Welcome to Harvey’s Hellhole, a new, monthly column devoted to spotlighting the movies that were poorly marketed, mishandled, reshaped, neglected or just straight-up destroyed by Harvey Weinstein, during his reign as one of the most powerful studio chiefs in Hollywood. This month’s column is on Weinstein’s early-aughts run of acquiring Asian blockbusters, mainly in the hopes that they would be as successful as the One that Got Away:
To say the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon bothered Harvey Weinstein would be an understatement.
Ang Lee’s high-flying, martial-arts period piece, starring Asian action icons Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh and distributed by Sony Pictures Classics, was a critically-acclaimed, award-winning hit, making over $200 million worldwide ($128 million right here in the States) and winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
Of course, Weinstein had to downplay reports of regularly chewing out his acquisitions staff for letting Crouching slip through their fingers; “It’s not true that it drove me crazy,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2001. Nevertheless, after the movie won over America, he went on an acquiring spree, snagging Far East titles left and right, hoping to get some chopsocky gold of his own.
Unfortunately, when Weinstein got hold of these films, he once again went into Harvey Scissorhands mode and turned out redubbed, rescored and heavily recut films. (This wasn’t a new thing — a few years before, Miramax’s genre-picture wing Dimension released several repackaged Jackie Chan titles, including Supercop and Operation Condor.) At the request of Miramax golden boy Quentin Tarantino, he dumped $10 million into rehauling and releasing Iron Monkey, a 1991 flick produced by Hong Kong great Tsui Hark and directed by Crouching fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping. Despite its truncated form, it got good reviews and became the eleventh highest-grossing foreign-language film in the U.S. The same can’t be said for Shaolin Soccer, Stephen Chow’s 2001 sports comedy that, despite being a smash in Hong Kong, only made about half a million when a sliced-and-diced version finally got to the States in 2004.
Perhaps the most well-documented case of Weinstein mishandling an Asian import is the release of Hero, a 2002 wuxia tale that, just like Crouching, features elegant visuals and gravity-defying action sequences. It has a murderers’ row of Hong Kong stars: Jet Li, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Donnie Yen, even Crouching co-star Zhang Ziyi. And it’s directed by Zhang Yimou, the filmmaker of such acclaimed Asian dramas as To Live and Raise the Red Lantern.
Based on Jing Ke’s assassination attempt on the King of Qin in 227 B.C., this Rashomon-esque story has Li as a nameless fighter (who is actually referred to as Nameless) having a sit-down with a conquering king (Chen Daoming) he plans to take out. But before that, he tells the king how he allegedly took out three of the king’s most ardent assassins — Sky (Yen) and lovers Broken Sword (Leung) & Flying Snow (Cheung) — in heavily colorful flashbacks. The movie is an endless visual feast, with longtime Wong Kar-wai cinematographer Christopher Doyle making sure everything sparkles on-screen.
It’s easy to see why Weinstein snapped up the North American distribution rights for $20 million, before it was even released in China. But even after he touted in press releases how much he was looking forward to bringing Hero to U.S. multiplexes, the movie would spend a lengthy amount of time on the fabled Miramax shelf.
For two years, Weinstein concentrated more on the prestige flicks that he hoped would get him some Oscars (Gangs of New York, Cold Mountain, etc.) than little ol’ Hero, which actually did receive a Best Foreign Language Film nod at the 2003 Academy Awards. So many release dates came and went, it got to the point where Tarantino, fresh off the Kill Bill movies, stepped in to ensure the movie’s profitability by stamping a “Quentin Tarantino Presents” in the marketing material. By the time it was released in August of 2004, Hero already broke box office records in China and hit the DVD market overseas. (I should know — I bought one off eBay before it came out.)
Thankfully, American audiences were ready to take Hero’s journey; the movie was number one at the box office in its first two weeks of release, grossing $53.7 million domestically and becoming the third highest-grossing foreign film in the U.S. (Crouching is still numero uno.) Of course, many critics loved it, even though some didn’t dig its autocratic subject matter. (J. Hoberman said it made him think of Leni Riefenstahl and Triumph of the Will, while Sean Burns called it “visually breathtaking, narratively klutzy and politically sickening.”) Unlike the other Asian films Weinstein released, Hero was mostly untarnished. I’m assuming even Weinstein knew he shouldn’t touch the perfection Zhang crafted.
But even after Weinstein moved from Miramax to The Weinstein Company, he was still chasing after Crouching’s success, even making the mediocre sequel Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny for Netflix in 2016. He could’ve had something when he snagged Wong Kar-wai’s Ip Man biopic The Grandmaster in 2013. But we once again got a recut version (supervised by Wong, mind you) when it hit U.S. shores. After all those years, Weinstein never learned that, when it came to cutting shit out, he really needed to cut that shit out.
“Hero” is currently streaming on HBOMax.