Korean movies

Why Hollywood should stop adapting Korean media

Angel Martinez
Why Hollywood should stop adapting Korean media

COUPLE. 'Crash Landing on You' stars Son Ye-Jin and Hyun Bin are dating.

Photo courtesy of Netflix

Aren’t remakes and reimaginings standard fare in the entertainment industry?

After years of playing “will they, won’t they,” New Line Cinema has announced that the Western adaptation of 2017 zombie blockbuster Train to Busan is well underway — this time taking place in New York City’s very own subway system. While the only details available right now are a title and release date, netizens have already expressed their disappointment and made clear their intention to boycott its release. These violent reactions can easily confuse those unfamiliar with the world of Hallyu: after all, aren’t remakes and reimaginings standard fare in the entertainment industry?

But the subject of this discussion isn’t just any movie littered with gory and claustrophobic horror sequences. Train to Busan remains a cultural hallmark in its native South Korea nearly half a decade after its release because of how it eerily mirrors a series of real-life tragedies. In 2014, an overloaded ship drowned at sea, leaving 300 dead; a year later, a MERS outbreak would infiltrate the country and claim 30 more. Both incidents were a product of administrative incompetence, as the national government scrambled to preserve their image instead of prioritizing transparency.

Without this parallelism and searing social critique in place, avid fans of the original have predicted that we will be served a watered-down version, completely devoid of poignancy and nuance. Maybe we can expect some formulaic action scenes and CGI jumpscares to drive the plot forward, but in the end, nothing of lasting value and substance.

Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t entirely a case against Western adaptations. At times, they manage to do justice to the source material while incorporating fresh new twists in the process. But aside from the fact that such instances are few and far between, what makes Korean dramas and films special are the specific cultural elements embedded in the plot. When taken away to fit another context, we strip them of their very essence and render them into ordinary cash cows. And anyone who’s ever watched anything the Korean industry has made is well aware that their work deserves to be in better hands.

One example of this is Crash Landing on You, which is set to receive the Hollywood treatment soon. This story highlights the societal implications of falling in love and wanting a new life with someone from the opposite side of the 38th parallel. How would the tension present in such a relationship translate to the American setting? To my knowledge, two people living in North and South Dakota, respectively, can be together without any life-threatening circumstances getting in the way.

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And yet, despite this degree of specificity, Korean media contains overarching themes that remain emotionally resonant no matter where their intended audience is from. Parasite and Squid Game were so widely celebrated for this specific reason: most of us relate to being cogs in the capitalist machine and bear witness to the class divide that forces the poor to make ends meet in rather extreme ways. This is why it makes no sense when production companies act like it’s their responsibility to tweak the material and ensure it caters to Western audiences — it already does, hence the success they continue to enjoy.

Anyone who thinks that stories need to be seen from a Western perspective or feature stereotypically American characters to be “better” are either motivated by greed or blinded by xenophobia. I personally can’t tell which is worse. Instead of spending huge sums of money on reproducing existing material, maybe Hollywood can look into showing support in more meaningful ways. Perhaps they can start by investing in original stories written by and starring people of color, who still receive disproportionate attention despite attempts at diversification. Maybe they can also devote more attention to the subbing and dubbing industries, too, especially as demand for foreign language films and shows are projected to increase.

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Best of all, they can simply choose to stop undermining consumers and their capacity to change their viewing habits. Today’s audiences are highly capable of exploring the wide selection of programs available to them on streaming platforms, and reading the subtitles provided — or at least, they’re showing unprecedented interest. These concepts might be too far-fetched to grasp right now but once they are widely accepted, the American entertainment industry can truly work towards creating cultural products that push conversation without resorting to mere copying or credit-grabbing. – Rappler.com