Why Hollywood is brimful of Asia

The studios are scrambling to secure remake rights for Far Eastern movies. But there's more at stake than just a few new script ideas, says Roger Clarke. It's called China

With his biopic about Howard Hughes safely in the can, Martin Scorsese is negotiating to remake the hip Cantonese gangster movie Infernal Affairs. The original is out next week. It's a slick, hardboiled tale of Triad infiltration of the Hong Kong police, and the Scorsese version - which will almost certainly star Brad Pitt - has already been dubbed - with no apparent irony - Gangs of Hong Kong.

So is this homage or rip-off? "It shows that Hollywood appreciates the creativity of film-makers outside Hollywood," the joint Infernal Affairs directors Alan Mak and Andrew Lau tactfully e-mail me from Berlin. "They've run out of ideas," bellows the sceptical Infernal Affairs cinematographer Chris Doyle (the legendary "eye" of Wong Kar Wai) more forthrightly on the phone from Hong Kong.

It doesn't seem so long ago that Hollywood launched a smash-and-grab raid on Hong Kong and disappeared into the sunset with John Woo, Jet Li and Jackie Chan. But this time, Hollywood's buying spree covers most of Asia. Thanks to a handful of enterprising Asian-American producers working in Los Angeles (mainly Roy Lee and his company Vertigo), remake rights are selling like the hottest of cakes. Their biggest sale so far has been the Japanese horror film Ringu, remade as The Ring.

The tale of a vengeful female spirit, Ringu had been unknown in the US, with no distribution of any kind: a sad comment on America's cultural isolation. But the resulting Hollywood blockbuster was a box-office smash, and later sold two million DVDs on its first day of release. A sequel is being made, and its cultural effects are already glimpsed in mainstream Hollywood films such as Peter Pan, where the evil mermaids in Neverland are witchy Asian women.

Everyone thinks that the Japanese original is vastly superior (there's a scene in the current BBC television drama Sea of Souls where this bit of nerd lore is imparted by a video-store clerk). But it did set the scene for rapid sales of Asian ideas and screenplays. Miramax (who more or less started the stampede in 2001) bought My Wife is a Gangster (Korea) for Queen Latifah and Shall We Dance? (Japan) for Jennifer Lopez and Richard Gere (set for US release in August); MGM acquired Hi! Dharma! (Korea), about a gang of crooks hiding out in a Buddhist monastery; and Fox 2000 landed Tell Me Something (Korea), about a serial killer. Meanwhile, the tragi-comedy My Sassy Girl (Korea) has been bought by Madonna's production company, Maverick.

Even the bearish film commentator Harry Knowles, an internet legend in the USA, has cottoned on to the remake boom. He astonished everyone by waving a video cassette on his Christmas TV show and claiming that "absolutely the best film of the year" had just been sent to him on tape from Korea, called Oldboy. I'm told it was the only subtitled copy of the video in existence, and the film was on its way to Miramax before he got his paws on it. It's by the Sympathy for Mr Vengeance director Chan Wook Park, and is the story of a man who must solve the mystery of his own kidnapping. "A film of genius", the gingery guru splutters on his internet site. You'll not be surprised to hear, perhaps, that there's a big bidding war going on for the remake rights, and David Lynch is tipped to helm.

If you're thinking there's a heavy Korean theme in all these remakes, you'd be right. Korea has become the premier movie-making culture of South-east Asia, and its increasingly lavish and successful Pusan film festival is buzzing with Hollywood producers on the prowl for the latest sexy Asian thriller or teeth-chattering spookfest. Hollywood sharks are especially keen to snap up horror films such as Phone (acquired by Spielberg's Dreamworks in the last few months). Hamish McAlpine - whose London company Metro Tartan is a big presence every year at Pusan, and who is distributing Infernal Affairs - has seen the often unruly scramble to acquire remake rights develop suddenly. "The success of The Ring made every producer who didn't have an Asian movie remake on the slate look as though he wasn't doing his job. Besides, everyone is frightened of going with an original idea - they all want franchises and easy money."

The boom may not be all that it seems. Some industry analysts have suggested that the massive sale of remake rights is the only way that Korean production companies - which are quite unable to prevent widespread local piracy, it seems - can actually keep their heads above water.

But there's another good reason why Hollywood has just gone crazy for the East. It's called China. Warner has recently done a deal to open multiplexes all over the People's Republic, and Rupert Murdoch has for many years now made little secret of his desire to get a piece of the action there. Chris Doyle - who was also the cinematographer on Zhang Yimou's stupendous martial-arts movie Hero (yet to be released in the UK) - has few doubts about it. "Hero proved it was possible to make money in China with Hollywood-style production," he says. The two directors of Infernal Affairs agree. Asked why Hollywood is turning to Asia for new ideas, they reply, with a neatly Confucian sense of emotional economy: "Perhaps because they would like to break into the mainland Chinese market."

To be fair, traffic between Hollywood and the East has often been two-way. Kurosawa famously re-exported cowboy film back to the States in the form of samurai films. And Infernal Affairs has more than a touch of Michael Mann's Heat about it.

Yet Chris Doyle fears that the Hollywood mania for acquisitions will be followed by an exodus of talent. "I don't care about the remakes," he says, with a faint devil-may-care inflection. "Let's put the money in our pockets. Asian society is moving ahead at full throttle, so you just go ahead and try to catch up. But this is also like a hostile takeover. I think it prefigures a talent grab."

That said, the Asian people who end up working in Hollywood will grow to have more clout than they've ever had. Within 20 years, huge parts of Hollywood will be committed to making films specifically for the Chinese market, and some Hollywood studios are already experimenting with making actual Korean films with no obvious cross-over potential.

It seems entirely possible that a Chinese media company will eventually buy a studio such as Universal Pictures, or even Disney. "It's going to be massive," agrees Blake Murdoch, the Asia-Pacific bureau chief of the Hollywood Reporter. "The boom in cinema-building is well under way in Korea and China, and despite all the warnings that the Korean film-making bubble is going to burst, it still keeps growing."

Though some themes will never translate between cultures, Blake warns, it's sometimes surprising what does. Bucking the recent remake trend is the quietly spoken Je-yong Lee (aka EJ-Yong), the director whose Untold Scandal was a recent hit at the Berlin Film Festival after breaking box-office records in Korea.

The subject matter? It's a Korean version of the old Laclos story that was filmed as Dangerous Liaisons, exquisitely transposed into an "imperial" Korean setting, again in the 18th century. More than half its $4m budget was spent on costumes and design, and the money is all up there on screen. "French critics were a little lukewarm about it," the director tells me. "But the film talks about love, revenge and jealousy, and everybody understands those things.

"I saw the original Stephen Frears film in Australia in 1988, and although I couldn't understand the film, I was captivated by its look. I then bought the French novel and translated it into Korean. Nowadays, Korean culture is very Westernised, and I wanted to research and represent the look of how things used to be. There's no tradition of this in Korean cinema: our own culture now looks exotic."

The economic imperative of getting a slice of the growing Korean economy (one of the few Asian economies to have weathered the recession) and Hollywood's natural attraction to a new and dynamic film industry, have inevitably concentrated minds in Hollywood's boardrooms. One way or another, the US movie industry has to position itself for the big prize - China - when it becomes remotely feasible.

Hollywood may well finish its current remake frenzy with a big talent grab, but once Asian expertise is in place and calling the shots over the biggest market in the world, Hollywood may well find itself changed for ever, from within. In the end, it's the oldest story in the world: a love story. Hollywood - with whatever impure motives - has fallen in love with the East.

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