Asian Shakespeares on Screen
[Disclaimer: The photos and videos below are not mine but to their owners and the people who have uploaded them. Citations and link are given where possible]
Shakespeare is universal. He and his plays are well received all over the world and are part of various nations’ popular culture – including Asia. And for the last few decades, film makers have been mixing Asian and Shakespearean aesthetics in creating bold incarnations and diverse re-imaginations of the great Bard’s plays. Among other places, film adaptations of Shakespeare plays were made in Japan, China, Tibet, Korea, India and the Philippines.
Akira Kurosawa, one of the greatest filmmakers in Japan, is acclaimed for his adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays particularly Throne of Blood (Kumonosu-Dyo, The Castle of Spider Web, 1957) and Ran (1985). Among the two, his most notable work is Throne of Blood, an adaptation of Macbeth. The film is set in 15th century Japan revolving around a story of betrayal, and power.
Kliman calls it as one of “the most satisfying films based on a Shakespeare play.” for rather than creating an interpretation of the text, “Kurosawa has lifted Macbeth from its original culture and transformed it into a film of medieval Japan” (183). Still, the film stays true to the plot, as well as the characters’ roles in the original text.
Kurosawa’s other Shakespeare film, Ran, although not as popular as first adaptation, is also a critically acclaimed film. Based on King Lear, Ran is also a tale of lust for power, family betrayal, and murder. It tells a story about the downfall of the Ichimonji clan after the cruel head of the family, Hidetora, decides to give up the control of the clan to his three sons.
In 2006, Chinese director Feng Xiaogong adapted Hamlet, 10th century China, and martial arts genre in his acclaimed film, The Banquet.
Described as a loose adaptation of Hamlet, The Banquet, according to Scott-Douglass, delivers the promise feast as its title suggests but not in the form of real food in the film but instead “it serves up a feast of multiple references to several Shakespeare plays” (1). The film parallels to Hamlet in terms of Prince Wu Luan’s (Hamlet’s) love of theater; Emperor Li’s (Claudius’s) obsession with Empress Wan (Gertrude); and General Yin’s (Laertes’s) protectiveness of his sister Qing Nu (Ophelia). Yet, it also references Romeo and Juliet with a similar forbidden love theme between Prince Wu Luan and Empress Wan, and Macbeth as Empress Wan parallels Lady Macbeth’s desire to achieve political power. This desire for power of Empress Wan is one of the interesting differences of the film from the original text, for unlike the latter, Gertrude and Ophelia counterparts in the film are given a stronger presence in the film.
At the same year, another Chinese adaptation of Hamlet was made. Directed by Sherwood Hu who is considered as one of the most exciting film makers from China, Prince of the Himalayas (2006) is a story set in ancient Tibet about Prince Llamoklodan and his struggles to revenge on his uncle who has killed his father and has taken the throne and his mother – the widowed queen.
From tragedies, our next film takes a turn to comedy. The Korean film, Frivolous Wife (Taming of the Shrew, 2008) is based on a Shakespeare classic of the same name.
The film falls under the romantic comedy genre, where a beautiful and rich girl named Yeon-su lives a life of freedom and indulgence, getting any thing she wants from material things to men. That is, until she meets and falls for Jung-do, a person with a total opposite character as her – an awkward and polite young gentleman. The story talks of how Yeon-su as a wife of a traditional family learns to be a proper lady to receive approval from her in-laws.
Since 1927, India has been adapting Shakespeare plays in its vernacular languages. The Bombay film industry or what we now call on as Bollywood, started out from Parsi theaters whose traditions included adapting several Shakespeare plays that were fitted to the local performance traditions. This eventually led to Shakespeare adaptations in Indian films. However after India’s independence in 1947, the tradition suffered a setback until the 1990s when Hollywood adaptations of the Great Bards’ plays emerged and gained immense popularity.
Vishal Bhardwaj, now considered as India’s most innovative, young director, rode along this new wave direction of the film industry and even vowed to “touch a chord with international audiences” (qtd by Sen, 2). Indeed, he succeeded with his two adaptations: Maqbool (2004), based on Macbeth and Omkara, based on Othello (2006).
Maqbool is acclaimed as a “Macbeth meets The Godfather” film, for it “defies convenient categorization [as] it combines Bollywood gangster film, Muslim social drama, ethnography, and postmodernist artwork.” (Huang, 1). Although set in the dark underworld of Bombay (Mumbai), features Bollywood actors, and draws from conventions of the Bollywood film such as festivities, songs and dances, the film remains close to Shakespeare where Maqbool is part of a crime family whose head is Abbaji (Duncan) yet the latter’s mistress, Nimmi (Lady Macbeth) is in love with Maqbool. And instead of witches, the movie has two corrupt policemen predicting Maqbool’s rise to power.
Omkara, on the other hand, draws from Othello, caste politics, and gang culture to explore culture to explore universal human emotions like jealousy and is considered more faithful to the original text’s story line.
In the Philippines, we have aslo adapted Shakespeare in film such as Si Romeo at si Julieta (1968), a comedy directed by F.H Constantino based on Shakespeares’s R&J about Miong (Romeo), a school janitor, who is madly in love with Julieta, and his rivalry with Bading, the school principal, for the heart of Julieta.
The latest Philippine adaptation of Shakespeare is also another R&J-based film, Rome and Juliet. The film is directed by Connie Macatuno and starred by Mylene Dizon and Andrea del Rosario. The film follows the “forbidden love” theme of R&J yet in the form of taboo love and lesbianism.
Each of these films shows different re-imaginings of Shakespeare’s plays for movie makers have adapted them into their own cultures. This may simply be looked as a form of appropriation to suit each nation however, at a deeper and more commercialized point of view, Shakespeare is also a brand that movie makers utilize in order to gain more audience and therefore bigger profits not only from their own countries but also around the world. By doing this though, it also shows that Shakespeare no longer comes from the West to the rest of the world for now “the rest” also have something to share about Shakespeare to West.
Presented by: Irene Louise S. Arabelo
B.A English Studies
Books and Journals:
Huang, Alexander C. Y. “Introduction.” In Asian Shakespeares onScreen: Two Films in Perspective. Special issue, edited by Alexander C. Y. Huang. Borrowersand Lenders: The Journal of Shakespeare and Appropriation 4.2 (Spring/Summer 2009).Available online: http://www.borrowers.uga.edu/.
Kliman, Bernice W. Macbeth. UK: Manchester Univeristy Press, 2004.
Scott-Douglass, Amy. “Shakespeare: It’s What’s for Dinner.” InAsian Shakespeares on Screen: Two Films in Perspective. Special issue, edited by Alexander C.Y. Huang. Borrowers and Lenders: The Journal of Shakespeare and Appropriation 4.2(Spring/Summer 2009). Available online: http://www.borrowers.uga.edu/.
Sen, Suddhaseel. “Indigenizing Macbeth: Vishal Bhardwaj’sMaqbool.” In Asian Shakespeares on Screen: Two Films in Perspective. Special issue, edited byAlexander C. Y. Huang. Borrowers and Lenders: The Journal of Shakespeare and Appropriation4.2 (Spring/Summer 2009). Available online: http://www.borrowers.uga.edu/.
“[TR] Frivolous WIfe Trailer”. Dir. Won-kuk Lim. 24 May 2008. Youtube. 21 March 2011. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eWiS1XXzhTw>.
“Maqbool (OmU) HQ / OFFICIAL GERMAN DVD TRAILER/”. Dir. Vishal Bhardwaj. 29 April 2009. Youtube. 21 March 2011. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=scNDE4i-JH0>.
“Omkara”. Dir. Vishal Bhardwaj. 4 May 2007. Youtube. 21 March 2011. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hp697cTAIMU>.
“Prince of Himalayas”. Dir. Sherwood Hu. 3 February 2008. Youtube. 21 March 2011. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GPKwudubbfc>.
“Throne of Blood”. Dir. Akira Kurosawa. 8 December 2009. Youtube. 21 March 2011. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ThEtiIleWQ0&feature=related>.
“The Banquet International Trailer”. Dir. Feng Xiaogang. 23 November 2006. Youtube. 21 March 2011. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a2R-X4BH66A>.
“Ran Trailer – Akira Kurosawa”. Dir. Akira Kurosawa. 9 April 2009. Youtube. 21 March 2011. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AbbfDntoRRk>.
“Rome and Juliet; Trailer (Best Indie Film)”. Dir. Connie Macatuno. ” 7 November 2008. Youtube. 21 March 2011. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Euk1bOSgzk>.