Article written by Aram Collier
Some of the best memories of my formative years in San Francisco were spent going to the Four Star theatre in the Outer Richmond neighbourhood I grew up in, which was the only theatre regularly showing new and old Chinese language movies. This was the 1990s and you could see new Chinese movies elsewhere but they were the “banned in China” art-house fare of 5th generation directors like Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou. Fine films to be sure, but if you wanted something more lively with a contemporary feel, the Four Star was one of the only places to find it. Hong Kong cop dramas, rom coms, and martial arts filled the program. More than occasionally I’d see a movie that had strong allusions or references to movies I’d seen before. Considering the still fast and loose nature of the Hong Kong film industry of the time, none of this was very surprising.
I went to see an action movie called Beyond Hypothermia starring Wu Chien Lien and Lau Ching Wan about a trained female assassin looking for a way out. It was pretty obviously treading on ground laid by Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita (which was also remade into Point of No Return in Hollywood) though not nearly as much as another Hong Kong movie Black Cat which I also vaguely remember seeing. (full disclosure – uh, not I’m not sure if I’m conflating Black Cat and Beyond Hypothermia! Regardless, I saw both, and they both have similar storylines around women who are trained killers a la La Femme Nikita).
At the time there was a pervading sense that these films were just schlocky knock offs, close to but not as good as the original, just like the pair of strangely coloured Air Jordans I’d get in Chinatown. But times have changes. We don’t dismiss the remake, we love them when they’re good, we hate them when they’re terrible, and we always enjoy a debate about them.
The remake isn’t new, in fact remakes, reboots (Star Trek, Star Wars, Planet of the Apes), and re-dos (Superman, Spiderman, Batman) are everywhere. This saturation shows we’re more accepting of the remake than ever before (or perhaps for the cynical, they represent a creative desertification). The digital remake of our daily lives facilitates this even more where cut, copy, paste, sharing, and do-overs is just part of our psyches.
One of the most popular and market driven reasons behind the remake is transferring a film from one setting to another with a new cast for local audiences to make it more plausible and palatable (and because a lot of the time people don’t like reading subtitles). Many, myself included, have railed against Hollywood’s practice of remaking and recasting for American “mainstream” tastes (read: “white”). But as Beyond Hypothermia and Black Cat showed this has been happening for a while in Hong Kong. And now this is also happening between Asian countries, as can be seen in the Korean hit comedy Miss Granny and its Chinese remake 20 Once Again, which follows the traditional path of remaking a film for local markets.
While both Miss Granny and 20 Once Again stick to similar plot points, swapping out cast members like a K-pop band (literally trading K-pop boy band members B1A4’s Jinyoung for EXO’s Luhan) there’s room for creative differences from their respective productions that reflect cultural nuances of the territory that the films originate from. For instance, Miss Granny’s halmoni is more brusque and foul mouthed than the grandmother in 20 Once Again; 20 Once Again’s production design has a much more nostalgic look and feel to its sets and costumes. The formula has worked and both films have had box office success. Interestingly, both films are produced by Korean megacorp CJ Entertainment who is also reportedly creating Miss Granny remakes for other Asian countries.
Perhaps more telling about our interest in the remake is our savvy awareness to the nexus of economics and artistry. Remakes are fueled by economic opportunism and coupled with artistic hubris to take on (usually) successful well-known properties. Can a director one-up the original film and ‘make it their own’, while making some serious coin for everybody involved? We as an audience are entertained by our curiosity to see whether the remake is good or bad. We like to track its box office success and revel in some schadenfreude when a remake bombs. We can debate its artistic merits because we ‘get’ the reference of the original film. We no longer think of the remake as a knock-off, because we understand it as an economic and artistic opportunity.
In this sense, perhaps the more accurate descriptor than “the remake” is “the cover”. The “cover” is generally accepted in the realm of music, where it is seen as a chance to show ones artistic chops and tread on a familiar path. Sometimes though, the cover versions of songs become more iconic than the original, like Aretha Franklin’s cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect”, or Jimi Hendrix’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower”. More than ever we also accept the cover – just type a song name and “cover” in a Youtube search and you’ll know what I mean.
Faiza Ahmad Khan’s brilliant documentary Supermen of Malegaon that shows a small town in Maharashtra India known for making hilarious homespun DIY remakes of popular Bollywood and Hollywood films with local jokes and social critiques injected into the narrative. Think a real life version of Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind. The innovative filmmakers of Malegaon are true cover artists who take films like Sholay and Superman and make it all their own. These remake geniuses create new and inspired films that reach their home communities while trying to making a little money doing it.
Reel Asian will be showing Supermen of Malegaon, Miss Granny and 20 Once Again as part of our Spring Showcase that celebrates Asian Heritage Month from May 15-16 at AGO Jackman Hall – all free admission! For more information, click HERE.
This is not a comprehensive list, just a personal list of films that come to mind. Andas lists go, feel free to love, hate or debate these picks!
One Armed Swordsman / The Blade
Probably my favourite remake; both versions are amazing and so different. The first a seminal Shaw Brothers classic, the second a nihilistic underrated Tsui Hark masterpiece.
La Jetee / 12 Monkeys
Hard to call this a “remake”, and it’s credited as an ‘inspired by’, but that Terry Gilliam et al. could make a film based on such a legendary source that actually worked is impressive.
Infernal Affairs / The Departed
I have to admit, I didn’t want to like The Departed, which seemed to be typical Hollywood remaking a movie but with white actors. But I found it a lot easier to follow than the original and its setting in Boston’s organized crime world worked for me.
Yojimbo / Fistful of Dollars
This is a pretty cool example of the samurai genre transferring relatively successfully to the “western”, as opposed to Seven Samurai / Magnificent Seven, which the latter is fine but for me is lacking the epic scope of the original.
And then anyway, who can argue with a Morricone re-scoring of Yojimbo (this contains spoilers… of a 50+ year old film)
This topic is listicle worthy and could go on for days, what’s your most hated remake? Here’s some of mine:
Old boy / Old boy
The Park Chan Wook original has an arguably overrated status probably due to its gut punch plot twist but Spike Lee’s version just never has any magic to it.
Il Mare / The Lakehouse
I haven’t even seen original and I can tell the remake sucks.
My Sassy Girl / My Sassy Girl
The Korean original is oddly charming, the American version is unwatchable.
Planet of the Apes / Planet of the Apes
The Charlton Heston one is classic, the Tim Burton / Mark Wahlberg one is BOR-RING, though the reboots have been pretty good.