many dollars to ostensibly assure just that.
But Ric, that’s nuts. Why would they spend all that money if all they wanted to do was hurt the genre? Tell it to Orson Welles, folks. He said, “Hollywood isn’t about money, it’s about ego.” And he was right. Tell it to Sue Grafton, who became a best-selling mystery author after being a successful screenwriter, and swore never to sell her book character to films because she “didn’t like the way they (producers) play.” Many of them play by stomping on others’ hopes and dreams seemingly just for the “fun” of it. That’s how they “keep score.” Ask anyone whose livelihood isn’t dependent on these particularly venal producers’ full pockets and empty smiles.
Or just follow the money. There’s a good reason why “actions speak louder than words” is a cliché. First, the Weinsteins’ company bought the American rights to as many Hong Kong kung fu classics as they could … and shelved them. When other established companies approached them with offers of co-distribution, they were told, “We bought them so you couldn’t have them.”
“I still remember the day we received the cease-and-desist letter from Miramax (this was before TWC was founded) advising us that they were now the U.S. rights holder of WING CHUN,” says Frank Djeng, long time Product Marketing Manager for the now-defunct Tai Seng Entertainment, “and that we needed to turn over everything that we had — DVD masters, Laserdisc masters, all artwork, everything — to them within ten days or we’d be sued. That was the first time we realized that a film that Tai Seng owned could be taken away by someone who’s simply willing to pay much more. The same thing happened again a few years later with IRON MONKEY.”
But at least the Weinsteins released their DVD version of IRON MONKEY… unlike WING CHUN, which, like some other Weinstein acquisitions, never saw the light of DVD day. Reportedly, Asian film fanatic Quentin Tarantino, who is all but the foundation of the Weinsteins’ rise to cinematic prominence, insisted that at least the cream of the crop be released. So Dragon Dynasty Home Entertainment appeared in 2007, with good staff (Bey Logan and Hong Kong Legends DVD master Brian White) and great titles. But by 2009, reportedly both Logan and White had left the company, and the release schedule became sporadic – the last known Dragon Dynasty DVD appearing in 2011.
By then, the Weinsteins’ cavalier approach to their property became clear. At added, completely unnecessary, cost, the company would alter the soundtrack, dubbing, and subtitles – never, in my opinion, improving the original, and, in some glaring cases, deviously damaging the films’ chances at respectability in the wake of CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON’s 2000 release, Oscars, and box office windfall.
“Personally I was very upset to see Miramax (and later TWC) altering the films they buy in any way or form,” Djeng told me. “To me, anyone who attempted to change a director’s work on a film because they think it can be improved or catered more to Western tastes (e.g. some jokes will not go over well so let’s take those out, etc.) is exercising self-censorship and also being disrespectful to the original work and the culture it portrays or represents.”
Interestingly, the films that were most insidiously altered were the best ones. DRUNKEN MASTER 2, generally considered Jackie Chan’s finest kung fu film, was given one of the most generic, seemingly ashamed, DVD covers ever devised. Rather than proudly display it as the action masterpiece it was, the Weinsteins packaged it as a cheap, veritable sequel to Rumble in the Bronx, as if declaring, “This is good enough for garbage.”
Their DVD cover for Jet Li’s FIST OF LEGEND wasn’t misleading, but the new subtitles were. In fact, the movie’s most important line: “if you want to win a fight, bring a gun – kung fu is for harnessing your inner energy,” was changed to “if you adapt, you will be invincible,” despite the fact that the speaker was miming holding a gun.
Now, if you were the Weinsteins, wouldn’t you want to release your brand, spanking new, 2001 acquisition, SHAOLIN SOCCER, at the height of the World Cup Soccer championships in 2002? But you aren’t the Weinsteins. Inexplicably, they dragged their feet until 2004, a full two years after the 2002 World Cup and two years before the next one. They also tore twenty-three minutes out of the essentially perfect, classic comedy.
Anyone who watched Zhang Yimou’s 2002 production, HERO, would know it was one of the best epics ever made – a clear work of cinematic art. But to the Weinsteins, it was just another crappy Asian action film. Why else would they delay its announced release date a full half dozen times … until years after it had swept awards all over the world? Purportedly, only the intervention of Tarantino secured its official, unsullied, American release in 2004, but, still, the Weinsteins had the last “laugh.”
They expressed “surprise” that all their postponements still couldn’t prevent a fifty million dollar U.S. box office take, then pointlessly, seemingly maliciously, changed the DVD box art so that Jet Li’s character held a samurai sword – tantamount to having Robert Redford holding a soccer ball on The Natural DVD cover. Now if the Chinese released a DVD of Pride of the Yankees with Lou Gehrig in a football helmet, we’d chide them mercilessly. But the Weinsteins? They apparently think you’re too stupid to know the difference between China and Japan … or care.
Naturally they wouldn’t cross their golden boy, so Quentin’s Kill Bill Volumes One and Two came out without Weinstein “improvements.” But it was too much of a martial art mashup to elevate the kung fu film in either audiences’, or the Weinsteins’, estimation. But then, in 2008, came FORBIDDEN KINGDOM, the Weinsteins’ very own “kumg foo” film, which clearly displayed what they thought of the genre.
What they apparently thought was this: let’s buy the three greatest kung fu film minds in the world – Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and choreographer Yuen Wo Ping – attach wires to them (so they are robbed of the integral foundations of real kung fu: balance and gravity), then prevent them from doing what they do best. It’s as if the Weinsteins had hired Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire to make the ultimate musical, then yanked them around on wires … when they weren’t insisting they break dance ‘cause “that’s what the kids like.”
Sure, there’s mixed martial arts in FORBIDDEN KINGDOM. There’s all sorts of stiff arm, straight leg, hipless, anger-driven punches and kicks in it. But I can assure you that there is not a nano-second of real kung fu. At times, when let off the literal and figurative wire leash, Jet and Jackie will approximate an effective kung fu stance, but a second later, they’re back to straight, closed-fist punches … as if someone, or many someones, had no idea what those stances actually were or what they really meant (kung fu stances are used to gather power from the energy in your body and the world around you … so you don’t have to do self-destructive straight-arm punches and wasteful stiff-legged kicks).
FORBIDDEN KINGDOM is the epitome of kung fu ignorance. It feints with style, but the obvious lack of understanding as to what kung fu is coats the film like a golf ball. Beyond the ham-fisted story-telling and the Chinese film rip-offs, the kid hero takes the bully villain’s exact same spinning kick to the torso multiple times without learning anything. Then, when he finally uses the film’s lame “kumg foo,” he does an absurd twisting, flipping, cork-screwing something-or-other instead of simply turning slightly, and letting the bully’s own aggression make him fall on his ass.
At one point, Jet Li’s character defines the term “kung fu” as “concerted effort toward a specific goal,” and that’s superficially accurate as far as it goes. But just like the action sequences, it goes only as deep as the surface, so as not to threaten the filmmakers’ desire to have Jet, Jackie, and Yuen do “what the kids like.” In FILMS OF FURY: THE KUNG FU MOVIE MOVIE, we defined “kung fu,” more trenchantly I feel (but I would, wouldn’t I?), as “human achievement.”
Kung fu is not martial arts (“wushu” means martial arts). It’s not fighting. Kung fu is a time-tested system where the ability to defend yourself (from the rare misguided attacker as well as germs and your own stress) comes as an organic, devastatingly effective, side-effect of internal, external, mental, and physical self-improvement (great men have told me “know mother nature, know human nature, know your own nature, and then you will know kung fu”).
Too esoteric you say? Not for KUNG FU PANDA (six hundred million and counting). Not for Jackie’s KARATE KID (three hundred million and counting). Not even for CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON. But the Weinsteins apparently intend to do something about that. They couldn’t buy or ruin the original, so they’re creating a precursor in their image. In fact, they’re hoping to “FORBIDDEN KINGDOM” it by unleashing Fusco and their own smothering “love” of Asian film. And that’s not all … which brings us back to the central conceit of this frothing op-ed.
Did I hear someone say that Celestial Pictures, the Shaw Studio copyright owners, are teaming with The Weinstein Company to produce these Hu and Chung remakes, so they might be good? Yeah, and Bruce Lee’s studio, Golden Harvest, had his extensive notes, plot, sketches, hand-picked Chinese co-stars, and forty minutes of raw footage, yet still they made that GAME OF DEATH abomination.
To paraphrase Comedy Film Nerd Chris Mancini, never attribute malice to any studio decision that can be explained by arrogance and ignorance. I’ve tried, Chris, I’ve tried, but as a devout lover of mystery fiction, how else can the preceding be justified? What would Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot make of it? The lack of respect and dismissive derision the Weinsteins display for this genre, and the people who love it, is manifest.
What could they possibly gain by these remakes? The titles are not famous enough to elicit even the reaction a reboot of MY MOTHER THE CAR would engender. And even at their most popular, COME DRINK WITH ME and AVENGING EAGLE are only really known by the very fans who the Weinsteins have repeatedly treated like dirt over the years. Do they come to praise the genre … or further bury it?
As Sherlock said, “When you eliminate the impossible, whatever is left, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” TWC have clearly shown that they don’t respect these films and the people who love them. Yet, they still out-bid everyone as often as possible in order to shelve, delay, alter, misrepresent, and just generally hamper their own costly acquisitions. This behavior seems to run beyond my general conclusion that Hollywood producers don’t want Asian-style action to take over their round-house-punch style stunting. This seems somehow … personal.
Were the Weinsteins frightened, or angered, by an Asian as children? Are they doing this simply because they can? That, while the rest of the industry toys with marginalizing women and other minorities, they’ve decided that Asian cinema is their personal playground? Your guess is as good as mine. But now would be a great time to start, and continue, that guessing.
Still, despite all the evidence supporting despair, I do not condemn these remakes. In fact, if they happen, I hope they’re great … as I hope every time I walk into a cinema or power up my various viewing devices. But I will be watching whatever is released with the weight of thirty-five years of sharing my love of great, unsullied, unedited, unaltered, kung fu films; thirty years of martial arts study; and ten years of kung fu practice and teaching.
And, as I’ve learned in that teaching, kung fu is not about “win or lose,” it’s about “learn or not learn.” I can only hope, with passion and compassion, that TWC and the filmmakers of any Shaw Studio remake have learned something since the last time they foisted their ignorance, arrogance, and maybe even malice, upon the audience.
Stay strong, smart, and serene, Asian film fans. There may be a lot of people in the world who might want to hurt you or hold you back. Don’t be one of them.
RIC MEYERS is the author of Films of Fury: The Kung Fu Movie Book (ricmeyers.com) — the latest of three ground-breaking martial art movie books — and screenwriter for Films of Fury: The Kung Fu Movie Movie (filmsoffury.com, netflix.com). His film review column appeared in both Inside Kung Fu and Asian Cult Cinema magazines for decades. He has been inducted into four international martial art halls of fame, and his annual San Diego Comic Con Kung Fu Extravaganza just celebrated its 16th anniversary. His audio commentary on the Once Upon a Time in China DVD has been called one of the greatest ever by The Onion’s non-satiric AV Club. He continues to learn, and teach, kung fu all over the place.