The Grudge

The recent box office success of The Grudge (2004) was unexpected. With poor reviews from most major film critics, it opened number one over the weekend of October 22–25, 2004. More surprisingly, it remained the top gainer during the second weekend that saw the opening of the highly anticipated and widely acclaimed Ray (Taylor Hackford, 2004). In four weeks, The Grudge grossed $99 million, far surpassing its $10 million cost. Co-produced by Roy Lee, it followed a formula of profitability initiated by The Ring (2002), the first film for which Lee took the production credit: a Japanese film proved highly popular in Japan remade with Hollywood cast into a PG-13 mainstream horror film. The Grudge, directed by Takashi Shimizu and starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, is based on Ju-on: The Grudge (2000–2003), a series of direct-to-video Japanese thrillers Shimizu developed. The Ring, staring Naomi Watts, is based on the Japanese film Ringu (1998) directed by Hideo Nakata.

Roy Lee, fighting through Hollywood hierarchy, discovered and then introduced Ringu to DreamWorks, which agreed to buy the remake right from Hideo Nakata for $1.2 million. Directed by Gore Verbinski, the remake cost DreamWorks another $40 million, a hefty amount for any East Asian film but a meagre figure compared to the typical cost of $100 million to $250 million for a Hollywood summer blockbuster. The film proved to be a phenomenal success, raking in $130 million domestically and $230 million worldwide. Ironically, Ringu, which was the highest grossing Japanese film, made $6.6 million in Japan, whereas its remake The Ring made $8.3 million in only the first two weeks on the Japanese market (1). The success of The Ring gave Roy Lee instant credibility, which resulted in a series of remakes based on East Asian films. Hideo Nakata continued to march into Hollywood, having two more of his films remade: Dark Water (2002, Japan; 2004, USA) and Chaos (1999, Japan; 2003, USA). He was also asked to direct The Ring 2, the sequel of The Ring. Overall, the number of East Asian remakes by Hollywood since 2002 is stunning: Shall We Dance (1997, Japan; 2004, USA); My Sassy Girl (2001, Korea; in production, USA); My Wife is a Gangster (2001, Korea; in production, USA); Infernal Affairs (Hong Kong, 2001; in production, USA); and The Eye (Hong Kong, 2003; in production, USA). Most of these films were or are being produced by Roy Lee, who is now fittingly dubbed the “king of remakes”.

Hollywood has had a long history of remaking commercially successful foreign films. Previous remakes were mostly based on European films, but there were East Asian precedents as well. Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954), for example, was remade as a Western, The Magnificent Seven (John Sturge, 1960). None of the previous remaking trends, however, could match the current fashion of remaking East Asian films in scale, intensity, publicity, or profit. There are various explanations to this phenomenon, but every explanation has met with rebuttal. Some attribute the remaking trend to East Asia’s rich supernatural tradition as represented in the 18th century Japanese short story collection Tales of Moonlight and Rain (Ugetsu Monogatari), part of which became the base for the acclaimed film Kwaidan made by Masaki Kobayashi in 1964. Indeed, there is a certain aura in Japanese ghost fiction and films, filled with women’s grudge against men who deserted or injured them. Unlike most ghost stories in the West that seek moments of shock and harmless thrill, the Japanese ghost stories tend to allow the aura to linger, to permeate, or to literarily haunt the audience rather than shock and thrill them. But there is another side to the contemporary Japanese ghost films. As John Chua aptly points out in his Ph.D. dissertation on the horror film as a genre, what makes Ringu adaptable is its already Americanised features: American suburban life style, the strong-minded yet vulnerable female as the “final girl”, unambiguous sexuality, and thrilling yet non-threatening horror. These features met DreamWorks’ demand to make The Ring a profitable PG-13 instead of an R-rated film that is almost synonymous with box office disaster. Chua further notes that Hideo Nakata’s Ringu was already a remake of a 1995 version that is much darker, horrifying, and sexually ambiguous. The biggest difference is in the gender identity of the ghost:

Sadako, the victim-turned-ghost who kills those people who have seen her apparition, is revealed in the original story to be a hermaphrodite. She becomes a ghost because a doctor rapes her, then kills her upon discovering her dual sexuality. The original story also suggests that Sadako telepathically motivates her rapist to kill her, a difficult if not politically incorrect idea to incorporate within American narratives. This frank sexual ambiguity and erotic violence, described relatively graphically as flashbacks in the novel and shown onscreen in the first movie adaptation, would be much too vivid for mainstream American audiences (2).

Ringu

Without ambiguity, be it psychological or sexual, there would not have been aura. After all, aura is something that cannot be safely contained or explained away in modern rationality – something that one can vaguely feel but can hardly locate or identify (3). If there is ever “aura” in Japanese ghost films, it is self-consciously filtered out in Hideo Nakata’s and Takashi Shimizu’s remakes. In this sense Ringu was already Hollywoodised before it was remade into The Ring.

Since the current remaking trend includes not only the horror genre but also comedy and action films, the linkage between the East Asian supernatural aura and the remaking success is further disputable. Some have attempted other explanations. Mark Cousins, for example, contends that the art of commercial cinema has been perfected in the hands of the East Asian disciples of Hollywood:

Dark Water, The Eye and The Ring films – also being updated in the US – unnerved Hollywood because they beat it at its own game. They found new, subtle, inventive ways of doing what producers in southern California have spent a century perfecting: jangling audiences’ nervous systems (4).

The “new, subtle” ways Cousins refers to include slow building of tension, hinting at unseen horrors, and using sound more evocatively. Cousins is right in suggesting that the current remaking trend should not be regarded as an isolated phenomenon: East Asian cinema’s creative imitation of Hollywood is based on East Asia’s long history of film industries whose accumulation of talents and artistic expressions is finally being recognised and materialised.

We must note, however, that there is a profound Orientalism in Cousins’ enthusiasm in the recent success of East Asian cinema. “Each of the latest new wave of Asian films”, Cousins comments, “is highly decorated, tapestry-like, with an emphasis on detail, visual surface, colour and patterning, and centered on a woman, or feminized men” (5). What Cousins has in mind are such films as Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002) and The House of Flying Daggers (2004), Wong Kar-wai’s 2046 (2004), and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows (2004). To Cousins, these films display a collective “Asian aesthetic” – exotic, erotic, feminine, seductive, decorative – that makes Asian films attractive to American audiences through either direct theatrical releases in North America or remakes. We can probably put a positive spin on Cousins’ assertion, emphasising that the attractiveness of the “Asian aesthetic” paradoxically exposes the inherent racial/sexual discrimination and the tendency to exoticise the other in Hollywood cinema. But the critique of Hollywood’s “othering” strategy only reinforces and endorses Cousins’ generalisation, which is not correct in the first place. Asian cinema is not exclusively feminine. Suffice it to mention Takeshi Kitano’s stoicism, John Woo’s “aesthetics of violence”, Chow Yun-fat’s coolness in his trademark gun-wielding image, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s masculine heroism, and Jiang Wen’s worship of revolutionary sublime. These directors and actors have either entered Hollywood or become darlings of film festivals. If we follow Cousins’ generalising logic, shall we say Hollywood or the entire Western cinema has been masculinised by East Asia films?

The Ring

There is another major problem in Cousins’ argument: he speaks non-discriminately of popular East Asian films and Hollywood remakes of East Asian films, while the differences between these two forms of film cannot be bigger. East Asian films cast ethnically East Asian stars who speak in their native tongues. Due to required subtitling, these films are limited to an art house release in English-speaking countries with the rare exception of Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000), Hero, and Takeshi Kitano’s Zatoichi (2004) (6). The remakes, on the other hand, rely on Hollywood’s star powers and mostly white actresses and actors such as Naomi Watts (The Ring), Sarah Michelle Gellar (The Grudge), Richard Gere, Jennifer Lopez (Shall We Dance), and Brad Pitt (Infernal Affairs), who speak English and stay comfortably in American or Americanised East Asian settings. The most ironic arrangement is in The Grudge, which, despite the setting in Japan, stars Buffy‘s Sarah Michelle Gellar as an expatriate American social worker. There could have and should have been exploration of cultural tensions for Westerners in Tokyo, similar to that revealed in Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003), but the director simply switches the main role from a Japanese to an American in a clear awareness that Gellar’s Caucasian face and screen persona are more than enough for the film’s acceptance in North America. As Roy Lee told me, Andy Lau, a megastar in Hong Kong who gave a stellar performance in Infernal Affairs, wanted a role – however minor – in the remake, but it simply was not possible to insert an Asian face in the scenes of Boston mafia (7). From the original to the remake, the switch of ethnicity should not be overlooked. Inherent in the switch are ethnic stereotyping and reduction of the real multi-ethnic America to the mono-ethnic filmic fantasy. What has been remade is not only the story but also ethnicity. While the originals are ethnically specific, albeit Hollywoodised, representations, the remakes are completely severed from the original ethnic soil and become solely the product of Hollywood homogenisation. The remakes, therefore, have nothing to do with the supernatural aura, the long development of East Asian cinemas, or the peculiarly “Asian” aesthetic based on cultural and ethnic specifics.

The question remains unanswered: Why has remaking East Asian films become such a popular trend at the turn of the millennium? Conversations with Roy Lee yielded several interesting clues from which I finally was able to draw a conclusion. First of all, Lee mentioned several times that he did not have a particular interest in Asian horrors. All he saw was market potential. If East Asian remakes become no longer profitable, he would easily switch to other venues for his film productions. Second, Lee emphasised repeatedly how cheap it was to make films in East Asia. East Asian filmmakers were more than happy to sell the remaking rights to Hollywood, for the fee paid by Hollywood studios – albeit a small portion of the remaking cost – would most likely recuperate what they originally spent on making the films. Third, Lee did not need to search hard for profitable East Asian films. The films came to him: filmmakers sent him videos, and they even asked him to read their scripts before their films went into production. It is thus not exaggerating to say that many East Asian films aimed at commercial success now have a built-in “remaking mentality”, which self consciously measures the films against Hollywood standard and actively exercises self-censorship. Fourth, all of the originals of Lee’s films had been tested well in East Asian cinema markets – Ringu, Ju-on, My Sassy Girl, and Infernal Affairs were mega hits in East Asia. Lee’s trust in the testing effect of East Asian markets reveals an assumption that North America and East Asia share the same patterns of consumption. Cinema consumption used to follow a unidirectional trail of popularity: whatever proved successful in North America would surely be welcomed in East Asia as long as those countries open their markets to Hollywood. Now, thanks to transnationalism, the trail has traffic from both ways: whatever proved successful in East Asia would most likely succeed in North America as long as the original ethnicity is changed to that of Caucasian.

Having considered all the important factors, we can now conclude that the current remaking trend corresponds to East Asia’s new status as the world’s production centre. As much as computer chips, flat panel screens, automobile parts, DVD players, and almost the entire Wal-Mart inventory are increasingly being produced out of China, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan, film industry is slowly but steadily shifting its production to East Asia. This observation might sound outrageous for some, because Hollywood products are still mainly the result of collaborations among American corporations, directors, performers, and other supporting personnel. But we must remember that film production is a long and complicated process. The big studio must begin with an idea, which is then developed into a prospectus before the studio is committed to hiring an expensive screenwriter who will then go through numerous rewrites before the script will ever get in the production pipeline. Once the production is given the green light, everything will have to be in perfect sync in order for a film to come into existence: budgeting, casting, shooting, digital imaging, editing, and so on. A small glitch at any of the junctures could doom the entire film. Market testing of the film will then follow. Numerous test screenings will send the film back for endless changes in order to suit audience’s tastes. The premiere date will then be set, advertising campaigns orchestrated, and marketing machines in full gear. This long and arduous process of mass industrial production is why sequels, no matter how diluted they are in comparison with the originals, are continuously being churned out from Hollywood factories. Through a simplified process, a sequel that grosses $100 million at the box office is most likely more profitable and less risky than its original, which grossed $150 million. The same is true for remakes. A plot full of dramatic twists is ready to be built into a successful screenplay; the mise en scène has been carefully laid out so that the remake’s director only needs to make slight changes; and most importantly, the market has been tested. Remakes are potentially more profitable than sequels because the sequels can hardly improve on the originals while the remakes, with the added value of “Hollywood” as the biggest name brand for cinema, would almost certainly surpass the originals in box office.

Remaking is therefore Hollywood’s way of outsourcing. Outsourced are the jobs of assistant producers who are the initial script screeners, of the personnel involved in the scripting process, of supporting crew for various details during production, of marketing team, and, increasingly, of directors. Sooner or later, the unions within the Hollywood system will come to realise the outsourcing nature of remaking. But at least for now, the remaking is making Hollywood leaner, stronger, more efficient, more profitable, and more dominant than ever. This is an irreversible but well-disguised trend. The changed ethnicity serves well to disguise this trend: as much as the glamour of Hollywood star system makes people forget that cinema is a big industry, the Caucasian faces in the remakes cover up the significant contribution of East Asia as the provider of intensive labour required by the film industry.

The title of Ringu is indicative of the gains and losses of remaking as outsourcing. Originally named The Ring, this original must yield the “original” title to the remake and is forced to use the Japanese transliteration of “ring” as its “authentic” title. The Japanese film industry might have gained recognition and a small share of the remake’s profit, but the gain for the “native”, symbolised by the letter “u” added to “ring”, is precisely what has been lost: the original ethnicity, the “aura”, the intellectual property, and the identity and history of the entire national film industry. How is this “loss by gaining” any different from outsourcing in computer industry? Through outsourcing labour intensive jobs such as software engineering, American hi-tech industry is able to sustain its remarkable growth while at the same time generating a new white-collar middle class in Shanghai and Calcutta. China and India have benefited greatly from this kind of outsourcing in terms of urbanisation, Westernisation, improvement in living standards; but the gain can never compensate for the losses: failure to develop their own software industries and intellectual properties; reliance on American trade and labour policy; and vulnerability to the high cost of the repackaged end product such as Microsoft Windows.

The House of Flying Daggers

What does this outsourcing mean for East Asian national cinemas? While it is still too early to predict the implications, immediate impacts already begin to show. The success of East Asian films in North America enables Zhang Yimou to continue with his big-budget filmmaking. His latest production, The House of Flying Daggers (2004), will again enter the mainstream American cinema market. The lone “superstar” among Chinese film directors, Zhang Yimou is inching closer to the status of “national treasure” – evidenced by the assignment of directing an eight-minute segment for the closing ceremony of 2004 Athens Summer Olympics and the entire opening ceremony of 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. He certainly desires as much attention from Hollywood as possible, but he does not need to settle for low-budget and sensationalised films ready to be remade. Holding the flag of “authentic national culture”, Zhang Yimou will facilitate Hollywood outsourcing by attracting and training talents in commercial cinema. Zhang Ziyi’s recent success is but one small example. In the meantime, Zhang Yimou’s young colleagues, Jiang Wen (In the Heat of the Sun; Devils on the Doorsteps), Wang Xiaoshuai (Beijing Bicycle), and Lou Ye (Suzhou River), are finding that the road of art filmmaking is getting narrower. With talents, experience, name recognition, and readiness to collaborate with commercial cinema, they will most likely become China’s Hideo Nakata and Takashi Shimizu. As for Taiwan’s Tsai Ming-liang (Goodbye Dragon Inn) and Hong Kong’s Fruit Chan (Hollywood Hong Kong), who are least likely to succumb to Hollywood homogenisation, they will continue to fight their lonely and uphill battle. Their colleagues, such as Chen Kuo-fu (Double Vision) and Johnny To (Fulltime Killer), will undoubtedly become the most avid promoters of Hollywood outsourcing. Although Hollywoodisation is irreversible, unexpected outcomes could still be possible. Facing the pressure of outsourcing, Chinese filmmakers are increasingly collaborating with the Japanese and the Korean to assert an East Asian identity. Trans-East Asian cinema just might become an interesting by-product of the unexpected success of remaking East Asian films.

Endnotes

  1. These numbers were gathered from Tad Friend, “Remake Man: Roy Lee brings Asia to Hollywood, and finds some enemies along the way”, The New Yorker, June 2, 2003.
  2. John Chua, “The Horror, the Horror: The Repetition and Compulsion of a Genre”, Ph.D. dissertation (University of Illinois, 2004).
  3. For Walter Benjamin, aura has to do with involuntary memory, which comes from the abysmal ocean of one’s deeply hidden memories and is only triggered by sheer chance; aura is also based on the associations that “tend to cluster around the object of a perception”, associations that were quickly disappearing due to the perceptive certainty in mechanical arts invented at the dawn of the modern era. Those mechanical arts include photography and cinema. See Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (ed. and intro. Hannah Arendt, trans. Edmund Jephcott. Schoken Books, New York, 1978. p. 186.) Of course, it is possible that Benjamin did not fully realise the representational potential of the mechanical arts. But his understanding of aura provides a key to dissecting Hollywood horror films: the audience scream and peep through their fingers, not because fear is reverberating in their repressed anxieties and insecurities, but because they are secretly and joyfully embarrassed by the transference of their fear onto the mechanical shallowness in the film’s predictability, conventionality, and non-ambiguity devoid of aura.
  4. Mark Cousins, “The Asian Aesthetic”, Prospect, Issue 104, Nov. 2004, p. 2.
  5. Cousins, “The Asian Aesthetic”, p. 4.
  6. Due to North American audience’s notoriously strong dislike of subtitles, Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon was originally only played in art theatres until word of mouth lifted the film to cult-like status. The saga of Hero had even more twists. Miramax attempted to release the film in 2002 in dubbed form; it also tried to promote the film as “Jet Lee’s Hero”. Overwhelmingly negative reactions forced Miramax to postpone the release to 2004. With subtitles, Hero achieved limited success. One audience posted his/her frustrations with subtitled Hero on the Internet: “This was the most terrible, stupid, and boring movie I have seen in my entire life. The whole movie has subtitles because everyone speaks in Chinese. That isn’t even the bad part yet. You can’t even pay attention to the movie because you have to read the subtitles to know what the movie is about”. (http://movies.channel.aol.com/movie/main.adp?tab=reviews&mid=17045)
  7. Chinese tabloid said it was the opposite: Andy Lau turned down the offer to perform a minor role in the remade Infernal Affairs.

About The Author

Gang Gary Xu is Assistant Professor of Chinese, Comparative Literature, and Cinema Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He has published several articles on Hou Hsiao-hsien, Zhang Yimou, and global cultural politics, and has a forthcoming book on transnational Chinese cinema. His current research interests include trans-East Asian cinema and the impact of neo-liberalism on Chinese cultural production and consumption.