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Darcy Paquet on Korean film

The art and business of the remake

Dec 11, 2020 (Gmt+09:00)

Film crew shooting a scene for the Korean remake of Josee, the Tiger and the Fish
Film crew shooting a scene for the Korean remake of Josee, the Tiger and the Fish

A decade ago, if you dropped the word "remake" into conversation with someone who worked in the Korean film industry, a discussion might have ensued about Hollywood's spotted record in remaking Korean films. There was Spike Lee's remake of Oldboy, which, despite the director's pedigree, most viewers would prefer to forget. There was the remake of the classic romantic comedy My Sassy Girl (with Elisha Cuthbert stepping into the role made famous by Jeon Ji-hyun), which was so bad it went straight to video.

The Uninvited, the remake of Kim Jee-woon's masterful horror film A Tale of Two Sisters, got poor reviews and was instantly forgotten, and even The Lake House with Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock, based on the 1999 romance Il Mare, and considered one of the more successful Hollywood remakes of Korean films, only musters a 35% critics' rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Added to that are the large number of Korean productions that had their remake rights purchased by Hollywood companies, but then were never actually made into films.

For a brief window of time, it had seemed that remake rights could become a lucrative extra source of revenue for Korean film producers. But this proved to be a mirage. There was little guaranteed money in most of the contracts that were signed, with the Korean side only standing to reap significant returns if the remake was a commercial success. And in the end, none of them were.

Although a few projects linger in development, for the most part, Hollywood's enthusiasm for remaking Korean movies has cooled. Nonetheless, you can mention the word "remake" to a Korean film producer in 2020, and it continues to spark discussion. That's because the Korean film industry has now focused its attention in the opposite direction: it is remaking films from other parts of the world. And for the most part, it is doing it quite successfully.

Take, for example The Call, which recently opened on Netflix. A wrinkle-in-time thriller about a woman in 2019 who starts having phone conversations with a serial killer living in the same house in 1999, the film is receiving enthusiastic reviews from around the world, both for its strong acting performances, and its twisty plot that injects something fresh into a familiar genre. But most viewers, unless they stay to read the end credits, might not be aware that it is a remake of the 2011 film The Caller from Puerto Rico.

Publicity stil for psychological thriller Call
Publicity stil for psychological thriller Call

In theaters this week, viewers can also catch Josee, the story of a reclusive disabled woman who falls in love with a younger university student. Well-known independent director Kim Jong-kwan brings his own distinctive visual and emotional texture to this film, which is a remake of the much-loved 2003 Japanese feature Josee, the Tiger and the Fish.

At the start of this year, Korean comedy Honest Candidate, a remake of the 2014 Brazilian film O Candidato Honesto, was doing well in theaters just as the pandemic hit. Looking back to 2018, no fewer than nine Korean remakes were released, including massive hits like Intimate Strangers (a remake of the hit Italian film Perfect Strangers) which earned 44.4 billion won at the box office, and Believer (a remake of acclaimed Hong Kong director Johnnie To's Drug War) which earned 43.5 billion won. Clearly, Korean producers have hit upon a winning strategy.

Cast of Honest Candidate, a remake of the 2014 Brazilian film O Candidato Honesto
Cast of Honest Candidate, a remake of the 2014 Brazilian film O Candidato Honesto

Many people look down on remakes. There's the unspoken implication that remaking a film is like stealing someone else's idea, albeit with the author's permission. But there's no reason to adopt this attitude. No one looks down on productions of Shakespeare's Hamlet or Mozart's Don Giovanni because the story has been used already. It's widely recognized that even with a great script, only the most talented of directors and performers can realize the full potential of those works.

In the case of cinema, many viewers seem to underestimate just how difficult it is to pull off an effective remake. Film is a complex art form made up of many different elements, with the contributions of a large group of people, from actors and the director to the screenwriter and key members of the production staff. It's easy to recognize a great film, when all these elements come together in a dynamic way. But it's not as easy to identify the essence of what makes a film work. 

To successfully remake a film, you need to identify the core strengths of the original work, and carry them over into the remake, even as you change the story to fit a different social and cultural setting. Is it the structure of the plot that gives the film its energy, or is it in the nature of the contrast between the main characters? How important is the physical space to the building of tension in the film? Questions like these are important, and if you get them wrong, the remake is going to feel flat. So to remake a film well requires not just strong screenwriting or directing skills, but also an analytical ability; an understanding of what makes successful films work. And I think this kind of understanding is rare, even in experienced filmmakers.

We only have to look at unsuccessful examples of film remakes to see what a challenge this is. The remake of Oldboy, widely considered to be a disappointment, did not fall short because of a lack of talent behind the camera. In terms of its plot and cinematic approach, it followed quite closely to the original. But what is missing from the remake is that spark which, in Park Chan-wook's original film, gave the work its unique energy. In the end, the Oldboy remake failed because it couldn't capture the essence of what made the original film work.

So Korean filmmakers should feel proud of their comparative prowess in shooting film remakes. Not all of them have turned out well, but the overall rate of success is impressive nonetheless. The Call is remarkable on many levels, from its tight direction and efficient storytelling to the way the actors' performances slowly build in intensity to a wild, unhinged climax. It's a film that knows what its strengths are, and that's not as common as you might think.

The art and business of the remake

Darcy Paquet is the founder of and the author of New Korean Cinema: Breaking the Waves. A former correspondent for Screen International and Variety, he teaches at the Busan Asian Film School and is a program advisor for the Udine Far East Film Festival in Italy. In 2014 he co-launched the Wildflower Film Awards Korea, which recognizes achievement in Korean independent filmmaking. He has also translated the subtitles for many films including The Handmaiden and Parasite.

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