For decades, Hollywood has remade foreign-language films, amongst them, famously, The Magnificent Seven (1960, USA), a wonderful but sweetened version of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954, Japan), and The Departed (2006, USA), where writer Bill Monahan skillfully transposed the operatic Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs (2002) into a disguised pseudo-bio of notorious Boston crim and FBI informer Whitey Bulger.
But in this movie-trade there is more than a suspicion that something essential gets lost in translation, as well as the distinct possibility that many an original wasn’t so hot to begin with. I’ve yet to meet the brave soul prepared to defend La Totale! (1991) over True Lies (1994), the latter which, no surprise, isn’t any great shakes either. The less said about the US versions of Let the Right One In, Ring and Ju-on, the better.
Still, in the past few years a new trend has emerged. US product has experienced a down tick in foreign territories, trumped by the local product. This has compelled the corporate brand owners to plant production flags in other countries with an aim to legitimately remake their stateside hits – or allow local stakeholders the chance to do it and so fight the steady flow of quickie remakes/rip-offs of box-office blockbusters, a standing feature for decades of the Bollywood and Hong Kong production culture in particular. For instance, Disney’s High School Musical franchise has spun-off to ‘conquer’ Argentina (High School Musical: El Desafío, 2008), Mexico (High School Musical: El Desafío, 2008), Brazil (High School Musical: O Desafio, 2010) and China, Disney High School Musical China (2010).
So what follows is a short list of films of what promises to be a growing trend… with mixed results.
Blood Simple → A Woman, A Gun and a Noodle Shop
A now legend of Chinese cinema, Zhang Yimou, director of Red Sorghum (1987), Raise the Red Lantern (1991), To Live (1994) and action epics Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004), translates the Coen Brothers’ 1984 debut pic, a Texas-set neo-noir that uses the lethal geometry of a love triangle in a tangled plot of cross and double cross, and transports it to a dusty bleak Gansu province of some highly imagined distant past. The original featured black comedy. The humor here mixes one-liners with pratfalls and much silliness. The Coen’s movie was a modest success that launched their career. Yimou’s was a big hit in China but it bewildered critics with its mix of styles after it bowed at the 2010 Berlin Film Festival. Full of invention and spectacular imagery – the colour scheme alone is eye-scolding – it re-stages brilliantly some of the original’s superb set-pieces, including its stunning ‘light-show’ climax.
What Women Want → What Women Want
The 2000 original was a dreadful ‘90s-style screwball rom-com with Mel Gibson in flop ‘n’ drop high comedy goof mode. Helen Hunt, with pained look and false cheer, was his co-star. The plot gave Gibson’s aged Don Juan the ability to read women’s minds, which reforms him. (Now that’s a fantasy right there!) This is an official remake, a Chinese production with no direct US involvement. It was reviewed with tolerance and good humour and popular with audiences. This 2011 version stars A-listers Andy Lau and Gong Li and follows the Meyers film closely; though one Chinese commentator complained that since Lau is such a softy in the first place, the whole point of the plot is blunted.
Sideways → Saidoweizu
A sad and funny tale of a toxic friendship and the redemptive power of love set in the vineyards of the Santa Inez valley, Sideways (2004) was an international award-winning critical hit, scoring over $100m at the box office. Fox International and Fuji TV teamed for this 2009 remake set in the Napa valley which takes the intricacies and charms of the original and morphs and mutates them into a fish out of water culture clash yarn of Japanese travellers on a holiday from hell, with the buddies now mere acquaintances. Pretty much dismissed on release, this would-be charmer is full of tourist porn and not very funny.
Cellular → Connected
Screenwriter Larry Cohen appears to combine Speed (1994) with his own script for Phone Booth (2003) in this silly but intensely pleasurable actioner (2004) starring Kim Basinger as a woman hanging on the phone in a suspense game of death; Chris Evans is the co-star who runs about trying to save her life while she holds on the line while villain David Statham does his best to create the maximum mayhem. The fine 2009 remake stars Louis Koo and Barbie Hsu and scored solid returns and positive crits. Connected abounds with product placement and brutal action that betters the original in every way, which is no surprise since the helmer is one of Hong Kong’s top maestros of kinetic thrills.
The Italian Job → Players
For starters, the 2003 film was a dreadful travesty of Peter Collinson’s 1969 Brit cult film which had Michael Caine, cockney bravado and a lightness of touch, that was admirable (even if the film’s violent jingoism was not!). The US version sentimentalised the multiple car action capers around the theme of revenge. (Whatever happened to old-fashioned larceny for the sake of it?) In Abbas and Mustan Burmawalla’s 2012 Paramount-authorised remake, the plot comes direct from the 2003, um, ‘epic’, though the corn here is Bollywooded: the bad guys want the gold to, ah, build an orphanage. Still, this being a Bollywood pic, the action is monumental, with the train robbery a midway high point. Like Bond pics, it’s a globe-trotter; it was shot in Russia, New Zealand and the North Pole, and features an all-star cast including Abhishek Bachchan, Sonam Kapoor, Neil Nitin Mukesh. But the critics were mixed and the box office not quite over the top.
Knight and Day → Bang Bang
This official remake of the Tom Cruise/Cameron Diaz hit screwball action comedy from 2010 comes out of the Murdoch Fox venture in India, Fox Star, the latter being one of the country’s biggest media companies and based in Mumbai. Bang Bang (2014) stars Hrithik Roshan and Katrina Kaif is yet to be completed; they were still shooting musical numbers only a month ago but a look at the original offers little of promise. The plot is about how ‘ordinary gal’ Diaz gets involved with secret agent Cruise, who’s on the run from bad guys. The stars spend much time dodging projectiles of all shapes and I found myself ducking as each one-liner dropped like dead weight: “That’s wild,” says Cruise after one of many close calls. As remakes go, it seems a good fit; Mangold’s movie, with its soft-soap Romancing the Stone genre satire, may even have been inspired by the exuberant ludicrousness and kinetic energy of the best of Bollywood.
Unforgiven → Yurusarezaru mono
A reverent, respectful, and fine official – and well reviewed – 2013 remake from Warners and the Nikkatsu Corporation of the much lauded 1993 best picture winner stars the great Ken Watanabe in the Eastwood role. He’s an aging ronin in the dying days of the samurai, living poor in Japan’s north of the 1880s. He returns to his violent past when he accepts a bounty on some men who mutilated a prostitute. Original writer David Webb Peoples accepts a credit and director Lee Sang-il is gifted with landscape, performance, mood, action, and the moral quandary of the yarn lines up nicely with Eastwood’s values. Critics made a lot of the fact that there’s a nice symmetry in Japan making a ‘western’ – a legacy and tradition that stretches back to Kurosawa’s love of the form and genre and the American tradition of classic filmmaking and its love of Kurosawa.