When Hollywood Goes Asian: The Good, The Bad and the Weird

We’ve always held a high standard towards films from Hollywood. Over the decades, they’ve given birth to groundbreaking directors and outstanding actors that have emblazoned paths for the world to follow. Well the world did follow and now many other countries are forging their own styles and producing films that garner praise and adoration locally and around the world. While Hollywood still strives on trying to producing original ideas, it has been a habit of theirs to adapt works from around the world into a slick, brand new Hollywood film for a bigger audience. Victims include Italy (Nine, Scent of a Woman), Denmark (Brothers), Sweden (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Let Me In), Germany (Funny Games, City of Angels) along with a boatload from France (Dinner for Schmucks, True Lies, Three Men and a Baby, Taxi). The list goes on. 

While they’ve had fun drawing stories from Europe over the years, it's when they set foot in Asia that it becomes a risky move. The Asian film industry has managed to set itself apart over the decades by establishing directors with their own distinct styles, especially in the mainland with Akira Kurosawa, Wong Kar Wai, Takeshi Miike, John Woo and Park Chan-wook for example. Bollywood has been left mostly unscathed by the Hollywood machine (well, almost) but American directors have been so fascinated by a lot of stories from Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea that many properties from there being remade as a Hollywood film within a few years. Recent news include Scarlett Johansson as a possible lead in Ghost in the Shell and plans moving ahead to remake both Akira and The Raid: Redemption for an English-speaking audience. 

Because a lot of Asian films and other properties are made up of specific elements that define them as specifically “Asian”, the translation to a Hollywood production ends up a hit-or-miss most of the time. We take a look at the times Hollywood succeeded, failed or even baffled us to make a respectable adaptation.


The Departed

Some may argue Martin Scorcese has never made a bad film, some may say he’s grossly overrated. Whatever it was, when he was announced to do the remake of the fantastic Hong Kong thriller of Infernal Affairs, we knew it wouldn’t be just a middle-of-the-road Hollywood adaptation. No, Scorcese blew our expectations out of the water and released an expertly-crafted epic gangster saga that was thrilling, tragic and imaginative while still being faithful to the original material. 

Matt Damon did a terrific job adapting Andy Lau’s arrogant triad member into a rough-and-tumble Boston mobster who effortlessly blends into the police force, while Leonardo DiCaprio refashioned Tony Leung’s police officer character as one who ends up jaded but driven to dig deep into the mob to gather intel and get close to a menacing mob boss, brilliantly played by Jack Nicholson.

Edge of Tomorrow

Despite having reached his 50s, a Tom Cruise blockbuster has yet to be a thing of the past. The man has managed to star in recent Mission Impossible sequels that have actually been more enjoyable than the first two, along with other respectable films like Jack Reacher, Valkyrie, Oblivion. Also who could forget his bit part in Tropic Thunder?

But a manga adaptation starring Tom Cruise? Sounds absurd but not only did it work, it featured Cruise’s best performance in years. The manga (itself an adaptation of a novel) centres the plot around a new recruit of a futuristic army defense force who has to fight against a hostile breed of invading aliens. He soon finds out that every time he gets killed, he travels back in time to the start of that exact day he died. Hollywood took that and upgraded the recruit into an army major, now played by Tom Cruise, along with a strong supporting role by Emily Blunt. Adding along stellar CGI and a smart and witty script, Edge of Tomorrow proved not only can Tom Cruise still hold his own in a mega blockbuster but Hollywood can adapt foreign material with a discerning eye for the right story.


Dragonball Evolution

Dragonball Evolution was a ham-fisted attempt at bringing the massively influential anime franchise to Hollywood. Revising main characters Goku and Bulma to relate to an American audience, the result was a clumsy translation that was desperate to cram in the best elements of the original series but ended up failing with an uneven script and performances that ranged from wooden to excessive. 

Looking at how this film fared commercially and critically, it’s safe to say if you’re adapting a storyline that features predominantly Asian characters, you might want to cast Asian actors in the roles instead of pandering to an American audience. Or at least put more effort into integrating them into a suitable storyline. Don’t learn from The Last Airbender.

All Jap horror adaptations

Sigh. It’s been disaster after disaster every time we hear Hollywood’s tackling an Asian horror film. Ever since the release of The Ring back in 1998, there have been a string of frightening films propping up all over the continent, from Japan to South Korea, Thailand and even Singapore. Most of them have been profitable, proving Asia’s unique brand of horror as a cash-cow that still runs to this day. As always, Hollywood heard the word “cash-cow” and although they were drooling at the potential, they dipped their toes in the water with one remake first.

While The Ring’s Hollywood adaptation ended up to be an adequately scary movie on its own, it also made a lot of money. This prompted various studios to start churning out remakes of other Asian horror flicks that while also made money, they were noticeably getting worse by each film.

The Grudge had its moments but it all went downhill after that. The sequels from both films were mediocre (despite having the original Japanese director to helm The Ring Two) and adaptations of Shutter and The Eye were just laughable. At least recent films like The Conjuring shows that Hollywood doesn’t need to rely on creepy Asian material to produce a truly spine-chilling flick.


Speed Racer

On paper, it’s already tricky trying to adapt an anime into a live-action Hollywood film while keeping the spirit of the original material in tact. Dragonball Evolution was a bad example of that but Speed Racer remains to be the most perplexing, although admirable. Seeing how The Wachowski Siblings, aka the dynamite duo behind the Matrix trilogy of films, were intent on adapting classic anime Speed Racer into a film that would honor and retain the massively vivid feel of the cartoon. 

While the Wachowskis did successfully do that, the vibrant multi-coloured sets and fast-paced direction that made Hairspray look like Saving Private Ryan confused audiences who were not ready for a blockbuster like that. It was clear the duo favoured aesthetics but the script still offered a considerable amount of dialogue, which resulted in a draggy and inconsistent 135 minutes screening time. As it lost favour at the box office and with major film critics, despite strong praises by a select few, Speed Racer could have benefitted with some cuts and revisions that probably would’ve let it find the right audience.