Film: Hollywood Finds Asian Frights Delightful

In the Opening of "Bangkok Dangerous," star Nicolas Cage sums up his character's vocation in a voice-over: "My job takes me to a lot of places. It's got its downsides. I sleep alone. I eat alone … I go where I am told. I do what I'm told. I shouldn't complain. The work is steady. The money is good. But it's not for everyone." Indeed: Cage plays a hit man in this remake of the eponymous 1999 Thai film. The stories are similar, but the differences are key—chief among them is the loquaciousness of Cage's character. In the original version, the executioner is a deaf-mute.

"Bangkok Dangerous"—which opened Sept. 5 and has been released in more than 20 countries—is the latest American remake of an Asian film. And what twin brothers and directing duo Danny and Oxide Pang eliminated from their own original underscores the rift between Asian and American cinema. For the past decade, Hollywood has been keen on reinterpreting Eastern thrillers for Western audiences. The appeal lies not only in the idiosyncratic plots and fast-paced action, but also in the bottom line. In 2002, Gore Verbinski's horror flick "The Ring"—based on the 1998 Japanese hit "Ringu," about a videotape that claims the lives of its viewers—grossed $250 million worldwide. Following that success, Japanese filmmaker Takashi Shimizu revived the ghosts that popularized "Ju-On" (2000) for the Hollywood version, "The Grudge" (2004), which earned $187 million in global box-office sales. Martin Scorsese's 2006 crime thriller "The Departed"—based on the Hong Kong hit "Infernal Affairs" (2002)—won four Oscars, including best picture and best director (Scorsese's first), and yielded $289 million at box offices worldwide.

This year alone, examples include "The Eye" and "One Missed Call." The former retells a 2002 Pang brothers film about a blind girl who undergoes an operation to restore her vision and encounters the uncommon complication of seeing ghosts. The latter reinterprets "Chakushin Ari," a 2003 Japanese film by Takashi Miike, in which unsuspecting folks receive voice mails from their future selves foretelling their violent deaths.

The B-film genres of action and horror provide A-level material for cross-cultural remakes. Humor and drama don't always travel well across borders, but suspense requires no explanation: regardless of birthplace or mother tongue, criminals and ghosts are unmistakable. Fear is a universal emotion, and people the world over are scared of similar concepts—evil, death and the unknown.

Still, the key difference between the two "Bangkok Dangerous" doppelgängers —one assassin is a deaf-mute; the other is not—illustrates a clear genetic mutation in the East-West divide: Asian films sound different from American ones, and it has nothing to do with the alphabet in use. American filmmakers can be so attentive to scores that soundtracks sometimes eclipse the films in which they appear. The staccato notes in the "Jaws" theme, for instance, or the screeching violins from the shower scene in "Psycho" are identifiable even by those who have never seen either flick. Scorsese's "The Departed" enlisted musical heavyweights like the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones and Academy Award-winning composer Howard Shore, even though its inspiration, "Infernal Affairs," had already been scored by the prolific Hong Kong-born composer Chan Kwong Wing.

But even those who are well versed in Asian films might be hard-pressed to name a memorable score from one. And when Asian directors remake their own works for Western audiences, they increase the volume. In the beginning of Shimizu's "Ju-On," for instance, a social worker pays her first visit to what will turn out to be a haunted home. Despite the fact that the only sound is of birds chirping, something seems afoul. When the same director recreated the scene for "The Grudge," the chirping is softer but the overall effect is louder, accompanied by the screech of a cat or eerie notes.

In Asian thrillers, the visual is so powerful that sound is rendered almost inconsequential. Perhaps not coincidentally, Asian horror is often rooted in vision: "The Eye" involves seeing the undead; the characters of "Ringu" are haunted by a videotape that kills its audience. Based on the 2001 Japanese film "Kairo," by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, "Pulse" (2006) is about ghouls that lurk on the Internet. And the ghosts are easily identified by their peepers: eyeballs are entirely white, blacked out, overly bloodshot or otherwise glaringly peculiar. Compared with the orchestral fanfare that marks so many American films, the lack of sound is as unsettling as any spook.

So it's not surprising that some of the most powerful moments in the remakes revert to the Asian appreciation of silence. In the new "Bangkok Dangerous," Cage's assassin is most captivating when he barely utters a word. Having sustained an angry gash on his arm—an occupational hazard—he steps into a pharmacy in search of a quick fix. Flustered by a pretty pharmacist, he babbles incoherently before finally getting to the point. "Do you speak English?" he asks. No, she doesn't speak at all—like the assassin from the Thai original—but through hand gestures and voiceless communiqués, she repairs his wound and a bit of his conscience. It's the sound of filmmakers bringing two people—and two film industries—together.

Film: Hollywood Finds Asian Frights Delightful | World