Weinstein gets snippy with ‘Snowpiercer,’ but let’s hold our fire

Posted by · 2:05 pm · August 6th, 2013

It’s a familiar situation in the film blogosphere: everyone’s mad at Harvey Weinstein, and it’s not even the Oscar season. A few hours have passed since the news broke that the business-savvy mogul, famously nicknamed “Harvey Scissorhands” in industry quarters, might be making some cuts to South Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho’s “Snowpiercer” – and already the inflamed (and inflammatory) headlines are circulating by the dozen. “Harvey thinks America is too stupid for ‘Snowpiercer,’” runs the general gist and, well, let’s calm down a little.

“Snowpiercer,” for those who haven’t heard of it, is genre expert Bong’s first English-language feature — a dystopian actioner set on a globe-crossing express train, with a starry cast including Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer and Ed Harris. Already a smash in iits home country, early reviews (led by a Variety rave from Scott Foundas) have been highly encouraging, giving the Weinsteins every reason to feel bullish about the film as it readies for the international market.

Well, with some adjustments. Word is out — via Inside Film reporter Don Groves — that The Weinstein Company wants around 20 minutes cut from the 126-minute film before it faces English-speaking audiences. Groves quotes Tony Rayns, a festival programmer and Asian film specialist, as saying: 

“TWC people have told Bong that their aim is to make sure the film ‘will be understood by audiences in Iowa … and Oklahoma.’ Leaving aside the issue of what Weinstein thinks of its audience, it seems to say the least anomalous that the rest of the English-speaking world has to be dragged down to the presumed level of American midwest hicks.”

Those are some tangy statements there, and it’s not surprising that they’re being liberally quoted around the internet as supposed proof of Weinstein’s craven commercial instincts and contempt for audiences. But — and forgive me for pointing out the obvious — none of these words are actually Weinstein’s. Rayns is a passionate critic and a loyal auteurist, so it’s not surprising that he’s aggrieved by the prospect of cutting Bong’s work, but his words seem heavily colored by anger and protectiveness. Weinstein may be concerned about the film’s global accessibility, but that’s not to say he’s on a “dumbing down” mission. 

“Snowpiercer” is, of course, far from the first film to which the Weinsteins have proposed a little tweaking before their international release: Zhang Yimou’s Oscar-nominated “Hero” and Hayao Miyazaki’s “Princess Mononoke” are among the Asian titles to have received that treatment, while this year, Wong Kar-Wai’s “The Grandmaster” underwent some similar pruning. (Lest you think he only gets scissor-happy with foreign-language fare, David Lowery’s “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” is another recent festival film that heeded the Weinsteins’ editorial advice.)

Is he out of line, or is he acting in the film’s best interests? Well, without having seen the film, it’s impossible to say. The purist stance that no distributor should demand cuts to a director’s finished work is an easy one to take — but positive early reviews and domestic box office don’t automatically render a film beyond reproach. Weinstein’s career has been built on a keen, if hardly infallible, sense of how audiences respond to a work in different contexts — that’s what makes him such an effective Oscar campaigner, after all. 

Anne Thompson makes the worthwhile point that the Weinsteins might have done well to program the film — in its original cut — at a North American festival like Toronto, to gauge audience reaction before settling on the necessary edits. That doesn’t seem to be on the cards at this stage, but there’s surely more to this story than the indignation of a righteous critic — including the as-yet-unclear response of Bong himself. In the meantime, I look forward to seeig the film in its most flattering form possible.

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