Friday, 4 November 2011

Korean Directors of Hollywood Movies: How Will They Fare?

Just yesterday, Arnold Schwarzenegger tweeted the first look of him and his co-stars on the set of The Last Stand, South Korean director Kim Jee Woon's English language debut. It not only got me excited about the movie, but got me thinking about another two Korean directors and their English debuts. What are we in for? Hit the jump to hear my thoughts.

Before I write another word, I must write this: I absolutely LOVE Korean cinema. Over the last few years, some of the best movies I have watched have emerged from South Korea, and almost entirely from the minds of three great directors: Jee-Woon Kim, Joon-Ho Bong and Chan-Wook Park. Even though I had seen some of their films quite a long time ago, the real craze was triggered when I saw a list of Quentin Tarantino's favourite movies since he started making movies (ie 1992). On this list, he mentioned three movies I had never heard of: The Host, Joint Security Area and Memories of Murder. I went on to order them on DVD, and the rest is history. The films directed by the three directors above are all absolute must-sees. One thing they have in common is great production value - the cinematography is absolutely superb - and wonderful characters and performances (Kang-Ho Song must be one of my favourite actors). Other than that, they range from the dark and complex (the Vengeance Trilogy, I Saw The Devil, Mother), to the bizarrely comedic and entertaining (The Good, The Bad, The Weird and The Host) to the genuinely thrilling (Memories of Murder). Common themes are, of course, revenge (Korean revenge cinema has become a genre in its own right) and, less obviously so, political satire and characters with disabilities (!). Either way, these movies are so good it frightens me. And I'm not trying to be all fancy and stuff, I promise...

Just as a brief synopsis or for ease of reference or what have you, here are some films from these directors. Watch them, I will not say it again:
  • Chan-Wook Park: Joint Security Area, Sympathy For Mr Vengeance, Oldboy (winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes), Lady Vengeance, I'm A Cyborg and Thirst. Among those we have a war thriller, three revenge movies, a sci-fi rom-com and a religious vampire thriller.
  • Joon-Ho Bong: Barking Dogs Never Bite, Memories of Murder, The Host, Tokyo! (3rd segment) and Mother. What was that? A dog revenge comedy, a serial killer thriller based on true events, a monster movie (the biggest box office hit in Korean history - over 25% of the population has seen it), a love story and a revenge film.
  • Jee-Woon Kim: A Tale of Two Sisters; A Bittersweet Life; The Good, The Bad, The Weird; and I Saw the Devil. Hmmm, a ghost story, a revenge / crime drama, an Eastern-Western and a revenge horror of the darkest sort. 
Put it this way, when it comes to genre film (something I find very difficult to define), Korean cinema is at the top of the pile. I still back the Europeans in the more dramatic fare, but the movies of South Korea have provided the most enjoyment to me by far. So, why the hell am I rambling on about this for so long? Is this an ode to South Korean cinema? No, it is not. If it was, I would tell you more about the films and less about this nonsense...

It's the tweet above that triggered this post. The success of Korean film has had an unsurprising result: attention from the Hollywood mainstream. Both Chan-Wook Park and Jee-Woon Kim are filming their first English language films, and Joon-Ho Bong has one in the works (even thought it's been a while since I heard much). Let's take a look.

Jee-Woon Kim's The Last Stand

The pic above is from The Last Stand. It stars, of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger (pictured), Jaimie Alexander (Thor, pictured), Peter Stormare (Prison Break), Forest Whitaker (The Last King Of Scotland), Rodrigo Santoro (300), Johnny Knoxville (Jackass, pictured) and the instantly recognisable but not-so-famous Luis Guzman (Boogie Nights, pictured) and Harry Dean Stanton (Alien, The Green Mile). Here is the synopsis:

Schwarzenegger stars as Sheriff Owens, a man who has resigned himself to a life of fighting what little crime takes place in sleepy border town Sommerton Junction after leaving his LAPD post following a bungled operation that left him wracked with failure and defeat after his partner was crippled. After a spectacular escape from an FBI prisoner convoy, the most notorious, wanted drug kingpin in the hemisphere is hurtling toward the border at 200 mph in a specially outfitted car with a hostage and a fierce army of gang members. He is headed, it turns out, straight for Summerton Junction, where the whole of the U.S. law enforcement will have their last opportunity to make a stand and intercept him before he slips across the border forever. At first reluctant to become involved, and then counted out because of the perceived ineptitude of his small town force, Owens ultimately accepts responsibility for one of the most daring face offs in cinema history.

Kim recently had this to say about the film (via Slashfilm):

My concept for The Last Stand is that it’s kind of a combination of Die Hard and High Noon where (the latter) was about protecting something very important that needs to be protected, while Die Hard is a very drawn-out, long process that almost kills someone in the process, so my film will be something that has to be very well protected and in the process, we almost die protecting it in a way. So if I Saw the Devil was about a person’s extreme remorse about having lost something that they couldn’t protect, The Last Stand would be where someone puts their lives on the line to protect something that’s very important and it will be a bit more optimistic film in that regard.

If you've seen The Good, The Bad, The Weird, then what you read above and the twitter pic will have you really excited.  It doesn't seem overly complex, but it does look like a helluva lotta fun!

Chan-Wook Park's Stoker

No pics from this one yet, but it sports an impressive cast, and a far more interesting plot than The Last Stand: Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska (Alice In Wonderland, Jane Eyre, The Kids Are All Right), Dermot Mulroney (Zodiac), Matthew Goode (Watchmen, A Single Man), Lucas Till (X-Men First Class), Jackie Weaver (Animal Kingdom - Oscar nominated to boot) and Alden Ehrenreich (Tetro, War Horse).

Even though Stoker is already filming, not much is known about it other than it is about a young woman who has to deal with the incursion of her mysterious uncle into the family after the death of her father. There are some hints out there that the uncle could be, well, not entirely human. Interestingly, the script was written by Wentworth Miller (yes, the dude from Prison Break). Before you close the browser, know that the script was on the 2010 Black List, which is the list of the best unproduced screenplays in Hollywood. So, it seems Mr Miller has some talent!

Stoker seems decidedly more complex than The Last Stand, and I am very excited to see it. The key similarity (other than Prison Break) here? Well, it seems that both directors have been brought in to work on material they are familiar with: Kim (The Good, The Bad, The Weird) and Park (Thirst). I might be clutching at straws here, but the "stick to what works for now" approach to me is a positive sign.

Joon-Ho Bong's... Snow Piercer?

Okay, so Bong doesn't have an English language debut that is quite filming yet. But that doesn't mean there haven been talks. One that comes to mind is a movie called Snow Piercer, which is based on a French graphic novel (so I'm not even sure it will be in English) about the end of the world. In an interview with Collider back in 2009, he said he was currently writing it and that it is about "a group of survivors that end up together on a train and they end up struggling and fighting with one another. The film takes place after the destruction of the world. The world is covered by ice and snow. It’s a new ice age. The train is running and it’s broken up by class."

And then there were rumours about JJ Abrams being in talks with Bong about working together on something. I haven't heard much about it since, but it is exciting, and I won't be surprised if we start hearing more about this director soon (he has been a little too quiet of late). Oh, and did I forget to mention? Snow Piercer is a collaboration with Chan-Wook Park. Sweet.

So, What Can We Expect?

Based on my above ramblings, one would think that we can expect nothing but the best when South Korea comes to North America (and the rest of the world). I do, but I also have one small concern: the language barrier. This concern sprouted from the fact that my friends and I are always raving about the phenomenal performances delivered by actors in foreign films when compared to their Hollywood counterparts. So much so that at one point, we had to sit back and think - is that even possible? I doubt it.

Some time later, someone from Sweden mentioned how she thought certain performances in a Swedish film were bad. And we realised: as English speakers, we can identify the nuances in an English performance so much more effectively and with so much added sensitivity than in a foreign language. We don't know exactly how words and phrases are supposed to be phrased in those languages, and that makes the delivery of a convincing performance a LOT easier. Of course you may disagree, but that conclusion accords with so many of my own observations made with regard to foreign language performances in the past. An example that comes to mind is this: many actors have tried very hard to pull off the South African accent. As a South African, I can tell you very honestly that not one of those attempts were decent. I'm talking Leonardo DiCaprio in Blood Diamond, Matt Damon in Invictus, Tom Jane in Stander and the lot of them in The Bang Bang Club. Not one actor has got it right. Yes, we compliment them from time to time - for a valiant attempt - nothing more. Foreign viewers can't notice it, but for us it is blatantly obvious. If you want a proper South African accent, speak to Sharlto Copley or Charlize Theron.

The language barrier isn't normally a problem though; I mean, these guys are directing, not acting, right? And so many foreign directors have had superb English language success. I think immediately of Lars Von Trier, and more appropriately (being Asian), John Woo. He made is debut with Hard Target, and followed with the likes of Broken Arrow, Face Off, MI:2 and more. Hold your horses, Hard Target and Broken Arrow were shit! And, John Woo grew up in Hong Kong at the time it was still part of the British Empire, so his English is probably quite good. Lars Von Trier's English is fantastic. Think also of directors Guillermo Del Toro and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu - they all speak near-perfect English.

So what then about Bong, Park and Kim? I have done some serious web searching and DVD extras watching, and I have not found a single interview with them conducted in English. It's always subtitled or translated with voice over. That does not mean they cannot speak English, but it does, in my ignorant opinion, create an interesting situation.

Of course all of the above may be complete bullshit, especially if my hypotheses about the foreign language performances is crap. Or if their English is in fact perfect. Another problem is that this post is by no means well researched (except for Bong, Park and Kim not speaking English, I've noticed this over years). I am sure there are examples out there that will prove me wrong, and by all means, comment below and tell me if you disagree. For now, I am just hoping that my beloved Korean directors make a smooth transition into the Hollywood mainstream. They are way too talented not to be seen by a wider audience.

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