Foreign Language Remakes

Once again, I must start with an apology to the four people who actually read the ramblings posted here for the lack of recent updates.  Work commitments and my own inherent laziness have made regular updates an impossibility so far in 2013. But last week, inspired (like so many others have been, I’m sure) by the Van Damme “classic” Until Death, I decided that the time was right to stick some more drivel up here.

I can’t imagine that there are too many people out there who haven’t seen Until Death but for those few unfortunates that missed it the synopsis is as follows -Van Damme plays the nasty, unsympathetic hero, a New Orleans cop with a drug problem who is chasing down an ex-cop turned ultra-malevolent drug kingpin played by Stephen Rea.  Following an attempt on his life by Rea and his goons, JCVD winds up in a coma for several months, from which he emerges a changed man.  He soon turns his life around, reconciles with the estranged wife he treated so badly before his accident as she nurses him back to health and, finally, kills the bad guy.  It’s just as shit as it sounds.

It was actually one of the last films that Van Damme made before his image was overhauled with the release of the very interesting, meta-experiment JCVD.  Until Death, however, is both poorly acted and directed and “boasts” a bizarre cast, featuring, alongside Van Damme and Rea, the guy who used to play Paul Trueman on Eastenders as the chief of police.  WTF as the kids might say.

The most (only) interesting thing about this film was the fact that about 30 minutes in I felt able to predict exactly what was going to happen.  Not in the way that you can predict what’s going to happen in a middlebrow, heavily signposted Sam Mendes movie, but insofar as I honestly felt that I’d seen the film before. And, in a way, I had for I soon realised that this was an almost shot-for-shot remake of the 1995 Johnnie To film, Loving You.  Loving You is often credited as being the turning point in To’s career, the point where he began to assert an authorial identity in his work, often by manipulating and reworking the conventions of genre, and a precursor to his work as the head of Milkyway Image.  I’m actually slightly dubious as to how much Loving You is imbued with a postmodern take on the Hong Kong crime film.  As far as I can tell it actually plays out as a pretty straightforward melodrama.  And not a particularly good one at that.  However, what is interesting, is that at no point in the credits of Until Death, is the source material credited.  Sure, different people can have the same brilliant idea.  Stewart Lee’s Plagiarists’ Corner is a testament to that.  Similarly, the timelines of Karl Pilkington’s movie pitch for A Love of Two Brains and Bruce Campbell’s The Man with the Screaming Brain would suggest that, despite their remarkably similar central conceits, neither was an influence on the other.  Nevertheless, I still can’t help thinking that The Man with the Screaming Brain would have been improved by the presence of Rebecca de Mornay.  However, I think the producers made the right decision by sticking with Campbell rather than going with the more glamorous, but considerably less talented (although everybody is compared to Bruce), Clive Warren.

But that isn’t the case with Until Death, it is definitely a remake.  And I have no idea how or why this isn’t acknowledged at any point in its credits.  And is that important?  Probably not.

Fortunately, one good thing to come out my Until Death experience was that it prompted me to compare a couple of my favourite “New Hollywood” films (Mean Streets and Fingers) with their own foreign language remakes (As Tears Go By and De Battre Mon Coeur S’est Arreté, respectively).  A fairly pleasurable way of passing the time I’m sure you will agree as both of the remakes stand up well against their, still clearly superior, source material.  But while I doubt that anyone would argue that either Wong Kar-Wai or Jacques Audiard have not gone on to make even better films I think that most people would also agree that Toback never again made anything even half as good as Fingers.  And there is a pretty good case to be made for the argument that Scorsese also peaked early with Mean Streets.

In fact, re-watching Mean Streets prompted me to question my long held view that Taxi Driver is Scorsese’s greatest work for Mean Streets is, in many ways, the perfect film.  For anyone who hasn’t seen it, it’s very much a character driven piece that focuses on a young low level hoodlum called Charlie, played by Harvey Keitel, trying to reconcile his Catholicism with his “career” at the low end of the mafia.  As a self-imposed penance he takes the troubled and troublesome Johnny Boy (Robert de Niro) under his wing, vouching and covering for him as he runs up a series of debts with several of Charlie’s more dangerous criminal acquaintances. At the same time he is engaged in a secret romantic relationship with Johnny Boy’s cousin Teresa (Amy Robinson) whose epilepsy still carries something of a stigma in early ’70s Little Italy.  And that’s pretty much it.

What’s so cool about the movie is the way that Scorsese populates it with these ultra authentic and believable characters and relationships without sacrificing his tendency towards stylistic flourishes.  It’s this combination of style and substance that makes the film so brilliant.  I mean, check out De Niro’s entrance scene, it’s super cool and really shouldn’t work in such an affecting, realistic movie.  But it does because Martin Scorsese used to be the most awesome director in the world.

In fact it’s hard to believe that the guy who directed Mean Streets is the same guy who directed The Departed.  Don’t get me wrong, even allowing for the fact that large segments of the second half of that movie are essentially transposed shot for shot from the far superior Infernal Affairs, The Departed is an enjoyable thriller.  But that’s all it is.  It’s completely disposable and none of the characters have any basis in reality.  There are other problems with it, namely, as I mentioned, its complete lack of originality and the fact that Scorsese coaxed out of Jack Nicholson what is probably the worst and most embarrassing performance of his entire career.  But it’s the film’s complete disconnect from real life that is most disappointing.  The Infernal Affairs trilogy certainly did not have any greater claims to verisimilitude than The Departed but they were much richer films, referring as they did, to the cycle of allegorical undercover cop films for which Hong Kong had garnered renown in the late eighties and early nineties.  But The Departed didn’t even have that and then introduced a ludicrous love triangle and a ridiculous final payback scene.

In an interview with the Irish Times in January the actor John Hawkes made the, eminently sensible, claim that being famous made it more difficult for actors to deliver convincing performances.  His reasoning being that being constantly recognised made the anonymous observation of peoples’ behaviour an impossibility.  I reckon that something similar must happen with really famous directors.  Scorsese must have been removed from normal life a long time ago and I suppose that it’s unreasonable to expect him to still be able to still create films like Mean Streets with such an identifiable protagonist and authentic cast of characters.  But, like I said, it’s not just the realism that makes the movie but also its cinematic élan.  Take, for example, the scene in which Charlie and Teresa are mucking around in her bedroom.  He mimics firing a gun with his hand and this is accompanied by the sound of a gunshot on the soundtrack.  Or the scene where the two of them are driving with Johnny Boy and Charlie speaks the voiceover out loud within the diegesis of the scene, causing Johnny Boy and Teresa to react with both puzzlement and laughter.  There are just loads of cool little moments like that which make it such a great film.

It’s not even really a gangster film, it sort of exists on the margins of the genre, dealing with the personal and professional concerns of extremely low-rent hoods. I really am not doing justice to it here but I think that the best praise one can give it is to describe it as pure cinema.  It shows Scorsese as a master of the language of cinema and it’s a piece of art that could not exist in any other form.

Wong Kar-Wai’s remake, As Tears Go By, is very much a gangster film.  It’s also a very interesting movie in its own right.  Some people have argued that it is unfair to even refer to it as a remake, such are the differences between the films.  But they are wrong.  It is.

It was Wong’s first film as a director, and it pre-dates his partnership with Christopher Doyle, but it still looks amazing.  Regular collaborator Andrew Lau (coincidentally the co-director of Infernal Affairs) served as cinematographer and it contains several of the colourful slow motion bursts of action that would garner greater renown when applied in the Brigitte Lin/Takeshi Kaneshiro sequence of Chungking Express.  It is undoubtedly the most conventionally plotted of all of Wong’s films and contains many of the tropes of the Heroic Bloodshed film – the intense bonding between the two male leads, the ludicrously overblown villain and the tragic, sacrificial ending.  And it lacks the postmodernism and the overwhelming preoccupation with the isolation of the individual in modern society that would become tropes of Wong’s later work.  But it does demonstrate clear examples of his cinematic preoccupations and themes that would become more pronounced during the ’90s.

In Stefan Hammond’s and Mike Wilkins’ excellent anthology of Hong Kong Cinema, Sex and Zen and a Bullet in the Head, they argue that As Tears Go By actually “undercuts the macho swagger” of Mean Streets by focusing on the “emotional yearnings” of the Teresa character (played by a very young Maggie Cheung) rather than the masculine preoccupations of the Charlie figure (Andy Lau this time). Hammond and Wilkins appear to be implying that this is some kind of cine-literate commentary on the part of Wong but I’m not so sure.  I think that this is simply an early example of his ability to demonstrate the sense of yearning between couples, a method he perfected in In the Mood for Love*.  It’s exemplified in the romantic montage, scored with a cheesy Cantopop version of Berlin’s Take My Breath Away.  This was a technique that he would return to in the Faye Wong cleaning segment of Chungking Express, which was accompanied by the actress’ own version of Dreams by The Cranberries.

But perhaps the most fascinating part of the film is its treatment of violence. Unlike a lot of its contemporary late ’80s Hong Kong gangster films, the violence in As Tears Go By is imbued with a realism and brutality that makes the audience think about the consequences of such violence rather than revel in it in the way that one might in the films of John Woo or Ringo Lam.  As Hammond and Wilkins write, “ATGB…faces up to senseless brutality rather than merely endorsing and reinforcing it (which) suggests that Wong Kar-Wai may be one of the few HK directors more interested in making films about violence than simply making violent films”.  It’s very effective in this regard but it is not a theme that he has returned to as his films have increasingly become more dreamlike and removed from reality with a focus on emotional turmoil rather than physical pain.  And this is no bad thing, he’s one of my favourite directors (if not my favourite), but it is interesting that his first film could be read as a commentary on violence (both screen and real) when once considers the path his career has taken.

As with As Tears Go By and Mean Streets, it has been claimed in some quarters that De Battre Mon Coeur S’est Arreté is not strictly a remake of Fingers.  But, again, it is.  And a very good one at that.  Fingers tells the tale of a low level hoodlum, played by Harvey Keitel, with aspirations of following in his mother’s footsteps and becoming a concert pianist.  In De Battre, the director, Jacques Audiard, transposes the drama from late ’70s New York to Paris 2004, with Romain Duris taking the role of the musically gifted thug at the centre of the film. The eccentric performances of both Duris and Keitel are really excellent and both films feature really cool soundtracks.  However, while Fingers has a dreamlike, nightmarish quality De Battre is much more grounded in reality as Audiard confronts the inhumanity and cruelty of his protagonist’s work as an illicit property developer.  Nevertheless, it is Fingers that is the more discomfiting viewing experience of the two.  It is a film about a man losing everything – his girlfriend, his dreams and his morality, having made the decision to extract the ultimate revenge on his father’s killer and commit murder himself.  It ends with Keitel sitting naked in his apartment, in a sort of primal state, seemingly having finally also shed his very humanity.

De Battre is not about this.  While it is more robust in its criticism of its protagonist’s criminal lifestyle it is ultimately a film that is constantly in dialogue with Toback’s original.  Its penultimate scene shows its protagonist making the merciful decision to spare the life of his father’s killer.  And this seems to be the entire point that the film is leading up to, the possibility that the “hero” need not lose what makes him a person as a result of professional and romantic failings. It’s ultimate purpose is as a counter-argument to the 1978 original.

Less philosophically, and therefore probably more interestingly, both films include a short segment where the protagonist seduces the young trophy girlfriend of the gangster antagonist.  In both films this very small role goes to an actress who will go on to stardom, Tanya Roberts (surprisingly dark haired) in Fingers and Mélanie Laurent in De Battre.  I prefer Tanya Roberts.

Not sure what my point was.  Anyway, check out this trailer that somebody made for A Love of Two Brains.


* Apropos of nothing, is there anyone else out there who also prefers the two other films of this loose trilogy – Days of Being Wild and 2046.  Don’t get me wrong, In the Mood for Love is great, but I just find the more expansive canvases of first and third parts of the trilogy to be slightly more interesting.

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