The old-age argument, why fix what’s not broken? And for Asian horror films this statement speaks volumes because it was Hollywood and its abundance of money-grabbing production companies that spent a lot of time in the 2000’s decade funding Asian classic remakes.
The Asians are without a doubt the masters of horror because (unlike Americanised ideology) they do not set-out to make their audience jump out of their seat. Instead they give a visual representation and understanding of the art that is ‘ghost storytelling’, and how this complexity is better performed through aspects such as poignancy and to woe audiences rather than solely terrify and mentally-scar them. This better understanding of spirits and all things ghostly is possibly down to cultural traditions of the East compared to the West. Asian culture for example has a better understanding of the soul, which encompasses the Japanese word ‘rei’, or when translated into English can only best be described as ‘ghost’.
Now the main reason why these remakes happen – and unfortunately will continue to happen – is because, we as a Western society disdain subtitles (well most of us anyway) and where has this deep-rooted hatred for subtitles come from? Hollywood of course! Who keep churning out these below-par adapted classics such as the Americanised (but Japanese-set) “The Grudge” (2004), remade from the Japanese supernatural horror feature “Ju-on” (2002).
Now, it’s understandably annoying having to read in order to follow what’s going on when watching a foreign film, but this subtitle repulsion per se is a problem only we as native English speakers have. Yet throughout the non-English speaking world subtitles are perceived to be a regular occurrence; indeed, in some territories within Asia it is a matter-of-course to see two separate sets of subtitles (Mandarin and Thai, for example) running along the bottom and vertically along the side of the picture. However, American studios are entirely happy to reinforce the western world’s ‘subtitle phobia’, for obvious reasons…
But take it from me, I’ve watched Thai horror “Shutter” (2004) with Chinese subtitles with no English in sight, so what did I do? I watched it and tried to follow the story line as best I could, and you know what? It was one of the best cinema experiences of my life because it explains itself through its imagery alone and I was fine with that – the subtitles weren’t needed! It was as if I was about to board a plane at Manchester airport with the words, “Get Britain out of the EU” plastered all over me and I went to Spain and came back drinking sangria with plans to retire in Benidorm. Basically, after all the pessimism, most of us when faced with a ‘foreign’ culture or language, learn to adapt pretty damn quick. Unfortunately, Like all Asian horror greats over recent years, Hollywood got its hands on Shutter’s story line and remade it into the 2008 version of the same title. Comparing the two, whilst the Thai version unfolds gradually in a manner that sneaks up on the viewer, 2008’s “Shutter” stumbles and uses gory special effects that seem over-the-top, whilst the original goes for the eerie and disturbing approach. However, the sad realisation is originality doesn’t always triumph over adaptation. For example, when comparing the ‘Subtitles vs. Remakes’ box office figures for the genre-defining “Ringu” (1998) and “The Ring” (2002), it is a very sad tale indeed.
“The Ring” outperformed its predecessor even though “Ringu” was cheaper, cleverer, is more critically acclaimed, its screenplay makes more sense through its Japanese roots, and crucially, is the scarier of the two. The term ‘Yurei’, a concept used in “Ringu” (again, a term only present in Asian culture) refers to a vengeful spirit fueled by pain. This key notion was all but glossed over in “The Ring”, which created a sense of confusion, rather than fear.
It would be frivolous to think that the selected analysed few in this article are the only attempts by Hollywood to create a ‘nouvelle vague’ of Asian hits for the English mainstream market around the time now known as the “unimaginative and ideas-strapped” noughties. 2009’s “The Uninvited” was a tedious and insufficient remake of the highest-grossing Korean horror film “A Tale of Two Sisters” (2003), and Danny & Oxide Pang’s Hong Kong original frightener “Gin gwai” (2002) would later be reproduced into the more well-known, yet still dull “The Eye” (2008) .
It’s Not All Doom and Gloom
In the year 2002, the originally long-titled Japanese horror drama “Honogurai Mizu no Soko kara” was released, which in 2005 would take the form of “Dark Water”. Like “Ringu”, 2002’s “Honogurai Mizu no Soko kara” was rooted in Asian culture and spearheaded through the spine-chilling writings of Koji Suzuki (Japan’s answer to Stephen King). It is a film that dramatises natural emotions such as loss and the very real burden of parenthood. These concepts make up the film’s heart of which they entwine within its supernatural themes. What’s interesting is Walter Salles’s “Dark Water” (2005) remake is probably the only work that presents a clear understanding of what is great about the screenplay of the original and shows a respect to Japanese ‘kaidan eiga’ (ghost-story film), which should be acknowledged because of the varied concepts that stretch from culture to culture in relation to the spiritual world and its relationship to the physical or ‘real’ world.