Oldboy. If you’ve seen just one Korean film, chances are this is it. It’s a cult classic, critically acclaimed, and universally loved. Which begs the question: why on earth does it need or deserve to be remade? Regardless of the answer, Spike Lee’s Hollywood redoing (starring Josh Brolin, Sharto Copley and Elizabeth Olsen) is highly anticipated by all. Of course, this isn’t the first Korean smash to have a USA makeover. Here’s a snippet of K- to- Hollywood remakes, with numbers from IMDB and more in-depth opinions from London-based friends as well as K-film experts that were kind enough to reply to our post on a K-cinema forum:
Il Mare (Lee Hyun-seung, 2000) – The Lakehouse (Alejandro Agresti, 2006)
Original: 7.6/10 from 44416 users
Remake: 7/10 from 76770 users
This unconventional Korean tear-jerker underwent a somewhat loyal and literal Hollywood remaking, with the added star value of Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock. Maybe inevitably for a romance starring those two, it did well at the box office, grossing $13.6 million in its first weekend. Despite the original being a hit with London-based critics, their reviews of the remake range from “terrible” to “sent me to sleep”. Could it be that this story just didn’t translate to Hollywood?
A Tale of Two Sisters (Kim Jee-Woon 2003) – The Uninvited (Charles Guard, 2009)
Original: 7.2/10 from 28,866 users
Remake: 6.2/10 from 38,198 users
The quintessential arthouse K-horror became a mainstream US scary movie. This remake was the best-received by our critics, but still managed to strike up some debates. Paul Quinn from Hangul Celluloid pointed out that “The Uninvited works somewhat better than the others but that’s just because horror is more easily transferable”; whereas Collette Balmain from Oriental Nightmares felt that it was “a typical Hollywood remake, and disappointing”. After falling so in love with the A Tale of Two Sisters, I found it difficult to find much to like about the The Uninvited.
My Sassy Girl (Kwak Jae Young, 2001) – My Sassy Girl (Yann Samuell, 2008)
Original: 8.1/10 from 25,473 users
Remake: 6.1/10 from 11,786 users
This popular and quirky Korean rom-com was adapted into an American love story, which I felt was essentially a less funny and less interesting version that lost its charm in translation. The IMDB ratings show the biggest drop in user popularity. I have numerous western friends who love and appreciate the humour from the original, so why water it down? It made me contemplate the restraints and conventions of Hollywood.
Into the Mirror/ Geoul Sokeuro (Kim Sung-Ho, 2003) – Mirrors (Alexandre Aja, 2008)
Original: 6.5/10 from 1,899 users
Remake: 6.0/10 from 57,290 users
This remake went down well with audiences, with positive comments about acting, direction and creepiness from Londoner friends. I am inclined to agree with film expert Paul Quinn, though, as he suggests that both Mirrors and The Uninvited “fall foul of Hollywood’s need to … explain everything in endless unnecessary exposition.” Maybe it’s the lack of this “unnecessary exposition” that attracts me to Korean films in the first place. So many of them, particularly K-horrors, retain a sense of mystery, bewilderment and the unexplained.
It seems that the numbers speak for themselves: a remake is a sure-fire path to semi-success. But could a remake ever achieve the acclaim or cult following of the original? Many film fans and critics, me included, find that western remakes of K-films simply don’t work. USA-based film expert Kyu Hyun Kim sums this up perfectly by observing that these remakes are “instructive of how Hollywood attempts to flatten out the uncomfortable, strange and “quixotic” elements from the originals that made them powerful and attractive to begin with”. Every one of them just seems to be lacking something.
Maybe Hollywood is being unduly blamed, though. Philip Gowman from London Korean Links makes the interesting point that Korean remakes can be just as uninspiring as American ones: “based on A Better Tomorrow and Ring I shall make a conscious effort to avoid watching a Korean-made remake as well”. Should films, regardless of their origin or perceived brilliance, be left well alone? Should the film industry stop trying to fix what ain’t broke?
The counter argument would quote the old adage that “imitation is the highest form of flattery”. We should remember that remakes are an act of love and homage to movies that film-makers have been inspired by and are passionate about. I also can’t help thinking back to last year’s Korean Cinema forum, where top K-film-biz names spoke of the dialogue between the Korean and Hollywood film industries. The panel argued that remakes have an important part to play in the success of Korean film in the international market. They raise awareness and viewership, attract new audiences, and spark long-lasting relationships with Korean cinema (Korean practitioners including Rain and Park Chan Wook going into Hollywood is another example of this).
I am one of the many who find Oldboy to be a unique, magical and innovative movie that shouldn’t be messed with. However, I can’t deny that I am curious to see the remake. It’s not even that I want to see how badly it “fails”, more that I am willing it on to retain some of the enchantment and awesomeness of the original. I am wishing that against all odds, it won’t be so “Hollywoodised” that it doesn’t mess with your mind, make you feel empowered and make you feel sick (yes, that’s how effective the original film was!) So I will endeavour to overcome my aversion to remakes, go to see Oldboy at the cinema, and hope that there is some way on earth that it can be the exception to the remake rule.