There is an extensive history of adapting popular international films in a way that is culturally specific and relative to other audiences. There is a Nigerian Titanic, an Indian Pride and Prejudice (starring Aishwarya Rai, no less) and even an Italian Groundhog Day. Yup, there is a version of Bill Murray’s classic 1993 comedy Groundhog Day set in Italy, a country in which Groundhog Day is not even a holiday. Unfortunately it is not 90 minutes of Fellini smoking cigarettes and listening to Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” on repeat.
America also has a habit of adapting films from other countries. The Magnificent Seven from Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai; The Departed from Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s Infernal Affairs. While the creatives behind these aforementioned films attempt to honor the originals while still making them their own, it is always important to question the motivation behind adapting international films, especially from non-white countries, for an American audience. Before the digital age, there was a better case to be made that remakes like these were inspired gestures of artistic appreciation that helped the story reach a wider audience. But with the advent of streaming services and the increasing proliferation of international films in America, it is important to question if the motivation for American remakes is to increase access to international films or to obfuscate and Americanize international stories. This fact has been made abundantly clear by the reasonable hubbub generated by New Line Cinema’s decision to remake 2016 South Korean zombie film Train to Busan and set it in the U.S.
The new movie’s creative team at least seems fully cognizant of what they’re trying to pull off. James Wan, with all his horror bonafides behind him, is producing and one of his familiar screenwriters, Gary Dauberman (Annabelle, The Nun), is handling the writing. Timo Tjahjanto, the Indonesian director behind the May the Devil Take You films, has been tapped to direct and seems to understand the importance of getting this adaptation right. “Nothing is ever gonna top Train to Busan, a beloved horror in which I bawled my eyes out (never happened since Amenabar’s The Others). Having said that James, Gary & I made an absolute oath: Don’t disrespect & disappoint the fans,” Tjahjanto tweeted earlier this month.
The fact that this adaptation is not solely being made by a bunch of white dudes is great news, as is Tjahjanto, Wan and Dauberman’s formidable history in horror and action-related genre work alongside the proclaimed cautious approach. But the question remains: Despite the added layers of inclusive creative team appointment, is an American remake of Train to Busan futile? Is it necessary for America to remake non-English, non-white films in an age where streaming services have increased the access your average American audience member has to international movies? Rather than remaking the film for Americans, perhaps we should encourage a growing American receptivity to non-English films.
Train to Busan, available on Amazon Prime Video, captures the journey of corporate suit Seo Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) as he escorts his young daughter from Seoul to her mother in Busan. While the train ride is meant to be a simple father-daughter bonding trip, Seo and his fellow train passengers have their morals and will to survive tested when a zombie outbreak begins. Aside from Train to Busan’s action-packed sequences, strong concept and great performances, the film’s zombies are ravenous and impressive. These aren’t run-of-the-mill Dawn of the Dead limp-ass zombies. These are hungry hungry hippo, Olympic-sprinting World War Z zombies. That’s one of the various reasons audiences worldwide were so drawn to film.
Here are some reasons an American Train to Busan may be fruitless:
Let people revisit or watch for the first time! Thanks to streaming access, closed captions, descriptive audio and even dubbed versions (just read the subtitles and listen in the original language though, if possible, friends), the biggest barrier to entry you’ll face, as Bong Joon-ho sagely said, is only one inch tall. If ever there was a film to broaden horizons and attract people who might not watch films in languages they don’t speak, it’s a genre film as overtly visual as this.
America does not have the transportation infrastructure to replicate the quotidian train ride at the heart of the original film. The train is both a literal and metaphorical vehicle for the film’s central conflict. Not only are the train and train stations the film’s setting, the train’s chamber and carts metaphorically reinforce the film’s exploration of social hierarchy and classism. Being in transit by rail is what intermittently helps train passengers evade the zombies who ravish the city and what sequesters the passengers and the infected together. Replacing the train with a bus or subway route wouldn’t be as effective because these systems are inherently staccato. Zombies aren’t exactly mindful of closing doors. Can you recall the last American film you saw with a multi-hour train ride? The Polar Express? Unstoppable starring Denzel Washington? (That’s the one with the unstoppable train the size of the Chrysler building). Exactly.
When it is assumed that the willingness of American audiences to watch a film is contingent on that film’s proximity to what Hollywood typifies as American—English-speaking, often white—the legitimacy of non-white, non-English-speaking Americans is inherently impugned. More than that, the particularities of experiences from outside our borders are reductively othered. Yes, the “universality of human experience” can be a draw to watching a film in a language you aren’t fluent in. But also, being open to watching stories that capture experiences you cannot empathize with (like having functional nationwide public transportation) is also incredibly generative. Hot people watch international films!
The impulse to Americanize non-English films, from both Asian countries and other non-white countries around the world, often has its roots in xenophobia. The narrative accommodations that need to take place to make a film legibly American often sap the story of its culturally relative riches. For example, Bong Joon-ho and Adam McKay have a forthcoming Parasite project in the works with HBO Max. While it is unclear where it’ll take place and who it’ll involve, taking the original film and injecting it into an American setting could fundamentally rupture the integrity of Parasite’s original concept.
Were Parasite’s concept Americanized, it would have to address the complex, generational racialization of poverty in the U.S. and the history of Indigenous genocide, chattel slavery and other quintessentially American factors. Bong’s original film could devote more time and eloquently develop its meditations on social class because it was set in a comparatively more racially homogenous country. An American adaptation of Parasite would be a gargantuan undertaking because, for it to be successful, it would intrinsically necessitate responses to American problems that Bong’s original work did not have to account for.
This returns us to the complication presented by New Line Cinema’s creative team selection. There’s plenty of baggage when we get American remakes of non-English, non-white films. But are those films given a pass when their creators are on board, as in Bong’s case? Are they given a pass because it’s giving a Hollywood boost to talented Asian creatives, as in Tjahjanto’s? Are the xenophobic roots deracinated by the identity of the recreators or the involvement of the originators?
It’s still got its pros and cons, but because of America’s history of economic and cultural imperialism, American movies do not get a free pass when adapting films from other countries. “Americanizing” something—rather than making it fresh and specific to Nigeria, India or even Italy—is not always a mere expression of creative license or an effort to spotlight an international story for a domestic audience. It can sometimes be a gesture of dominance expressed through whitewashing; yet another iteration of a deeply American impulse to access, adopt, adapt and approximate a thing to itself.
I sincerely hope that the American Train to Busan is fantastic. More so, I hope that American audiences will continue to seek out dazzling international films and that every time an American remake is in the works, Americans respond not with relief but with apprehension. With these grains of salt, perhaps we can move towards a moviegoing culture that more readily accepts originals regardless of culture or language, and doesn’t balk at subtitles. Here’s to hoping that international releases are more widely viewed, that Tjahjanto makes the most of his remake and that the American Train to Busan doesn’t bite.
Adesola Thomas is a screenwriter and culture writer. She loves talking about Annette Benning’s performance in 20th Century Women and making lasagna. You can follow her on Twitter.