Why Can’t We Accept Foreign Films on Their Own Terms?

By  · Published on February 9th, 2017

A simple plea for less remakes and more appreciation for global cinema.

Cinephiles everywhere were worked up into a tizzy this week as an unstoppable force came out of retirement – no, not John Wick, although he’s definitely back as well. The news of Jack Nicholson’s return to film after a seven year hiatus caught many off-guard, but his proposed comeback project, an American remake of Maren Ade’s Oscar-nominated Toni Erdmann, is just as surprising. Nicholson was reportedly a big fan of Ade’s film and pitched the idea of an American remake to Paramount, who quickly snapped up the rights. Shortly following the news of Nicholson’s casting it was announced that Kristen Wiig would star alongside the legend, playing Ines, the daughter to Nicholson’s Winifred (and his alter-ego, Toni).

Early in 2016, Toni Erdmann took Cannes by storm, winning over critics and viewers who gave lead actress Sandra Hüller a rare mid-film ovation for her rapturous performance of Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All.” (It also happened during my own screening of the film at the New York Film Festival just months later.) From here on, Ade and her nearly three-hour German dramedy became the talk of the town, a must-see for festival goers and movie lovers alike.

Toni Erdmann centers on the relationship between a father and daughter. Ines (Hüller) struggles to climb the corporate ladder while working in Romania and finds her life disrupted by an unexpected visit from her father, Winifred (Peter Simonischek), a carefree man fond of practical jokes. Winifred adopts false teeth and a bad wig to create an alter-ego, Toni Erdmann, a businessman who he uses to wriggle his way into his daughter’s business circle. Despite his outlandish behavior, Toni is a hit with Ines’ colleagues and the first half of the film dances around this comedic intrusion.

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But Toni Erdmann is more than just an awkward comedy, it is also a poignant look at how relationships with a parent can change as we grow older. Winifred seeks out Ines not simply because he has just lost his own mother but because he also senses his daughter’s unhappiness. The film is charged with tender moments as the two come to terms with their relationship, rendering just as many tears as laughs. It is this foundation, paired with Ade’s daring and unapologetic use of nudity that give the film a unique fingerprint and elevate Toni Erdmann beyond just comedy or drama and into the realm of something almost indescribable but vital to experience.

While Nicholson and Wiig are fantastic actors, capable of the film’s mix of comedy and drama, the American remake has yet to announce a director. It seems that a film originally written and directed by a woman should require a female director but Hollywood’s track record here isn’t promising. Furthermore, while Ade is on board as co-executive producer, the remake, like so many others, begs the question: why can’t we just appreciate the original?

The casting of Nicholson immediately calls to mind another American remake, 2006’s The Departed. The film, which also stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and Mark Wahlberg, pulled in four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and a long overdue Best Director award for Martin Scorsese. Admittedly, I love the damn movie so much I’ve seen it close to 100 times, having spent an entire year of college burning out the DVD on my laptop each night to combat stress-induced panic attacks. (Perhaps not the most soothing choice, but it’s entertaining as hell.)

The Departed, of course, is simply an American remake of Infernal Affairs, a 2002 Hong Kong crime drama directed by Wai-Keung Lau. Perhaps remake is generous here, as The Departed lifts heavily from its predecessor, from plot points and character relationships to cadet montages to even smaller details, like Chen’s pained phone conversations about not being able to handle being undercover anymore or the cast on his arm. But what’s missing from Scorsese’s slick remake are the intricacies of Asian culture and Hong Kong cinema. Infernal Affairs opens with a verse from the Nirvana Sutra, which connects to the film’s Chinese title, which translates to The Unceasing Path, both of which reference Avici, the lowest circle of hell in Buddhism. In Scorsese’s world this is eradicated in favor of Irish Catholicism and the dulcet tones of Mick and Keith.

Arguably, a successful American remake might spark interest in the original but in truth it feels conditional. Rather than appreciate Maren Ade’s writing and direction at face value or, quite frankly, take a slew of positive reviews and an Academy Award nomination as a reason to see and celebrate the original film, instead it must be made more palpable for audiences. Just as the Buddhism at the center of Infernal Affairs was traded off for Catholicism, there is an implication that Toni Erdmann and other foreign films must lose their identity and become more American to be accepted by audiences. On the surface, it’s an obvious cash grab that allowing studios to mine the hard work of others for instant profit. But beyond this, it reeks of the worst of American history, the colonialism, sexism and racism which whitewashed or erased the achievements of marginalized people to cast white (usually male) Americans as heroes.

As we illustrated last week in our article about films that highlight the lives of refugees and immigrants, cinema is a vital tool in allowing audiences to learn about, empathize with and understand other cultures. Film is in a unique position to allow viewers to traverse thousands of miles, speak a multitude of languages and uncover the universal similarities at the root of humanity, all while sitting in a theater. With American politics all too often being defined by xenophobia and exclusion these days, global cinema is needed more than ever. Rather than well-intentioned remakes, we should be celebrating and promoting cinema from around the world to help us tear down walls and insure that the voices all too often diminished or ignored finally find a larger audience and get to share their story with the world.

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Jamie Righetti is an author and freelance film critic from New York City. She loves horror movies, Keanu Reeves, BioShock and her Siberian Husky, Nugget.