is imitation really the sincerest form of flattery?

Hollywood makeovers of Asian films hint at a deeper problems of culural differences and the portrayal of Asians in the media

by kim filipinas

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. It’s an aphorism tinged with sarcasm—no one likes a copycat after all. Yet American remakes of Asian movies are simply accepted; many Americans aren’t even aware that the movie they watched had its origins in China or Japan. Am I elitist for cringing over the latest Hollywood version of yet another Japanese horror or South Korean romance? I’d like to pose the counter-question: if the original was good, why is a remake even necessary?

It’s been suggested that remakes merely reflect an increasingly transnational world where goods and information move through increasingly porous borders. This idea of an “Asian presence” in American cinema is met with both enthusiasm and dismay. Enthusiasts emphasize that remakes bespeak the rising prestige of Asian cinema. The not-so-enthused worry of America’s undergoing “orientalization.”

But why not simply export the Asian movies to America in original form? After all, American films have a large presence in Asia, and Asians watch subtitled or dubbed versions rather than remakes.

Is it that remakes are profitable? For instance Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” (2006) grossed $289,847,354 worldwide, an amount that completely eclipses the original “Infernal Affairs” (Hong Kong, 2004) which garnered a comparatively modest $8,708,932. Roy Lee, the Korean- American producer who brought movies like “The Ring” to America, has even made a business out of the process, his brokering of Asian movies gaining him the title “king of remakes.”

Given the speculative nature of the film industry, remakes have backfired. Take “My Sassy Girl,” a South Korean romantic comedy that has gained popularity all over Asia – but apparently failed to interest American audiences. The remake, which did poorly in test screenings, was relegated to the movie graveyard as a straight-to-DVD release. Roy Lee stated in an interview with the Associated Press that American men rejected the idea of a woman bossing around a man in a romantic relationship. Truth of the matter is, “My Sassy Girl” was extremely specific to South Korean culture (love motels and mandatory military service are just a few of the things you wouldn’t find in America today), and simply couldn’t mean the same to Americans.

Apparently simply remaking a movie doesn’t guarantee the remaking of success—you have to take cultural differences into account. Indeed there’s a translational quality to these second-generation films despite the fact that they’ve intentionally averted subtitling and dubbing (two things the American public apparently hate). It simply makes sense to replace the samurai of Akira Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai” (1954) with the cowboy in “The Magnificent Seven” (1960), a figure particularly entrenched in the American idiom.

Thus, remakes function as makeovers, giving a facelift to the setting, storyline, and characters. In “The Ring,” America’s 2002 rendition of a 1998 Japanese horror film, the setting is changed from Japan to Washington, ostensibly replacing the ethnically-Japanese cast with white Americans. This route seems to be the most typical of Hollywood remakes. A slightly different approach is taken by “The Grudge” (a 2004 remake of the 2003 Japanese film” Ju-on: The Grudge”). Like “The Ring,” the core cast consists of white characters, with Sarah Michelle Geller as the lead. However, the remake is set in Japan.

Is “The Grudge” more authentic for locating itself in its native Japan? I can’t say, although I do believe that’s what the producers were aiming for. After all, “The Grudge” was riding on the coattails of the very successful “The Ring,” widely known to have been based on a Japanese film. Locating the movie in Japan makes the ghosts of the movie particularly Japanese—and this Japanese exoticism is set up to contrast a white American point of view.

In Laura Mulvey’s essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975), the author suggests that watching a movie allows viewers to temporarily assume the point of view of the main characters of the film. For “The Grudge,” the movie’s point of view has become “Americanified” by the selection of white actors for the leads. This identification is reinforced through the contrast created by casting ethnically Japanese ghosts. I’d call it pretty racist to locate horror in the “other.” This also happens in the 2008 remake of “Shutter,” initially a 2004 Thai film. The remake is set in Tokyo (the original was set in New York), with two white leads, Joshua Jackson and Rachel Taylor. The part of the vengeful ghost is played, unsurprisingly, by a Japanese actress (Megumi Okina).

Are Asian countries as different as Thailand and Japan so easily conflated? It makes me think of the 2007 Academy Awards, during which “The Departed” won for best adapted screenplay. The commentator incorrectly attributed the provenance for the original as Japan rather than Hong Kong. That’s 1,717 miles off the mark. Maybe this isn’t too exceptional for Hollywood, the great homogenizer of movies, but the American public—Asian Americans included— deserves more.