Issue 3, Semester 2
By Katie Lau
Asian cinema has been embedded in Hollywood for a while now – most of us just haven’t noticed it. We often (unknowingly) see Hollywood’s biggest names bring originally Asian plots to our screens here in the West in the form of remakes. Remember Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, starring Leonardo DiCaprio? Or the 2002 horror classic The Ring, directed by Gore Verbinski? These films and many others have let loose intriguing storylines that were once caged in Asian cinema into the international realm for further appreciation. However, this is where the problem lies: only the plots garner international recognition. The culture and history of the original remake, and the ingenuity of Asian cinema generally, remains hidden in the shadow of the newly westernised versions.
Although foreign remakes provide fresh elements that give the story a different spin, many of them are setting themselves up to fail. This is particularly evident in films where drastic changes are made to a film’s cultural context. You simply cannot replace sugar with salt. For the regular cinema-goer who sees a remake first, they may never experience the genius of the original. They may never see how the plot was so astutely intertwined with Asian culture before it was crammed with Hollywood values that supposedly make them more entertaining for the general Western audience.
Take the 1996 Japanese hit, Shall We Dansu? The film is about a successful Japanese businessman who has lost all sense of direction in life, having already achieved the most important societal goals (i.e. home ownership and family). In an attempt to find meaning again, he begins taking Western ballroom dancing classes in secret. This act takes on particular meaning in the Japanese context, where it was considered inappropriate and sleazy to embrace another person so intimately in a public space. This social stigma set the symbolic focus and cultural context for the film, which went on to become a cult classic that pulled ballroom dancing in Japan away from the lines of public disapproval. The film’s success saw it nominated for sixteen awards at the Japanese Academy Awards, where it won fifteen. On the other hand, the 2004 American remake Shall We Dance? starring Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez failed to make a similar impact on the American/International consciousness, remaining a classic rom-com at best. The significance of the original was clearly lost in translation, and we were left with a basic story about a depressed businessman hiding his newfound hobby (that is not frowned upon) from his family for no good reason. Even without an in-depth analysis, Shall We Dance? speaks for itself: with a mere 46% on Rotten Tomatoes, its mediocrity is the price of undervaluing the cultural significance of the original.
Despite the likes of Shall We Dance? tarnishing the reputation of well-received originals, there is nothing inherently wrong with a remake. Among other things, a remake’s overall effectiveness largely depends on whether it stays true to the core of what made the original so popular in the first place. The Godzilla franchise demonstrates this. The original Godzilla film, made in Japan in 1954, was a considered reflection on the Japanese experience of World War II. Godzilla is a mutation of a dinosaur species that underwent hyper-evolution as a result of atomic weapon testing, and stood as a metaphor for the Japanese people’s helplessness and devastation in the aftermath of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Through a series of Japanese adaptations, Godzilla became an iconic presence in Japanese popular culture, who ultimately depicts the essence of ‘we reap what we sow’. Godzilla, being the creation of humanity’s technological hubris, is the deadly consequence that we must face. Ignoring the disaster of an American ‘remake’ in 1998 that was rejected by the Japanese (where the monster is a giant iguana with its signature radioactive powers omitted, therefore, neglecting much of the cultural and historical weight Godzilla was designed to carry), the 2014 remake certainly paid homage to the original by recreating a Godzilla whose appearance and roar rightfully resembled that of the 1954 version, as well as bringing back its destructive atomic breath. Again, its Rotten Tomatoes rating of 75% is self-explanatory; as long as the fundamentals are maintained, a remake can still be a winner.
Producing remakes is a risky business. It opens the door to comparison and criticism. Needless to say, viewers and critics don’t hold back when a beloved original is remade. Some remakes work and others don’t, depending on how true they are to the sociocultural and historical context of the original. Accordingly, remakes that recognise those underlying values are often better than ones that simply acknowledge the creative plots, and discard the rest.