During the 77th Golden Globe in 2020, South Korean film Parasite won Best Motion Picture in the Foreign Language category. Following this momentous occasion, Bong Joon-ho said in his speech, “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” Unfortunately, that day has yet to come with Warner Brothers’ 2021 announcement regarding their plans to remake the award-winning South Korean film, “Train to Busan."
In 2016, this zombie-thriller directed by Yeon Sang-ho, premiered in its home nation of South Korea to ubiquitous praise. In January of 2017, the film saw an international premiere, meeting the same level of fanfare as its home country. Warner Brothers’ announcement to remake the film came with fear and speculation regarding the possible whitewashing of Asian media. While the reveal of the choice for director, Indonesian director Timo Tjahjanto. Tjahhanto expressed his passion for seeing more Asian directors in the American film industry in a tweet, quelling some of the fears. However, there remains pessimism regarding this production.
The reason for that is Hollywood and American media’s blatant and ongoing disrespect of Asian media and works.
When Culture is Lost in Translation
With the recent international success of Squid Games, recent controversy has arisen regarding the subtitles and lack of context given to several scenes throughout the show. Korean-American Youngmi Mayer tweeted that much of the subtitles missed several key aspects of characters and “if you don’t understand the Korean you didn’t really watch the same show… the dialogue was written so well and none of it was preserved.”
Later, Mayer continued her thread with several more examples such as a character’s dialogue and past as a gangster sterilized and missing nuance present in the original language.
A strong reason for this lack of quality in translation harkens back to Joon-ho’s remark. Netflix’s subtitle policy includes “to edit for reading speed, subtitlers may follow the following strategies: deletion, reformulation, re-timing, re-segmentation, merging, employing contractions, removing established proper nouns or terms, removing unnecessary repetitions, omitting unimportant paralinguistic elements.” While the next item on their policy states, “avoid condensing text unnecessarily,” the vague wording lands on deaf ears as the Korean-fluent fans remain upset regarding the treatment of their favorite show.
Lost to the Hollywood Machine
The 2017 Paramount Pictures film, "Ghost in the Shell" is an adaptation of the 1991 manga by the same name. The adaptation follows a similar plot structure as other “Ghost in the Shell” media of an AI discovering herself and her identity in an android body—quite literally, a ghost in the shell. What sets the 2017 film apart is that it is the first American adaptation of this franchise. It is also infamous for its portrayal of the protagonist, Mokoto Kusanagi, by the white Scarlett Johansson.
For a science-fiction work focusing so much on identity and how the body and the experiences shape oneself, it is shocking and disrespectful that Paramount Pictures refused to consider hiring an Asian-American actor, a demographic which is already underrepresented in film, to portray Kusanagi.
On top of the casting controversy, Paramount Pictures also found themselves in hot water regarding some accusations of yellow-face. While producers deny the accusations that said CGI technology was used on Johansson to make her appear more Asian, they do not deny the testing of this technology on background actors. Rather than hiring Asian actors, Paramount Pictures instead found it more convenient or appealing to use CGI yellow-face.
Darren Aronofsky, director of award-winning “Black Swan,” has come under suspicion for possible plagiarism of Satoshi Kon’s “Perfect Blue.” As Metaflix noted in their article, several of the themes, concepts and even visuals have a striking resemblance to Kon’s animated film.
“Perfect Blue” follows the story of Mima Kirigoe leaving behind her career as an idol to pursue an acting career. What follows is a story of Mima suffering from psychosis due to stalking, dogged paparazzi, and a series of murders overtaking her as the duality between her private and public life blur.
Black Swan is the story of a ballerina named Nina that attempts to gain the role of the black swan for an upcoming performance of The Swan Princess. She also enters a state of psychosis as the “Black Swan” persona she is trying to capture begins to bleed into her real life. Grisly death and paranoia engulf her as her career and aspirations lead to a tragic end.
What truly makes it clear that “Perfect Blue” inspired Aronofsky is that he has met with Satoshi Kon discussing a live-action adaptation of the animated film, as the late Kon’s producer, Masao Maruyama discusses in this interview with Dazed Digital.
However, Perfect Blue’s inspiration for Black Swan remains largely unknown outside of fans of Kon’s work, and Aronofsky refuses to acknowledge how the original film influenced Black Swan’s direction. Kon’s influence is seen in other films, particularly that of Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” bearing similarities to Kon’s Paprika. Though to refer to it as plagiarism would not be accurate, it is startling to see such a strong and modern inspiration for a film yet uncredited, considering filmmakers such as the Wachowskis have been open regarding their inspirations such as “Ghost in the Shell.”
Fear of Asian Representation
An article from the New York Times titled, “Why Do Asian-Americans Remain Largely Unseen in Film and Television?” by Thessaly la Force gathers interesting statistics addressing representation in the film industry. She notes that “Crazy Rich Asians” remains the only film in years to have an All-Asian cast since “The Joy Luck Club” in 1993 and discusses the discrepancy between the Asian population and the Asian actors present in the Hollywood film industry; a 6:1 ratio. She always writes “in the search for the male lead in ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ one of the movie’s producers was told by several prominent American theater schools that they hadn’t had a male Asian graduate in years.”
Only one actor of Asian heritage has ever won an Academy Award for best actor: Ben Kingsley, whose father was Indian, in 1983 for playing Gandhi (Kingsley had been nominated in three other instances). Twelve actors of Asian descent have ever received nominations from the academy—all largely for supporting roles, with the exception of Merle Oberon, who was half British and half Sri Lankan, in 1936.
Of the entire 92 years of the Oscars, “Parasite” was the first foreign film to win Best Picture after obtaining international recognition. In order to receive the same level of recognition as other films, Asian movies need to be exceptional to the point that they cannot go ignored. Otherwise, in the case of the Oscar-less “Train to Busan,” they are subject to receiving remakes from studios that don’t hold the same level of respect as the original filmmakers.
One can only hope that Warner Brothers’ “Train to Busan” remake manages to create an experience faithful to the original. However, considering the track record and level of respect the American film industry has had towards Asian-Americans and the foreign market as a whole, it doesn’t seem likely.