The Odd Couples

Remakes and adaptation from other films, have always been in the cinema’s DNA. For example, the Lumière Brothers remade one of their first films L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (translated from French into English as The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station, 1896) as a 3D movie (using their own technology) in the 1930s. The first Hollywood remake of an Asian film was Dick Powell’s Genghis Khan (1956) which took its cue from Manuel Conde’s Filipino classic Ang Buhay ni Genghis Khan (1950). Later, another Hollywood director, John Sturges would go on to adapt Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) as The Magnificent Seven (1960). Remake fever gripped Hollywood through an Asian wave at the turn of the 21st Century. The American remake of The Ring (Gore Verbinski, 2002) was a box office hit and pioneered the theme of horror remakes from Japan and Korea such as Ju-On the Grudge (Shimizu Takashi, 2002, not so much of a remake as an American addendum) with mixed success. It could be argued that the lasting legacy of the J-Horror remakes was to bring two Japanese directors Nakata Hideo, and Shimizu Takashi to Hollywood in the second wave of Asian directors to work in America after the Hong Kong filmmakers John Woo, Ringo Lam, Kirk Wong.

The history of remakes and transnational adaptations is a journey through cultural differences and connections. It is not exactly a narrative of “East meets West” nor is it a story of neo-colonial cultural appropriation. It is instead something more akin to Noam Chomsky’s “transformational grammar” or a Barthesian exercise in the “empire of signs” – that is to say, the remake strips down the original to a perceived essence, and then re-imagines it almost in another universe of signification. With careful analysis, remakes and adaptations can tell us much about concepts of narrative and character from different cultures. At the same time even a cursory reading of film history shows that everyone borrows from everyone else. Hitchcock and German expressionism, Monument Valley and Spaghetti Westerns, wildly inventive over-the-top Hong Kong violence and action of the 1980s and the Tarantino/Rodriguez Hollywood of the late 20th century, all inspired by Sam Peckinpah. A good filmmaker knows a good idea when s/he sees one, a brilliant filmmaker makes it seem his/her own!

This programme is a first step in looking at the intercourse between different film industries and cultures whether as inspiration, influence, revision, homage or just plain plagiarism! The pairing of films allows us to see changes made for another country’s audiences, different emphases, different limitations. With such perspectives we are given another film history, one that perhaps exists in the imagination without borders. We hope that this first attempt will initiate future editions that explore other works from around Asia.

By way of an introduction to the topic, we begin with Hong Kong, undoubtedly and for many years the most open of Asian film industries (though the Philippines of the 1960s comes a close second). As a trading port of over 100 years, and as a British colony and a Chinese Special Administrative Region, Hong Kong has been a nexus of many different influences and cultures. At times, Hong Kong has absorbed and re-processed these products and ideas, turning them into components of its own identity and character as it has moved from a sleepy colonial backwater to a dynamic economy on the world stage.

It is fitting, as a place where east and west meet, that Hong Kong has been a pioneer in adapting and synthesizing stories from the west into an identity of the east. Such practice took place in the post-war textile and apparel industry for example, but equally applied to its cinema. At the same time, Hong Kong’s post-war growth from the 1960s, and its dominant film industry, attracted the attention of the west. Hong Kong became for a while, an “exotic” location for Hollywood movies – The World of Suzie Wong (1960) and Love Is Many Splendored Thing (1955) being the two prime examples in the early stages, and later for lower budget fare in the 1970s: for example, the Hammer-Shaw Bros co-production Shatter (1974, direction credited to producer Michael Carreras but mostly the work of Monte Hellman – his commentary on the laserdisc is a classic) and Bobby Suarez (aka George Richardson)’s Cleopatra Wong (1978) with Singapore star Merrie Lee. But we should not forget that Hong Kong is still a location for Hollywood: The Dark Knight, Transformers 4, Ghost in the Shell, Skyscraper.

The Hong Kong chutzpah which made it one of the world’s leading ports and financial centres is evident in its circularity of ideas and products – borrowing, packaging, revising. Sam Peckinpah’s westerns influenced the kinetic action of John Woo who then had a decisive impact on the new American cinema of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. This circularity of its cinema is perhaps well exemplified by the remake of Infernal Affairs (2004, Andrew Lau, Alan Mak) as the Scorsese Oscar winner The Departed (2006). We also include an unusual case in film history, Angie Chen’s revision of a Hollywood classic The World of Suzie Wong, based on a novel by a British writer inspired by French post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin’s sojourn in exotic climes. Chen’s My Name Ain’t Suzie (1985) is a riposte to the White Knight ethos of western cinema starting from one of Anna May Wong’s early films Toll of the Sea (1922 director Kenneth Harlan, which took its cue from the orientalism of the novella made popular by Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly). This is a true dialogue of cinema, just like all the other arts, where ideas and practices are adopted, re-thought and created anew as a form of critique, revisionism or homage.

It is precisely because Hong Kong cinema was influenced and formed by diverse sources from east and west, that its impact remains today. Hong Kong cinema emerged as the aesthetic for late 20th century film – and the cinema has never been the same again.
Roger Garcia