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Russia rejigs Soviet comedies in hit remakes

In search of sure-fire hits, Russian film directors are turning to Soviet comedies, updating the action to the present day and adding modern concepts such as product placement.

The latest film to be remade, "Office Romance", is a 1970s romantic comedy poking fun at the Brezhnev era. It led the box office on its first weekend, despite a drubbing from critics, with one even urging a boycott of cinemas.

The Cinderella story of a dowdy statistics expert who finds love may be unknown in the West, but it was watched by 58 million viewers when it was released in 1978 and still gets regular showings on television.

The new version, "Office Romance: Our Time", released March 17, transports the action to a commercial ratings agency in a Moscow skyscraper and takes the characters on a corporate outing to a Turkish beach resort.

In its first weekend, the film topped the Russian box office, earning $5.8 million, Kinobiznes magazine reported, a strong result in a market where Russian films struggle to compete with Hollywood.

Another well-loved romantic comedy by director Eldar Ryazanov, "Irony of Fate" was updated in 2007 and became the highest grossing Russian film, earning around $50 million.

Script writer Nikolai Kovbas said the makers hoped the formula would work again, with the familiar title attracting older viewers who would not normally go to to the cinema.

"Of course we hope for this. Naturally there are some expectations linked to this," Kovbas told AFP before the opening, adding that his film lacked the huge promotional backing from state Channel One, which remade the "Irony of Fate".

In the original, drab official Lyudmila has a chauffeur-driven limousine and a central Moscow apartment, but her high position comes with a severe image: clumpy shoes, a brown suit and no hint of makeup.

In the new film, she is a yuppie in Chanel glasses with an elegant chignon, a gold-plated cell phone and a chauffeur-driven Bentley.

Kovbas told AFP he spent weeks thinking how the story could be updated and decided Lyudmila's dowdy image had to go.

"For two weeks, I just thought about how I could make this work. Then I calmly decided to imagine honestly how this story would turn out in today's Moscow," Kovbas told AFP.

"I look at this city and the people who live here and I see that there aren't any unattractive top managers, none at all."

Another difficulty was arranging an out-of-hours encounter between high-flying Lyudmila and the hero, who is a junior analyst, Kovbas said. Hence the trip to Turkey.

"In an extreme measure, I had to herd them into one cabin of a cable car that got stuck in Turkey. When I did that, they had half an hour to talk, they had no choice because they were 1,000 metres up."

"In Soviet times, it wasn't quite like that. Of course there was huge social stratification, but all the same, everyone was 'comrades'," he said.

Critics slammed the blatant product placement in both films.

In "Irony of Fate 2" one character was portrayed as working for a real-life mobile phone provider. "Office Romance: Our Time" has product placement for a television listings magazine, a social networking site and a drinks brand.

"It isn't a remake of the film 'Office Romance'. It is a remake of an endless ad break," Vedomosti business daily wrote scornfully.

Critics widely questioned the point of remaking "Office Romance", saying the new film lacked the appeal of the original, which saw Lyudmila awaken to life and learn to swing her hips and wear eyeshadow.

"The story gained post-Soviet glitz but lost all its Soviet charm," critic Anton Dolin said on Vesti FM radio station.

The screenwriters "shamelessly discredit" the concept of remakes, Lidia Maslova wrote in Kommersant business daily.

"It's as if the creators watched Ryazanov's film with half an eye and lazily decided: wouldn't it be cool to make a film about how an analyst at a ratings agency got it on with his boss'," she wrote.

Another critic, Alexander Kolbovsky, called for people to boycott cinemas and stay at home to "watch the old, beloved Ryazanov" film.

The director Ryazanov, 83, said he decided not to go to the premiere.

"They invited me, but I have nothing to do with it. It does not interest me," he told the RIA Novosti news agency.

Scenarist Kovbas said he was not surprised by outraged reactions but argued that Ryazanov's film, more than an hour longer, with interludes of poetry reading and music conducted by Khachaturian, would not be a hit today.

"The people who argue with us and say we shouldn't have done it. They do not admit to themselves that the world has changed fundamentally," he said.

"Maybe our film is not as deep as the one was 40 years ago, but the mood of viewer today has changed too," he said, with most cinema-goers aged just 18 to 24.

"It's not that the viewer has become superficial, or that the viewer has become trivial, but the viewer goes to the cinema for something else."