Four Things To Remember When Remaking Asian Horror

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Being the movie capital of the Western world, Hollywood has always sought ideas from other cultures to use for its own nefarious ends. Be it the straight-forward twisting of the story of Arabian Nights to the sprinkling of racism that peppers most Disney animations, the practice became solidified as a grade-A money-spinner in a big, award-winning way with the release of Martin Scorsese’s 2007 film The Departed.

A stylish remake of the Chinese original Infernal Affairs (2003), the film’s numerous Oscar nods proved that there was a mainstream market for US remakes, and since then that trend has continued unabated. There are remakes planned for Chan Wook-park’s Vengeance trilogy; a Hollywood adaptation of Death Note; another remake of Seven Samurai; Akira (now unlikely); Battle Royale; there was talk of a remake of The Host, but details have dried up; the list goes on.

This article is going to focus on US remakes of Asian horror, as being far and away the most common genre on the receiving end of such treatment. There have been many US remakes or reworkings of Asian films before the success of the emphatically not horror film The Departed,  going all the way back to 1956 when the Japanese monster movie Godzilla (1954) was re-edited for US audiences to as Godzilla, King of the Monsters! in 1956.

Although this article is about Asian horror films getting US remakes, they’ve also had great success in other genres – 2006′s Keanu Reeves/Sandra Bullock vehicle The Lake House was a remake of Il Mare (2000), a South Korean romantic drama, and both The Magnificent Seven (1960) and A Fist Full of Dollars (1964), even though they are seen as the perfect examples of Westerns, were based on Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) and Yojimbo (1961), respectively.

All of this experience in making those films doesn’t mean that directors have necessarily got the formula all worked out, however. The US remakes are usually much worse than the Asian originals -  there’s loads of things that US directors, or Asian directors working in Hollywood, continually get wrong. This is why I am here. I, as somebody who has never made a film in his entire life, am uniquely qualified to point out the failings of people much more talented than I could ever hope to be.  The only way is up, right?

Right?

Guys?

Whatever. I’ve come up with four pointers to help make sure that your Western remake of an Asian horror film is up to scratch. That means “good enough”.

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1) Don’t just exchange “US” for “Japan” in your story

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Localise the story points – make the details of the story feel more realistic. All too often, lazy filmmakers just take the entire story and transplant it to the US. It happened with The Grudge, it happened with The Ring, and it will definitely continue to happen while there is shedloads of money to be made for the minimum of effort expelled.

This is an area in which you should take a leaf out of Martin Scorsese’s book – when he remade Infernal Affairs, he made the story feel more local. He changed the entire language of the film (literally and figuratively), and made it work. If the makers of The Eye had understood that, and not just replayed the original again but in English, with Jessica Alba, then we’d have had a classic on our hands. Instead, what they did was eliminate all of the creepiness of the original and instead gave us terrible special effects and a weak central performance. If an actress like Julianna Moore had been given the central role, then it would have regained some of the gravity of the original (although Blindness, a 2010 movie starring Julianne Moore covering vaguely the same ground, was terrible).

What I’m saying is that carbon copies don’t entertain audiences; they can see through it right away. Make the story your own. In the world of TV, this tactic is what took The Office from mid-season replacement to huge success.

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2) Ensure your remake remains as scary as the original

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This is where The Grudge fell flat. The original, Ju-on, was absolutely terrifying, but the remake was just boring. It’s somehow gone on to become something of a horror classic, even though it’s not actually scary, or fun. When South Korean horror classic A Tale of Two Sisters (2002) was remade as The Uninvited (2009), it went from being one of the scariest films in recent memory to a damp squib, incapable of even the most rudimentary of shocks.

It’s not as easy to retain the scares as one would think. It relies on a series of factors – taking what was scary about the original, and using that in the film’s new context – tying in to rule 1 of this very article. One film that did manage to acheive this was The Ring - although not quite as pant-soilingly jumpy as the original Ringu, it still reached an adequate amount of horrorosity. It localised the story of the haunted videotape to a small American town, and Naomi Watts made her character, Rachel, feel real. It’s probably the most famous of the horror remakes, and with good reason – it’s simply the best of those films. It was followed by Dark Water and a disappointing sequel, The Ring Two (confusingly not based on Ringu 2).

Sure, they succeeded with The Ring by making it scary, but that can’t have been the whole story, right?

Well…

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3) Don’t use the original director

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How are you supposed to change details that don’t make sense in the film’s new context, while keeping the spirit the same, if you’ve got the original director in to helm your film? It can’t be done.

The man above is Hideo Nakata, director of the original Ringu series, and the original Dark Water. All of these films are classics, but having the person there whose idea this whole endeavour was in the first place is going to hinder your project indubitably. I even have proof – he directed The Ring Two, taking over from Gore Verbinski, which was famously a stinker. While he did write the screenplay to the US remake of Dark Water, he has disappeared off the map somewhat in recent years.

Why is this a bad thing? Well, it smacks of fake authenticity. Just hiring the guy who made the original and placing him slap-bang in the middle of the Hollywood system isn’t a recipe for a great film. It’s a recipe for a disaster, and that disaster is called The Ring Two. If only they’d based it on Ringu 2.

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4) You don’t need to explain everything

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This is a problem that is endemic across American cinema. Every plot strand needs to be gathered up and tied off in a pretty little bow, so the audience leaves the cinema without any questions in their stupid little heads. Ringu never explained who the girl, Sadako, was. It didn’t give her a backstory. She was just a horrifying creature, a malevolent spirit that wanted to harm whichever poor viewer stumbled across the videotape next. In Ju-on, who the hell knows how that curse works?

In Japanese culture, there’s the legend of Hanako-san. It’s similar to the legend of Bloody Mary, in that school children say her name and she appears in a toilet stall. How she got there, nobody knows. It works without needing to know how she got there. The same is true of horror – the scariest horror is all the scarier because it just happens – there’s no reasoning. It’s horrifying on a dreamlike subconscious level. Showing everybody the reasoning behind the screams does not a scary film make.

Do you get it now, Hollywood? Just follow my four step plan and you can acheive Asian horror remake success.

Success!

Feel free to use the comments below to share your stories of success using these simple steps. There’s no point commenting if you haven’t.

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  • Misdemeanor

    Hollywood remakes are initially defaced remnants of the originals do to the fact that Hollywood remaking is geared after Henry Ford’s only real invention; the churning out based assembly line remake based off of no original ideas and the ORIGINAL idea of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” mentality. That’s why u see 20 remakes of spider man and 100 remakes of superman called 1,2,3,4,5,6…but the latest installment is called man of steel (who knew u could make so much money off of a character with red briefs?…..what?….he s not wearing them anymore? hmmm…). OH and star wars 12 any one?…..Even Harrison Ford thinks its ridiculous but hey its a pay check….and people are willing to watch….look forward to an ONSLAUGHT of Marvel movies and old school winner remakes because this generation is a comic book and hollywood has run out of ideas except to blatantly copy other cultures…but it works because mainstream America isn’t aware of anywhere outside of its bubble ….but only in America where math comes 32th in the world…and if u think 32th is the right terminology..then head back to grammar school.

  • Tony Cowin

    The US film industry likes the idea of horror but doesn’t like horror. It needs to package it up to sell to teenagers as the next date night scare flick hoping to cash in. However there’s no belief in real horror. I have come to the conclusion that the US film industry is more scared about making horror films than actually watching them.

    There are exceptions to this in homegrown horror such as, ‘The Pact’, ‘Sinister’, or the ‘Paranormal Activity’ series etc. While some people may still argue those films don’t suit their particular dark palette, they took some risks at least.

    So remake Asian horror films with the suggestions on your list, while always remembering they are duty bound to terrify also. That would be a good formula if any studio or director is willing to take a chance.