Sunday, April 23, 2006

Remaking Asia

It starts with a single drop. Then a trickle follows. Gradually, a steady flow is established. And if unchecked, the flow could turn into a flood. What then? Damage? But Damage to whom? Those unleashing the flood would profit by saturating their consumers with goods. But for those on the other side, the drought would result in losses.

What does this have to do with movies? Nothing with original Hollywood movies but it has impacts for Hollywood’s rapid remakes of Asian cinema. Ofcourse, Hollywood looking towards the East for cinematic influences is not a new phenomenon. Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and other works were presented to Western audiences in different moulds. These were not straight remakes but more like inspirations, taking the essence of Asian themes and sprinkling Western notions on top. George Lucas admits his robotic duo for Star Wars were inspired from another Kurosawa flick The Hidden Fortress . Quentin Tarantino’s adventures in cinema owe a lot for his love for Asian cinema. But these inspirations were just admirations and in some ways a homage to the Eastern ideas. Nowhere was there a need to remake each frame of celluloid into an English version with American actors and locales. Why would such a need have been there in the first place anyhow? Hollywood was ‘considered’ to be a front runner in dazzling the world with those dreamy images. ‘Considered’ is a key word here. The perception was there but the rest of the World was not asleep. European and Asian cinema was already churning out great works from the 50’s through the 1960’s. But as the decades wore on, just like Hollywood, there was a slowing down of art and the debate of art vs commercial cinema arose. Producers started calling the shots and global cinema, including Hollywood, went through an adjustment/transition phase. But despite all the upheavals, the 90’s turned out to be really good for Hollywood’s spread into European and Asian markets. As Asia opened its doors, giant multiplex chains started opening in countries like India showcasing the latest Hollywood talkies. Hollywood had truly arrived in Asia.

Ofcourse, like in the older Colonial days, the rewards flowed only one way. In the days of old colonial voyages, when the ships returned back to the Western shores, they took along some exotic Eastern goods in return. The Eastern goods were then integrated into Western fabrics and sold back to the Eastern lands for a profit. Old habits die hard. They really do. If Spices and herbs were prized back in the olden days, Asian cinema has turned out to be a modern exotic trading good now. Hollywood really has found a love for taking an Asian movie story and remaking it with Western locations and actors and then presenting it to American audiences as the new money spinning movie. In some instances, the product is shipped back to the Asian country from which the remake was made to earn a profit. Japan was once again the promised land as the Ringu movies were converted into The Ring series. Other Japanese horror movies such as Ju-on and Dark Water found suitable remakes. To be partially fair, Hollywood did credit the original film-makers and screenwriters and in some cases, even asked the original Japanese director to remake an English version with Japanese locales ( Ju-on , Ring 2 ). But mostly the credit is not all that obvious. Whereas some magazines and websites might talk about the original Asian film source, on screen, the true source listings might be pushed until the end of the frame. The average American filmgoer might not even know that the movie was remade from Asia. What need is there to tell the person that? In a culture where clothes and food influences from Asia are so casually embedded within Western stores, the original source does not matter. As America rushes to patent Asian spices and herbs as their own, then why should Asian movies be left un-touched? For example, America has already patented Basmati Rice as their own even though farmers in India have been growing this for a few centuries. The bottom profit margin is all that matters. If the Asian movie remakes make money, then more and more will continue to be unleashed into the market. The upcoming year will present North American audiences with remakes of hit Asian movies such as Infernal Affairs (Martin Scorsese will direct an all star cast of this intelligent Hong Kong cat and mouse game), My Sassy Girl , and Oldboy to name a few.

I was surprised to learn that a Korean movie I recently saw, Il Mare , was slated for a June 2006 release by Hollywood. At first glance, this seemed like an unlikely remake story. The love story in Il Mare introduces a new hurdle in front of love struck people – a time boundary. Huh? Well as it turns out that the man and woman in the story can’t meet each other because they are physically separated by 2 years in time. A man moves into a house where he finds a letter in his mailbox marked 2 years into the future. As it turns out, the letter is from a woman who occupies the house 2 years into the future and the mailbox is able to transmit letters to and from her (backwards and forwards in time). Meaning if the man placed a letter into the mailbox, the woman in the future would get it and she could in turn place a reply in the mailbox for him. Thus begins a relationship between the two via the letter exchanges. Even though the movie is well shot, this hardly seemed a candidate for a remake. But that is exactly what will happen in the summer of 2006 when Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock will have their letter romance via the mailbox in front of The Lake House .

And when Hollywood can’t remake the original (due to the complexity of the story), it seeks to profit from the distribution rights. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon , Hero The House of Flying Daggers and 2046 are the most popular examples. Using these releases as an example (especially 2046 ), Hollywood has the audacity to complain that its revenues were affected because these Asian movies were available in North America in the form of VCD’s and DVD’s before Hollywood’s official theatrical release. The movies had been released in Asian theatres for almost a year before their official VCD and DVD’s started hitting the American markets. But Hollywood does not want people to see these DVD versions. Instead, Hollywood wants the North American viewer to wait 1-2 years before its ‘chai’ drinking executives can decide which Asian movies are worthy to show in American theatres and which can be ignored. If Hollywood can’t completely shut down the global cinematic tap, then it atleast wants to control the tap’s flow and only allow a slight trickle or a few drops to get through.

I used to believe that there were some movies Hollywood would never dare remake. For example, the shock horror Japanese (especially Takashi Miike) and Korean movies! But I am not sure anymore after the intense Korean movie Oldboy will get a scene by scene remake later this year. If that experiment succeeds, then would Hollywood chase down movies such as Miike’s Audition ? Hollywood is not alone in remaking Eastern Asian movies. Bollywood too has followed suite by openly plagiarizing Hong Kong/Korean cinema. In Bollywood’s case, they don’t even acknowledge the influence of the original Asian film-makers. Bollywood has been known to freely copy Hollywood and European cinema in the past but has found a new source in their neighbours to the Far East.

In the end, Asia might not be the only market to feel Hollywood’s eyes burning in the back of their heads. In the future, European and South American cinema might be invaded as well. Insomnia and Vanilla Sky were just two candidate droplets taken from Norway and Spain. Will the flood be avoided? Time and American box office receipts will be closely assessing the situation!

Saturday, April 08, 2006

The Making of an Asian Film Festival

What makes a perfect film festival? Is there such a thing as a perfect film festival? Well having worked for three years in a row for 2 very different film festivals, I am beginning to realize that there is no such thing as a perfect film festival. There can’t be. While it is a challenge getting films selected, some external factors prevent films from reaching a festival on time and even if they do make it to the festival, technical problems prevent them from being shown.

After two years of working for other organization’s film festivals, I got the chance this year to work on an independent inaugural Asian film festival, a festival that would get the chance to make brave selections, a festival where we would have more control. And how has this experiment gone? It has been enjoyable but no matter how much we can try, we are still at the mercy of the same problems as that other film festival – budget constraints, political selections and the ‘invisible hand’ or external forces. In the end, thankfully we still managed to get a healthy collection of movies. It is surely a great achievement considering the obstacles we had. One of the biggest hurdles being having no budget! How can you ask a film-maker to showcase their movie if you don’t have a budget to fly them over? How can you ask a film-maker to offer their movie at a cut-price? But amazingly, a lot of film-makers were very co-operative and excited at letting us show their movies, some with major discounted fees. For a first time festival, it was an achievement to get a good collection of submissions. This required a lot of film requests sent out to all corners of the world. We got a lot of responses back, and some even from film-makers whose movies were premiering at this year’s Rotterdam and Berlin Festival. One thing was clear, most film-makers want to support new film festivals and are enthusiastic to have their films shown in new cities. Here is a sampling of some films (features and documentaries) previewed and selected:

Red Doors (directed by Georgia Lee)

This charming movie is our opening night film. It is a wonderful movie about the American-Chinese Wong family. The story revolves around the father and his three daughters. If that sounds like Ang Lee’s Eat, Drink, Man, Woman , it is not. Red Doors combines cross cultural issues with everyday relationship and life complications (work, school) and presents them in a very polished manner.

Kiều (directed by Vũ T. Thu Hà)

Our closing night movie is another treat. The movie is a modern day adaptation of the classic 19th century Việtnamese epic poem, The Tale of Kiều. Kiều had a really strong opening at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival and it is easy to see why. It is a very easy flowing movie which moves at a leisurely pace without ever being dull.

Electric Shadows (directed by Jiang Xiao)

As of this moment, we are not sure if we will get this movie or not. This is one of the more polished films I got to see this year. This 2004 movie has been called the Chinese Cinema Paradiso . One can see the similarities but this one stands on its own. The movie shows the power of cinema to reach out to masses and cause a change. The story intersects with the present to the era of the Chinese Cultural Revolution and as the movie progresses, we find that the two stories have a common thread.

China Blue (directed by Micha X. Peled)

Where do your jeans come from? Who makes these jeans? And how much work goes into the making of a perfect pair of jeans? China Blue does more than just answer such questions. It gives an inside look into the blue-jeans factory in China, complete with highlighting the harsh working conditions of the people involved and the constant struggles they have to overcome. The movie offers ample evidence for people who talk about the poor labour conditions in China and other ‘sweat’ factories for the big brand companies.

Bombay Calling (directed by Ben Addelman, Samir Mallal)

Indian people living in North American are victims of countless monthly, weekly, daily and even hourly telemarketing calls from India offering cheap long distance and other services. In fact one of my first blog entries was about one such annoying call -- Calling India . So it was refreshing to see a movie like Bombay Calling which puts a face to these countless Indians making these phone calls and the ruthless Business men responsible for these companies.

Two Documentaries showing Canada’s forgotten past

Continuous Journey and In the Shadow of Gold Mountain are two eye-opening and insightful movies which highlight often forgotten or unmentioned racial incidents in Canadian History. It may seem surprising to hear that in Canada before 1950, Chinese or Indian immigrants were not welcome. Taxes and restrictions were imposed on people from these countries whereas no taxes were imposed on immigrants coming in from Eastern Europe. In fact, Eastern European immigrants were given free land and encouraged to settle down. Even though Chinese immigrants were responsible for constructing the railways that linked the entire country together, they were not considered welcome. Radios in 1920’s and even 30’s played daily songs about only having a ‘white Canada’. It was not until Pierre Elliot Trudeau gave his multiculturalism speech in 1971 speech did things change. Canada has indeed come a long way but it is still interesting to know what lay in that past.