Hollywood certainly likes to recycle/remake itself - almost to death. To be more specific, in the past few years, a wave of Asian horror movie remakes has reached U.S. and European shores, sometimes even drowning this specific but fast (ever?)-expanding market, to the point that the phenomenon was spoofed in the tagline for Hatchet, which proclaimed: “It’s not a sequel, it’s not a remake, and it’s not based on a Japanese one”.

For the most part, the critics and the public alike have reacted in a negative way to a trend that can easily be seen, after all, as barely more than base exploitation. 2008 was definitely not the year when this widespread view was going to stand corrected: yes, another year of merciless, mercenary artistic hackery, and a whole batch of film duplicates that are still vastly inferior to the originals, as a consequence. Sure enough, the main stumbling block for the distribution of “foreign films” (a somewhat elliptic and Americano-centric expression that speaks volumes about the way non-U.S. cinema is perceived) is the language barrier, so that it’s easy to why some “well-intentioned” people would want to translate them for local audiences.

The problem is that Hollywood looks east for Japanese, Korean, or Chinese (and more recently Thai) material that is used not so much as a source of inspiration than a database of ready-made narrative templates from which watered-down copies are shamelessly mass-produced. Aside from language and location, and the obvious transfer of roles to Caucasian casts, most U.S. remakes content themselves with a few mechanical upgrades such as… a bit of a kicking in the pacing – usually, a few more jump-scares with shrill soundtrack effects and all – and a touch of computer-generated imagery, for good measure.

In any case, looking back at the remakes of Asian horror movies of the past few years provides a good opportunity of trying to figure out why most of them fall flat. Also, and more importantly, it’s an invitation to go back to the originals, rather than just lament over the dispiriting lack of originality in the American horror genre.
So below is a short list of remakes of now classic Asian horror films:

The Ring (2002) spearheaded the Asian horror remake attack. Originally a popular cycle of novels by Suzuki Koji, the story was first adapted as a TV mini-series in 1995. Then of course, Nakata Hideo directed the film that is now a well-known classic (at least in Asian cinema circles) in 1998.

Interestingly, before Hollywood decided to place Ring on its Procustean bed (2002), South Koreans made their own version of the story a couple of years before (2000): The Ring Virus, a pretty decent film, I’d say. In his book The Ring Companion, Denis Meikle insists that Ring Virus diverges too much from the original Japanese film to be considered a genuine remake. Nevertheless, the Korean remake revolves around the same core elements as its source: the protagonist is a single-mum reporter, and the film features the through-the-looking-glass conclusion, a nod to David Cronenberg’s Videodrome.

Directed by Gore Verbinski before he moved on to the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, the American version borrows most of its narrative and visual material from its namesake, but also contains some elements from Ring 2 and The Ring Virus (and I guess you could say Dark Water too). Naomi Watts doesn’t particularly shine in this, especially if you compare her performance with Matsushima Nanako in the original (then again, I might a bit biased). And overall, the film feels a whole lot like a product that came straight out of the assembly line. Polished, sure, but not overly inspired. A few shockers were added, pleasantly spicing up the action: a suicide by electrocution in the bath tub and the goring of a horse by a ship’s propeller. Nice. The film is okay, if you haven’t seen the original, but it suffers a bit from a lack of atmospheric tension (unlike the original, which was tense/taut from start to finish, even when nothing was happening). In any case, it was a huge hit, with a worldwide gross of nearly $250 million.

The Ring is good watchable horror fun and has the merit of shedding some of the psych nonsense from the original. Still, Sadako is far scarier than Samara, her American sister, especially if you watch Nakata’s film at 3 AM in a deserted dorm in Tokyo – which is exactly what I did (not a good idea).

The Grudge (2004) is probably the only instance of a reasonably successful remake (commercially and artistically). Based on the Japanese blockbuster horror, Ju-On, the film was directed by the same guy who helmed the original, Shimizu Takashi, who probably had no trifling part in steering film in the right direction. Also, the story is still based in Tokyo: instead of being a pure and simple American translation, Stephen Susco’s screenplay, noticeably more linear than the rather fragmented, de-centered script of its source, brings the U.S. cast to Japan, adding another dimension to a story that gave birth to many spin-offs in Japan (all directed by Shimizu). A smart way of having your cake and eat it: you keep the connection with the original story in the copy, very meta of Shimizu, and you manage to center the story on Sarah Michelle Gellar, who is sort of pretty to watch.
On a minor note, Fuji Takako comes back in the role of the creepy-crawly ghost in bad need of a chiropractor. Which is good (she’s not as pretty to watch as the aforementioned Buffy/Sarah M. Gellar, though)

One of the main figures behind the film was Spiderman director Sam Raimi and his production company, Ghost House, which he specifically created to adapt foreign horror films for the American market. Raimi’s involvement in the project might have something to do with the success of The Grudge.

Remarkably, Shimizu managed to do outdo himself in a couple of sequences: the shampoo/shower scene, for those who have seen it, and the brilliantly re-crafted elevator scene, in which the ghost boy appears on every floor, in a long, single, continuous (and pretty frightening) take. Among the remakes of Asian horror films, The Grudge would probably be my only warm recommendation.

Dark Water (2005). Despite Kuroki Hitomi’s excellent performance, I didn’t really like the original (directed by the omnipresent Nakata Hideo in 2001), so why they even bothered remaking it completely beats me. The film stars Oscar-winner Jennifer Connelly, as a woman going through a painful divorce, who moves into a rundown building with her daughter… Of course, there are some major issues with the building and it doesn’t have anything to do with bad pipes. Following the plot of the source-film, this remake is worth a watch if you just got fired from your investment banking job, but more as a drama than a real horror flick. In any case, the film was a commercial flop.

The Grudge 2 (2006). After the success of The Grudge, expectations (financial, that is) were high, to say the least. This sequel turned out to be a massive déconfiture (if you don’t know what the word: it is not synonymous with “success”). Technically, like The Ring Two, it is not exactly a remake. The story was signed by screenwriter Stephen Susco, who seems to have a hard time figuring out what to do with the meowing ghost boy and his long-haired mommy. And judging from the behind-the-scenes features on the dvd, there were major divergences of opinion between the American production company and Shimizu. So the team found some kind of compromise and went ahead with a structure that tries to reconcile the wolf, the lamb and the cabbage (as they say in France) on the same boat, with the well-known scare tactics used by Shimizu (such as the “a…a…a…” sound thingy that has weirded a lot of viewers out, apparently). Bringing the story back to America might not have been the smartest idea, in the first place. From a purely professional point of view, there are quite a few things to learn from the film (a few nice & scary visual tricks, some interesting narrative twists and turns), actually, but in the end (too many non-sequiturs, too much dumb teenage horror flick crap inserted here and there), it simply isn’t good enough, however perversely singular it strives (and manages) to be.

Pulse, the original Pulse (2006): This remake’s based on the excellent Kairo (2001), by Kurosawa Kiyoshi, an almost abstract horror film that exceeds its now somewhat outdated premise (ghosts in the machine and communication networks) and is genuine nightmare poetry – to me. Note that they still used dial-up at the time… so yes, it’s already starting to look old.
The remake project sat in the backburner for a long time – where it should have stayed, if you ask me. Featuring the nonetheless charming Kristen Bell (Heroes), the film was first entrusted to Wes Craven, who is still credited with the screenwriting, and was handed over to the Weinstein brothers, whose current rout is perfectly confirmed here. Pulse is not so much a failed flick as a deboned one (as in deboned chicken). Kurosawa’s visual and narrative trademark is sill legible, but tortured, for lack of a better word, by adjustments made by producers visibly obsessed by the return on investment. So you get the clear sensation of watching a wobbly rip-off into which a few eye-catching motifs patchworked: from the blood-and-thunder mooing ghosts to the extreme simplification (“dumbing down” would be more accurate) of the original message, erected to the lofty status of a dissertation thesis. “Don’t stay alone”, went the tag line of the Japanese poster, which somehow transforms into something like “don’t surf the web” or “throw you cell phones to the trash”. Ahem… right. The opening of the film focus ridicules the addiction of college students to new mobile technologies, and promises to be little more than another teenage B-horror movie. But then ghosts from the www crash the campus and slowly decimate the world population. Ok, why not. There is the problem though: the most painful part of the film is really the threadbare link to Kurosawa’s film. Between a few talkative/chatty interludes, Pulse carbon-copies a few sequences: the suicide of a student from the top of a water tower, the plane crash, and so on… No wonder then that Pulse feels like hardly more than a half-nuked dish without any particular savor and without an ounce of malice (and that’s not good for a horror film)… vaguely customized at best. The film is akin to a wheezy work-in-progress, a kind of simultaneous translation full of mistakes and approximations. The visuals are fairly seductive and distinctive overall… Somehow, they come out as way too choppy and fractured. See they way the kids turn into computerized zombies… Not that the images are really ugly, but their organization is so out of whack that their impact dissolves immediately into, well, a lot of yawning.

Here is the main problem of the film: it never quite finds its place and pace, loses itself between two tempos, offers nothingness as a substitute for the poisonous aesthetic sobriety of Kurosawa. The only solution they found, it seems, is to replace stone-cold horror with carnival-like imagery. The finale, a hysterical escalation of misshapen digital effects demolishes the film. It’s as if the whole thing was just getting hyper-excited by itself… and that is the only lifeline that Jim Sonzero and the Weinsteins have come up with. For one hour and twenty-five minutes, it’s a little pathetic. .

On the other hand, if you watch the original… miles away from a mere genre film, Kurosawa restructures the traditional framework of the horror flick, evanescent figurations to incorporating pre-apocalyptic them into an ambitious and ingenious work that blends abstraction and plastic oddities. Despite a particularly lackluster photography, the mystery of the morbid contagion is immediately intriguing and disturbing. Every frame, every shot in Kairo is suffused with a fascinating touch of fear that cannot quite be named or pointed at. Sure enough, when you get down to it, it is basically a somewhat dull and sluggish story of ghosts whose ontological status is uncertain… floating somewhere between melancholy humanity and punctual fleeting appearances before vanishing into ashes. But their weary repetition ad libitum has an undeniable poetic quality, as the films softly confronts its true demon: the obsession with solitude and disappearance.
In a nutshell: Kairo, great film, even if you don’t like horror flicks. Pulse, not really.

This dark wave of Asian Horror remakes seems far from over in any case… Next: The Eye, One Missed Call, Mirrors, Shutter (maybe) or “the return of the attack of the cloned ghosts”. Yep.