Remake Rage

A movie I like a great deal, but don’t recommend to many people (outside of one five minute sequence) has been remade and rereleased as an American, English-language film. I haven’t seen the remake, and honestly, I probably won’t, but I also don’t aim to spend a lot of my time talking about how I dislike it. I think it’s probably better to talk about what I like in the original movie to those people who want to hear it. Still, there is quite a bit of resentment about the remake; comparisons are going to be inevitable in any situation. I feel slightly glad that Moviebob is so excited for Frozen this week, because it means my favourite source of movie news won’t be focusing on comparing a movie I like and a movie I haven’t seen.

What is being spoken of is Why get angry?

I’m not angry about this – though you know me, I take any excuse to let rage bubble up. I’m very familiar with the rationale of the incandescent internet hollering, and I think in this case, my calm can be used as a point of connection. A rage whisperer, if you will.

I can think of three basic reasons to be upset about remakes:

  • First and easiest, there’s the possibility of pointless duplication. A number of remakes strike to hit the same beats, tell the same story, and just change the background elements. I rarely see people praising these remakes for any reason. If the work is too similar the question becomes Why do it?
  • The new work obscures the old work. This is a common complaint in conversations about appropriation (conversations I’m not well-versed enough to court), where a new, better publicised piece of cultural work reduces the importance and prominence of the original. Very real problem, especially when you’re talking about a nation that’s already a major prominence of cultural output (America, Hong Kong, Bollywood) producing something from a lesser venue (South Korea, New Zealand, Indonesia). People might find the original source material thanks to the remake, but they just as much might never realise that it exists – certainly if there’s nothing to show a connection. If I type ‘Oldboy’ into Google, the first hit is the original – will that stay true?
  • Cultural transposition removes meaning. Believe it or not, there are movies that work in the original languages and settings with the original cultural background because the people who make them have really different cultural values. I don’t want to draw on any specific examples, because hey, they’re often the important spoilers or plot twists of a movie, but remember that just in the Asiatic circle of countries, there’s cultures with oppressive homophobia and other cultures with a public fetishisation of homosexuality. There’s a culture where someone is more likely to lie about being sick than they are about being gay. There are cultures where joining the police is seen as shameful. Stories set in the United States often excel when they touch on themes of cultural unfairness and dominance – they often fall flat when they try and be sex-positive. If you were to remake stories that rely on these elements elsewhere, you are going to need to replicate those cultural values, or the things that hinge on them will mean less.

There’s a little extra twist here, though. See, the movie that spurred this is Oldboy, which I have, in the past, referred to as a remake of The Count of Monte Cristo. Now, that’s not really true – the story follows a very different arc, and the focus of the narrative lies not on the how of Dante’s revenge, but the why of Woo-jin’s anger against Dae-Su. In both cases, there’s a core story structure – a person is imprisoned for a long time, and the process transforms who they are – but the values of the culture in which they come change the meaning. For Dantes, there was meaning behind face and motivations of money and nobility; for Dae-su, it seems almost random. In either case, the two stories are very different.

Remakes aren’t bad, but when someone expresses worry about remakes, don’t assume they’re wrong or stupid for it. Chances are their concern comes from a sensible place, even if they can’t perfectly articulate it.

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