Hollywood has a really bad habit of remaking films from the past. From 2016-2020 there are plans to either remake or reboot 136 films. The spectrum of these films range from a remake of the 1930’s classic “All Quiet of the Western Front”, to a remake of the 80’s television series “Baywatch”. These films only exist because of the audience’s recognition of their brand, and can, for the most part, be written off as cash-grabs by unoriginal executives that want to invest in a project that has a guaranteed profit. But what about foreign films? Can the same brush paint them both? Do they require localisation for a western market? This is what I’ll be addressing today with reference to two remakes of foreign films from the last ten years: Oldboy, and Infernal Affairs.
Oldboy is a mystery thriller neo-noir film originally made in South Korea in 2003 and directed by Park Chan-wook. It tells the story of a man who is imprisoned in a cell which resembles a hotel room for 15 years without knowing the identity of his captor or his captor’s motives. When he is finally released, the prison remains as he finds himself trapped in a cage of conspiracy and violence. This film has gained a massive cult following in the subsequent years after its release. I also won the second most prestigious prize in the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. This film was a success on many fronts. It has gained an overwhelming amount of critical acclaim from all over the globe.
Many reviewers give it 5 stars out of 5. As well as earning 5 times more than the budget: $15 million from $3 million. A western adaption was in the works from 2008. It was originally planned to star Will Smith and to be directed by Steven Spielberg. The actual remake was released in 2013, starring Josh Brolin as the tragic protagonist, and directed by the renowned Spike Lee. It did not perform well in reviews and at the box office. The average review of this film was 2 stars out of 5, as well as only earning 5 million at the box office with a budget of $30 million. Why was this? If it was successful before, why wasn’t an English adaption successful?
The biggest reason for this was that the remake changed barely anything from the original film. It didn’t require an adaption, it already had built a western audience. It earned 15 million dollars with an international release. No one was asking for this remake. Fans didn’t want it and audiences didn’t know about it. It flopping was inevitable. The biggest change that the remake made was a scene that is absolutely beloved by fans: the hammer scene. In the original, this scene was a piece of art. The protagonist takes on a gang of men in a hallway on his own and armed with only a hammer. The choreography in this scene is outstanding, and left a precedent for action films to come. Mix this with the fact that it all plays out in one take. It is absolutely superb.
It’s parallel in the remake is done with no respect to the original. It is a generic action scene with a bit more gore and is shot in that Bourne-esque shaky cam and fast cuts between shots. It`s probably the worst thing about the remake, just because of how prolific the influence of the original film’s fight is. It is a complete disservice.
On the other end of the spectrum there is Infernal Affairs. Infernal Affairs is a 2002 crime-thriller from Hong Kong which tells the story of a police officer who infiltrates a Chinese crime syndicate, and a corrupt police officer who is actually covertly working with the same gang. This is another 5-star film with international acclaim: placing 30 in Empire magazine’s “The 100 Best Films of World Cinema”.
This film’s western adaption, “The Departed”, is the perfect example of great adaptions and remakes. In 2006, Martin Scorsese directed this critical and commercial success, staring Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, and Jack Nicholson. This film localises the original story by setting the film in Boston with the Irish Mob. This film took the premise of the original and filled it with extras to make it appeal to a western market. These extras, such as an outstanding cast, an amazing soundtrack, and fantastic cinematography, really add to the film and makes it a perfect western parallel to the original.
Its success can be found with every aspect of the film. It made $289 million dollars at the box office from the $90 million budget. It also won an Oscar for Best Director, Best Picture, Best Film Editing, and Best Adapted Screenplay, as well as Mark Wahlberg being nominate for Best Supporting Actor.
Ultimately, whether an adaption of a foreign film is a cash grab or a worthwhile counterpart is completely down to the team behind it. The Departed respected the original, and even though the premise is similar, it went in a completely different direction. It is so much more than just a western Internal Affairs. The adaption of Oldboy is a completely different story though. It did not veer from the originals story; it just retold it and set it in America rather than South Korea. Plus the fact that it disregarded one of the most well-made scenes in cinema did not help it become a great adaption of foreign film.