Hollywood has discovered Asian cinema, but decided remakes are how to get a piece of the action. While many of the new versions are just pale imitations, the trend's not all bad: It brings much-deserved exposure to the originals.
One of the most discussed movies this year is one that won't even be in theaters until 2006.
A Boston-based crime thriller, "The Departed," boasts an A-list cast including Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Mark Wahlberg. Jack Nicholson has reportedly signed on for a crucial supporting role, and Martin Scorsese will direct. Despite all the buzz, what many people won't know is that it's a remake of the taut, stylish Hong Kong drama "Infernal Affairs," a 2002 film that got a brief run at the Brattle Theatre last November.
If there's a trend to be found in recent cinema, it's the decidedly Eastern persuasion of more than a few American movies. "The Grudge," "The Ring," and "Shall We Dance?" were all based on Japanese originals, and together they pulled in nearly $300 million domestically.
And that's just the beginning: Major studios are continuing to snap up the rights to films from South Korea, Japan, and Hong Kong with the intention of remaking them with American actors. By some estimates, at least two dozen Asian films are slated for remakes, including South Korea's "Old Boy," "Il Mare," and "A Tale of Two Sisters," and "The Eye," a Hong Kong/Thailand production. And before even a single frame of the "The Departed" has been shot, Scorsese and DiCaprio are already in negotiations to remake yet another Asian movie, Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's 1948 noir "Drunken Angel."
Mercifully, we aren't likely to have to endure anything as unsightly as, say, Brad Pitt, Renee Zellweger, and Ben Affleck in an American remake of "House of Flying Daggers," the current art-house film by acclaimed Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou. But high-wire martial arts stories are about the only Asian films that aren't garnering major attention from Hollywood.
For all the effort being dedicated to remaking Asian movies, however, some wonder whether the same vigor and funding would be better spent promoting the original films, which are often more audacious and challenging than the sometimes watered-down remakes that wind up in American multiplexes.
"Personally, I think [remakes] are a good thing because it provides exposure for the original source material," says David Leong, news editor of Kung Fu Cult Cinema (kfccinema.com), a popular Asian-film website. "But it's also a bad thing, because the remakes are rarely up to the standards of the originals. Some of the themes are denser in the original source, and they -- Hollywood studios -- tend to dumb them down. Character development is taken out or plot points are roughed over, and that's a sore point for a lot of fans who like Asian films."
While Hollywood's burst of interest in Asian films might be new, for decades savvy Western filmmakers have taken inspiration from their counterparts in the East. John Sturges's 1960 Western "The Magnificent Seven" was a remake of Kurosawa's 1954 classic "Seven Samurai." Kurosawa's "Yojimbo" provided the blueprint for Sergio Leone's "A Fistful of Dollars" (as did actor Toshiro Mifune's droll ronin for Clint Eastwood's iconic Man with No Name), as well as Walter Hill's "Last Man Standing," a lousy 1996 film starring Bruce Willis. And a prime influence for George Lucas's "Star Wars" was "The Hidden Fortess," also by Kurosawa.
Yet, except for cinephiles, most folks are more familiar with the American remakes. These days, Roy Lee, a partner in the independent production company Vertigo Entertainment, is Hollywood's point man for Asian remakes. Lee finds what he considers the best Asian films, negotiates the remake rights, and sells them to Hollywood studios. He facilitated the remakes of "Ringu," "Ju-on," and "Infernal Affairs," as well as upcoming Americanized versions of the South Korean comedies "My Sassy Girl" and "My Wife Is a Gangster."
"These are films people here were never exposed to in a way that would make them adaptable to the US market," Lee says. "We take the projects, match them up with actors, writers, and directors, and pitch the studios as to exactly how we would do it in the United States. Before that, [Asian films] were watched by the acquisitions side of the studios, looking at them only for release purposes."
And remakes, with recognizable actors and no subtitles, tend to be far more profitable than foreign films.
"There's still tremendous resistance to subtitles" among American filmgoers, says Martin Grove, an online columnist for The Hollywood Reporter. "People aren't used to [reading subtitles], and they don't like doing it." (One of the few exceptions to this rule is Yimou's "Hero," which pulled in more than $53 million last year. It was greatly helped by action star Jet Li's above-the-title billing and a hearty endorsement from devoted Asian film fan Quentin Tarantino.)
Still, in opting for a remake, American audiences are sometimes cheated of an original film's singular charm and viewpoint. Such was the case with last year's "Shall We Dance?," based on a Japanese film of the same name released here in 1997. That film's cultural component didn't have the same resonance in the American version. In Masayuki Suo's movie, a businessman, stifled by his country's restrictive cultural order, achieves emotional freedom when he enrolls in a dance school. In the American version, Gere's workaholic lawyer seeks a refuge from life's demands, yet the remake lacks the original's poignancy and subtle social critique.
"Certain things just don't translate on a one-to-one basis," Leong says. "The whole idea of being a bottled-up, repressed worker and finding release in dancing just didn't work as well because America is a totally different society.
"I believe if you treat your audience with respect, you'll get the payoff," he maintains. "Unfortunately, the studios don't think American audiences are intelligent enough to follow a movie plot that's not American. There's a lack of respect by Hollywood studios that, in the end, irritates people. They change the flow of a movie, the intent of a scene; you change the original director's vision, and you end up with trash."
In acquiring the rights to Asian films, Lee has developed a sense for which films probably won't work as remakes. He likes comedies, thrillers, and horror films, but tends to steer clear of "dramas rooted into the culture with family and relationships. They're just harder to translate."
Still, as Leong asserts, Hollywood's interest in Asia has also created a small but burgeoning market for original Asian films. Last year, Kino Video released "The Wong Kar-Wai Collection," featuring five films from the Hong Kong auteur, as well as prolific Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike's outrageously graphic "Dead or Alive" trilogy. Home Vision Entertainment put out "The Yakuza Papers: Battles Without Honor & Humanity," Kinji Fukasaku's tremendously compelling five-part gangster epic, which has often been compared to the "Godfather" films.
And films such as "Ringu," "Ju-on," "Shall We Dance?," and "Infernal Affairs," once only available as expensive imports or dodgy bootlegs, are now regularly stocked in stores selling or renting DVDs.
"I had these awful copies of 'Ringu' from the UK and Hong Kong -- the subtitles were bad, the picture quality was terrible. Now the best copy out there is the Region 1 [DVDs playable in North America]," says Jimmy Nguyen, a Kung Fu Cult Cinema film critic. "With all the remakes and attention toward Asian cinema, even films that aren't being remade are being released on video. That's a great thing. You'd go to Blockbuster, and you were really limited in the foreign section, but now there's all these Korean and Japanese films. It's cool." (For those who prefer the big screen, Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, which last month concluded a series of the late Susan Sontag's favorite Japanese films, will be screening Takeshi Kitano's "Dolls," today at 12:20 p.m. There are also numerous showings of Wong Kar-Wai's "Days of Being Wild" this month, beginning Thursday.)
The trend has also presented opportunities for Asian filmmakers. "The Grudge" was remade by its original director, Takashi Shimizu. And Hideo Nakata, who helmed "Ringu" and its sequel, was tapped for "The Ring 2," scheduled for release here next month. Others such as Hong Kong's Johnnie To are also being courted, much as American studios enticed Ang Lee and John Woo in the 1990s.
In April, "The Departed" is scheduled to begin shooting in Boston, and expectations for the film's success are high. Some also hope this remake will respect the integrity of its Hong Kong inspiration, "Infernal Affairs," which might have found an American audience if it had been given a real chance.
"I'm looking forward to it because Scorsese is a great filmmaker, and it'll be interesting to see how he vamps off the originals," Leong says. "But I also dread it because if they pretty it up, it could be a totally different movie."