Why The Korean Company Behind 'Parasite' Is Developing English-Language Remakes Of Its Own Films

For many cinephiles, the phrase "English-language remake" is a red flag — another blatant attempt by Hollywood to capitalize on the success of a popular Korean, Japanese, Chinese, etc., film. And more often than not, those remakes fall flat with both the original fans and the mainstream audiences that they're attempting to appeal to, either because the cultural essence gets lost in translation or, more recently, because of the polarizing issue of whitewashing. When East and South Asian films are gaining a bigger presence on the world stage, why should remakes even be a thing? But the South Korean company CJ Entertainment sees an advantage to English-language remakes of Korean films. So it's stepping in to develop them itself.

CJ Entertainment is a South Korean film production and distribution company under the broader media company CJ ENM. It's the distributor behind Bong Joon-ho's Cannes Palme D'Or winner Parasite, and box office hits like The Man From Nowhere and this year's Extreme Job, the latter of which is already set to get a U.S. remake with Kevin Hart. But the difference between Extreme Job and Hollywood remakes that have failed in the past is that CJ Entertainment has a hand in developing it. That is, according to CJ Entertainment's head of U.S. productions Francis Chung. /Film got on the phone with Chung to talk about remakes, the complicated discourse around whitewashing, and why you won't be seeing an English-language remake of Parasite anytime soon.

CJ Entertainment has made headway into the American market before through its long-running partnership with auteur Bong Joon-ho, whose award-winning Parasite has been picked up for a limited U.S. awards season release later this year. Back in 2012, CJ was the South Korean distributor for Snowpiercer, Bong's English-language debut and a South Korean-Czech co-production that blended a multicultural cast. But CJ sold the U.S. distribution rights to the Weinstein Company, which infamously delayed the film's release over demands for re-edits, which Bong refused. But in more recent years, CJ Entertainment is taking steps to be more actively involved in the U.S. side of its films, whether its through distribution or remakes.

"In the past we sold a lot of remakes to studios and none of them have gotten made," Chung said. "And so over the past few years you've taken a more hands-on approach in terms of our remakes, where we develop...and we work with the writers directly. One of the things that we've learned from all of these sort of failed remakes in the past is that a lot of U.S. producers and writers, they failed to sort of bring over the more core essence of why these movies were good in the first place. They feel like they have an obligation to change a lot of things to fit their culture."

Films like Ghost in the Shell, Oldboy, The Uninvited, and dozens more miss the mark because they shed the cultural weight of the original films, and end up feeling more like cheap copies. Chung said CJ is hoping to change that with the remakes that the company is having a hand in developing "that have certain Korean or Asian elements." Chung added:

"Our No. 1 caveat in terms of our U.S. movies is we don't just do any kinds of U.S. movies, because you have movies that we know perform well in our territory, particularly Korea. And so that automatically filters what kind of genres we're doing, what kind of concepts we want to focus on, etcetera. And as we're doing that, we're organically implementing different elements within that sentiment or emotion or concept or phenomenon that you see in Asian culture or Asian territories and trying to make that a lot more accessible to the global audience."

Keeping the Essential "Korean Elements"

So what exactly are those "Korean or Asian elements" that Chung describes? As Bong Joon-ho describes in 2018 interview, "Everything is extreme in Korean cinema." Chung agrees, citing Bong's Parasite as an example of a film that ricochets between genre and tone. "Because when we're in one sitting watching something, we prefer the audience to cry and laugh at the same time, opposite extremes," Chung said. "We're a culture of extremes."

But as Korean cinema gains a stronger footing on the world stage, Chung said that there is less necessity to try to smooth over those extremes for a wider filmgoing audience. "The world has become smaller," he said, adding:

"We're realizing that there's really less to change and less to doubt that a lot of people in different cultures can actually understand certain things. Something that you may not see in the U.S. but you'd see in Korean movies — in the past, maybe you may not have gotten it, but because the world is getting smaller I feel like that's becoming less of an issue. So we try to make sure that we don't try to change too much just for the sake of changing. "

But even so, Chung but there are certain elements "that are very hard to translate," citing again the comedy in Parasite as something that would be "very hard to carry over." "If we were to ever to adapt Parasite, that would sort of be like the hardest thing for me."

No, don't worry Chung is not suggesting that CJ is working on a remake of Parasite. For films like the Palme D'Or winner and other auteur-driven prestige films, English-language remakes are not in their futures.

No, There Won't Be a Remake of Parasite or Any "Prestige" Films

"Right now, in terms of our approach to these remixes, we typically don't aggressively try to remake these prestige movies or movies that have been critically acclaimed," Chung said. The purpose instead of CJ being involved in English-language remakes of its own films is to get global audiences interested in watching the original films, which are often commercial hits but not the ones trying to get awards.

Take, for example, The Departed, Chung pointed out. "I think a lot of people watched The Departed and that got them interested in watching the original Hong Kong version of it where there's different sequels as well." That's the journey that Chung hopes U.S. audiences will take when watching successful remakes of films like Extreme Job or the female-driven dramedy Bye, Bye, Bye based on the 2011 Korean film Sunny. 

"We're in the business of not just making good content, but we're also in the business as our top management always says, we're in the business of spreading Korean culture. And if, if we're in the business of remakes to achieve that, then it's always best to get all these new audiences interested in the U.S. remake of it and hopefully that will help them to come over and enjoy the Korean IP's as well."

It's a similar strategy that Korean music companies are taking with K-pop, using the massive popularity of the pop industry to raise interest in Korean culture. The South Korean government has taken note of K-pop's cultural power and has even poured thousands into the music industry as a means of boosting tourism to the country — and it worked. The Korean film industry doesn't yet have quite the standing of K-pop, nor the level of government funding, but it seems that CJ's strategy, and likely the strategy of other Korean film distributors, will attempt to replicate that success.

What About Whitewashing?

But one thing that CJ Entertainment will have to contend with when making it Stateside is the constant discourse around whitewashing. Whitewashing refers to the practice of taking an essentially culturally ethnic — usually Asian — story and replacing it with white actors and a Western setting. Though CJ Entertainment hails from South Korea, whitewashing has become an especially hot-button topic because of the increasingly vocal Asian-American community, who after years of being the least-seen minority onscreen are finally demanding better representation. It's an issue that mainland Asians from South Korea, China, and Japan have never considered, but one that companies like CJ will have to navigate as they try to reach a wider U.S. audience. Chung himself has a complicated relationship with whitewashing, which he thinks CJ will be able to avoid by putting the storytelling first.

"Whitewashing I had sort of a bipolar position on it just because I think the issue of whitewashing, they're all extremes of it where anything that was Asian that was being redone to the U.S., there was always a whitewashing issue," Chung said, adding:

"I think in the business that we're in, and I always start this story and just organic storytelling. And so I think the issue with whitewashing only comes when, when for example, if there's a story that gets a remake that has nothing to do with [what made the original] populr. I think we're not in the business of just trying to target those fans, but we're also getting in the business of trying to have this content a lot more accessible to the widest audience possible."

The setting can change, the actors can change, "but keep the core story telling," Chung said.