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Ko - production in Busan
  • How Can Foreign Stories be Localized?
  • by YOON Ina /  Feb 23, 2015
  • An Analysis of Adapting Foreign Stories in Korea
    There are two kinds of films; remakes and originals. Going deeper, remakes can be sorted into two types. Some are based on stories from their own nation yet others are made with sources from outside of the country. As for Korean films, a large portion is based on other formats of storytelling, mostly books written in Korea. Shoot Me in the Heart which was released in January is based on a novel written by JEONG Yu-jeong, while My Brilliant Life, screened last autumn, was made from a story written by KIM Ae-ran. IM Kwon-taek’s 102nd work Revivre, to be released this spring, is another film based on a short novel. Looking back in time, it’s not hard to remember that there were a lot of films originating from internet romance stories in the mid 2000s such as Romance Of Their Own (2004), while webtoons have also become a main source of scenarios since 2010 through Late Blossom (2010), 26 Years (2012), The Neighbors (2012), Moss (2010), Secretly Greatly (2013) and Fashion King (2014) for example.
    Japanese Stories Preferred Over Others

    Although most films are based on Korean stories, films cinematized from foreign works have constantly been created as well. When a Korean film is made based on a foreign novel or a comic book, many details need to be changed in order to fit with the changed setting to Korea. It is quite a difficult task to adapt a foreign story to a new location without damaging the original taste. This is why Japanese stories are adapted much more often than stories from other countries. Japan’s social conditions are pretty similar to those of Korea, so Japanese stories are relatively easy to modify compared to western ones.

    Failan (2001), starring Korean actor CHOI Min-shik and Chinese actress Cecillia Cheung was cinematized from Love Letter, a short novel written by famous Japanese novelist Asada Jiro. While the male protagonist was a porn video shop owner in the original story, the equivalent character in the Korean version is a third-rate gangster who makes ends meet by working for a criminal organization. Setting for the main female character was the same, but the male character was adapted to Korean conditions. Howling (2012), starring SONG Kang-ho and LEE Na-young and directed by YOO Ha was also based on a Naoki award winning Japanese novel, The Hunter. The main event, a serial killing by a wolfdog, was brought unchanged, but the male detective is dealt with more importance in the film while the original story focuses on the psychology of the female detective.

    There are still many Korean filmmakers who look for detective, thriller and mystery stories among Japanese novels because those are relatively rare in Korea. BYUN Young-joo’s Helpless (2012) and PANG Eun-jin’s Perfect Number (2012) are good examples. The original story of Helpless was written by Miyabe Miyuki, who has a lot of fans in Korea, was changed in many ways when cinematized. Instead of following a detective chasing a woman who hid her identity and lived someone else’s life, Mun-ho (LEE Sun-kyun) in the Korean version had a clear reason to track traces of Gyeong-seon (KIM Min-hee) as her fiancé. In the original novel, the woman was faced with bad credit and reported personal bankruptcy due to the collapse of bubble economy, but Gyeong-seon had other reasons that better fit Korea. She had lived in agony oppressed by her family’s debt before she completely erases her traces. Helpless is regarded as a successful adaptation, since it was transformed to a Korean film without tainting the quality of the original.

    Like so, the most difficult part of cinematizing a foreign story is to fit the content to today’s Korea. To accomplish this, the director of Perfect Number took only the basic frame from Higashino Keigo’s The Devotion of Suspect X and boldly changed many details. The basic setting is that a genius mathematician sets up an alibi for the woman he has crush on, but the physician, one of crucial characters in the original story, is not in the Korean film version. The original story focuses on a question: Which is more difficult, making an unsolvable question or solving such a question? Yet the Korean version concentrates on the psychological conditions of the genius mathematician acted by RYOO Seung-bum and the relationship between him and the woman he loves. Those who are familiar with the original story might find it strange, but it well carries properties of a typical Korean film tending to characters’ psychology rather than the rules of genres.
    Finding Variety in Other Original Stories

    Chronicle of a Blood Merchant and How To Steal A Dog, released late last year and early this year respectively, are based on Chinese and English literatures. It is a positive change for the Korean film industry to break away from Japanese stories and seek variety. The process the films were localized was interesting. Chronicle of a Blood Merchant starring and directed by HA Jung-woo was cinematized from Chinese novel Blood and Plum Blossoms written by Yu Hua. The storyline that Heo Sam-gwan sells his blood to support his family is the same, but the time setting around the Culture Revolution (1967~1976) was shifted to the 1950s of Korea. Because of this change, the people’s court, one of the most important events in the original story, was left out in the film. Instead of the aforementioned part, the director inserted a funny sequence early in the film and highlighted family affection towards the end. He decided to make a family movie, which Korean viewers feel most familiar with. Hence, Chronicle of a Blood Merchant became a human drama full of family affection and paternal love and it lost quite a bit of the spirit of the times and satirical elements of the original.

    How To Steal A Dog is meaningful because it is the first film cinematized from an American novel. The original novel written by Barbara O'Connor describes the reality seen through a child’s eyes. Like in the original, the family in the film lives in a car after the father disappears and they lose their home. But what happens as they face bankruptcy was localized to fit Korea. Director KIM Sung-ho said in an interview that he tried to preserve the most basic virtue and the storyline to the original. Due to his efforts, the film overcame the worries that it wouldn’t be easy to cinematize an American novel into a Korean film. It even received comments saying that it reflects the reality of Korea very well without damaging the charm of the original. It proved the fact that what really matters is not mere localization but to think hard to understand why it has to be cinematized in Korea.
    Films That Have Gone Outside of Korea

    There are some directors who do not want to be restricted to Korea as their film’s setting. BONG Joon-ho and PARK Chan-wook are a few of them. They focus more on the cinematic settings rather than localization when adapting a story. Old Boy (2003) was cinematized from a Japanese cartoon. PARK Chan-wook changed almost everything except for the fact that the main character was imprisoned for 15 years. PARK also revealed that he took the motif of Thirst from Émile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin, showing that he often takes ideas or motif from an outside source to make his own rather than cinematizing an original story.

    It is widely know that BONG Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer (2013) is based on a French novel. Snowpiercer is a Hollywood film made in cooperation with multinational actors and staff member. The film’s time was set in the future, so it wasn’t necessary to localize the story. PARK Chan-wook’s next film Fingersmith is based on a British novel of the same title published in 2002. It has been announced that the director will shift the time from the Victorian Age to the 1930s Japanese colonial period in Korea, raising attention. The fact that the original novel is a ‘lesbian historic thriller’ is also drawing buzz as many wonder how PARK will adopt this genre.
    It is clearly not an easy task to bring a foreign story to the Korean screen. However, now that spatial and time barriers have gradually become vague, foreign texts are becoming an important source for new ideas and stories. Although filmmakers will continue to bring unique materials and stories from foreign originals, they will have to put an effort to make films reflect today’s Korea.
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