Revealed: Why Indian filmmakers love South Korean films

Since 2006, more than a dozen South Korean films have found Indian incarnations.

These past few years, South Korea pop culture seems to have replaced Japan as one of the most popular global cultural imports, what with K-Pop hits such as Psy’s Gangnam Style and South Korean cinema hits, which have seen remakes in Hollywood, Bollywood and Tollywood. Two recent Hindi releases are official remakes of South Korean films. Te3N, directed by Ribhu Dasgupta, is an adaption of the thriller Montage (2013), while Deepak Tijori's Do Lafzon Ki Kahani is based on Always (2011), which was previously remade in Kannada as Boxer (2015).

The trailer of ‘Montage’.

Ever since Sanjay Gupta made Zinda (2006), his critically reviled and unsanctioned version of Park Chan-wook’s blood-soaked revenge thriller Oldboy (2003), there have been a spate of Indian movies “inspired” by movies made in the East Asian country. What is it about South Korean fllms that keeps Indian filmmakers coming back for more? Could it be their depiction of stylised ultraviolence, for one thing?

Similar scenes from ‘Zinda’ and ‘Oldboy’.
Similar scenes from ‘Zinda’ and ‘Oldboy’.

Kim Mee-Hyun, director of global marketing at the Korean Film Council spoke in 2014 about how a shift from censorship to a rating system contributed to the growth of South Korean cinema: “They’re able to tackle subjects that are very controversial, they’re able to show violence and sex and disturbing scenarios sometimes in a way that’s not possible in other parts of Asia, including in India. That has allowed them to push the limits of storytelling, to push the limits of their audiences.”

Not all the remakes are paid for, and not all of them work.

Revenge thrillers that also function as morality tales

Indian cinema loves a healthy dose of revenge, and it just so happens that some of the highest grossing films in South Korea are revenge thrillers. The heroes in these films are shown as being justified in their thirst for vengeance. All the films inhabit a grey area inspired by the famous Nietzshean quote, “If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss gazes into you.”

The trailer of ‘Oldboy’.

Oldboy is the second film in Park Chan-wook's Vengeance trilogy, in which the main antagonist hatches a plan for vendetta that takes 15 torture-filled years to reach completion. Once Oldboy became a cult phenomenon, it wasn’t a question of if, but when, India saw a remake.

Gupta’s remake striped away much of the substance of the original, both stylistically –compare the original’s legendary single-take fight sequence with the remake – and thematically by replacing the central thread involving incest with human trafficking.

I Saw the Devil (2010) too is about a man going to wince-inducing lengths to destroy the monster who killed his wife. The South Korean original was notable for its wanton disregard for fingers and body parts. The unofficial Indian remake Ek Villain (2014) directed by Mohit Suri was tame by comparison.

Earlier this year, Nishikant Kamat officially remade the one-innocent-man-against-the-world action thriller The Man From Nowhere (2010) as Rocky Handsome. The Korean original had more style than substance, and with little to draw upon, Kamat’s remake had even less to offer.

The trailer of ‘The Man From Nowhere’.

Romance between diametrically opposite characters

The most popular Bollywood genre remains romance. One of South Korea’s most highest grossing films is My Sassy Girl (2001), about the unlikely romance between an engineer and a dreamy woman simply identified as “The Girl”. In 2008, My Sassy Girl got both an official Hollywood and an unofficial Indian remake. Ugly aur Pagli starred Ranvir Shorey and Mallika Sherawat, and even its movie poster was a copy of the original one. Always, the film on which Do Lafzon Ki Kahani is based, is the soppy tale of a martial arts fighter who gets involved with a blind girl. Korean romantic comedies are stylishly shot and have fewer songs. But they have the same overtly melodramatic scenes and saccharine-sweet greeting card-inspired moments.

The screenplay of Anurag Basu’s Barfi! (2012) could simply be a list of the names of dozens of well-known classics. One not-so-well-known influence? Lee Chang-dong’s third feature Oasis (2002), a love story between a mentally disabled social misfit and a girl with cerebral palsy. Basu’s version ends well, Chang-dong’s version not so much.

The trailer of ‘My Sassy Girl’.

When revenge flicks or rom-coms are unavailable, our filmmakers will turn to any old DVD

Mohit Suri has made three films inspired by South Korean cinema. He has found a way to shoehorn romance into his versions even when there was no love angle in the original, such as Murder 2 (2011), which rips off The Chaser (2008), a race-against-the-time serial killer police procedural. Apart from Murder 2 and Ek Villain, Suri also made Awarapan (2007), about a doomed romance that was an uncredited remake of A Bittersweet Life (2005).

When asked about the similarities between the two films, Suri said, “That’s just one dialogue that I have taken from the Korean film’s promo, just like I have taken another dialogue from the film Jack Reacher. The two stories are not similar, as the characters come from two completely different worlds.”

Sanjay Gupta’s back catalogue is littered with remakes of films from around the world. Apart from Zinda, Gupta went back to South Korea for Aishwarya Rai’s big-screen return Jazbaa (2015),which is an official remake of Seven Days (2007). Early reports suggest that Gupta’s next film with Hrithik Roshan Kaabil has an uncanny resemblance to Broken (2014). Both Broken and Kaabil feature blind leads who take revenge.

While the makers of Tamil gangster film Jigarthanda (2014) deny that there is any similarity between their film and A Dirty Carnival (2006), there are too many recurring plot elements for this claim to be credible. Both films involve an amateur filmmaker trying to make a “real” gangster film by interviewing “real” gangsters. The remake shifts the point of view from the gangster to the filmmaker and is played as a black comedy, eschewing the melancholic theme running through the original.

Kim Jee-woon’s debut A Quiet Family (1998) is about a family that owns a remote hunting lodge where customers always end up dying. A comedy of errors ensues. Tamil film Yaamirukka Bayamey (2014), Deekay’s debut, is about a couple who owns a hotel at the edge of the forest where customers die mysteriously. Ghosts and ancient curses are involved. Cue hilarious shenanigans.

The trailer of 'Yaamirukka Bayamey'.

Among the elements that make South Korean originals interesting are their treatment of violence and sexuality. The removal of the extreme content from the Indian versions result in production that lose the subtext and vigour of the originals.

Is there a good reason to do a remake, though? Perhaps, if the original might have had certain problems that a future filmmaker might want to wrestle with or fix, or if new technology better allows a filmmaker to tell the original story. One example of this would be John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing (1982), a horror classic that is vastly superior to the original.

When asked by filmmaker Francois Truffaut why he remade his own film The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1956 in Hollywood, Alfred Hitchcock replied like only he could have, “The first film was the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional.” Copy our local South Korean bhakts on that remark.

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