Millions of Americans went to see "The Ring" in 2002, and out of those millions, few probably knew they were watching a remake of a Japanese hit.
American audiences may not have boned up on Asian film history, but after "The Ring" raked in $120 million, Hollywood got a crash course. Studios are falling all over themselves to cash in: several Asian hits are being remade right now with big stars like Sarah Michelle Gellar and Jennifer Connelly. And mainstream America, if it hasn't already, is about to learn what cult-film fanatics and art snobs have known for years: when it comes to horror movies, Asian filmmakers are amongst the best.
But is this Asian horror invasion just another example of Hollywood quickly and cravenly going where the money is, or are studios actually inspired by more than a mad dash for cash? "I've seen a lot of original Japanese films, and I think that it's some of the most inventive, most interesting filmmaking," explained Gellar, who's shooting a U.S version of "Ju-On: The Grudge," about a possessed house. "American filmmaking is 'girl goes into the forest, don't go in there, she's gonna yell and get slashed and possibly show her breasts.' [Asian horror films] are much more beautiful, more poetic. And it sort of leaves much more to the imagination, which I think is pretty cool."
"Americans are not patient," musician and "House of 1000 Corpses" director Rob Zombie said. "You've gotta kill someone in the first five seconds or the kid's gonna go see '50 First Dates' on the next screen over. But Asian films, they let it go. It seems like nothing happens for an hour, and then the payoff is so insane that people are freaking out."
"A Japanese horror film begins slowly until you have this increasing feeling of dread as you're watching the film," explained Anthony Timpone, editor of the horror-movie magazine Fangoria. "They take their time in telling the story, they set up their characters, they set up their horror, and it builds very incrementally until a really big, scary payoff. The films are loaded with atmosphere, suspense, a creeping dread, very eerie sound effects. It's a real total experience of the senses when you watch a Japanese horror film."
Unlike the recent wave of slasher and zombie flicks spooking American audiences, these Asian imports — from filmmakers like Hideo Nakata ("Dark Water" and "Ringu," the precursor to "The Ring"), Takashi Shimizu (the "Ju-On" series), Kiyoshi Kurosawa ("Kaïro," about the strange happenings that follow a suicide) and the Pang brothers ("Jian Gui," a.k.a. "The Eye," about a blind girl sees ghosts after eye surgery) — go for chills over scares, stacking up supernatural themes, haunting visuals and some truly creepy atmosphere. Films like "The Eye" and "The Ring" combine a cultural background filled with ghosts and the supernatural with themes of revenge, reincarnation and familial ties.
"We respect the dead people, the ancestors, and we respect the perspective or visions of the dead world," writer/director Hideo Nakata said.
Interesting stuff, but is Hollywood actually exploring a unique culture here or simply chasing yet another trend?
"Some of the studio mentality and thinking is pretty bankrupt in Hollywood, so that's why we're seeing all these remakes," Timpone observed. "It seems like they've run out of ideas or they're not trying."
Zombie has a more empathetic point of view. "If you're going to put from $1 million to $100 million into a movie, I think they feel more secure if they can say, 'Well, it worked the first time.' "
Roy Lee, executive producer of "The Ring," "The Ring 2" and almost every one of the upcoming remakes, agreed, and if anyone knows what made Hollywood hot for Asian horror, it's Lee. After finding "Ringu" too scary to sit through, the Korean-American producer secured the rights to the film and then immediately took a copy to the home of a VP at DreamWorks.
"I told him I couldn't finish watching it, and he said, 'Well, you're not leaving because we're watching this together,' " Lee recalled. "The next day they bought the remake rights."
Following the success of "The Ring," Lee has virtually cornered the market, brokering deals for "The Ring 2," "Dark Water," "The Grudge" and "The Eye" as well as thrillers like "Addicted" (originally South Korea's "Jungdok") and "Chaos" (Japan's "Kaosu"). Essentially, Lee secures rights from Asian filmmakers and then sells those stories to U.S. studios. "It's not that hard to pitch them when you have a great movie to show them," Lee said. "I think that horror is universal."
But if it is, why bother remaking the originals at all?
"They seem to think Americans are afraid of subtitles," Zombie said. "If you look at something like 'Crouching Tiger,' everyone went to see it. I don't think that they have to worry but ..." He paused, then in a Southern accent, joked, "I don't want to have to read words for an hour and a half. F--- that."
Although the studios' decision to cater to that audience caused some movie snobs to sneer at the remade "Ring" before even seeing it, Zombie said he thought it was great. Another fan of the remake, "Ringu" director Nakata, thinks it was money well spent.
"I think the American version was very atmospheric, and Naomi [Watts]' performance was excellent," Nakata said. "The whole look of the movie was very gloomy, and that's what I really liked. I kind of expected a much flashier version because it was for an American audience — a little bit flashier, a little bit gorier — but it wasn't. I think the spirit of the American version was kind of faithful to my version."
As Lee well knows, finding a balance like the one "The Ring" hit on is everything. Elements of the original (like the unexplained psychic powers of the male lead) were dropped when bringing the story to the States, and more modifications are on the way with "The Ring 2," including a new script and story line (one holdover from the Asian version is Nakata, who will direct the U.S. version). "The biggest difference will be that the American audience needs more jolts or stimulation, whereas the Asian audience can be a little more patient," Nakata said.
Those changes will no doubt be hotly debated among purists and film buffs, but Zombie takes a surprisingly laid-back approach to the whole phenomenon: "Remakes don't bother me if they're good. As long as the films are good, I don't care. ... They could remake 'Gone With the Wind' for all I care, as long as it's good."
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For more on how the horror movie genre has returned from the grave, check out "It's Alive! Horror Is Reborn (Again)."