Why Tom, Brad, and J. Lo rush to redo Asian flicks. The success of ''The Ring'' has Hollywood scrambling to mine U.S. gold from Japan, Korea, and Hong Kong hits

By Missy Schwartz
June 30, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT
Tom Cruise: Gregg DeGuire/WireImage.com

Brad Pitt is entertaining a pitch. It’s the story of two moles: a cop in the Mob and a mobster in the local PD. When their paths cross, both men race to reveal the identity of the other — without blowing their own covers.

The perfect premise for a glossy, big-budget Hollywood flick, right? Pitt thought so. Only it wasn’t a traditional ”hey-I’ve-got-a-great-script” approach that caught his eye — it was a subtitled video of the $7 million-grossing ”Infernal Affairs,” Hong Kong’s No. 1 picture of 2002. One look at the slick crime thriller last January, and Pitt teamed with Warner Bros. to snatch up the remake rights for $1.75 million. ”We were intrigued with the story,” says Pitt’s producing partner, Brad Grey, who estimates production could begin next year. ”It’s elegantly done, and I think we can do something worthwhile with our own version.”

Grey’s not the only one with high hopes for revisiting Asian films. Since the surprise success of ”The Ring,” DreamWorks’ $129 million-grossing redo of Japan’s 1998 smash ”Ringu,” Hollywood has gone gaga for Asian cinema, with key power players plucking up Japanese, Korean, and Hong Kong movies oftentimes before the originals even wrap. Tom Cruise’s C/W Productions bought the rights to 2002 Hong Kong chiller ”The Eye” (now in select U.S. theaters in its original form), and Robert De Niro picked up ”Ringu” director Hideo Nakata’s 1999 psychological thriller, ”Chaos”; he’ll produce and potentially star with Benicio Del Toro.

”With development being so hit-and-miss, remakes are a good business,” says Brad Weston, copresident of Dimension, which has a first-look deal with L.A.-based Vertigo Entertainment, a company specializing in selling rights to Asian films. ”You’re getting in with more knowledge and you have a better road map to the script.” Plus, since few of the Asian versions are released in the subtitle-averse States, there’s little risk of alienating audiences loyal to the original — a classic remake gamble. ”To remake something that nobody knows is the tree that falls in the forest,” says former 20th Century Fox head Bill Mechanic, whose Disney-backed Pandemonium has optioned another Nakata spine tingler, ”Dark Water.” (Mechanic would know: His two biggest failures at Fox were the updates ”Anna and the King” and ”Miracle on 34th Street.”)

But remakes happen all the time (”The Italian Job,” anyone?), so why Asian cinema and why now? For starters, ”The Ring” continued to breathe new life into a brand of psychological horror rejuvenated by such films as ”The Blair Witch Project” and ”The Others.” ”People love that type of movie right now,” says Weston. ”The Asian marketplace happens to make a lot of ghost thrillers, so studios are aggressively looking for that type of story line.”

Hollywood is also hunting down comedies to import from the Far East — much like it did in the ’80s by borrowing from French cinema (e.g., ”Three Men and a Baby”). ”They tend to be high-concept ideas that translate well,” says Bob Osher, copresident of production at Miramax, where Jennifer Lopez and Richard Gere are reinterpreting Japan’s ”Shall We Dance,” a romantic comedy that earned a handful of critics’ prizes and a respectable $10 million in its 1997 U.S. release. (Miramax is also developing a redo of South Korea’s 2001 knockout ”My Wife Is a Gangster” for Queen Latifah.) In addition to prepping a sequel to ”The Ring,” DreamWorks has ”My Sassy Girl,” which cohead Walter Parkes calls a Korean ”Annie Hall.” ”There’s a stylishness and hipness to [Asian] pop culture,” Parkes says. ”It’s very much embraced by American youth in toys, videogames, and comic books, so it makes sense that as kids grow up and become moviegoers, they’d be open to films based on Asian [cinema].” (Of course, kung-fu-obsessed hip-hop culture caught on long ago — which may explain why Method Man and Redman were stoked to star in Dimension’s upcoming ”Jailbreakers,” a slapsticky 2002 Korean favorite.)

As for what Asian mania means for filmmakers like Nakata, so far so good: He’ll direct his English-language debut, the thriller ”True Believers,” for MGM. And while the twin-brother directing team of ”The Eye,” Danny and Oxide Pang, have fielded similar offers, they’re sticking to Hong Kong. ”It’s flattering,” says Danny, ”but it’s not our concern yet.”

For now, Hollywood’s coming to them.