by Felix Cheong
Its easy to understand why Hollywood keeps chomping up rights to foreign-language films and spitting them out in its own language and image.
Call it adoption, adaptation, absorption, what you will. As far as the bigwigs in Los Angeles are concerned, it comes down to the business of buying into a formula, a ready-made package. What succeeded once can be remade and sold again the better if the spectacle was signed and sealed with a Made in America stamp.
The Ring is but the latest from this assembly line. The horror flick has already rung up more than US$127 million in box office receipts in North America. Its budget of US$45 million certainly puts the original Japanese cult hit Ringu in the shade. Indeed, the latter was held off from distribution in the US presumably because audiences might fight shy of being scared twice by the same concept. This, coming from a country pledged to free trade and osmosis of ideas and ideals.
The Ring isnt the first Japanese production to be assimilated into American pop culture and it certainly wont be the last. In 1960, there was The Magnificent Seven, a gung-ho Western featuring the then A-list of young guns like Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn, James Coburn and Charles Bronson. It was a shameless rip-off of Japanese auteur Akira Kurusawas Seven Samurai (1956), which incidentally was itself a homage to the Western.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Kurusawa mustve been very pleased, for his subsequent feature film Yojimbo (1962) witnessed not one, but two transformations: A Fistful of Dollars (1967), which launched the spaghetti Western and the career of Clint Eastwood, and Last Man Standing (1996), director Walter Hills genre-bending of the samurai film as a gangster caper.
Although the history of "Hollywoodisation" for want of a coinage isnt always as dramatic and strong-armed as what occurred with Ringu, its nevertheless laced and lashed by an almost puritanical streak that tries to desensitise and sanitise the product before its deemed safe for public eyes.
The 1996 re-vision of film noir Diabolique serves up an excellent example. The story revolves around a triangle the headmaster of a boys school, his wife and his mistress and how it breaks up into murder and mayhem.
In the 1955 French version, we witness a series of double-crosses. The wife, the only character blessed with conscience in the film, ends up dead. Director Henri-Georges Clouzot often stands accused of misanthropy in his treatment but really, hes doing no more than being very European and very noir.
Hollywood ethics, however, dictates sunshine at the end of the tunnel as you leave the safety of the cinema. So the bad guys must get their comeuppance, the steadfastness of a moral equation in which evil has to be cancelled out by retribution. Thus, in the remake, the wife (Isabelle Adjani) resurrects, the mistress (Sharon Stone) repents and the man they both love to hate meets his timely end. No heave of ambiguity, no sign of second thoughts.
Interestingly, this sentimentality is enforced even when the same director and actors are hired to redo the job. The Visitors (1996) and Just Visiting (2001) provide a delightful exercise in contrived-and-contrast.
The first is a French underground movie often compared to Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), with its irreverent blend of Gallic slapstick, send-up and satire. Actors Jean Reno and Christian Clavier, along with director Jean-Marie Poiré, gamely take on the task of transplanting the tale a medieval knight and his oafish slave time-travelling into the 20th century - onto an American setting.
The result is less than satisfying. Co-screenwriter John Hughes (Home Alone) simply doesnt get it, that the characters Laurel-and-Hardy routines in shiny armour have to be sustained and substantiated by wit and wordplay. But subtlety has never been an American strong suit and so what Poiré achieved in the original becomes languid in translation and lost in transit, marked and marred by an impulse to round everything off nicely.
Two other continental directors, Germanys Ole Bornedal and The Netherlands George Sluizer, have similarly headed for the harsh lights and hard cash of Hollywood. Bornedal re-shot his sleeper hit Nightwatch (1998) with a star-studded cast that includes Nick Nolte, Ewan McGregor and Patricia Arquette, while Sluizer redid his chilling psychological thriller The Vanishing with Kiefer Sunderland, Jeff Bridges and Nancy Travis taking on the leading roles.
The budget of both films may be breathtaking and the constellation of stars wide-eyed dazzling, but these do not necessarily make their presence felt and result in a better film. Bornedals and Sluizers remakes smack of compromises, giving up their originality and style in accordance with the paymasters whip.
At a deeper, more insidious level, you can argue that Hollywoods refashioning of foreign-language films after its own heart, is not just a matter of commerce and convenience, but also comes thrusting with an agenda. It is, in some ways, a subtle form of cultural imperialism.
Consider this: what does a colonial master look forward to once hes planted his flag on the new-found land? He remodels it to look like his own. He christens streets with names that trip off his tongue. He brings in his own kind. And more than that, he takes over the natives language and culture and makes sure they dress, behave and talk like him.
Isnt this, in a sense, whats happening with Hollywood remakes? Think of the big screen as a piece of turf reel, not real, estate - upon which values and minds could be held hostage. Think, not of ownership of property, but intellectual property. Think about the saying "seeing is believing" and "he who controls language controls reality".
Then think about why successful, exquisitely-crafted foreign-language films should be re-shot by Hollywood, if not to exert command and control.
There may be more to a Hollywood remake of foreign-language films than meets The Eye, coming soon to a screen near you.
This article was first published in Today on 11th January 2003.