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Disney and Asian cinema: One hand strangles the other

Ian Rowan sees the dark side of Disney’s ‘magic kingdom’

In the currently raging debate over intellectual property which has inevitably revealed an increasingly unhealthy marriage of private guilds and corporations with the Leviathan state, those who argue in favor of draconian restrictions upon technology and the end user/citizen have made a number of sweeping claims, among the most preeminent that without such restrictions, artists will not be properly compensated for their labor, and creativity itself will wither and die.

I find this particular stance especially galling due to its hypocrisy. While Disney has indeed done some very nice work in the past if you like that sort of thing (my wife does; where I tend more toward the Warner Brothers school of animation, as a friend of mine suggests most males align themselves with the Three Stooges to the exclusion of most women), they have joined the ranks of most success stories by placing increasing emphasis upon slick appearance and lack of actual creative substance. They simultaneously lobby the state for the further extension of copyright, to the point that one can only conclude that their goal is to be able to retain the right to sue people who portray Mickey Mouse in an unflattering context until the heat-death of the universe; rest on their laurels by continuing to milk their classic creations ’til the memory is distorted beyond all recollection; and churn out ‘new’ movies consisting primarily of established and existing folk tales, or when absolutely pressed, a cookie-cutter, blandly inoffensive and ever-so-correct morality play with all the moral tension of ‘Davey and Goliath’.

Yet for me, even these established and indisputably reprehensible tactics pale in comparison to Disney’s recent “crackdown on kung fu”.

While it is relatively simple to avoid giving any of my time, attention or money to Disney’s creations, they are now claiming ownership and control over works they have not themselves produced, but which they have acquired from others. Specifically, the Disney sub-feifdoms Miramax and Dimension Films are claiming “exclusive North American distribution rights” on a fast increasing number of Asian films, to the point of threatening legitimate distributors who offer the original versions.

When released to the American public, the rule of thumb has been to dub the dialogue into English (and to replace the original soundtrack with bad rap, a separate sin and one beyond the scope of this essay). Worse yet is for films to have material completely removed, and not just in terms of plot or comedy deemed too ‘foreign’, but in the essential action sequences. Even Drunken Master 2, which was edited less than any other ‘Disneyfied’ Asian film to date, was not spared a dub job, and the result was music and sound effects far inferior to the original. It’s not for nothing that Harvey Weinstein has earned the nickname “Harvey Scissorhands”:

Asian cinema? I was doing Asian cinema fucking 10 years ago. Crouching Tiger – is that a new thing? Give me a break, I own all the Jackie Chan back catalogue in America, all the Jet Lee, all the Chow Yun-Fats. I was so far ahead of myself. [And apparently full of himself as well -Ian Rowan]

While I can regrettably understand the ‘bums on seats’ arguments from the bean-counters in favor of such a maneuver, even given the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a theatrical release and even a traditional home video are wholly different animals from a DVD. While this newer format has its own superset of not entirely unique issues, one would still think that its ability to contain multiple soundtracks would satisfy both the company and fans if all flavors. Foreign distributors seem to recognize this, as most imported discs contain far more languages on average than their typical North American counterpart. But the choice has been made for you, and more distressingly, Disney is resorting to the gun of the law to prevent people from acquiring the original product through lawful purchase.

A more cynical person might suggest that Disney is attempting to create the impression that they are the actual creators of these works, concealing their true origin for a number of nefarious reasons, but I don’t really care about their motivations. It’s bad enough when the state presumes to tell me what I am allowed to buy and who I’m allowed to buy from, but when a private guild goes begging to that same state for the privilege to enforce their dubious claims on that same authority, they have committed a far greater evil than any amount of tasteless over-marketing or vapid product. Weinstein’s remarks above are certainly revealing, in that he speaks as if his keen acumen in acquiring the rights to the works of others is the equal of having created those works in the first place.

Those who desire the original soundtrack and an unedited film have over the years turned to various importers for material which for whatever reason was not available in their own country. Unauthorized copying and sale still occurred, but as long as there were legitimate sources they did a reasonable business, with an informal network of fans taking advantage of the Internet to inform each other of disreputable or unreliable merchants. With the outlawing of such sources, however, Disney’s behavior will ultimately prove self-defeating. The longer they sit on and butcher these movies, the greater the demand will grow for unauthorized versions — and the laws of economics dictate that where there is demand, there will be a supply to fill it. Thus, Disney’s own actions create and encourage the very copyright violation they have sworn to stamp out.

Ian Rowan

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