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It’s For-eign, Not For Americans…

What is the deal with remaking foreign films for American audiences, really? That Akira remake apparently still alive.

Despite the high volume of foreign films being remade, there are comparatively few English films that warrant an Americanised reworking, so I’m going to suggest that it’s not merely the cultural barrier that needs transcending. I think it’s the foreign language barrier. So, what’s the point in remaking and reimagining foreign properties for huge amounts of money – why not simply pay more heed to the original product?

For the record, NOT how you do a 180-degree turn...

For the record, NOT how you do a 180-degree turn...

What I mean of course is spending more money publicising the original product rather than sinking a whole host of money into a remake? Seriously, you already have the film done and dusted and in such a state that it would inspire you to make a copy of it in another language. Why waste the time of a good director with no interest or a bad director with no taste when the project has already been brought to the screen by somebody who evidentally cares about the material?

In fairness, adapting foreign films is not a new phenomenon. The Magnificent Seven is a remake of a The Seven Samurai. Even A Fistful of Dollars is an example of a foreign film (an Italian film) adapting another foreign film (Yojimbo). But it has become a much stronger fad in recent years. What’s interesting to note in the trend is that horrors and thrillers are the bulk of what are being adapted, but horrors and thrillers that grabbed attention for being so groundbreaking and odd. These remakes will inevitably be watered-down in translation. It seems odd to adapt a modern classic like Old Boy only to significantly change some it its most memorable imagery. There’s no doubt that if that dreaded Battle Royale remake ever got off the ground it would be heavily censored and edited. But I’m not a Hollywood producer.

I get it – there is money at stake. And American moviegoers are notoriously finicky about subtitles (“I like to watch my movies, not read them” is a frequent battle-cry). I have to wonder how financially successful such adaptations normally are at the box office – the failures of anime-adaptation Speed Racer and Dragonball: Evolution are still fresh in my head (though both are the adaptations of television shows rather than films. When I think of adaptations of foreign films liable to make money, I think of the Sarah Michelle Gellar version of The Grudge (which was directed by the original director, to be fair) or the Gore Verbinski version of The Ring.

The Grudge made $110m on a budget of $10m, which is fairly decent, and the Ring made $129m on a budget of $48m. That seems quite a compelling argument, but looking at the top ten biggest grossing films of 2009 so far, the baby of the pack (Angels & Demons) has taken in $133m at the US box office – more than either film. So these remakes are good moneyspinners, but not great moneyspinners. Studios would arguably see a greater return (percentage-wise) in marketing the originals better.

It’s hard to make a case that it’s a prestige point either. The only critically successful remake of a foreign film I can think of in recent memory is Martin Scorcese’s The Departed, a remake of Infernal Affairs. I like both movies on their own merits (but, in a crunch, I’d come down on Scorcese’s side), but I think that this is an exception to the general rules. When most critics or film-goers hear that a movie is a remake from “a classic foreign film” (because advertisements never declare a remake “from a so-so foreign film”), they tend to whince.

Then there’s the exposure argument. It goes that American (and English-speaking) audiences in general have an aversion to subtitles. The only way to get them to see these interesting and dynamic stories is to adapt them into a bland and generic (and conformist) style with a recognisable lead and English dialogue. I don’t think that’s fair. If a movie is pushed hard and solidly recommended there is a faint chance of it making some sort of cultural impact. Of course, the only real example I have where a foreign film was sold to audiences relatively well was during the Oscar campaign for Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (which has thus far avoided a remake – though if you want to watch a truly terrifying Americanised version, see Bulletproof Monk). Tiger took $128m at the US box office at a budget of $17m.

So that’s a higher box office total than The Grudge (and a greater amount of profit, too) and a greater percenatage return (and a higher profit amount, as well) than the remake of The Ring. Of course, the studios were mounting an Oscar-campaign, but I think the potential speaks for itself.

One could arguably make the case that the success of the film was down to the dubbing it received (which meant that audiences didn’t have to worry about straining their eyes), but a whole host of Asian films routinely receive dubbing (Howl’s Moving Castle stars loveable douchebag Christian Bale, for example). What distinguishes this particular film is that the massive push it received from the studio, from critics and even from fellow movie-goers. I haven’t seen anything quite like it. There was a huge amount of energy and enthusiasm for the film – it’s arguably Ang Lee’s most popular film with the American public. If we could do that more often, we’d be on to a winner.

It’s refreshing in the era of huge multiplexes that space isn’t really an issue anymore. Though the Irish Film Institute is the place to go for really obscure films, Cineworld on Parnell Street has enough screens that it can afford to show non-English-language films (and even the odd classic movie, but that’s another matter).

I’ve ordered the classic Akira on Bluray, because everyone screams it’s a must-see. The last thing I want to do is see a crappy ‘re-imagining’ and decide the movie is terrible based on that.

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