Sunday, January 20, 2008

Remake Watch: Cultural exchanges?

"Remake." Dirty word. Filthy idea. Sick phrase.

Is it really? I might be getting a little confused here, or I might be getting a little ahead of myself. But all of us are pretty much aware of the accusation that Hollywood's into remaking films from other countries because it's running out of ideas.

That may be true. But it's also worth asking, what's the real motive in remaking something? Most times, we suspect it's because Hollywood sees a good idea and wants to Americanise it to better sell it to local audiences. But then there are also things like Christopher Nolan's remake of Norwegian thriller Insomnia, which because of its quality, seems to suggest that Nolan took it on because he found something more interesting to say, or a more interesting way to say the same thing. It worked to his favour.

Of course, remakes go back a long way. The Magnificent Seven was a remake of Seven Samurai, although at the time, the dirty word hadn't been formed, only maybe the phrase "inspired by." Werner Herzog remade Murnau's Nosferatu. Wes Craven remade Bergman's The Virgin Spring into Last House On The Left. With Herzog as the exception, most times in today's remakes, unlike those of yore, themes and basic ideas are taken and dressed in wholly new stories or settings. I guess maybe today, remakes look all the more like mere copycats because storylines and plots tend to remain the same, as do characters, with everything seemingly lifted lock, stock and barrel, all of which indicates, of course, a lesser degree of creativity.

What's currently more interesting, is what Hong Kong has been up to lately. Benny Chan is in the midst of remaking Hollywood film Cellular. And most recently, Donnie Yen will be starring in an announced remake of Miami Vice, called Hong Kong Vice.

This might seem like a new trend,but we must keep in mind that Bollywood has long been into remakes of Hollywood films - Superman, Fight Club, What Lies Beneath. And considering the many versions of Devdas, based on Saratchandra Chatterjee's famous novel of the same name (the earliest film version was made in 1928), Bollywood has also long done what Japan is now doing with remakes of Sanjuro and other Japanese classics. But Bollywood and Nihon-wood are two of the most self-sustaining film industries in the world that can afford to remake their own classics and still find an audience. (The Malaysian contemporary versions of Pontianak and Orang Minyak cannot really be considered remakes, since they are new stories of classic folklore.)

With Hong Kong now remaking Hollywood films, making the trend now more widespread beyond Bollywood and Hollywood, are we seeing a new trend, perhaps a kind of cultural exchange?

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