Some thoughts on film criticism and economics.
The other day I rewatched the South Korean film Train to Busan, it’s a solid action horror, I recommend it if you haven’t seen it and are interested in horror and aren’t put off by biting. A couple of weeks ago I saw that an American remake had been announced, don’t know any of the details because I have zero interest in it. The reception was quite hostile, and I’m largely in agreement, it doesn’t need any remakes from anyone, the film is still perfectly fresh and available.
But a lot of the criticism of this decision and and of past announcements of American remakes of foreign films tends to miss the mark. A lot of it is based on exasperation over a perceived reluctance by US film watchers to buy tickets for subtitled movies. I’m not an American nor have I been to the great Satan, so I don’t know if this is true or a stereotype, all the Americans I interact with love foreign movies and most of the obnoxious subtitle enjoyers have been American, but if this is true, and it was the reason for this trend, then why bother remaking from scratch when dubbing exists? I know that in English-speaking nations dubbing has a bad reputation, but that’s largely the result of the history of dubbing, not the technique itself. In the US and UK dubbing was usually done by small outfits with little previous experience, little equipment and shoestring budgets, or when done by a bigger distributor who did have more funding and expertise to spare still chose not to. So the results were the infamous Kung Fu movies, anime voiced by people who happened to be passing by during recording, or my favourite, a competent dub with experienced actors, but only five of them who have to voice 30 or more characters.
Simply put, even a middle size studio or distributor based in Hollywood has access to very good audio engineering equipment and a decent talent pool for voices. If hesitancy over reading was considered a serious barrier to the popularity of a property they acquired, then at least some of these companies would put more effort into dubbing. The German-speaking regions have excellent dubbing standards, to the point that several German friends were shocked and horrified to find out what Arnold Schwarzenegger’s real accent was.
I’m also not convinced of charges of racism. I’m not saying the executives are on a personal level free of prejudice, I don’t know them that well to make that judgement, but I just don’t find the argument that American studios “Yankify” movies out of hostility to other cultures. It seems compelling just looking from the mid 2000s to the present, where the main victims of this mangling are Asian films, but American media does the same to European films and tv, including shows made by other English-speaking nations. Hollywood currently has a rotten reputation for its treatment of Asian cinema, in the UK it also has a similar reputation for how it handles British television, especially comedies.
So then, why are they doing this? Well, I think it’s simply a case of intellectual property. The American studios and distribution companies own more of the Americanised version and can exploit it’s profitably much more fully. If there is genuine reluctance to watch subtitled films and domestic box office trends higher for the American remake* then this can play a part, but it’s an added feature or bonus. I’ve never seen the American Ring and Grudge movies (remakes of two Japanese horror series) but I know they exist because I’ve seen trailers and adverts on the side of buses for them. So by remaking a popular foreign film, they (usually, though it depends on contract specifics) get a bigger slice of a commodity that’s already proved its market viability and potential for profit.
So even if Americans finally “Learn how to fucking read” as several commenters wish, this annoying phenomena probably won’t go away. It’s not even unique to the USA, taking a popular foreign film, doing it again and casting locally is a staple of practically all film industries, including in nations where dubbing and subtitling are perfectly common practice. There’s an Indian remake of Stephen King’s Misery to pick just one example.
Sadly, if we want this annoying practice to end we’ll have to abolish capitalism, that way films will only be remade if a film collective wants to do its own different take on the formula.
*I tried looking into it, and I could find cases for and against, couldn’t find a trend either way.