Friday, June 4, 2010

THE EAST IS RED #12 – How Not to Do an Asian Movie Remake

Quick: Name the last original Hollywood horror movie you saw that was any good. And by original, I mean it can’t be a sequel, a remake of an old Hollywood movie, or an American version of an Asian film. Because while Hollywood continues to suffer a marketing phobia that seems to render executives incapable of producing original American horror content (when they try and the results are good, like the recent TRICK ‘R’ TREAT, they end up dumping the unfortunate product direct to DVD), they continue to plunder Japanese and Korean cinemas for content to rape – er, I meant, of course, remake.

Latest case in point: BLOOD THE LAST VAMPIRE, a live action film based on the immensely popular Japanese anime feature/series/manga/novel/game empire. Although the live-action BLOOD was originally to have been directed by Ronny Yu (director of the neo-classic Hong Kong fantasy THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR) and has an Asian lead actress, it ended up with a French director and enough western elements that I think we can safely consider it to be close enough to a Hollywood remake to qualify.
Here’s what you need to know first: BLOOD THE LAST VAMPIRE in its live action version is an extraordinarily awful movie. It’s so bad that any mere review of it will quickly become redundant (“and THIS sucks, and THIS is rotten, and THIS is just really, really bad”). It is, in fact, so spectacularly bad that it should stand as an example of how NOT to adapt an Asian film. So, using BLOOD THE LAST VAMPIRE as my starting point, here is my Top Ten List of Points to Consider When Re-making an Asian Horror Movie.
(A brief synopsis before we begin: This latest incarnation of BLOOD is set in 1970, and begins in an American air base in Japan. It turns out that the base is infested with vampires, and a legendary half-human/half-vampire slayer, Saya, is sent to deal with the predators. Disguised as a student, Saya quickly ferrets out the bloodsuckers and slays them, but is observed by teenaged Alice, the base commander’s daughter. When Alice’s father begins to investigate Saya and the mysterious “Council” that sent her, he’s murdered, and Saya must now protect Alice from the Council. They flee together, and the chase leads them to Onegin, the ancient demonic ruler who killed Saya’s father and who she’s sworn to destroy. The film’s last scene revolves around their battle.)

1. Have at least a modicum of respect for the source material. The big movie of BLOOD contains very little of the original’s story, retaining not much beyond the idea of a Buffy-ish teenaged girl who is a superheroic slayer. A central notion to both the BLOOD anime and, indeed, the very title itself, was that Saya was fighting demonic creatures called “chiropterans”…not vampires. But apparently the makers of the BLOOD movie thought that we westerners were too stupid to follow a plot centering on creatures with a strange name, so they’ve simply called them vampires…completely disregarding that Saya is supposed to be the LAST vampire.
2. Don’t hire a music video director to helm the movie. Okay, yeah…I know that kind of worked for THE RING, with director Gore Verbinski. But this guy Chris Nahon is so obsessed with drenching every frame in music-video grunge effects and high-contrast yellows and greens that he seems to have forgotten there are actors and a so-called story to consider as well.

3. If you’re going to try to set the film in Japan, then honor the Japanese elements. The American remake of THE GRUDGE did this fairly well – although the film focused on an American family in Japan (and so allowed the filmmakers to use American stars like Sarah Michelle Gellar), the story wisely used culture clash to ramp up the tension. No such luck with BLOOD, which is theoretically set in Japan, but seems to be set in a Japan populated almost entirely by Americans and vampires. The only Japanese character featured prominently is Saya, and she’s little more than a silent fighter. Even the kendo teacher is American. And when we meet the “Elder” in charge of the Council, it’s an old white guy – apparently living alone in the middle of Japan. Jeez, would it have killed ‘em to make that guy Japanese, at least?!
4. If you’re going the American remake route, then get a solid American screenwriter. Okay, I should know from my own experience that what comes out of the actors’ mouths may not be even close to what was on paper…but dear God, BLOOD THE LAST VAMPIRE has some of the most laughably bad dialogue I’ve ever heard. My favorite line: After Alice has been rescued by Saya from hundreds of attacking vampires, and has watched her crash through brick walls, leap distances of 50 feet, and kill five vamps with a single hurled umbrella, she looks at Saya as they part and offers up, “Be really careful, okay?” Yes, ROTFLMAO is an appropriate response here.
5. If the film involves action, know how to shoot it. One of the pleasures of Asian cinema, of course, is the action. These guys have been doing fights from the beginning of their film industry, and it shows. Heck, some of the Asian movie awards even include categories for action choreography. Unfortunately, director Nahon seems to have decided that he could shoot action better than these dumb ol’ Asian guys, and he’s opted for the typical western mix of interminable slo-mo and confusing close-ups, rendering BLOOD’s lengthy fight sequences into incomprehensible mishmashes of color and motion. This is particularly sad because I have no doubt that BLOOD’s energetic lead performer could have handled any choreography they threw at her.
6. If you’re using Asian actors, don’t force them to speak lines phonetically. The only thing that BLOOD THE LAST VAMPIRE got right was the casting of its lead – gorgeous and gifted South Korean actress Jeon Ji-hyun (appearing here under the ridiculously anglicized name “Gianna”) handles her English lines well enough (in fact, her performance is BLOOD’s only saving grace), but the few other Japanese actors in the film who have to speak English rather obviously have no idea what they’re saying – they’re just struggling to get those syllables out.
7. And speaking of actors – don’t use dull or bad western actors. Would THE RING have been anything without Naomi Watts? BLOOD’s American actors (or Canadian, or British, or whatever they are) range from merely dull to over-the-top. Maybe these actors have all been good in other things, but I’ve never seen any of them before, so I don’t know.
8. Don’t rip off other movies/television shows to pad out the western content. In the anime BLOOD, Saya worked for “the Red Shield”, but in the movie she’s supervised by “the Council” – of Watchers, right? Hey, where’s Giles? And what’s with those vampire makeups – haven’t I seen those in BLADE (which, not coincidentally, also features a human/vamp hybrid)?

9. Don’t dumb down the source material. It’s really sad when an anime – which addressed issues like Japanese feelings towards Americans and the role of women in Japanese society – is infinitely smarter than a live action film. Look at the live action DEATH NOTE(s) by comparison: They stuck closely to the original anime/manga, and the resulting films were superb. Oh, wait – the live action DEATH NOTE films were also Japanese. I bet the eventual Hollywood remake will be dumber than dirt.
10. I wish I could say just don’t bother. Really. Note to Hollywood: Just buy American distribution rights and release the originals over here. Yeah, yeah, I know: Americans don’t watch subtitled movies and don’t wanna see a bunch of Asian actors and blahblahblah. And unfortunately THE RING and THE GRUDGE made a bundle. So I suppose we’re doomed to continue seeing wonderful Asian movies ground up in the Hollywood mill until they dribble out as cinematic gruel on the other end.
And that is why I’ll keep on writing this column: If I get even a few more of you to see the Asian originals, then I can rest happy. And so can you.

The original 2000 anime film trailer:

The 2009 remake trailer:

--Lisa Morton