Wednesday, March 23, 2011

If You're Gonna Remake, You Better Bring It

I remember the first time I saw Shall We Dance?—I was in my very first Japanese class. I was fifteen and ridiculously excited that my Utah high school taught the language. This one thing redeemed moving from California. At the time, I was unapologetically obsessed with all things Japan. Seriously. I wanted to BE Japanese. I hated my stupid blond hair and big nose. I even had this plan to marry an Asian so I would have pretty babies.

Yes, I know it sounds crazy, but I am not kidding.

My sensei played this movie, Shall We Dance?, in class. I'd seen a lot of anime, but this was the first "real people" Japanese movie I'd seen. I loved it. LOVED. I loved it so much I made my parents rent it, which at the time was difficult. The foreign film section at Blockbuster was rather small, but, miracle of miracles, we found it. And I made my WHOLE FAMILY watch it. Guess what? They loved it, too. We adored this movie. It's beautiful, subtle, perfect. The characters are vibrant and real. It's everything a movie should be and still one of my all time favorites.

So you can imagine my rage when I saw this preview years later:

Let's just say I wasn't too happy. For a lot of reasons. The number one being that the original was perfect. Second, the cultural stigma of dancing doesn't quite work in an American setting. Third, they sexed it up. Fourth, they focused more on the Latin dance than the Standard ballroom.

Basically, they took a movie I cherish and turned it into a cheap imitation.

This seems to happen a lot with Asian-based movies. You may have heard about the whitewashing debacles of Dragonball and The Last Airbender, well, now they're planning to butcher Akira as well.

Look, the whitewashing is bad enough, I could spend a whole week talking about just how much it pisses me off. But the sad thing is it's only one symptom of a greater problem: The complete and utter ignorance of this medium and its fans.

I want to talk about this today because I think we as writers can take a lot of lessons away from these seriously bad examples.

1. Know The Audience
The biggest problem with these films is misreading/complete ignorance to their actual audience. It seems like instead of pleasing actual fans—fans who would support the movie and see it multiple times and make all their friends see it and then raise their babies on it—they are trying to reach a more "general" audience.

Obviously, it's not flying because these movies have TANKED. Why? Well, the general audience still didn't care (Shocker!), and they pissed off their actual audience.


As a long-time lover of Asian culture, it is downright offensive that Hollywood thinks I need to see white people playing clearly Asian roles. Seriously, it makes me extremely angry. People who watch Asian film—of any race, young and old, male and female—watch it because they like Asian culture. I mean, duh? The fans DO NOT want to see white people! We've spent the better part of our lives deliberately seeking non-white film.

Not only that, but we understand Asian themes and tropes—we LIKE them, even. So it becomes incredibly demeaning when Hollywood says stuff like this:
"Oh, no one will get this, we better make it more accessible to American audiences."

"That cultural nuance isn't important. No one will notice if it's gone."

"We need to spice that up, it's too subtle."

When they do this, they offend their audience to no end. They make movies that were once multi-layered and vibrant into shells of their former selves. We KNOW what's missing, and not only that but it's like they're "talking down" to us. They are making completely inaccurate assumptions about what we like.

There is no better way to turn off your audience than to treat them like they are stupid. Same goes in writing.

But let's look at a good example, too: the new Star Trek. Very well-recieved by the fans! Why? Because they nailed their audience. They delivered what was expected, but in a fresh way. And more than that, they respected the heart of the show. They didn't try to make it something else.

2. Respect The Story/World
Let's imagine for a second that Lucas decided to remake the original Star Wars, except Vadar wouldn't be wearing that "silly suit" anymore. He'd be some hot guy without asthma. Would people be mad? Um, yeah, probably. Because that "silly suit" is symbolic of the samurai culture that the Jedi are based on. Duh.

There are some things you just don't touch, you know? That whole don't-fix-what's-not-broken thing. Fans of franchises are extremely passionate about them. There are things they love and don't ever want to change ever. They know every detail. They adore every detail. You mess with key details, and you will be in BIG trouble.

Hollywood seems to get that with some movies, but not at all in the Asian realm.

There's no Snow White without the apple. No Cinderella without the slipper. No LOTR without the One Ring. And for Pete's sake, there's no Dragonball without a spikey-haired Goku! When you're remaking or re-imagining a story, there are some things that you must treat sacredly. It's a matter of respect for the medium. These stories are popular for a reason, and the wrong change can ruin it.

Once again, we can look at Star Trek—the guy in red, ejecting the warp core, etc.—were all nods to treasured details of the Star Trek franchise. The creators understood the world and what it meant to people. They knew people would hate them forever if they made Sulu white.

Just typing that made me nauseous.

3. You Have To Bring It
If you plan to retell a story, whether in film or book, it has to be freaking awesome. It has to improve on the original in some way, otherwise it's pointless. These whitewashed remakes? They bring nothing new, in fact, they destroy what was so great about the original.

Maybe—maybe—I could get past a white cast if the movies were actually good. But they aren't! They completely miss the mark every time. And I think that comes from Hollywood's seeming determination not to respect these movies or their fans on every level. If they took the time to understand, maybe they'd have more success.

It's totally possible to deliver, but they seem determined not to. It seems they forget the success of, say, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, which made no apologies for what it was. And it was awesome. And people loved it. In fact, people outside the expected audience took notice. Not because it was whitewashed. Not because they "dumbed it down for stupid Americans." No, people took notice purely because it was a good movie. Same with Star Trek, which expanded that franchise's fanbase quite a lot (me included). Heck, even Lord Of The Rings could fall into that category.

If you can't do better Hollywood, please, don't bother.


  1. AGREED. And that's all I have to say about that since you've pretty much nailed it.

    Foreign films can be widely accepted without having to be remade, just look at Pan's Labyrinth, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (though they're remaking that one with Daniel Craig of all people), Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and Miyazaki movies in general. It's ridiculous. If you can't improve it, don't try. And if it's already perfect, why even bother considering it?

    *sigh* I said I wasn't going to say anything. My bad. Great post, Natalie!

  2. SING IT, Natalie! It's about freakin' time someone said it.

  3. From the trailer, Shall we Dance (the original), reminds me of Baz Luhrman's Strictly Ballroom a bit.

    The horror of remakes goes beyond whitewashing - I think they actually try using the big names to cover up the gaping wounds they create in the story. It's like "look here at the pretty, ignore the mess we've made!'

    It's the same reason most TV-to-Screen shifts tank. The person doing the remake has no idea what they're doing with the source material.

    Things like Star Trek are stand outs in that arena, too. Most of the time you end up with something like the Get Smart movie that we were burdened with a few years ago that doesn't understand how the comedy worked in the original.

    You can't take someone who doesn't understand that sci-fi is more than women in tight clothes and rayguns and space ships and let them try and make a convincing sci-fi movie. The fans will know that's what the director was thinking.

    You have to get the story nailed down first, and then add in the shinies, not the other way around.

  4. I have a post for this all typed out and planned for Friday lol. This infuriates me. They destroyed Dragonball, they made a mockery out of Avatar: The Last Airbender, and now they're going to do the same to Akira. (And don't even get me started on their plans for Cowboy Bebop although that one, at least, has obviously white characters in it).

  5. I love you so much for saying this. And you are NOT the only one who hated their stupid blonde hair and stupid coloured eyes and stupid, pallid skin and wanted to trade it in for interesting Asian features. In fact, I kind of still do!

  6. It's also awful when they make a sequel to a movie that doesn't need it. Take Grease 2 for instance. It was nowhere near as good as Grease, so why not leave it as it is?

    But these decisions are usually based on money, not audience or artistic talent @)

  7. I usually hate remakes. Mostly Martha (one of my fave foreign films) was recently remade and titled No Reservation (boring and uninspired). Now I'm glad I didn't see the remake of Shall We Dance, but I will be adding the original to my netflix queue =)

  8. Nice rant, Natalie! The same could be said about a lot of other things. We should be pushing people to think for themselves, to think out of the box. It's a disservice to America when we don't.

  9. Most remakes in my opinion fail without a doubt. Especially when it's a foreign crossover (most often Asia -> America) but, there are a few remakes that I think were good. But, they were also remakes of American movies. :/

    Definitely hate the white-washing. A bunch of writers that I know have mainly foreign looking characters and if those stories were made into movies I would be so furious if they got white-washed. :(

    White-washing needs to be stopped!

  10. Great post.

    I hate needless remakes and sequels. When they screw things up even more with the other problems, like straying from what the original had, that is even worse. It's on the same level as movies made from books where they not only do the book an injustice but basically slaughter the story. *shakes head* tsk on them

  11. Speaking of cinderella, didn't the Cinderella with Brandy as the main character do really well? And the Prince was Asian. It was such a diverse cast and a great reimagining of the original even if all they did was bring a unique cast to the original story.

  12. Najela, that was my FAVORITE Cinderella! I watched that over and over. Yes, I was in love with the hot Asian prince. Man, I gotta get hold of that movie again.

  13. Thoughts on Let the Right One In vs. Let Me In?

  14. It's Hollywood. I've never expected much from them except disappointment. They don't give the American public enough credit. They seem to think we're all mindless fools (and while there are a lot of mindless fools, there's not nearly as many as are portrayed).

    It's my disappointment in the media in general--not just movies, but the misrepresentation of truth. I could rant forever on that topic.

  15. One more thing: know that if you went over to Japan, they'd all want to look like you :P Tons of Japanese girls try to Westernize themselves by dying their hair, getting colored contacts, etc. I suppose it's human nature not to be happy with our looks. I know I always wanted bright red hair when I was younger. :)

  16. This post also reminds me of remakes of songs that make me cringe.

  17. I felt like someone dug all my opinions about "Shall We Dance" out of my brain and wrote them on your blog. You batted it out of the park. Also the whole...wanting cute half-asian babies...yeah...guilty as charged.

    I suppose the natural retribution for this is that these movies DO tank. Last Airbender? Most people I talked to didn't pass on it because it was racist, but because it just looked TERRIBLE.

    The possible lineup for the male role in Akira? Actually made me sick to my stomach. Not because I hate all those actors (I actually only recognized two or three), but because it's so obvious what's happening here. And it's sad. And angering, yes.

  18. Although I'd have to say, The Brandy version of Cinderella was a which the original Rodgers and Hammerstein charm was completely lost...and I thought the multiculturalism in it was just forced and awkward--kind of like a bad episode of Sesame Street.

    It's like casting Oklahoma with five different races just to make a point, losing the characters and original intent just to appeal to a certain audience, which is the same problem painted in different colors.

  19. Remakes: the entertainment pestilence of our time. And then when you mix that damned word reboot in, it becomes even more irritating.

  20. I watched Last Airbender and it was awful. The white washing was only a part of the problem, the characters weren't true to the originals. Ozai wasn't even remotely scary. And he told Zhao, several times, something to the effect of "Leave my son alone" *facepalm* They hardly even tried to do it well, it was just easy money.

  21. I have a friend with a different take on the samurai outfit of Darth Vadar. He thinks that Lucas had to be Catholic, because anyone who went to Catholic school back in the 60s and was called in to see the Mother Superior knows exactly who Darth Vadar is.

  22. It happens with more than just Asian films. It always makes me cringe.

  23. "I even had this plan to marry an Asian so I would have pretty babies."

    As someone who had (and executed) this plan, I have to say there's absolutely nothing crazy about it.

    I agree this whole anime-turned-white-movie thing is getting tiring. It's not as big a deal when it's something obscure (I had no idea Shall We Dance came from Japan!), but Last Airbender? Akira?

    Anime is becoming a staple of American cartoons--for both kids and adults. True, it's not to the point where my parents (for example) know what Akira is, but a whole heckuva lot of people do.

    And because Margaret's comment reminded me how mad I was: obligatory Airbender rant.

  24. After the backlash over the whitewashing of The Last Airbender, you really would have thought that Hollywood would have learnt something - guess not.

  25. I've never seen the original - didn't even know there was an original, but the American version was bad. I couldn't even finish it.

  26. Agreed! I didn't even bother to see the remake of "Shall We Dance." Thanks for the tips, too. :)

  27. @Dara I'm not sure it's trying to look 'Western' as such.

    You should give this post a read.

  28. Don't even get me started on Akira. That is sacred ground right there. I've been reading the articles on who the producers are considering for the roles of Kaneda and Tetsuo--Justin Timberlake? Robert friggin Pattinson? Oh god, why do you insist on making me cry.
    Maybe, maybe if they got great actors and kept to the storyline as much as possible I might enjoy it.

  29. Did you hear that they're casting a white actor as Katniss in the Hunger Games, though in the book she's described as dark-haired and olive-skinned?
    And the Last Airbender movie was awful. Even my mom, who'd never seen the TV series, thought it was awful. My friend actually knows the kid who played Aang, and even he agreed it was awful.

  30. Star Trek! Yes! Those are the sort of things that wrecked Enterprise. *vomits*

    Oh, and I was recently thinking that Katniss ought to have an Appalachian accent. But no, the Capital is making the movie. Bitter irony.

  31. Completely agree with what was said in this post. I don't understand why movies can't go along with the general feel of what they're adapting. Obviously the plot will have to be tweaked to work for a cinematic format, but must the characters and atmosphere of the story be completely altered?
    The whitewashing especially baffles me. I'd like to think we live an age when people can identify with protagonists that may happen to be of a different culture or ethnicity than them.