Asia Scares America

4 minute read
Richard Corliss

The big horror-movie hit on U.S. screens this fall is about a videotape that kills you when you watch it. But The Ring would not have earned more than $100 million in its first five weeks of North American release — would not have been made at all — if its executive producer hadn’t watched a scary videotape from Japan.

Asian movie fans know The Ring as Ringu. This ghost-story thriller — about a journalist drawn into the video mystery at the peril of herself and her family — was a novel, then a TV film, and then a big-screen scare show. It attracted huge audiences from Tokyo to Thailand and spawned both a sequel (Ringu 2) and a prequel (Ringu 0). The film’s life-after-death continued past its theatrical release: who wouldn’t want to see the killer-video movie on video?

Laurie MacDonald, a production boss for Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks, saw the film last year and quickly bought remake rights for $1 million — just a bit less than the original movie’s budget. Her instinct proved sharp. The new Ring is the rare Hollywood horror movie that earned more money in its third weekend ($18 million) than its first ($15 million) — a testament to enthusiastic word of mouth. The film may generate its own sequel. Insiders are already whispering the sacred word “franchise.”

Hollywood is always fishing around for new ideas, and Asia is proving to be a well-stocked pond. DreamWorks has bought remake rights to the Korean romantic comedy My Sassy Girl, and Tom Cruise’s production company picked up the Hong Kong-Thai ghost thriller The Eye. Dark Water, another spectral-effects drama from Ringu author Koji Suzuki and director Hideo Nakata, is to be remade in Hollywood, possibly with Nakata himself at the helm.

Cultural trade in movies used to be a one-way street that ran West to East. Hollywood or Paris would disgorge some spiffy hit, and before you could say call my lawyer, an unofficial Asian remake would be in the theaters. So Hong Kong ripped off Luc Besson’s Nikita in a homage called Black Cat. Plot theft is as common a factor in the Indian film industry as doleful, dancing heroines. Just this year, the U.S. thriller What Lies Beneath was turned into Raaz, and the Polish art film A Short Film About Love became the scandalous Ek Chhotisi Love Story. As a Bollywood character notes in the London musical Bombay Dreams, “Copyright means the right to copy.”

Now it’s America’s turn to steal scenarios, stars and directors, too. Jackie Chan has made four Hollywood films since his breakthrough in Rush Hour. His latest, The Tuxedo, is a wan spy caper with digital tricks that undermine Chan’s amazing physical grace. Shu Qi, the Taiwan-born beguiler, has better luck with her English-language debut, The Transporter, a furious demolition derby produced by Besson and directed by Hong Kong action auteur Corey Yuen (Fong Sai-Yuk).

The meeting of East and West already means good business. Will it mean good movies? Maybe not, if The Ring is any indication. Gore Verbinski’s U.S. version works best when it copies directly from the original: the suspenseful opening and the hackle-raising climax (with a ghost crawling out of a TV set). Still, the Japanese film dragged at just 90 minutes; the remake is nearly two hours, with a trawler of new red herrings introduced but little value added. And though Naomi Watts (Mulholland Drive) carries the film in the role originated by Nanako Ma-tsushima, she can’t single-handedly lift it beyond a stale spook sonata.

We’re not saying that Hollywood should keep its mitts off Asian films. A decade ago, Quentin Tarantino did a cool twist (Reservoir Dogs) on a Hong Kong crime story (City on Fire). The challenge is for Western directors to transform the Eastern originals with all the grit and glamour at their command. The alternative is to settle for making blown-up dupes of movies like The Ring. And that prospect is really … scary.

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