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Friday, Nov. 22, 2002

THE ZEIT GIST

Japanese movies eyed for makeover

'The Ring' has made Japan hot in Hollywood


With "The Ring," the horror film based on the 1998 Hideo Nakata hit "Ringu," sailing past the $100 million mark in the United States, remakes of Japanese and other Asian films are suddenly hot in Hollywood.

Many of the dozens of the recently signed deals will never materialize on the screen, while others will disappoint their backers, just as so many other remakes have failed to live up to expectations over the years.

But the lure of another "Ring"-sized jackpot is drawing Hollywood producers, even if their knowledge of Japanese cinema begins and ends with "Godzilla" and a Kurosawa classic or two.

It was the films of Akira Kurosawa, in fact, that first attracted the attention of Hollywood remakers to Japanese films. His 1954 masterpiece "Seven Samurai" (Shichinin no Samurai) spawned not only John Sturges's 1960 remake "The Magnificent Seven," but countless other guys-on-a-mission flicks.

Meanwhile, "Rashomon," the film that launched Kurosawa on the world stage after it won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival, inspired not only the 1964 Martin Ritt film "The Outrage," but any number of films with multiple viewpoints -- and versions of the truth. Finally, his 1961 Eastern-Western "Yojimbo" was appropriated for Sergio Leone's 1964 remake "A Fistful of Dollars" -- the father of all spaghetti westerns and the film that boosted Clint Eastwood to stardom.

And the remakes keep on coming: Kurosawa's son, Hisao, is in talks with DreamWorks over the remake rights to "Ikiru," Kurosawa's 1952 classic about a bureaucrat who transforms his life after learning he has cancer.

Meanwhile, Ishiro Honda's "Godzilla" and its successors were slower to inspire overseas remakes (though they themselves might be called loose remakes of "King Kong"). Among them were the bizarre 1985 North Korean film, "Pulgasari, Legendary Monster," Roland Emmerich's 1998 fiasco "Godzilla" and the 1969 cult fav cartoon "Bambi Meets Godzilla." Somehow they all deserve each other.

The recent crop of Japanese remake candidates, however, derive from neither the work of a world-famous director nor a brand-name franchise.

Instead their common thread is a story that can cross borders and leap cultural barriers. Among the most successful, both in Japan and abroad, is "Shall We Dance?," the 1995 Masayuki Suo comedy about a shy salaryman who finds a new reason for living -- and romance -- in ballroom dancing.

Miramax, which distributed the film in the United States, has assigned Peter Chelsom (Serendipity, Town and Country) to direct the remake. The project, which once had Tom Hanks attached to it, has been slow to get off the ground, however.

Another remake with a lengthy gestation period is that of "Afterlife" (Wonderful Life), Hirokazu Kore'eda's 1997 film about dead souls who must choose their favorite memory to take with them into eternity. Fox acquired the rights and Amy Heckerling, who transformed Jane Austen's "Emma" into the hit high school comedy "Clueless," is now reworking Kore'eda's script for an American audience.

The hottest of the current remakers, however, is Roy Lee, a Korean-American producer who scouted "Ringu" at the Puchon International Film Festival three years ago and sold the remake rights to DreamWorks.

Since that triumph, he's successfully pitched two more Nakata films to Hollywood: "Chaos," a thriller about a con artist who kidnaps the wife of a rich businessman, to Universal Pictures, with Jonathan Glazer ("Sexy Beast") set to direct, and "Dark Water" ("Kuroi Mizu"), a horror film about a single mom who moves into a haunted apartment building, to Pandemonium, a Disney-based production company.

Lee has also dealt "Turn," Hideyuki Hirayama's 2001 film about a woman eternally trapped in the same day, to Radar Films.

The Japanese remake with the biggest budget, however, will no doubt be "Akira," a live-action version of the 1988 Katsuhiro Otomo dystopian classic that was instrumental in launching the worldwide anime boom. Warner Brothers is producing, with Stephen Norrington ("The Blade") slated to direct.

The howls of "Akira" fans when they heard the news was reminiscent of the similar laments that greeted the U.S. "Godzilla" remake. Fans of foreign films that end up in the Hollywood remake hopper have good reason for complaint. The products that emerge are usually inferior to the originals in all but production values and PR hype.

Hollywood producers also have a point, however: As stand-alone releases, most foreign films would do little or no business in the U.S. market, which is notoriously allergic to subtitles. After the remake becomes a hit, however, fans often want to see the original.

Why doesn't Hollywood develop more of its own projects instead of latching onto the ideas of others? Remake rights, especially for Asian films, are often cheap and the purchased material is easier to develop into a releasable film than an original script would be. So the Japanese remake hopper will grind on until the U.S. audience moves onto the next new foreign flavor-of-the-month.

Movies aren't that much different from restaurants really -- no matter how much people like sushi, they don't want to eat it seven days a week. Sick of Nakata? Why not try a Thai?

Mark Schilling has been the Japan correspondent of Screen International, a film industry trade magazine, since 1990.


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