Sunday, May 5, 2013

MKC Thought Leaders' Corner: April 2013

How well does Josh Brolin fit in the above picture? With Spike Lee's Oldboy almost upon us and the announcement of possible remakes of Confession of Murder, New World, A Bittersweet Life, Lady Vengeance and more, it seems a good time to ask the experts:

How do you feel about remakes of Korean films?

We would also love to know what you think about remakes of Korean films! Please leave a comment or start a discussion with us on facebook or twitter.

Many to thanks to all the contributors for their time and insightful comments. Responses listed alphabetically, followed by the thoughts of MKC's teammembers.

Name: Colette Balmain
Occupation: Lecturer; Writer; Film Critic
Location: London, United Kingdom

English language remakes of foreign language films historically get bad press. Personally, I believe that remakes can lead viewers to seek out the ‘original.’ The best remakes are those that use the source material to produce something different. The quality of remakes of Korean films is variable, with the more successful one not simply reproducing the original but reinterpreting it through its placement with a different cultural context. Alejandro Agresti’s The Lake House is more or less a direct remake of Il Mare. In opposition to this, Charles and Thomas Guard’s reworking of Kim Jee-woon’s A Tale of Two Sisters within the generic conventions of the American teen horror film is more successful although lacks the subtleties of the original. In the capable hands of Alexandre Aja, Mirrors, the remake of Into the Mirror, has moments of genuine suspense although in replacing the critique of South Korea’s economic miracle for a more character driven and personal concept of horror produces a film which is perhaps less interesting.

I would argue that there is a need for caution in automatically privileging an ‘original’ over a ‘remake’, as this can be interpreted as a form of orientalism, a nostalgic desire for an authentic ‘Orient’ uncontaminated by contact with the West. Here the Other culture operates to fill a perceived lack in one’s own culture. Indeed, Spike Lee’s remake of Oldboy may well be as accomplished as the ‘original’ as this is not a quick cash-in. Lee’s integrity and location as ‘Other’ in relation to mainstream US cinema convinces me of the potential of this remake. Indeed, if we are talking about cultural authenticity, we should not forget that Oldboy is in fact based upon a Japanese manga which raises questions about what in fact is the original source material? Are concepts of original and copy still useful in today’s postmodern society? Should films not be taken on their own terms, rather than by comparison to other films? If remakes lead to a bigger audience for Korean cinema, if only for fans and critics to point out the supremacy of the ‘originals’, it seems to me that everyone wins.

Name: Paolo Bertolin
Occupation: Festival Programmer (Venice, Udine Far East Film Festival)
Location: Italy

I personally have mixed feelings about remakes of Korean films - and probably one here should specify, "US remakes of Korean films." The perspective of the remake itself isn't generally too exciting in terms of artistic or creative expectations. Most remakes of Japanese films in the last decade or so, for instance, proved to be generic and artless translations of the original concepts into blunt B movies.

However, the bright side of such remakes is the (revived) attention they usually bring to the originals. Many more people (all over the world) might in fact discover the often much superior original films thanks to average or mediocre Hollywood remakes. And if the remake trend involves more than just one title, it obviously will generate a stronger and wider awareness of the creative strength of the industry that produced the originals.

Then, the case of Spike Lee's remake of Oldboy (2003) is quite special, as it sees a critically acclaimed director facing the task of adapting the most iconic Korean cult movie. I can't say I am really excited about the challenge, but at least I am curious to see what results it will bring about.

Name: Phil Hoad
Occupation: Writer, After Hollywood blog, The Guardian
Location: London, United Kingdom

I assume that this question is coming up in the shadow of the upcoming Spike Lee remake of Oldboy, apropos the old chestnut that another great Asian movie is about to be ruined by Hollywood. That's very possible, and there are certainly enough precedents for that! But I don't think Korean cinema has been heavily exploited in remake terms, perhaps because it only came to global prominence just as the Hollywood remake fetish was peaking in the mid-noughties – so in a way it arrived slightly too late for the kind of strip-mining that happened to J-horror and French cinema to really take hold. It's hard to think of many really high-profile remakes based on big Korean films: The Lake House and My Sassy Girl, perhaps (and the American version of the latter went straight to DVD). I know there are a few more in development, but let's see what actually gets greenlighted. My impression is that momentum in the industry has shifted from English-language remakes towards Hollywood getting involved in local-language production, so you could argue – e.g. Fox and The Yellow Sea - that the US is starting to contribute to Korean cinema as well as exploit it. And if the Korean remake bandwagon does start to pick up, then it's just part of a process of story recycling that has always driven cinema, and a tribute to the strength of the material that has come out of post-hallyu Korea. If the American versions are poor, then that's their problem; I just hope the Korean developers are being well-paid for the rights. I'd be inclined to fret more about Hollywood poaching actual Korean creative talent than remaking their films.

Name: Mike Hostench
Occupation: Deputy Director, Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival of Catalonia
Location: Barcelona, Spain

After reading your question for this month, I clearly could imagine ALL the Thought Leaders shouting at once: THE CHASER!!! The proposed remake of Na Jong-jin's film, with Leonardo Di Caprio attached for the lead originally played by Kim Yun-seok, remains the epitome of the failed Korean remake. There are many others that didn't even go further than a couple of execs meetings at AFM or Cannes. Or maybe it was better they all stayed that way considering the final results of the Hollywood versions of Kwak Jae-young's My Sassy Girl or Lee Hyun-seung's Il Mare. These are probably good examples of too much-too soon, as the US film industry and mainstream moviegoers weren't ready for these kind of stories. But the global world gets more and more sophisticated every day, and Spike Lee's version of Oldboy will most likely prove Hollywood is finally prepared to produce a new trend of productions based on Korean originals, and set a trend that hopefully could emulate the successful Hong Kong inspired remakes of the 90s and 2000s. Now in everybody's mind due to recent news, Park Hung-Jeon New World could also make an excellent remake as the core of the story could translate very well into an American gangster saga in the same vein as Martin Scorsese's The Departed did transforming its Hong Kong source.

Hollywood isn't the only producer of Korean film remakes. All film industries are aiming to put a foothold in the Chinese market, and its giant craving for new stories that could fill the dozens of multiplexes built every month. We had a taste of this direction with the 2012 Chinese remake of 2004's K-horror megahit Bushinsaba, directed by the same Korean director of the first version (Ahn Byeng-ki) with a mostly all Chinese cast and crew and a storyline adapted for today's Mainland audiences.

In any case, as long as the Korean film industry keeps producing quality films, there will be key powerhouses interested in adapting such stories for their bigger markets. These days, the closer relationship between Korean companies such as CJ and Showbox with Hollywood agents (UTA, CAA, WME et al) will also play a relevant role in how these remakes are selected, put together and marketed.

Name: Kyu Hyun Kim
Occupation: Associate Professor, UC Davis
Location: Berkeley, USA

Remakes have been a staple of industrial filmmaking since almost the beginning of cinema. Some of our favorite Hollywood classics, like John Huston’s Maltese Falcon (1941), turn out to be second or third-round remakes rather than an original. It is also completely untrue that remakes are always worse than the originals. If you want to stake your reputation at claiming the Berger-Powell Thief of Bagdad (1940) is inarguably inferior to the Fairbanks-Walsh silent (1924), you are welcome to do so, but really, what would be the point? Likewise, throughout its century-long history Hollywood has continuously appropriated foreign films and imported filmmakers from outside in order to aggrandize their domestic products.
So the recent “boom” of Hollywood buying off remake rights from East Asian cinema is nothing new. The question is whether this trend, after making probably oodles of money for the “remake broker” Roy Lee and presumably saving millions of dollars in script development for certain Hollywood honchos, has done any good for anybody. I think for the short term, especially in early 2000s, Korean producers/filmmakers obviously saw economic rationality in selling the remake rights wholesale. Now is probably a different story.

None of the Hollywood remakes of Asian films I have seen (including the Oscar-winning The Departed) was able to surpass their originals in artistic quality or even in entertainment values. This is hardly surprising, considering that the Hollywood producers were seemingly looking for in these remakes the cinematic equivalent of microwave-oven-ready chop suey dinners. They flattened out fascinating contusions and contortions in the narratives, styles and characterizations of the Asian originals: oh yeah, they did dial up gore and violence in compensation. This situation is doubly ironic for the Korean horror films bought for American retooling - Into the Mirror (2003), A Tale of Two Sisters (2003). What made them powerful was not so much their exotic ghosties (as per Ring) as their willingness to push the envelope of the genre as well as intelligence and skill of the filmmakers, precisely the kind of qualities that short-term moneymakers want to avoid investing in.

There will always be microwave-oven dinners. And perhaps there might be a chef who can take the ingredients of these dinner packets and come up with a veritable feast appropriate for a Zagat-rated restaurant. Who knows? Spike Lee just might be that person. But I am not holding my breath.

Name: James Marsh
Occupation: Asian Editor, Twitch; Programmer, Fantastic Fest
Location: Hong Kong

While there is a twinge of disappointment and frustration open hearing the news that a successful (and perhaps beloved) film from Korea – or anywhere else – is up for a re-make, it should not automatically be dismissed as a fool’s errand. The simple truth is that Western, dare I say American, audiences are notoriously adverse to subtitles. This is a simple fact, and simply pushing more subtitled films upon them is only going to make them angry and more dismissive, perhaps even destroying a few small distributors in the process. With an English language remake there is the possibility to familiarize an English-speaking audience with a particular story, concept or idea that has originated from another foreign language film. It has the potential to reach a wide audience, make a lot of money, which more often than not will trickle back down to the original filmmakers. A remake option may even be written into the original acquisition contract, thus ensuring more money for the filmmakers to go make more movies.

An English language remake also serves as the perfect platform from which to publicize the source material, which can often be sold as darker, bolder and more confrontational than the Hollywood version. Spike Lee’s Oldboy is a perfect example of this. While I am unsure exactly how his film will play out, it certainly won’t have the same shocking denouement as Park Chan-wook’s version. It may well prove to be a commercial success, however, as the hook of the story is a good pitch for a thriller, the cast of Josh Brolin, Sharlto Copley and Elizabeth Olsen are proven talents, while Lee himself has delivered impressive genre fare in the past, with films like Summer of Sam and Inside Man. If the film proves successful, reaching millions of new audience members across the country, what better opportunity to publicise the stylish, controversial and far darker original from whence this film came.

This is not to defend remakes outright, as many prove to be lazy, unimaginative and reductive exercises in lowest common denominator filmmaking, but they can simply be ignored and dismissed. The original films still exist and are out there to be enjoyed by anyone who cares to go look for them.

Name: Simon McEnteggart
Occupation: Editor,
Location: Ilsan, South Korea

As with any national cinema, the true beauty of Korean film lies in the cultural context that is articulated on screen. Korea, arguably more so than most countries, has witnessed incredible changes within the past three generations and these features constantly appear both within the narrative, and in the framework in which the story occurs. The clash between Confucian ideology and capitalist values, traditionalism and modernity, and all the other many and varied features of Korean socio-culture provide a captivating setting that is removed when remade in another country.

It’s easy to blame Hollywood, or other studio systems, that have ‘reimagined’ Korean films as simply finding a quick and easy way to earn revenue. However, it’s also an unfortunate truth that the vast majority of English-speaking cinema-goers are not willing to watch films with subtitles, something that has plagued non-English language films for decades. It makes for embarrassing reading when articles appear regarding audiences who not only left the cinema but also asked for a refund when Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, or more recently, The Artist, appeared in multiplexes. This ignorance spurs production companies into acquiring the rights, and they fulfill the demand.

Yet there is hope. While it was based on the book, The Hunger Games created a form of protest on social media due to the quite obvious ‘inspiration’ taken from the superior Japanese Battle Royale. This in turn piqued the curiosity of certain factions of the audience who then sought the film out and discovered it for themselves, which they wouldn’t have done otherwise. As Korea’s profile becomes greater, hopefully the same will prove true with Korean remakes, and audiences will be urged to seek out the superior originals.

Name: Darcy Paquet
Occupation: Founder,; Consultant; Udine Far East Film Festival
Location: Seoul, South Korea

I don't have strong feelings about most remakes of Korean films. Although there's something odd and slightly insulting in the idea that a perfectly good film from the recent past needs to be remade with Western actors in order to get people to watch a certain story, it does provide an added source of revenue for Korean filmmakers, so it's not all bad. I haven't particularly liked any of the remakes of Korean films shot to date, but I'm looking forward to Spike Lee's Oldboy, because it's being made by a director with a strong and unique cinematic style.

Name: Paul Quinn
Occupation: Independent Writer; Founder,
Location: London, United Kingdom

Personally, I am not a fan of Western remakes of Korean films, in any respect whatsoever. With Korean cinema securing an ever-increasing foothold on the international and world stage, it is certainly understandable that Hollywood and the like wish to capitalize on the explosive interest in Korean-created content but what Western films companies have, to my mind, utterly failed to comprehend in the majority of these remakes are the idiosyncrasies of individual nations’ cultures; the importance (and domestic relevance) of the social commentary and/or cultural themes and references that the original films contain; not to mention how those ideas relate and contrast to those of other countries.

Unthinkingly, these film companies seem to have assumed that they can randomly displace or change any aesthetics in K-film storylines to produce movies with Western mass-market appeal – whether by the displacement of Korean aesthetics and their recreation, almost verbatim, in Western places and situations (eg: The Lake House – a US remake of Il Mare); by the side-stepping of the specifically Asian nature of narrative content in an attempt to “Americanize” plotlines (eg: The Uninvited – a remake of A Tale of Two Sisters); or even by the use of elements of all of the aforementioned to produce what could be described as a hybrid of Asian and Western cultural ideas (eg: My Sassy Girl – a remake of the Korean film of the same name). However, in attempting to do so the very nature of the original narratives risks being lost or mired within settings where those cultural references have wholly different meanings. The perfect (if you will) example of this is My Sassy Girl where in the original the main feisty female character spoke to the younger generation at a time when the place of women in Korean society was changing but in the remake her outspokenness simply made her appear as a drunken, spoilt US brat. As far as the Spike Lee remake of Oldboy is concerned, while such a talented director being attached to the production does bode well, I fear that US cinema’s penchant for almost endless unnecessary exposition may well result in the stripping away of every nuance, subtlety and surprise of the original.

Name: Marc Raymond
Occupation: International Scholar, College of Communication, Kwangwoon University
Location: Seoul, South Korea

I have an ambivalent attitude to remakes, usually disliking most specific examples while finding the general idea quite fascinating. This is especially true when there is cross-cultural translation, so I'm certainly very intrigued by the upcoming Oldboy remake. There is the problem of Hollywood cultural imperialism, with the remake often overwhelming and basically erasing the foreign language original. But there is the counter-argument that remakes can draw more attention not only to the individual film being remade but also to that film's whole national cinema.

In the case of Oldboy, it has probably gained enough exposure already, so I'm worried that maybe less people will seek it out if they have the remake. But I do think remakes can help Korean films that have little international exposure to begin with. And with Korean cinema having a strong domestic market, I think the overall risks of American cultural dominance are less than with smaller national cinemas. I'm even cautiously optimistic that the remakes and the cross-cultural comparison and analysis that will follow can lead to greater knowledge of not only Korean cinema but Korean society. This would include Korean audiences as well, as making the original "strange" by changing elements of the story can make viewers aware of often invisible cultural assumptions.

Name: Kieran Tully
Occupation: Artistic Director, Korean Film Festival in Australia
Location: Sydney, Australia

I am not a fan of remakes, and Korean movie remakes are no exception to this.

Some people in the media will say that remakes can give increased exposure and awareness to their original source materials, by being easier to consume as they are localised or made in English to appeal to a wider market. I agree they can have a wider appeal, as many people are turned off by subtitles and Asian faces, but I don't see that exposure being passed on down to the original material.

Did anyone see The Lake House and know that it was a remake of Il Mare? No, the only film people thought of when they watched it was Speed! Did anybody that watched My Sassy Girl with Elisha Cuthbert and Jesse Bradford go and watch the original? No, because they were turned off by a terrible film that missed all the context of the original Kwak Jae-yong masterpiece. I mean, even when the remake is critically acclaimed, features major stars and achieve box office success, as was the case with Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, the original material did not get the recognition it was due. Instead upon being awarded the Oscar for Best Picture, the announcer claimed Infernal Affairs was a Japanese crime film!

So I personally don’t see any truth to the matter that remakes give exposure to their originals, and very rarely are films improved on via a remake, so I just don’t see the point in them. The only successful ventures into this realm in my opinion have been films that auteurs themselves have returned to in a bid to improve upon, such as Robert Rodriguez with Desperado (a semi-remake/semi-sequel to El Mariachi).

Even if remakes of A Bittersweet Life, Castaway on the Moon or Oldboy are critically acclaimed, I don’t see a huge benefit of this going to the Korean film industry itself, apart from maybe a royalty check to the screenwriter of the source material.

MKC Team

Name: Pierce Conran
Occupation: Editor, KoBiz, Korean Film Council/Modern Korean Cinema; Korea Correspondent, Twitchfilm
Location: Seoul, South Korea

Remakes of Korean films inspire passionate responses though the funny thing is that very few have actually been produced (five from what I can tell, with a sixth due later this year). Do remakes improve on their source? Rarely. Do they afford greater exposure to the originals? Not particularly. So what is the benefit? It's a few extra dollars in the pockets of local filmmakers to be sure but it's mostly a good business model for foreign (mostly Hollywood) executives.

Sometimes it's a bad idea as films like My Sassy Girl aren't very striking when taken out of their cultural context. Other times it makes perfect sense. Oldboy (itself based on a Japanese manga) is a great story that could potentially work anywhere. In the hands of Spike Lee that potential is certainly there. News of the sale of remake rights is very common but these projects don't always make it to screens. I'm terrified at the prospect of an American Castaway on the Moon but I can't deny the rationale behind mining its terrific premise.

Remakes also work both ways as Korean films like All About My Wife, The Good, the Bad and the Weird originated from foreign sources. Since the positives and negatives of remakes seem negligible I'm not against them but then again I'm unlikely to get excited about one.

Name: Rex Baylon
Occupation: Writer, Modern Korean Cinema/VCinema
Location: Sangpoom, South Korea

My quick draw response to this question is a vehement no. As a fan and supporter of South Korean cinema the attention being paid by American studio heads to remake heralded South Korean classics has always ended badly. Now of course, there are those, far more open-minded than me, who say that Hollywood’s backing of these projects actually help further spread South Korean cinema to audiences who might have an aversion to subtitles, but I don’t believe this is accomplished. Case in point, Quentin Tarantino, an outspoken fan of Asian cinema, whose Kill Bill films were a genre mish-mash of Kung-Fu, Samurai, Giallo, (insert name) cinema. For fans of Tarantino’s movie that didn’t have an intimate knowledge of these genres, the film either worked or failed, but its release didn’t cause millions of fans of the film to go out in search of the obscure titles that Tarantino pinched to create his picture.

Though remakes may draw some attention to the original work, their production is a double-edged sword. If the remake flops or is bad then audiences will be rightly turned off from ever pursuing the original work. But if the remake does happen to be a success, well then maybe a dedicated few superfans will search out the original, but for the most part the original will be buried, relegated to being a footnote in the film’s history. Evidence of this can be seen in films like Brian De Palma’s Scarface, John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), Casino Royale (2006), and Hideo Nakata’s Ringu (1998). In each of these cases the remakes trumped the original in popularity and very rarely do fans of these remakes take the time to look at the original source. And of course when fans do there is oftentimes a “newer is better” bias.

If American producers want to help South Korean cinema then they should distribute South Korean films and put them in theaters against other big name Hollywood films. As a business model this seems far more reasonable and cost effective.

Name: Fabien Schneider
Occupation: Master in Cinema Studies; Founder and Editor, Kimchipopcorn; Writer, Modern Korean Cinema; Editor,
Location: Lausanne, Switzerland

With each new announcement of a remake of an Asian film, I can't help but cringe. This is not just due to loyalty to the original films. Even if we admit that the remakes rarely outweigh their inspiration, there have been in the history of cinema many remakes that have endured. If we talk about Scarface, there is no doubt that we are talking about the remake from 1983 and not the original from 1932. Does this mean that the one made in 1932 is of little quality and should be crushed under the weight and reputation of its successor? Unfortunately this is what happens most of the time a remake is released.

This phenomenon is even more ethically questionable when Hollywood decides to make a "remake" of a non-American film. Here I use the quotes because it is not, strictly speaking, remakes, but adaptations for American culture. The true remake is supposed to be a reinterpretation of an existing movie, and implies a vision of an author, supposedly the director and the screenwriter. But in most cases, when a "remake" of an Asian film is launched by a Hollywood studio, the director arrives only very late in the project. And what about those remakes of movie that are announced immediately after the success at the local box office of the said movie? To take benefit of a successful and popular script is not the only rational justification. By multiplying this kind of business, Hollywood reinforces consciously or not the myth of insurmountable cultural division between East and West, two entities that exist solely for the purpose of projecting the differences of the essentially different Other.

Why is it that so many moviegoers of different Asian countries enjoyed My Sassy Girl, despite all its references to Korean daily life? Did we really need a mediocre remake for Europeans and North Americans to enjoy this story? The problem is that the "American remake" seems to be now perceived by Korean filmmakers as confirmation of the success of a film and a form of recognition by the model that Hollywood represents, while they only maintain the success of Korean cinema apart from the rest of world cinema by providing their own versions. Western audiences should learn and accept to watch foreign movies, and these remakes are really not helping.


  1. I cringe in embarrassment reading statements like "American audiences will not watch movies with subtitles", when the rest of the world rarely watches a movie that is not. Talk about exposing your ignorance. I have had numerous friends say they will not watch a movie because "it has subtitles", and it makes me so frustrated at how narrow minded this thinking is. To say nothing of how limiting this attitude in closing people off from a world of entertainment far superior to anything we can watch on American TV or movie theaters. How do I respond to these people? Impossible I think.