Cold Eyes, one of the hottest films at the South Korean box office this summer, may strike fans of Hong Kong cinema as oddly familiar. That's because it is an official remake of Eye in the Sky, the gripping 2007 Milkyway Image feature about a police surveillance unit that is scriptwriter Yau Nai-hoi's sole directorial outing to date.
Transposed to the city of Seoul, Cold Eyes easily topped the South Korean box office in its first week of release (July 3), taking in US$13.8 million. It had taken in US$34.4 million as of August 1. It has fared equally well among the critics, with at least one praising it as "refreshingly new" and for successfully retaining the spirit of the original, while smoothly incorporating elements of South Korean culture.
Remaking Hong Kong films is nothing new. American filmmaker Martin Scorsese's Oscar-winning The Departed (2006), based on Andrew Lau Wai-keung and Alan Mak Siu-fai's Infernal Affairs (2002), is probably the most famous example. But in recent years, South Korean producers have also shown interest in Hong Kong cinema's back catalogue.
That is partly because many of them grew up in the late 1980s and early '90s, when the genre was tremendously popular in South Korea, and voiced their respect for the well-structured plots dreamed up by Hong Kong screenwriters.
The interest in remaking Hong Kong films may also be seen as part of a broader trend in the South Korean film industry, in which producers increasingly focus on films adapted from existing material, such as novels, webtoons and comic books.
Zip Cinema chief executive Eugene Lee Yu-jin, the producer of Cold Eyes, originally watched Eye in the Sky as a reference for an original script about surveillance she was developing with directors Jo Ui-seok and Kim Byeong-seo.
"As soon as I saw it, I knew that this was the story I wanted to make," she says. "It's centred much more on drama than on action sequences, which makes it harder to market to the Korean audience. But the drama was extremely well handled, and I thought it would bring something new to Korean cinema. I called immediately and bought the remake rights."
But as directors Jo and Kim worked on adapting the screenplay, they confronted the dilemma faced by all filmmakers involved in remakes: preserving the strengths of the original in a completely different setting and context. In moving from the densely packed streets of Hong Kong to the more open vistas of Seoul, the new film gradually expanded in scope.
In addition, a somewhat gruesome climactic scene involving a large hook was also cut. "I really love the original ending, but we thought it might be too much for the local [South Korean] audience," says Lee.
Financing and casting progressed smoothly, with respected actor Sol Kyung-gu ( Peppermint Candy) assigned the part of the police chief, Jung Woo-sung ( The Good, the Bad, the Weird) tackling his first villain role, and popular actress Han Hyo-joo ( Always) taking the role of the young recruit, played by Kate Tsui Tze-shan in the original. Although all three stars are well known in South Korea, critics praised the fact that these roles brought out something new in all three of them.
While remakes don't necessarily capitalise on the name recognition of the original - Eye in the Sky, the Hong Kong film, was not even released in South Korea - Cold Eyes contains an unexpected cameo by Simon Yam Tat-wah, who gave a memorable performance as the police chief in Eye in the Sky.
Lee and Yam met at the 2012 Busan International Film Festival, where Yam was promoting The Thieves. She later broached the idea of having him portray a criminal in the new film. "I think because he has a lot of affection for the original, he was supportive of the remake."
Remaking Hong Kong films for the domestic market has created fresh opportunities for the country's filmmakers. A Better Tomorrow (2010), a remake of John Woo Yu-sum's 1986 "heroic bloodshed" classic of the same title that featured stars Joo Jin-mo, Kim Kang-woo and Song Sung-hyun was not nearly as well received as Cold Eyes. B ut the Song Hae-sung ( Failan) directed film still grossed US$10.2 million.
More recently, director Choi Dong-hoon, who cast numerous Hong Kong stars in his record-breaking The Thieves (2012), acquired the remake rights to Alan Mak Siu-fai and Felix Chong Man-keung's crime thriller, Overheard (2009). And although the project never came to fruition, a remake of Woo's The Killer (1989) had also been in development.
Remakes of other countries' films have also been successful: All About My Wife, a remake of Argentinian comedy A Boyfriend for My Wife, grossed US$29 million at the South Korean box office in 2012.
"I don't think people realise how hard it is to do a successful remake," says Lee. "Preserving the strengths of the original, while adapting it for a different audience, is difficult."
Nonetheless, as Korean cinema becomes more internationally minded, producers are increasingly looking abroad for inspiration. "If you take Hollywood as an example, they produce a tremendous number of remakes," Lee says.
"Often we're not even aware that these films are remakes," she says. "In South Korea too, I suspect they will become more common."