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Sometimes Surreal, Always Captivating – How Asian Films Fare When Remaking and Adapting Western Stories

7 May 2020

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Sometimes Surreal, Always Captivating – How Asian Films Fare When Remaking and Adapting Western Stories

The words “remake” and “reimagining” when attached to any new Hollywood film is slowly reaching a point where they would invariably elicit a Pavolvian response to groan and tune out. “Why would they remake the original?” we would ask, “What’s the point of remaking them when the original will probably be so much better?”

As we explored in a previous article, this trend strikes a particular nerve when it comes to remakes of Asian films and stories, as Hollywood tends to water down their adaptations and fail to understand the nuances behind the original works. 

However, what about the inverse? How does Asian cinema fare when adapting Western media?

(Ang Xu’s ‘12 Citizens’ inserts the fears and concerns of the modern Chinese into the 1957 original / Image credits: United Artists, Beijing Juben Production Company)

In short, they are a mixed bag, with some just as lost in translation as their Western remake cousins. Similarly, there are also standout Asian remakes that almost perfectly weaves their own cultures into Western tales, breathing new life into them. 

While it would still take a while (if ever) before Asian cinema overtakes Hollywood as the centre of the film world, the answers seem to highlight a fascinating, ever-ongoing conversation between the two poles that brings to attention the beauty of intercultural dialogue.

A Look at The Fascinating, Fascinating World of Asia’s Mockbusters

A mockbuster describes a film that looks to piggyback on the popularity and commercial success of a Hollywood blockbuster by employing similar titles or themes. This term was much more salient in the pre-Internet age. Unsuspecting audiences might walk into a film with similar looking titles on the marquee, or rent such a film in the video store thinking that it was a blockbuster sequel. 

Patrons of local independent cinema The Projector would be familiar with an example of a mockbuster: the 1982 space epic Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam, or better known as Turkish Star Wars.

Asia was a hotbed for mockbusters in this magical age. According to IMDB, Godfrey Ho, the godfather of B-movies in Hong Kong, has an amazing 149 directorial credits to his name. Perhaps his most notorious example of a mockbuster is 1988’s Robo Vampire. While its poster prominently features Robocop, the film’s version of the character is rather disappointing to say the least. ‘Robocop’ isn’t even a leading character in the film!

(Image credit: Filmark International)

In Indonesia, films capitalised on Hollywood’s brief obsession with violent barbarian-themed films and TV shows in the early 1980s (such as Conan The Barbarian and Beastmaster) with their own takes. One of such is 1984’s The Devil’s Sword, standing out as an international cult classic for its over-the-top violence and insane set pieces. It also happens to feature a fight scene between its heroes and crocodile people. 

(Image credit: Rapi Films)

India is notorious for its mockbusters as well but not all of them are simple cheap knockoffs as most would assume. There are some that completely misses the point of the original, such as with Hindi horror film Saat Saat Baad and its take on Friday the 13th. There are others that are mocked overseas for being ridiculous but are praised and welcomed in India, such as Chachi 420 as a remake of Mrs Doubtfire

It is in this divide in reception that perhaps highlights the greater point. Despite being seen as just a ‘mockery’ of blockbusters, these mockbusters still infuse their own cultures into them to create something that could appeal to locals, while inadvertently creating unflinchingly refreshing takes on established Hollywood stories and tropes in the process.

As ridiculous as the poster for Robo Vampire is, it still very clearly shows a fusion of Asian folklore and Hollywood. As crazy as The Devil’s Sword is, it is still steeped (mostly) in familiar Indonesian backdrops grafted against the popular tropes of its day. Both of these examples – and countless more – show an intercultural dialogue that is sorely absent in big Hollywood remakes of Asian titles. 

Weaving Cultural Sensibilities Into Western Tales

There is a saying that there is no such thing as an original thought, and that all stories are merely retellings of another. Nevertheless, there are stories that have resonated so much with people from around the world that their identifiable beats and host of characters remain intact throughout their various versions.

One of the world’s most adapted stories is that of Romeo and Juliet. Just like how we previously explored in our article about forbidden love, there is just something universal about wanting the one you can’t have and how it can drive anyone mad. Love is the riches of the poor and to be denied that – even heaven would be miserable.

Romeo and Juliet’s trademark of two competing families as an insurmountable divide between them continues to be relatable even for modern romance. The element is even more relevant in Asian cultures where family values are prized above all, making Eastern adaptation of the Shakespearen classic a no-brainer. However, these adaptations are far from copy-and-paste jobs without any added flavour.

(Image Credit: Mediacorp Raintree Pictures)

Chee Kong Cheah’s Chicken Rice War adds a Singaporean twist to the 16th century play with its use of Singlish and heavy emphasis on local food. The film also, rather cleverly, adds another layer to the classic tale, with its central plot being its Romeo and Juliet having to reenact the play as Romeo and Juliet.

In India, where caste politics remains a thorny issue, Romeo and Juliet is a popular choice for film adaptations. Bollywood, for example, has embraced the tale with Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Ram-Leela, showering it in the hearty songs and lively colours synonymous with Indian blockbusters.

Another example of a Western story working in an Eastern context is with Rajiv Menon’s Kandukondain Kandukondain, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility”. One of the key themes in the book is with its critique of arranged marriages. While this theme might not reverberate as much with a Western audience today, arranged marriages remain a key issue for Indian women. To further contextualise the tale, Kandukondain Kandukondain also substitutes Shakespearean poetry with poetry by Bharati, a literary titan in the Tamil world. 

(Image credit: Sri Surya Films)

But what about Western stories that are far more steeped in its cultures? That was certainly not a problem for Akira Kurosawa. Despite most of his films being set in historical Japan, some of them are based on Western literature. Three of such are based on Shakespearean plays. 

1957’s Throne of Blood is an adaptation of Macbeth. The film follows the beats of the story to a tee, but there are elements of the original play that wouldn’t have made sense to a Japanese audience – especially in the 1950s. For example, a pivotal moment of Macbeth is the meeting with the three witches; witches are synonymous with evil-doings in Western culture and folklore but the concept does not necessarily translate well. 

Instead, Kurosawa taps on Japanese folklore to turn the witches into a Kijo or demonic woman, and references “Kurozuka“, a well-known mythological tale. These allusions create the same sense of dread Shakespeare would have beguiled his audience in the 16th century through the use of witches. Throne of Blood also stands out for its use of traditional Japanese theatre techniques to tell the Scottish story, where movements are exceptionally emphasised and there is a minimalistic use of props. 

(Image credits: Toho Studios, Kaleidoscope Entertainment)

In Maqbool, director Vishal Bhardwaj transports Macbeth from Medieval Scotland to Mumbai’s criminal underbelly. Instead of the three witches, Maqbool, the film’s Macbeth, is told of his fate by two policemen. Similar to Throne of Blood, this change in context works for the Indian audience due to how corruption and the law often go hand-in-hand. 

Maqbool adds onto the play by presenting its lead as a product of the criminal world, rather than one that necessarily falls from grace. Similarly, the religious tensions omnipresent in the film also adds layers of complexity that are unique compared to Western adaptations.

Looking At Present Trends With The Rise of Asia

China, the elephant in the room, hasn’t been mentioned yet because… well, they have been culturally closed off for centuries up until recent decades. Despite how some Western stories and media can transcend borders, China has wholeheartedly rejected them and instead relied heavily on its deep history and folklore for inspiration. 

Asia’s economy as a whole has grown significantly over the past few decades, with one of its trickle-down effects being a larger film-going and film-consuming audience. For China, the growth spurred from opening up its economy led to an influx of Western media.

The crossover success of blockbusters widely varies, but the general trend is that science fiction and romance films do particularly well. Hollywood’s recent penchant to kowtow to more ‘China-friendly’ decisions has been widely criticised, and this does create a rather peculiar situation with US-China co-productions trying their best to adapt Westernised stories and styles for the Chinese audience. 

(A Hollywood remake that isn’t a US-China co production / Image credits: Bona Film Group, 20th Century Fox)

These cultural chimeras have had varying degrees of success – from the great flop of 2016’s The Great Wall to the success of 2017’s The Fate of the Furious – but they all sorely lack the depth of more ground-up adaptations as discussed in the article. These however do not discount interesting reimaginings from China such as Zhang Yimou’s A Simple Noodle Story, a reimagining of the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple, and Xu Ang’s 12 Citizens as a modern Chinese remake of Twelve Angry Men.

For the rest of Asia, its trend of adapting Western films and stories continues – transcending ever more challenging cultural hurdles. India, with its massive film industry, remains the clearest example of these adaptations, such as with a Hindi adaptation of Rambo slated for release later this year. In Japan, 2013 saw a reimagining of Clint Eastwood’s classic Unforgiven, with samurais taking the place of cowboys, and directed by a Korean-Japanese. 

(A Hindi take at the all-American hero / Image credit: Siddharth Anand Pictures)

It’s Hard Not To Be Excited For The Future 

Throughout the examination, the common theme seems to be that these Asian retellings are – for the most part – hardly derivative no matter their quality especially compared to Hollywood’s remakes. Sure, a Hindi remake of Rambo might never be a crossover hit but there might still be cultural nuances or quirks that could make it a fascinating watch for those outside of India. 

However, when done vice-versa, such as with Hollywood’s take on Ghost In The Shell or Oldboy, there doesn’t seem to be a point in checking them out; they are designed to be as marketable to as many as possible and marketability is hardly a cultural value. 

Inversely, how Asian adaptations tend to be able to see its cultural sparks shine through is also perhaps a testament to the universal appeal of Western stories (or, you know, the lasting effects of Western imperialism). Despite having a tumultuous relationship with colonialism, Shakespeare’s plays are still consistently adapted for the big screen in India. Despite having to quite literally be forced at gunpoint to open up their country, and their history of conflict with the West, Japan has still embraced Western tales and reimagined them as their own.

(Film still of Unforgiven’ (2013) / Image credit: Nikkatsu)

Then again, perhaps the main point of it all is that there remains a larger intercultural dialogue in cinema that continues to evolve and grow. Take the Japanese remake of Unforgiven for example: the original is directed by Clint Eastwood and he became a superstar thanks to spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars in 1964, which in turn is a remake of Kurosawa’s samurai film Yojimbo in 1961. 

The continuing back and forth in the film world not only makes it seem easy and all-too-possible to transcend borders and examine cultural nuances, but also promises ever more exciting art birthed from the melding of cultures.


Read more:
An Abridged Initiation to Classic Tamil Cinema
Giving Voices to the Silenced, Southeast Asian Filmmakers Are Steadfast in Their Pursuit for Authenticity
Rethinking Hollywood’s Remake Machine

There's nothing Matt loves more than "so bad, they're good" movies. Except browsing through crates of vinyl records. And Mexican food.
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