What Women Want was sort of a weird romantic comedy to begin with — Mel Gibson gains the ability to "hear" women's thoughts, and his mental voyeurism somehow becomes romantic. But how does this story do when it's remade for Chinese audiences a decade later? We watched the Chinese remake, starring Andy Lau and Gong Li, and here's what we thought of it.
The original What Women Want was sort of a creepy film. Like You've Got Mail, which came out a couple years ago, it's one of those films which is all about a man manipulating and outsmarting a woman, in a way that's supposed to be lovable. And like You've Got Mail, it tries to address people's anxieties about the way the world is changing.
In the original, Mel Gibson is a sexist dickwad who works in advertising, and he's sort of a throwback to the Mad Men era. He's ill-equipped for a world where women are important as consumers, and he's thrown off his game when Helen Hunt is brought in as his new boss. But then, while testing out a box full of female consumer products that Hunt gives him, Gibson gets electrocuted — and suddenly he has mind-reading powers that only work on women.
Gibson's awareness of what women are really thinking makes him a more sensitive person — but it also makes him better at selling shit to women, and makes him into the ultimate marketing weenie. It also allows him to steal Hunt's ideas, and undercut her until she finally loses her job, at which point he repents and comes clean. As with many fantasies of this type, the power fantasy and the redemption fantasy go hand in hand. Gibson learns to respect female power by gaining a new, fantastic power over women.
So now this film has been remade for Chinese audiences — the new version, called Wo Zhi Nu Ren Xin or literally I Know a Woman's Heart, came out in China on Friday, and got a simultaneous release in many U.S. cities. (Chances are if you live in a major city, it's showing near you, at least for the next few days.)
How does it compare to Nancy Meyers' original version? In a nutshell, it's similar but more sprawling and unfocused. The basic storyline is the same and the new version keeps a lot of the same beats. But there are new subplots that don't add much to the story, and some subplots from the original get slashed. In short, it's not just U.S. studios who make inferior remakes of foreign movies — foreign studios are perfectly capable of making inferior remakes of U.S. films as well.
The biggest subplot added to the Chinese version involves the main character's father, who I don't think was even a character in Meyers' version. The dad is obsessed with being an opera singer or choral singer, and he keeps insisting he's a tenor when he's really a baritone, and driving everybody in the old folks home nuts with his singing. Eventually, we learn that the old man was a terrible husband and father who tortured his wife — which is offered as a sort of roundabout explanation for why the main character, Sun Zigang, is such a jerk himself. The addition of the dad makes this more of a multi-generational saga, but it also allows us a way to psychoanalyze the main character without actually sending him to therapy.
And the other big subplot, which is really weirdly constructed, involves Gong Li's character. Just like Helen Hunt's version, she's a sassy broad who comes in and takes over at the advertising firm. But in the reimagined Chinese version, she spends a lot of time flirting online with a mysterious potential boyfriend known only as 007. He finally flies up from Shanghai to visit her — and he turns out to be a head-hunter who wants to recruit her to go work at an ad agency in Shanghai. It's kind of random, although his continuing presence in the film does serve to remind the audience that Gong's character is still high-powered and sought after, even after she loses her job due to Andy Lau's machinations.
There are also some newly added sequences that drag horribly, like a segment where all of the characters wind up at a Japanese restaurant whose main specialty is Mongolian beef. Why is a Japanese restaurant serving Mongolian beef? We don't know, but the characters spend an inordinately long time trying to unpack this mystery.
A couple of the more important subplots from the U.S. version are sacrificed, meanwhile — Marisa Tomei's character is in there, but her role is drastically reduced to a one- or two-joke character. And the running subplot about the girl who wants to kill herself is basically gone, except for a brief jokey moment — which means that Andy Lau never has the same chance to demonstrate true sensitivity and awareness that Mel Gibson got. Also, the shy, retiring girl who drops her papers is very much shoved to the sidelines here as well. Overall, the new version of the film has fewer vivid female characters — women have been sacrificed, this time around, to give screentime to Andy Lau's dad and a couple of other male characters. It's odd, in a film about a guy who gains a new awareness of women's subjectivity, to have so much emphasis put on male characters who add almost nothing to the story.
And it's a lot less clear, this time around, what the mind-reading guy actually learns from his visit to the female mindspace. A lot of the inner monologues that Andy Lau picks up on have to do with women wanting men to buy them stuff, so to some extent he learns that he was right all along — women want rich men. Although, just like in the U.S. version, Andy Lau does learn to value women's contributions — especially Gong Li's, when he's alternating between just stealing her ideas and actively collaborating with her. To the extent that the original film had a baseline message that women's ideas are valuable, and women's feelings are important, this film preserves that.
But of course, the cultural context of the two films is very, very different. The American version is primarily about a gender shift at the turn of the millennium, with women becoming more powerful in the workplace. The Chinese version is subtly commenting on the rise of consumer culture in itself. And maybe that's why we have to see the father of Andy Lau's character — we see a few soft-focus flashbacks to his childhood, a few decades earlier, when China was a much less prosperous, much less urbanized country, and the idea of spending millions on advertising and trying to sell fancy stuff to women would have been an alien concept.
So to some extent, this version of What Women Want isn't just about the rise of women to power — it's about the rise of China's middle class and upper class, a process which, in turn, has created an army of female consumers. So this time around, what women want really is about consumerism and economic power, and a fable about mind-reading and advertising might make more sense in that context than it did in the U.S. circa 2000.