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Rethinking Hollywood’s Remake Machine

5 April 2020

Rethinking Hollywood’s Remake Machine

Hollywood has been adapting Asian films for decades. The early 2000s saw a boom in remakes, especially for thriller and J-Horror movies. Some of the most memorable franchises worldwide such as Godzilla and The Grudge are based on their original counterparts from Asia. 

Most of these remakes were met with disapproval, often because they’re just watered down versions of the original, or simply indifferent to the source. To critics and audiences, this trend also implies that Hollywood is running out of ideas and getting lazy. 

But remakes aren’t necessarily all that bad solely because they are adapted from an existing source. There have been some well-executed adaptations from one media to another, like Chicago, Lord of the Rings  and Jojo Rabbit just to name a few. 

Still from Godzilla (1954) by Ishiro Honda

Yet somehow, Hollywood can’t seem to get adapting Asian media right. Whenever there’s a remake, we can’t help but feel disgruntled by what seems to be an appropriation of talent, for careless consumption of a wider and more profitable audience.

In the past, Hollywood could get away more easily with remaking Asian films. But with the growing recognition of Asian media, these remakes seem to be becoming unnecessary. Creatives in Asia are making a name for themselves in their own right. Streaming services making Asian films more accessible also make these adaptations unwarranted. 

Still from Godzilla (1998) by Roland Emmerich

What does Hollywood get wrong with adapting Asian movies? The issue isn’t so much with the fact that these remakes are bad in themselves, but here’s a look into what makes them controversial.

Lazy and gratuitous?

Usually remakes are either simple cut-and-paste jobs or irreverent to the source material. The Uninvited (The Guard Brothers) is based on the South Korean film, The Tale of Two Sisters (Kim Jee-woon). The remake comes across as careless, failing to either stay true to the source or make valuable changes. 

Still from The Tale of Two Sisters (2003) by Kim Jee-woon

Kim’s movie has received some criticism for being so mysterious that it’s too confusing at times, but the movie does manage to keep the audience engaged. The horror in The Tale of Two Sisters is thoughtful, using subtle dread to make the film. The campy scares in The Uninvited, on the other hand, dilutes the narrative and movie-watching experience.

The original tells the story of a family hounded by a dark past and inescapable circumstances that become everyone’s ruin. This is symbolically communicated through horror in The Tale of Two Sisters. But The Uninvited misses the mark for this whole narrative.  Instead, the remake is a run-of-the mill product relying on overused genre tropes.

Still from The Uninvited (2009) by The Guard Brothers

Where the original is enigmatic and engaging the remake is in-your-face, leaving little room for the audience to contemplate. Plot points that are pivotal in the original are hastily revealed in the remake.

This kind of prematureness is seen also in Spike Lee’s adaptation of Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy.

Many thought Lee’s version of the film was impersonal and didn’t have the same depth and ingenuity as the original movie. 

Images from Oldboy (1996) by Garon Tsuchiya and Oldboy (2003) by Park Chan-wook

But interestingly enough, Park’s Oldboy is also an adaptation of the 1996 Japanese manga of the same name. This just shows that it’s not the fact that something is adapted that makes it bad. 

Lee’s remake has all the graphic violence without the justification that made the original movie compelling. The characters weren’t fleshed out, and had them rely more on monologues to tell the story. The film didn’t make any worthwhile changes that left many thinking that the only point of the remake is to cater to a wider audience who, perhaps, wouldn’t even consider watching the original because the foreign language and subtitles might be too much to handle.  

Still from Oldboy (2013) by Spike Lee

Most scholarly interpretations of compelling horror/thriller films are that they represent the society’s anxieties at the time of its creation. Without consideration of its own context, Hollywood remakes of Asian horror films are bound to be less impactful. But even without this scholarly perspective, it’s clear that these adaptations are inferior. 

Culturally insensitive? 

Here’s where it gets more tricky. The political implications of Hollywood remaking Asian movies are inevitable. Some oppose Hollywood adaptations because it is as an unfair attempt for a monolith to ride on Asian talent, and make profitable returns. 

Despite negative critical response, films like The Grudge and Shutter were commercially successful. It’s this financial productivity of 2000s Asian horror films that seemed to motivate Hollywood. In fact, Hollywood still milks these franchises, with the latest Grudge film released early 2020.

The commercial and critical acclaim of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite got the Hollywood executives looking to remake the film into a TV show, which is unsurprising at this point. 

Still from Ghost in the Shell (1995) by Mamoru Oshii

There’s also the delicate issue of whitewashing and Asian representation in mainstream media. This feels like Hollywood is just rubbing salt on the wound because of the already unsatisfactory creative interpretations.

2017 saw the film adaptations of both Ghost in the Shell from the original 1995 Japanese anime and the  2003 Death Note manga series. Both films starred white actors as the protagonists, betraying the accuracy of the narrative and reflects a wider issue of injustice. 

Still from Ghost in the Shell (2017) by Rupert Sanders

It feels like an affront to the creative integrity of the source material, but also an affront to Asian culture. The very fact that Hollywood remakes Asian films shows that they are notable – removing Asians from their own narrative seems exploitative. 

Of course, some adaptations justify casting non-Asian actors. But when you relegate Asian culture as a backdrop despite the significant creative liberties borrowed from it, not allowing Asian representation to be normalised is an issue. 

Are there exceptions?

Still from Infernal Affairs (2002) by Andrew Lau

Not all Hollywood remakes of Asian films are automatically bad. There is also a growing sensitivity when it comes to remake films, although uncommon.

Martin Scorsese’s The Departed is an adaptation of Infernal Affairs (Andrew Lau), which clinched several Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director. What sets Scorsese’s remake apart is the tactful balance between originality and faithfulness to the source material. 

Scorsese neither duplicates nor uproots the original, instead he uses his trademark operatic style to match Lau’s energetic and punchy approach. Thematic concerns are similar, but changed to fit the context appropriately. 

Still from Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) by Ang Lee

Maria Ripoll also displayed this cultural and creative awareness in her adaptation of Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman. The original is an exploration of traditional principles in Taiwan, and the family drama that derives from it. There is a conflict between the modern values and Confucian ideals, on which the title is based on. 

Still from Tortilla Soup (2001) by Maria Ripoll

Tortilla Soup is Ripoll’s take on the same themes but in the context of Hispanic families. Ripoll understands the central plot of family values and translates it into her tradition and concerns that are relevant to her audience. Ripoll’s adaptation was met with positive critical responses. 

Ultimately, what these remakes have that the others don’t is the awareness of their source material informing, rather than imposing on the adaptations. 

Looking at remakes with a different perspective

Unoriginal and insensitive adaptations may be annoying, but perhaps it’s time to reconsider their consequence on both the Hollywood and Asian film industry.

Still from The Departed (2006) by Martin Scorsese

When you have an awareness of the original, it’s often difficult to appreciate a remake on its own. After all, Hollywood adapts Asian films usually because they are remarkable and distinctive. So we tend to see the remake with a preconceived bias that it can’t match up to the brilliance of the original. Comparison between the two can’t be helped

Watching The Tale of Two Sisters before The Uninvited does inevitably emphasise the weakness of the latter, but if we approach the remake without prior knowledge, perhaps it would be more intriguing and less juvenile. We watch the film with fresh eyes and not expect a certain greatness from it. This is likewise to other adapted films from the genre of Asian horror/thriller.

But even if the remakes are subpar in some respects, there may be some credit in Hollywood adaptations. At the very least, it raises some form of awareness of Asian cinema that may not have existed before, from the audience that encountered the remake before the original. As previously mentioned, there is a reason why the films Hollywood choose to remake are adapted. It’s a testament to the ingenuity of Asian filmmakers.  

Image credit: New York Post

Hollywood’s cultural insensitivity may still be an issue, but the thriving of Asian media seems to be commanding enough to change this in the foreseeable future. With Bong Joon-ho’s historic win at the Academy Awards for Parasite, the world is starting to recognise that Asian films are recognisable in their own right. 

HBO recently announced their plans to remake Parasite into a TV series, with Mark Ruffalo rumoured to be in the cast. Unsurprisingly, this was met with apprehension. But what we know of this adaptation is that Bong Joon-ho is also executively involved. This gives us a sense of relief that maybe this adaptation won’t be a watered down version of the narrative.

Still from Parasite (2019) by Bong Joon-ho

There is growing recognition of Asian talent, and Hollywood can no longer adapt an Asian film or remain culturally unaware if they wish to get the audiences’ regard. Asian cinema has always been remarkable. Hollywood’s obsession with remakes clearly proves this to be true. But times are changing and Asian cinema is making a name for itself. 

These Hollywood remakes catalyze an appreciation for Asian cinema. Where in the past Asian films had to share the limelight or even stand behind the shadow of their Hollywood counterparts, today Asian filmmakers are garnering attention for themselves. 

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