5 East Versus West Remakes
Posted on: 08/12/2014
The remake is a familiar concept to us all. A much-loved classic, a forgotten gem, a promising old title; enthusiastic studios dig them up one by one and start the process of massaging, sculpting and re-packaging them to create the next box office must-see or hit TV show. Whether or not you love or hate the new version the idea of re-invention is fascinating.
Over the last decade, adored fables have been given new life, such as Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) being Burton-ified into (the even more bizarre?) Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). Casino Royale was transformed from a 1967 spy comedy into a slick action adventure in 2006 with the bruising machismo of Daniel Craig on full display. The Coen Brothers' 2010 True Grit chose to deviate from the 1969 original feature starring John Wayne, opting to stick closer to Charles Portis' original novel. And looking into the future it seems that the trend isn't going away any time soon. Disney, for example, plans to re-boot their classic hand-drawn animations with the famous titles being ushered into the real world of live action.
The questions often surrounding remakes are: does the new version enchant us like the original? If we accept that our love of remakes is an on again, off again affair, what elements do they have to be coupled with in order to succeed? Certainly if the fresh-faced revamp exploits our fondness for proven storylines, tropes and iconic characters, its ready acceptance is more likely assured.
This all being said, it's only natural that good stories should cross all boundaries. English-language and French-language films have often borrowed and inspired each other throughout the history of film, altering slightly for their intended audiences. The Western film industry has long taken cues from Asian cinema, influencing and being influenced in turn.
More recently though, we've seen remakes flow both ways between the two industries. In honour of our China Up Close season and the Asian film industry, here is a list of 5 remakes crossing the East/West divide.
Warning, some of the links in this article contain spoliers.
1. Infernal Affairs (2002, Hong Kong) v.s The Departed (2006, USA)
Infernal Affairs follows two young men leading double lives. One is a young police academy graduate, whose assignment is to work as an undercover criminal. The other is a gangster who's sent to infiltrate the police department and take a position on the force.
As the pair become further entangled within their respective roles, they find it increasingly difficult to separate 'the job' from reality. As Roger Ebert put it, "Both of them have spent so long pretending to be someone else that their performances have become the reality."
The crime-thriller is quite remarkable because of stellar performances from Andy Lau and Tony Leung. Yet it's the original plot and fast-paced storyline that received so much critical acclaim, inspiring Martin Scorsese to lift large chunks of the film wholesale and craft them into his remake, The Departed.
Many argue that the original film is better than the Scorsese version. So, what does Infernal Affairs have that The Departed lacks, or vice versa? The former is a "cop film" to the core and we follow the procedural, mesmorised by its boundless energy. The latter is a slower burning film, focusing much more on time and place (such as the characteristically gritty Boston streets). The Departed pays deliberate attention to morality, with Matt Damon in the role of Leung's troubled character, always on the verge of breaking.
In any case, both films are well worth the watch:
2. What Women Want (2000, USA) v.s What Women Want (2011, China)
Nancy Meyers (Private Benjamin, Something's Gotta Give, The Holiday) has continually delivered box-office hits, and What Women Want is no exception. The film is just one of many successes that has cemented her status as a renowned director, earning the filmmaker such kudos as 'the queen of Hollywood'. Yet as , "Despite her huge success, Meyers still confesses to battling with every script." Independent points out
The frustrations surrounding this type of industry resistance are front and centre in the rom-com What Women Want. The film follows Nick Marshall (Mel Gibson), who gains the ability to "hear" women's thoughts, including those of Darcy Maguire (Helen Hunt), who is hired as his boss and is one of the few women in upper management at the advertising firm Marshall works. Marshall uses his powers for good and evil, learning about himself and his relationships along the way.
But how does this story translate when it's remade for Chinese audiences a decade later? Starring Andy Lau and Gong Li, the Chinese version Wo Zhi Nu Ren Xin or, literally, I Know a Woman's Heart, could've offered something far more progressive. Any number of things could have been changed. Gong Li's character could have the power to read mens' minds (being that Gong Li really would know a woman's heart), or perhaps the story could have equally focused on her as a couter-weight to Lau's sleezy behaviour.
Charlie Jane Anders over at io9 notes, "Overall, the new version of the film has fewer vivid female characters - women have been sacrificed, this time around, to give screentime to Andy Lau's dad and a couple of other male characters." Was this a conscious decision on behalf of the new version's male director, Daming Chen? Why were the supporting female roles diluted in a film that is supposed to be about women? The films offer an interesting example of the transition from West to East.
3. Oldboy (2003, South Korea) v.s Oldboy (2013, USA)
A staple of South Korean cinema, Oldboy has been well received by audiences globally. The film follows the story of Oh Dae-su who is locked in a hotel room for 15 years without knowing his captor's motives. When he is finally released, Dae-su finds himself still trapped in a web of conspiracy and violence.
With the original being released in 2003 and the remake being released a decade later, the re-interpretration had a lot of room to play with. Fans could be in equal parts happy with the new path director Spike Lee chose to take, or frustrated with the lack of proper tributes and nods to the original (there was plenty of active conversation amongst ACMI staff around the octopus).
Neither version is for the squeamish. The two films offer a brutal revenge story littered with unforgettable scenes. Park Chan-wook's version, however, deals in a lot of implied violence whereas the gore in Lee's is more pronounced. The power of Oldboy lies in the intriguing and burning motives of the characters, the complexity of the story, and the impossibly deep grief which is tethered to various characters.
The original film's cult status is deserved. The twists expertly tease out audible gasps and you may find yourself hitting the rewind button while simultaneously shouting the words "Nooo...!" on more than one occasion. And the iconic action scenes are mesmorising to watch. It's surprising that a remake didn't happen much sooner, really.
4. Yojimbo (1961, Japan) v.s A Fistful of Dollars (1964, USA)
As Kyle Anderson over at Nerdist points out in his article Rampant Remakery: Yojimbo v.s A Fistful of Dollars: "In 1963, Italian director Sergio Leone saw Akira Kurosawa's 1961 film, Yojimbo, several times, if the reports are to be believed. Leone was so inspired by this film that he decided to make a western (his favorite genre of Hollywood movie), using its story as the jumping-off point."
Despite A Fistful of Dollars being a remake of Yojimbo, the films deviate substantially from one another in a few ways. Kurosawa creates a town with intimacy and overheard side-conversations between villagers. The families are all greedy and exploit the townsfolk with no one being particularly nobler than the rest. Leone offers a much sparser and stripped-back town of isolation. Out of the two warring families, the Rojo are the dominant force setting them up as the typical 'bad guys'.
Curiously enough, it's somewhat ironic that Kurosawa, a man often said to be the most Western of Japanese directors, had such an effect on the very genre that influenced him. The result: watching these two films as a pairing is fascinating and definitely worth it...perhaps in an afternoon...with some scotch on ice.
Other relevant remakes: The Seven Samurai (1954) and The Magnificent Seven (1960)
5. Ghost (1990, USA) v.s Ghost (2010, Japan/South Korea)
Remember when you saw Ghost for the first time and you were like, "I'm never going to look at pottery the same way"? Well, now you can watch that iconic scene all over again, but this time in Japanese or Korean (sans Unchained Melody).
In 1990, Paramount Pictures' fantasy/romance hit Ghost earned more than $500 million worldwide and was nominated for five Academy Awards® (winning two). Two decades later, Paramount Pictures Japan remade the film for Japanese and Korean audiences.
Many of the plot points remain the same, but with one major twist: the female lead becomes the spectre in the new version. It's an interesting take in which Nanako Matsushima's character, Nanami, is positioned as the hero, doing her best to save the love of her life from beyond the grave as goons zero in on him. As Juno's guardian angel, Nanami plays much softer protector when compared with the bravado and other-worldly masculinity of Sam Wheat (Patrick Swayze).
The fact that our hero is gentler is probably because the film sticks close to traditional Japanese/Korean romantic drama tropes: flooded sepia tones, gentle background piano music, coy and demure glances, a delicate woman in love. A lot of time is invested in sharing the duo's gradual blossoming relationship before tragedy strikes. It's pretty saccharine. Moreover, the film feels less action-based overall, losing some of the tension in key scenes which can be found in the original. Yet it's still a compelling storyline, especially with the over-the-top medium Satsuki Unten in the Whoopi Goldberg role.
Our China Up Close season runs from December 2014 through to March 2015.