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03.26.08

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Cult Leader

The biggest mistake in remakes of Asian horror movies? Too much logic.

By Steve Palopoli


I first noticed it watching the American remake of 2003's Ju-on, known in the United States as The Grudge. I had recently seen the Japanese original and was amazed by how it managed to be truly unsettling while making absolutely no sense. This was a film where a character could just walk into a house and step through space and time with no explanation whatsoever. I wouldn't say I thought it was a great film, but it did get to me the way I'm pretty sure director Takashi Shimizu, who has become nothing short of a one-man Grudge industry, intended it to. Watching the American remake, also directed by Shimizu, I was struck by how incredibly linear it was. Everything was explained. Everything had motivation. Everything had logic.

Nothing was scary.

After lots of comparison shopping with Ringu and its American remake The Ring, it became clear to me that that's pretty much the idea behind this craze for remaking Asian horror films: pump up the logic. American producers obviously feel the need to take the surreal nature of these Asian films, which get their power from visuals and mood rather than plot mechanics and action, and knock some sense into them. But what they don't understand for some reason is that cracking the kinks in these stories makes them seem downright banal. If you can completely understand who the dark-haired ghost kid is and why it's coming after you, it makes the whole thing seem kind of silly. God knows ghost movies have enough work to do to trying to scare you with basically silly ideas like a phone call is going to mean you die (Ring), or ... uh, a phone call is going to mean you die (One Missed Call).

The new remake of The Eye is an interesting case (mild spoiler warning here). In some ways, it almost bucks the trend. The original 2002 Hong Kong film from the Pang brothers is the second most effectively creepy of the recent Asian ghost movies, after The Grudge. Some critics have complained that the new version dumbs down the story, which makes me wonder if they're seen both films. The truth is that the American remake actually has the guts to explain less about the story, letting certain images (like the kid with no report card) go without backstory. Plot points that were wrapped up in the original (such as the reconciliation between the mother character and a certain ghost) don't necessarily work out that way in the remake. Except for the awful Hollywoodization of the ending--but really now, you knew that was coming--I think writer Sebastian Gutierrez did a fine job. Directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud, on the other hand, don't have the touch of the Pang brothers; they can't manage to capture the same intoxicating mix of shocking images and atmospheric suspense that dominates the first half of the original film.

The worst thing, though, is the casting of Jessica Alba as Sydney Wells, the blind girl who receives a cornea transplant to restore her sight and ends up with Ghost-O-Vision. Angelica Lee as Mun is so good in the Pangs' version, she brings the audience along with her even when the story turns to the we-have-to-find-out-what-awful-thing-happened-to-bring-about-all-this device that's been popular since Ringu. (In the American version, this plays out in Mexico instead of Thailand.) But Alba is just god-awful; at one point where she has a "dramatic" scene while cradling the head of a ghost we can't see, the film turns unintentionally funny. It's like somebody spliced in some terrible outtake from an acting workshop.

For some reason, the Asian-horror-remake craze won't go away, even though by now American viewers who care are usually familiar with the best of the overseas offerings. I have a feeling there are certain films like Audition and Battle Royale whose sheer audacity will keep them unmolested. I've even read that the proposed American Oldboy remake is off because the director decided he can't do the original justice. Should they ever create an Oscar for achievements in not making movies, I nominate him.


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