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By Miguel Paolo Celestial Published in WestEast Magazine #24: GlobalizAsian, 2008 Not for Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas, Gangs of New York, or The Aviator did Martin Scorsese win an Academy Award for Best Director. He only bagged it for The Departed, or should we say, for Warner Bros.’ adaptation of Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s Hong Kong crime thriller Infernal Affairs. Leonardo DiCaprio for Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Matt Damon for Andy Lau, Jack Nicholson for Anthony Wong, and the Irish mob for the Triad. Is this multi-Oscarawarded movie more than just a transliteration from one language and ethnicity to another? Do the different versions of this crime thriller mean the same for Hong Kong viewers as for Massachusetts’ audiences? Whatever the considerations, nobody can deny that, in business terms, The Departed has been a successfully localized product, traded between foreign outfits for the consumption of a foreign audience. That success has literally translated to bigger box-office profits for Hollywood than for Hong Kong cinema. Globalization has eased the processes through which film remakes are brokered. As Hollywood creates remakes of Asian films, Asian houses also retell Western stories to their local audiences. But what exactly is the difference between an Asian film with English subtitles and its Hollywood remake? Why are some Asian films less “consumable” to American audiences in their original form and why are others more favored untouched? Does the rise of martial arts movies and Asian filmmakers have anything to do with their countries’ emerging economies or merely the redirection of the US film industry? Kurosawa and Present-Day East Asia One story seen through two different viewpoints: after book-movie tie-ins, film remakes seem to be the second most popular method in cinema for reinterpreting another work of art. Perhaps the most famous Asian filmmaker whose works have been remade is Akira Kurosawa. His masterpiece, Seven Samurai, widely acclaimed as one of the most influential films ever created, has spawned adaptations both in Asia and the West. In The Magnificent Seven, Kurosawa’s samurai are replaced with cowboys. The movie even patterns its scenes after the original, in the same way scenes in The Departed mirror those in Infernal Affairs. The Indian movie Sholay, considered as one of India’s highest-grossing movies, also follows the story of Seven Samurai.
Hollywood has long been remaking foreign box-office hits, since the time of Kurosawa until the present, but East Asian remakes have never been as prolific, grand, popular, and profitable as today. More recent American adaptations of Asian movies include the reinterpretation of the South Korean sentimental drama Il Mare into Lake House and Japan’s Shall We Dansu into Shall We Dance. Japanese horror fare, or what is known as “JHorror” has also received much Hollywood attention with the remakes of Ringu into The Ring, Dark Water, Ju-on into The Grudge, Kairo as Pulse, and Chakushin Ari into One Missed Call. Some remakes include sequels and prequels. Soon South Korea’s mega-hit My Sassy Girl and A Tale of Two Sisters may see their Western versions. Kurosawa may be a uniquely original artist, but he also borrowed heavily from the West. He envisioned Asian versions of Western stories from Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Gorky, and Tolstoy, and has turned them into Throne of Blood, Ran, The Bad Sleep Well, The Idiot, The Lower Depths, Ikiru, and Red Beard. But do Kurosawa’s remakes fall under the same category as current Hollywood adaptations of East Asian dramas, comedies, and suspense and horror stories? What does globalization play in the cross-cultural exchange of stories, film plots, and cinematic technique? How does it affect creativity, originality, and artistic integrity? Outsourcing It is a very crude way of putting it, but Hollywood has been doing it for quite some time already. In a way, globalization has put films on the rack beside soap, cereals, and shampoo. One only has to think of the cost savings in buying a ready-made script with everything that has gone before its completion: the formulation of a basic idea, the development of a prospectus to investors, and the writing and rewriting of the script that bears no assurance of an idea will go down the pipeline. And this is not all. The script has also been tested through the entire movie being sold and shown to audiences. So after the drafting of the script, a Hollywood studio also saves on the entire production and marketing process in finding out a movie’s commercial viability. Once the elements of the original movie find the perfect mix and interaction—as it were, once the movie finds its perfect recipe for success— Hollywood studios already have most of the work cut out for them. The market has already been tested; there is less risk. Only the transliteration of the cast, the setting, the cinematography, and all the other elements from Asian to American is necessary.
But there are times that even perfectly reproduced movies lack the original magic ingredient. Lacking Spice Before the end of 2007, Sony Pictures released an Indian-language feature film, Saawariya, which at the time of its release directly competed with Om Shanti Om, which was locally produced. Saawariya was based on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel White Nights, while Om Shanti Om was a song-and-dance production, lauded by critics as pure “Bollywood spice”. The rapid growth of India’s film industry and the country’s emerging economy have inspired foreign investors to take a slice of the very lucrative Bollywood pie. But the disappointing commercial performance of Saawariya only reminds investors and viewers that marketing networks and financial resources are not enough to impress and capture the attention of audiences. In terms of remakes, this only says that while transferring films from Asian languages and cultures into American versions, the subtle elements vital to the Asian films’ success may not be conveyed; proven recipes for success do not always work. But lately, the immense success enjoyed by certain genres in Chinese cinema seems to prove otherwise. Exoticism If Japan has successfully exported its horror genre to Hollywood, banking on its rich culture of ghost stories and storytelling, Chinese filmmakers have had relative success in bringing abroad films from the historical and wuxia, or martial arts, genres. And compared to J-Horror, which need to be remade before released in the West, these Chinese films are marketed as is, with only the benefit of subtitles. Films of the historical genre that have succeeded in the West include Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine, Zhang Yimou’s Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern, and most recently, Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution. Among recent wuxia movies, Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, has achieved the widest acclaim. It’s phenomenal success has prompted subsequent releases of martial arts films, such as House of Flying Daggers, Hero, The Promise, and The Banquet, which, like Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well, was loosely based on
Shakespeare’s Hamlet. These can be marketed as is, unlike J-Horror movies, which need to be remade since settings and characterizations can easily be transliterated from East to West. It would make sense to reason out that the success of Japanese horror and Chinese period and wuxia films in the international market lies in the fact that, again in business terms, there is a demand for such movies and only Japanese and Chinese filmmakers can best serve that demand. One can also surmise that such film genres are most accessible to Westerners because they easily fall into Americans’ perception of China and Japan—easily distinguishable from their own culture. Exotic and novel. Perhaps this is what international investors have had in mind pouring funds in such films and in entering this type of market. Other genres, including Wong Kar-Wai’s “art house” films (In the Mood for Love, Happy Together, and 2046) are much harder to market since they have themes that are already presumably covered by Hollywood films. Even the tag “art house” film seems unfortunate, since such movies are already differentiated from the mainstream, bound only to have limited screenings and promotions. Even though Western films may have similar stories and experiences with Asian movies, the values and viewpoints are definitely different. An open exchange of ideas is hampered with the imposition of such limitations. Others may say that this is inevitable since cinema after all is still part of an industry; decisions should still be driven by profitability. Exchanging Ideas If anything at all, the most positive effect globalization has had on world cinema is the exchange of ideas, the access into different cultures, stories, and histories. America does not merely benefit from Asian cinema by learning new ways of doing kung fu or by discovering different ways of shocking nerves. Asia in its turn has been continuously honing its cinematic techniques. Writers often say that there are no new stories, that perhaps Shakespeare has already covered the entire gamut of human experience. This may be true to an extent. But we may continue to see in world cinema not just the ideas according to the English bard, but also according to Akira Kurosawa, Ang Lee, Zhang Yimou, and Park Chan-Wook, along with the insights of all the Speilbergs, Scorseses, Polanskis, and Coppolas in the ever-evolving global film industry.