PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 February, 2011, 12:00am

Chinese remakes of Hollywood films are hardly a new phenomenon, dating back to the silent picture era of the 1920s. But Andy Lau Tak-wah's upcoming Lunar New Year comedy - a remake of the Mel Gibson hit What Women Want (2000) - emphasises just how far the China-Hollywood relationship has developed both legally, in the arena of intellectual property, and creatively.

Particularly in the years before the 1949 establishment of the People's Republic and the total ban on 'American imperialist cinema' from the nation's screens in 1951, Chinese-language scripts often contained incidents, if not entire story arcs, that bore an uncanny - if uncredited - similarity to the then-latest Hollywood imports.

A typical example could be found in the dramatic twists and turns of The Net of Divine Retribution (1947), a Hong Kong production featuring a cast of Shanghai stars that was released in mainland theatres in 1948. The movie was a virtual pastiche of Hollywood plot points: twin sisters and rivals (both played by Chen Yuanyuan), not too dissimilar to those essayed by Bette Davis in A Stolen Life (1946); a musical solo staged identically to that of Deanna Durbin's in It Started With Eve (1941, but not shown in China until after the second world war); and a murder investigated by detective Charlie Chan (Xu Xinyuan, made up to approximate Warner Oland's appearance in the popular Fox movie series).

Entertainment of this type came to an end on the mainland after 1949, the emphasis instead placed on film as a tool of political propaganda, but the tradition lived on in Hong Kong. The colony's motion picture business was booming (more than 200 features in 1950 compared to less than 50 in China) and script ideas were in short supply. Thus, viewers would not find it surprising that the travails facing suspected wife murderer Ng Chor-fan in Lovers Mystery (1950) bore more than a passing resemblance to those encountered by Charles Boyer just two years earlier in A Woman's Vengeance.

The fun with the best of these Cantonese remakes was the creative manner in which they adapted something so American into a work thoroughly Hong Kong in nature.

The end of the Cultural Revolution and China's 'open door' policy led to the gradual re-emergence of American entertainment on the mainland in the late 1970s and 80s. This was barely on the scale of the pre-1949 era, with studios still government-operated in conjunction with restrictive censorship and import regulations. These are just some of the factors that kept 'remake' activity at a minimum when compared to contemporary Hong Kong. Equally important was the emphasis on original screenplays, with writing talent fostered at the Beijing Film Academy since the 1950s.

As mainland audiences became more familiar with the overseas competition, which they increasingly did with the rise of pirated DVDs and the internet, coupled with the emergence of Chinese cinema as a viable box office force, it was inevitable that producers increasingly looked westward for 'inspiration'. But matters weren't as simple as in the unregulated past, when Chinese-language movies flew under the radar of Hollywood's copyright lawyers.

A major breakthrough was achieved with A Simple Noodle Story (2009), based on the Coen brothers' Blood Simple (1984) and transformed (legally) by director Zhang Yimou into a blockbuster that eventually had its own American release under the title A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop. Regardless of whether the Chinese take on What Women Want achieves similar success at home and abroad, it is further evidence that 60 years after the initial banishment of American pop culture from the nation's social landscape, Hollywood still knows how to cast its spell over Chinese audiences - and filmmakers.

What Women Want opens on February 17