Monday, March 30, 2015

Fear of a subtitled planet: On remaking foreign language films

Kristofer Hivju and Johannes Kuhnke star in Ruben Ӧstlund's Force Majeure.

If you follow the site at all, you know I am a stickler for seeing movies the way they are meant to be seen. If it is shot on film, I want to see it on film. If it is shot in IMAX, I want to see it in IMAX – proper IMAX. Black and white? For god’s sake, do not see it colorized. So what of foreign films and those folks averse to subtitles? Well, there is the great tradition of the American remake.

News broke late last week that Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Seinfeld, Veep) is in talks to star in an English-language remake of last year’s Force Majeure, a film we are pretty high on here at Last Cinema Standing. Louis-Dreyfus is an undoubtedly talented actress, if not particularly known for her film work, and director Ruben Ӧstlund’s blackly comic story of a family vacation gone wrong is nothing if not universal. It deserves to be seen by the widest possible audience; however, it is Ӧstlund’s film that deserves to be seen, not simply the plot.

Force Majeure is not only its story of a husband who abandons his family in the face of disaster and the ramifications that has on his marriage. It is the magnificent central performances of Johannes Kuhnke and Lisa Loven Kongsli. It is the idiosyncratic use of montage and music. It is that gorgeous cinematography and that vaguely alien – to Americans, anyway – art direction. These things exist outside the story and would be impossible to replicate.

In truth, this is all a bit of a knee-jerk reaction on my part. Hypothetical films get pitched with stars attached all the time. Most of these never get made. It is a long way from casting rumor to roll cameras to roll credits. Sometimes, however, they do get made. For instance, set for release later this year is an American remake of the brilliant Argentine thriller The Secret in Their Eyes, which won Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards in 2009.

The remake stars Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, and Chiwetel Ejiofor and has been written and directed by Billy Ray, writer of such classics as Volcano, Hart’s War, and Flightplan. Okay, that is a bit unfair. I like Volcano, and his last script was the fantastic Captain Phillips, for which Ray was nominated for a well-deserved Oscar. These people are talented and will be shepherding a great story to the screen.

There is no way to know if the remake of The Secret in Their Eyes will be good until we see it, and there will be no way to know if the Force Majeure remake will succeed until it is made. Yet, all this got me thinking about some other great foreign films remade for English-speaking audiences and wondering how they stack up against each other. For instance:

The Departed, remade from Infernal Affairs (Hong Kong)

Infernal Affairs
Most of the films we talk about will be familiar to most movie-goers, but this one stands out for a couple reasons. First, it is directed by Martin Scorsese. Second, it was a Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards. It is one of Scorsese’s most successful box office hits as well. Few will debate the merit of The Departed, but Infernal Affairs is a great piece of filmmaking as well.

Directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, Infernal Affairs is a tightly scripted, wonderfully acted, and superbly made thriller that like its American counterpart, swept its country’s major awards, winning seven Hong Kong Film Awards, including best picture. Was The Departed great? Sure. Was it strictly necessary? Probably not, particularly as the plots are so similar that if you have seen one, you have seen the other. But, do yourself a favor and see Infernal Affairs.

Oldboy, remade from Oldboy (South Korea)

Maybe the most high-profile recent example is Spike Lee’s execrable reworking of Chan-wook Park’s cult hit Oldboy. Lee’s film lacks any of the energy, wit, or social investigation of its forbear and falls almost completely flat. Lee hits the same beats but has no feel for the rhythm of the material.

On top of not being very good, the worse crime may be that it seems to exist for no reason other than to make money off an already-done concept with no care for the quality of the project. The upshot is that it did not make any money, failing to crack $5 million worldwide off a $30 million budget. Hopefully, this will spare us remakes of the other two films in Park’s masterful vengeance trilogy.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, remade from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Sweden)

This is a bit of a different case since both films are adapted from the same worldwide bestselling novel. There is essentially no difference – except the dreaded subtitles – between Niels Arden Oplev’s sexy, slick, stylish original and David Fincher’s sexy, slick, stylish rehash. If one works for you, the other should, which is to say, Fincher’s film is redundant.

Funny Games, remade from Funny Games (Austria)

Michael Haneke, the great German director who gave us such harrowing chamber dramas as Cache and Amour, wrote and directed both the original and the remake of this film. In fact, the 2007 English-language remake is a shot-for-shot retelling of the 1997 original. Both feature fantastic, disturbing performances from excellent casts and impeccable technical work from the craftspeople. It is an instance in which exacting replication is precisely the point, and I would strongly recommend seeing both – just maybe give yourself a break in between viewings. Once you see it, you will know why.

The Magnificent Seven, remade from Seven Samurai (Japan)

Seven Samurai
Even the classics are subject to such scrutiny. John Sturges’ beloved western is a fairly faithful adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai tale. Both are great and worth your time. This also does not represent the last time one of Kurosawa’s samurai pictures was transposed to the American West. Kurosawa was often criticized in his home country for making films with too much of a Western (read: European/American) sensibility, so it makes sense that Western filmmakers would revere and emulate him.

Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood’s A Fistful of Dollars (the first film in the popular Man with No Name trilogy) is a western remake of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. Where it gets interesting is that some scholars believe Yojimbo is based on the 1929 American gangster novel Red Harvest, by Dashiell Hammett. Other film historians have disputed this assertion, while Kurosawa said he was primarily inspired by the American gangster film The Glass Key, itself an adaptation of a different Hammett novel.

Ultimately, each of these film is rewarding in different ways, and by shifting the action to the American West, Sturges and Leone ensured that though their films were remakes, they introduced vital new ideas into the cultural conversation.

A final thought

The point here is not to bash any of these films – except Lee’s Oldboy; don’t bother with that – or to chastise anyone for not liking subtitles. It is not even to carp about remakes, which have been a part of the film landscape since the medium’s inception. The goal is simply to encourage you to seek out the films that perhaps inspired or influenced the movies you like, in English or not. After all, we all know there is no substitute for the real thing.

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