Bellyache: To Remake or Not to Remake?

Sadako Samara contemplates whether she’s destined to remain the face of Asian cinema in America.

Grady Hendrix just posted a very thoughtful piece about Hollywood’s seeming lack of interest in distributing and/or remaking Asian film over at Kaiju Shakedown. While you might think he would have a clichéd, knee-jerk fanboy reaction of “stop remaking Asian films!” he actually makes a strong case for the opposite, both as a means to generate interest in the originals, and to buoy the struggling US film industry. He starts things off with a rundown of this year’s International Watch List. You can read a detailed description of the concept, as well as the complete list here, but the gist is that it tallies the best international films of the past year, as voted on by US film execs (and their assistants). You know, film execs. They’re the people who have the power to get foreign films booked in US theaters and/or nail down the American remake rights. On this year’s list, Na Hong-jin’s thriller The Chaser came in at number 5, and Kim Ji-woon’s Korean spaghetti western The Good, the Bad, the Weird clocked in at number 13, but in the complete list of 17 features those are the only representatives of Asian film. Grady then goes on a great tirade (which reminds me of the ‘Really!?!’ bit from SNL‘s Weekend Update), where he lists key demographics (films marketed to women, boys, action fans, etc) and then gives plum examples in each category that have great remake potential (Hula Girls, The Great Yokai War, Sparrow, etc).

To be fair, there actually have been quite a few Asian film remakes in the past few years, but unfortunately almost all of them have been inferior takes on the once-buzzworthy Asian horror boom. This is probably due in large part to Vertigo Entertainment’s “remake king” Roy Lee, who seems to be fixated on this one cinematic niche. He’s brought us The Ring 1 and 2 (with production of part 3 announced), The Grudge 1 and 2 (and part 3 coming direct to DVD), Dark Water, The Eye, Shutter, and The Uninvited, a remake of A Tale of Two Sisters which opens later this month. While I certainly have nothing against horror films, you have to wonder: doesn’t it occur to Lee and others in similar positions of power that this one genre isn’t the be-all and end-all of Asian cinema?

Andy and Tony in The Departed Infernal Affairs demonstrate that not only horror remakes can be successful.

Historically speaking, American remakes of Asian films have certainly paid off in the past. Obvious examples include: Seven Samurai, which was remade as The Magnificent Seven and Yojimbo, which was remade as A Fistful of Dollars. Much more recently the first entry in the Infernal Affairs trilogy was remade as The Departed (which, to be fair, was also produced by Roy Lee) and nabbed Best Picture at the Oscars (never mind the fact that the announcer incorrectly identified the source material as a Japanese film). The originals were all great, and so were their American remakes. There are currently a slew of entertaining rom-coms, weepies, police procedurals, blockbusters and more that would make for smart, profitable films in the right hands. Note I said the right hands, which means I’m not referring to the direct-to-DVD American remake of My Sassy Girl and the limp Il Mare remake The Lake House. But since I’ve now mentioned those two, and since Grady talked about films marketed to women (“a demographic you generally hold in contempt, Hollywood”), what about Lee Chang-dong’s absolutely wrenching 2007 film Secret Sunshine? Lead actress Jeon Do-yeon took home the Best Actress prize not only at Korea’s Blue Dragon Awards, but at the Asian Film Awards and Cannes as well. A competent remake with strong performances could clean up at the Oscars.

Secret Sunshine‘s Jeon Do-yeon and Song Kang-ho drive in search of intelligent life in Hollywood the universe.

I’m also going to pretend like the American remake of Bangkok Dangerous (both versions directed by the Pang Brothers) didn’t happen. I think some American producers may still be hung up on the idea of “bullet ballet,” but that particular style of filmmaking seems even less relevant than Asian horror these days. Forget the whip pans and explosions, what about smart crime thrillers like PTU or Exiled, or… well, a handful of Johnnie To films from the last decade? If any director’s work is engaging and populist enough to be easily translatable to these shores it’s that of To, who’s already had retrospectives at the AFI Silver and the New York Asian Film Festival. Russia was smart enough to remake the taut Breaking News, but what ever happened to the American version that supposedly had Joel Schumacher attached?

Anthony Wong and co. carrying the money Hollywood is missing out on from Johnnie To’s Exiled.

In conclusion: take a few calculated risks, people. That is all.


4 Responses to “Bellyache: To Remake or Not to Remake?”

  1. January 17, 2009 at 12:27 am

    Nice post! Glad to see you are posting more than just your excellent reviews!

    What about psuedo-remakes like Star Wars? As a teenager, I sought out Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress and Ford’s The Searchers precisely because Lucas admitted over and over how much he stole from (was influenced by) those two films.

    And Johnnie To himself is about to remake a French heist film when his films already play like French heist films!

  2. January 19, 2009 at 6:51 pm

    Thanks for the kind words, Glenn!

    Good points, all. I still remember watching the Hidden Fortress for the first time (which was on the big screen at the Kennedy Center—amazing!) and thinking to myself that maybe George Lucas wasn’t the startlingly original authorial voice I had been thinking he was all those years. That was only compounded by watching Bill Moyers’ amazing interview series with Joseph Campbell, “The Power of Myth,” which I highly recommend.

    As for Monsieur To, I’ll paraphrase something I once said about Maggie Cheung: He could remake the ingredients panel on a box of cereal and I’d be there. By the way, what the heck IS up with that Red Circle remake? Haven’t heard any news of that one in a while. It’s listed as “in production” on IMDb, but they’re not terribly reliable.

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