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Ko-pick: Korean Films Remade into Hollywood Productions

May 17, 2024
  • Writer by KoBiz
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This month Ryoo Seung-wan’s Veteran sequel, I, the Executioner will have its first screening at the Cannes Film Festival where it has been invited to the Midnight Screening Section. It’s an eagerly awaited film with the original feature selling 13 million tickets in Korea making it Ryoo’s most popular film. It also screened at various film festivals including the Toronto Film Festival, a significant event for the North American Film Market.  

 

It was also reported in the autumn of 2023 that a US remake was in the works with revered American filmmaker Michael Mann involved, though at that stage it hadn’t been decided his particular role(s) with the Hollywood Screenwriters’ strike affecting production. Nevertheless, there has been a renewed interest in remaking Korean films in Hollywood over recent years buoyed by the ever-growing popularity of Korean content globally and further recognizing Korea’s filmmaking, screenwriting, and production values as worth trying to emulate – not least after Parasite swept the Oscars in 2020.  


In the US trade press, it was reported earlier this year that Academy Award winner Emma Stone was in talks to feature in Yorgos Lanthimos remake of Jang Joon-hwan’s Save the Green Planet! (2003) that was expected to start filming in London and New York over the spring and summer this year. 


US studio Paramount are also financing a US remake of the crime thriller Lee Won-tae’s The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil (2019) that also screened in Cannes’ Midnight with Don Lee reprising his leading role and is producing through his production company Gorilla 8 Productions. Lee is collaborating with Hollywood’s own action-hero Sylvester Stallone and his company Balboa Productions.


But remaking Korean films in Hollywood can come with risks and delays. The Train to Busan (2016) remake The Last Train to New York was pulled from Warner Bros’ release slate for 2023 and many projects like the A Bittersweet Life (2005) remake remain in limbo. Indeed, US films based on Korean features that have seen the light of day including Spike Lee’s Oldboy (2013) have often been met with critical disdain. With Korean films entrenched in Korea’s rich culture and turbulent history, adapting them for the North American and wider global market comes with challenges. Nonetheless, the success of the Miss Granny (2014) and Sunny (2011) remakes in Asia together with how Korean filmmakers have themselves turned to remakes (Lee Hae-young with Believer (2018), Lee Jae-kyoo with Intimate Strangers (2018)) demonstrates that it can be done. 

 

This week, we take a look at the Korean films that have been remade into Hollywood features; from Il-Mare (2000) to Oldboy (2003). 




Il-Mare (2000)


Lee Hyun-seung’s Il-Mare (2000) was remade by Warner Bros. Pictures as the American film The Lake House (2006) directed by Alejandro Agresti and starring Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock making it the first adaptation of a Korean film. Compared to later remakes it was relatively successful, generating $114.8 million globally. It spurred further remakes of Korean films, all the subsequent remakes, with the exception of Oldboy, were released in 2008 and 2009. 


Il-Mare contains many of the hallmarks of Korean melodrama. Featuring attractive leads (Lee Jung-jae and Jun Ji-hyun), it combines fantasy and romance, and it deals with loneliness and isolation that is also inferred in the Italian title, which means sea.  It follows two protagonists who live two years apart and are able to communicate through a mysterious mailbox outside a seaside house. 


 

Released at a time when Korean melodrama was popular in cinemas, not just on television (and now streaming) where it continues to be a major draw, it’s driven by the characters themselves and its complex and alluring narrative structure taking place over two intertwining storylines.





My Sassy Girl (2001)


Coming less than a year after Il-Mare was Kwak Jae-yong’s wildly successful romantic comedy My Sassy Girl released in Korea at the end July 2001. It drew in close to 5 million admissions, which in the early 2000s was enormous, especially for a film that wasn’t blockbuster in size. It underlined the effect that comedy can have on audiences when it is well-written and executed. It was also notable for its themes of bereavement and depression conveyed through its female protagonist.


Starring Jun Ji-hyun and Cha Tae-hyun and based on a series of blog posts and then adapted into a novel by Kim Ho-sik, it follows an engineering student who encounters an intoxicated young woman on the subway. They then start seeing each other regularly as they develop feelings for each other despite their apparent differences. 


So popular was the film that it led to other features: a spiritual prequel Windstruck (2004) and a number of remakes overseas including the Hollywood version My Sassy Girl (2008) directed by Yann Samuell that was never released theatrically; instead going straight-to-DVD. It made little cultural impact – especially compared to the original film that also served as an early example of Korea’s cultural power overseas known as Hallyu. Windstruck would have its premiere in Hong Kong. 


 

With the original full of local references; from the military service and drinking culture to its more melodramatic moments and humor, it was always going to be challenging to remake it for American audiences.




Addicted (2002)


The mystery-thriller Addicted directed by Park Young-hoon was released in the fall of 2002 that tells the story of two brothers with the younger brother, Dae-jun (Lee Byung-hun) continuing to live with his older brother, Ho-jun (Lee Eol) and sister-in-law (Lee Mi-yeon). But when both siblings are involved in separate car accidents – Dae-jun is injured during an accident on the car racing track while Ho Jun is in a coma after the taxi he was in went through a red light rushing to get to the race in time. A traumatized Dae-jun begins to display the behavior of his older brother and essentially becomes Ho-jun, then a relationship develops between him and his sister-in-law. 


Much of the film’s ability to make it palatable for audiences is reliant on its conclusion, which it achieves through an effective twist that some viewers might see coming, others perhaps less so. 


It’s also a curious casting choice for Lee Byung-hun who has consistently appeared in films that have performed well at the box office during his career and taken on a range of roles. This is a role that gave him the opportunity to experiment with his persona at the early stages of his career. The film also features a strong performance by Lee Mi-yeon reuniting with Lee Byung-hun after The Harmonium in My Memory (1999). 


 

The Hollywood remake of Addicted titled Possession (2009) directed by Joel Bergvall and starring Simon Sandquist and Sarah Michelle Gellar skipped a theatrical release instead going straight-to-DVD – akin to My Sassy Girl.




Into the Mirror (2003)


Hitting screens in the summer of 2003, Kim Sung-ho’s Into the Mirror was released during a renaissance in K-horror that was beginning to attract the attention of critics, programmers and cinephiles overseas, especially in the West with distributors such as Tartan films picking up titles such as this one under its Asia Extreme label. 


It follows a former policeman (Yoo Ji-tae) who is traumatized after a hostage situation resulted in the death of his partner. He then becomes a security guard in a new department store that is due to open. Following a series of bizarre suicides in the store – all of which involve mirrors - he begins investigating and turns his attention to a trespasser (Kim Hye-na), while a former colleague of his believes (Kim Myung-min) it is the work of a serial killer. 


With the effective use of mirrors and reflections – that are used as a running motif through the film – it’s emblematic of how Korean horror films combine scares with thematic concerns of trauma and retribution. 


 

It was remade in Hollywood as Mirrors (2008) directed and co-written by Alexandre Aja starring Kiefer Sutherland in the leading role as the former detective, which generated $78.1m globally leading to a sequel Mirrors 2 (2010) that was released straight to video. Although the basic premise of Mirrors is the same as Into the Mirror, it deviates somewhat from the original.




A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)


Also part of Tartan’s Asia Extreme branding was Kim Jee-woon’s A Tale of Two Sisters widely considered by critics as one of the most accomplished films of the Korean horror genre over the past twenty five years. Like Into the Mirror it was released in the summer (of 2003), a season that has traditionally been popular for horror films as they are a draw for audiences seeking to find some cool respite from the oppressive humidity of the Korean summer.  


Based on the famous folk tale Janghwa, Hongryeon jeon from the Joseon dynasty that has been adapted into several films, it centers on two girls played by Im Soo-jung and Moon Geun-young who live with their father and stepmother in a large home located in Korea’s countryside. The older sister had been receiving psychiatric treatment for psychosis before returning home. 


Like all of Kim’s films it’s full of his mesmerizing aesthetic – the use of colors and patterns in the home, the wooden floors and banisters. Moreover, the film’s unsettling diegetic sound along with Lee Byung-woo’s acclaimed orchestrated score and its layered screenplay and career-defining performances make this a hard film to surpass. 


 

The US remake The Uninvited (2009) directed by The Guard Brothers, therefore, was always going to be viewed alongside the original underscoring the difficulties in remaking such as a well-regarded Korean film. As such, it failed to connect with audiences in a significant way not helped by a mixed critical reaction.




Oldboy (2003)


Further highlighting the significance of 2003 as one of the most fruitful years for Korean cinema during the 2000s was Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy that was released in November. The year had already seen the releases of films including Memories of Murder, A Tale of Two Sisters and Save the Green Planet!


Oldboy’s Grand Prix win at the Cannes Film Festival the following May, and its theatrical releases in markets such as the UK would propel Korean cinema onto the global stage in ways it hadn’t done so before garnering attention in broadsheet newspapers such as The Guardian making it an important moment for Korea’s film industry. Oldboy would become Tartan’s Asia Extreme top selling DVD. 


The now famous plot based on the Japanese manga of the same name follows Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) who is imprisoned for 15 years without knowing why and is suddenly released. He sets about discovering his captor’s (Yoo Ji-tae) motives as he develops a bond with a young chef (Kang Hye-jung). 


 

With Park’s exquisite use of mise-en-scene and its cerebral and violent narrative, it reflects how Korea’s auteurs have used genre cinema to delve into not only the complex themes of revenge that would be evident in Park’s wider trilogy (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), Lady Vengeance (2005)) but also how it could be seen as an allegory to Korea’s tumultuous contemporary history that some commentators have referred to. Consequently, any remake even one directed by multiple Award-winning filmmaker Spike Lee starring Josh Brolin in 2013 was going to have a difficult time leaving a lasting impression.


Edited by Shim Eunha

Written by Jason Bechervaise 

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