ASIA EXTREME: Hollywood Looks East

It doesn’t take much more than a precursory glance at Hollywood’s output in recent years to conclude that there’s a significant shortage of original ideas. Reboots of old franchises (STAR TREK), endless, pointless sequels (THE SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS 2), and even toy and board game-based movies (GI-JOE, MONOPOLY) are being green-lit by studios more than willing to dump millions into their production. But by far the most egregious offense is the ever-increasing trend of remakes, particularly of films from Asia. To look at the situation, you’d think there wasn’t a single original screenplay to be found in all of the US.

Remakes of Asian films are nothing new in Hollywood, with one of the earliest being THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, a Western reimaging of Akira Kurosawa’s THE SEVEN SAMURAI. Yet over the last forty years it was primarily successful European films that dominated the remake market. The obsession with Asian films is relatively recent, going back probably 8-10 years at the most. And though the trend began with and was mostly limited to horror films, the last few years have found films in nearly every genre being snatched up to be remade.

Gore Verbinski’s THE RING, a remake of Hideo Nakata’s RINGU, was one of the first to become a box-office hit in the States, followed a few years later by THE GRUDGE, which was directed by the original film’s creator Takashi Shimizu. This paved the way for a string of J-Horror remakes, including DARK WATER, ONE MISSED CALL, and THE RING 2. Recently, Hollywood producers have been casting their eye on Korean horror films, and earlier this year saw the release of THE UNINVITED, a remake of the (far superior) TALE OF TWO SISTERS.

From an economic perspective, remakes have been a goldmine for Hollywood. For example, the budget on THE GRUDGE was $10 million, and has grossed over $110 million worldwide. But why look overseas for material? Surely there are plenty of hungry screenwriters specializing in horror films. The answer might lie in the stories themselves. Compared to American horror films, which often feature a group of people (usually teenagers) getting picked off one by one by some deranged lunatic or otherwise mysterious figure, Asian horror films tend to be variations on the traditional ghost story, where someone who was wronged in life is seeking revenge from beyond the grave. They also tend to be more psychological than visceral – genuinely frightening mood pieces instead of splatter-fests. Yet what probably appeals the most to producers is that they are relatively low-cost affairs. The original versions of THE GRUDGE (which was a straight-to-video title) and RINGU were inexpensive productions, and both exhibited tremendous creativity on a severely modest budget.

Yet for all the succes that J- and K-horror remakes have found in the States, other genres haven’t seemed to fare as well. While it’s true that Scorsese’s THE DEPARTED (a remake of the hugely successful and critically lauded INFERNAL AFFAIRS) won him his first directing Oscar, other projects haven’t been so lucky. The Korean rom-com MY SASSY GIRL, a hit in just about every other country of the world, wound up becoming a straight-to-video disaster that had none of the wit or charm of the original. Shortly after Park Chan-wook’s OLDBOY won the Grand Prix at Cannes, a remake was announced (with Nicolas Cage in the lead role) yet nothing ever came of it. At the moment it’s listed as a Steven Spielberg project, however legal matters have put a kink in those plans. Earlier this year it was announced that Danny Boyle was asked to helm the remake of LADY VENGEANCE, the third film in Park’s vengeance trilogy. That too has yet to materialize.

The biggest downside of the remake craze is that the vast majority of American audiences might not seek out, or in some cases even have the opportunity to see the original versions. As good as some of the Hollywood remakes have been, few, if any, have surpassed the originals. The fact that A-list directors (Scorsese, Spielberg, Boyle) are turning to these films is clearly indicative of their lasting power, effect, and originality. Though a big-budget studio remake is commercially more viable, audiences should not ignore the originals which, in many cases, particularly the two Park Chan-wook films, are extremely personal visions.

OLDBOY can be seen this month on Sundance Channel’s Asia Extreme Video On Demand.