Scott: The influence of Asian genre filmmakers on American movies over the last 20 years—first with a wave of Hong Kong action maestros, more recently with an influx of eclectic directors from South Korea—has been profound. 2013 has been bookended by imports of a different kind: The Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle The Last Stand, Kim Jee-woon’s Hollywood debut, tanked at the box office, but it tried (with some success, in my view) to revive the bullets-and-blood basics of Schwarzenegger’s 1980s action heyday while showing off Kim’s understanding of Westerns like Rio Bravo. (Kim’s filmography has cut across a range of different genres, but among the entries is the terrifically entertaining spaghetti-Western homage The Good, The Bad, The Weird.) Now Spike Lee has turned to Oldboy, the middle entry in Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy, for an English-language remake that transforms Park’s sumptuously gothic mega-revenge story into a stilted attempt at neo-noir. Both cases are fascinating studies in how style and sensibility transfer from one culture to another—and how much can be lost in translation. Noel and Tasha, what’s your take on this melding (or clashing) of cultures? Are you as excited now about the Korean invasion as you once were about John Woo, Jackie Chan, and the Hong Kong scene going Western?
Noel: I’m going to offer a qualified “no” here, mainly because I’m not sure the Hong Kong invasion panned out as well as it should’ve. Woo and Chan both made some highly entertaining movies (as did Tsui Hark, whose Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicles Double Team and Knock Off are gloriously dumb), but compared to the films the major Hong Kong auteurs were producing before they came to Hollywood, their English-language pictures seem way too compromised. I like Face/Off and Shanghai Noon, but it’s crushing to think about all the Hard Boileds and Drunken Master IIs we might’ve missed while these guys were trying to please studio suits who apparently didn’t know who they’d hired. The cycle may already be repeating itself. The Last Stand and Stoker are good, but not as good as The Good, The Bad, The Weird or Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance. And I’m already pre-outraged over the reports of what The Weinstein Company is doing to cut Bong Joon-ho’s English-language debut, Snowpiercer. I’m not one of those who believes Hollywood is inherently awful—if nothing else, working within the current studio system may allow these very genre-friendly directors the budgets they need to realize something grand someday—but it’s a pretty common business practice for big companies to recruit talented filmmakers based on buzz, then just shackle them.
I’m more intrigued by the possibilities of American filmmakers being influenced by Korea, because during the Hong Kong wave of the 1990s, the directors who raved about (and ripped off) the HK stars were making some exciting movies. Quentin Tarantino comes to mind, inevitably; but I liked Martin Scorsese’s The Departed about as much as I liked the film that inspired it, Lau Wai-Keung’s Infernal Affairs. (And I liked Infernal Affairs a lot.) Scorsese has also said that he watched a lot of Korean films—especially Park Chan-wook’s—when he was making Shutter Island, and I think they left a mark on that picture. There’s a fevered intensity to Shutter Island that I’d love to see more of in American thrillers.
Tasha: I’m apathetic about the Korean invasion to the degree it just means “Let’s shoot some bland remakes of terrific Korean films, and get some terrific Korean filmmakers to make bland American films.” But there’s a lot more to the crossover between Asian cinema and Hollywood cinema than we’ve hit so far. In your kickoff, Scott, you didn’t mention the heavy influence Japanese films have had on American horror movies over the last decade. After Japanese-style horror hit the American mainstream with Gore Verbinski’s 2002 remake of The Ring, the theaters filled up with crab-walking, drowned-looking, black-haired monster-ladies for a while. More recently, it seems like those specific images have finally palled a bit, and after years of remade Japanese movies like Dark Water, The Grudge, and Pulse, Hollywood is journeying further afield into Asian horror, with recent remakes of Korea’s A Tale Of Two Sisters (as The Uninvited), Thailand’s Shutter, and Hong Kong’s The Eye. Many of these remakes weren’t great, but like book-to-film adaptations, they do have the advantage of drawing audiences to the original work, whether the derivative one is great or negligible. Overall, though, I think Asian horror has had a terrific influence on American horror, by helping pushing aside rote slashers and tongue-in-cheek, meta horror-comedies, and bringing the uncanny and unpredictable back into horror. Even looking at this year’s crop of original, non-remake horror films, I see an awful lot of lasting influence from Asian cinema in movies from Mama to The Conjuring, in terms of the focus on intense shocks, creeping inevitability, characters adjusting to rather than defeating the unstoppable supernatural, and long-haired, floppy ghosts.
But the influence I’m finding more interesting right now is the business pressures the Chinese market is putting on Hollywood. More and more mid-to-big-budget films are finding ways to court Chinese government approval—which means we’re seeing Batman taking a strange side trip to Hong Kong in The Dark Knight, and the plot parking there for a large chunk of Pacific Rim. Or Joe running off to Shanghai in Looper, and Spike Jonze’s Her being partially shot there, albeit without making a point of it. And then there’s the even more fascinating trend of having aspirational blockbusters throw in flattering comments about Chinese know-how, and moving away from anything that might annoy Chinese censors. (Like the Red Dawn remake shooting with Chinese actors and a script that made it clear China was invading the U.S.—but then digitally altering the actors’ faces and retroactively redubbing the film to make the villains North Koreans, as implausible as that was.) The Chinese market is vast, and the average blockbuster-sized film seems to make 50 to 80 percent of its money in overseas markets these days, so it certainly makes sense that American producers would want to ensure Chinese release (and, apparently, preferential release windows). But it’s becoming more and more interesting playing find-the-kowtow-moment in big American films, looking for scenes and moments and dialogue inserted entirely to ingratiate an American film with one specific market. And I’m simultaneously dubious about and entertained by the way American and Asian film culture is blending, with Chinese pictures looking more and more like Hollywood studio releases, while American pictures are continuing to cherry-pick elements from Asian culture for exotica (like Japanese-style ghosts) and explosive style. As with so many other cultural elements, it seems like the rise of modern mass communications and increasingly permeable markets is moving us all very slowly in the direction of a monoculture.
Scott: [Craaaaaaack.] Tasha has opened up quite a can of worms here with the cultural (and financial) interchange between China and Hollywood, which accounts for much of the latter’s decision-making. Last summer, the disparity between the relatively paltry $100 million Pacific Rim made domestically with the $400 million it made worldwide raised some eyebrows—and earned some sequel talk for a movie that, as Forbes points out here, collected about as much money in the States as Cowboys And Aliens, which everyone agreed was a flop. Pacific Rim has obvious roots in the Far East, but we’re seeing it happen with flotsam like Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, too, which is also listed in the piece ($55 million here; $170 million overseas). And to Tasha’s list of elements with Asian appeal, I’ll add this egregious example: There’s no other explanation for the casting of Taiwanese pop phenom Jay Chou as Kato in The Green Hornet, though I’m not sure it ultimately paid off. In general, I haven’t been on the lookout for examples of cultural references aimed at China or other specific global markets, but it has certainly affected the go-big-or-go-home scale of blockbuster filmmaking, where movies have to be produced for nine figures to have a chance to break into those lucrative markets—which then leaves no incentive for the giant multinational corporations that run studios to produce work on a smaller scale. Tasha’s warning of a “monoculture” is valid, I think, because any time you try to broaden the appeal of a movie too much, you risk a generic sameness, like working toward the lowest common denominator. (Like monsters vs. robots, say, though Del Toro at least finds a way to make such simplicity artful and alluring.)
To get back to what Noel was saying about Korean influence—and to extend what Tasha was saying about the J-horror wave—I think it’s a fair generalization to state that influence from Asian filmmakers is often better than seeing their visions mangled up by the Hollywood system. A film like Shutter Island—one of Scorsese’s most underrated and visually striking movies—can embrace the fevered intensity and tonal schizophrenia of a Korean production, mix it up with Powell and Pressburger’s use of color, and come out with a fresh amalgamation. But as much as I enjoyed the throwback Western/action charms of The Last Stand, there’s no denying that Kim Jee-woon had to accommodate the specific needs of Schwarzenegger, Johnny Knoxville, and American genre filmmaking too much to make a film as precisely calibrated as The Good, The Bad, The Weird or I Saw The Devil. When John Woo first crossed over to American films, he was little more than a director-for-hire for a typical Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle; I think he happened to make the very best Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle—and the most Hong Kong-like of his American films, period—but The Killer and Hard-Boiled, it emphatically wasn’t.
But I think there’s reason to hope the Korean wave will go better than the Hong Kong one (or certainly the J-horror influx, which was mostly about bad remakes with the same stylistic hitches). I disagree with Noel on Stoker, which isn’t my favorite Park movie, but finds his impeccable style remarkably intact. Word on Snowpiercer has been excellent—and there have even been some cheering reports that the Weinsteins might not have their way with it after all—and I think Bong’s The Host proves he doesn’t need to compromise or twist himself into knots to pull off some Spielbergian popular artistry. What might be trickier to translate to American audiences are the tonal shifts from horror to drama to broad comedy that can happen so readily in Korean films, but might cause a little seasickness here. I’d hate to see that flattened out in the name of monoculturalism, but it may well be.
Noel: I’d also hate for “Korean film” to become defined exclusively by these strange, intense, often violent genre pictures, as much as I like them. For a long time, the most unpredictable, and in some ways the best, of the Korean wave was Kim Ki-duk, who could make something as dark and repugnant as Bad Guy or as spiritually uplifting as Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter And Spring. And then there’s Hong Sang-soo, who’s spent the past decade making increasingly quirkier variations on the same relationship comedy. If we’re looking at the recent history of Japanese and Hong Kong cinema that’s crossed over to the American market, Kim and Hong would be more like a Wong Kar-wai or a Hirokazu Kore-eda, so idiosyncratic that they can’t really be absorbed into anyone’s system.
I’m less stressed about the drive toward a blockbuster monoculture, though, but maybe that’s because I liked Pacific Rim, and would be happy to see more films on that scale, even if they flop here and score overseas. Perhaps I’m too naïve about such things, but I feel like smart filmmakers will be able to do what they need to do to satisfy the Asian markets, but will still make movies that are distinctive and personal. And I feel like Korea, Japan, and China will continue to develop their own strains of culture that the West can absorb and reimagine. (In the interest of full disclosure, though, I should also add that I’m a weirdo who kind of likes product-placement in movies, because I find it connects films to their era in ways that are valuable decades hence. But that’s a Conversation for another time.)
I am curious, though: Do we see “the Korean invasion” as a long-lasting trend, with directors like Park and Bong continuing to make English-language movies for the foreseeable future, or Hollywood rushing to remake a slew of Korean films? Or is it a mere blip, with all of the future Asian cross-influence skewing Chinese?
Tasha: Based on economics, the Chinese influence seems more likely to last. While The Ring made around $250 million in theaters, enough to set off the J-horror-in-America craze, neither the remakes of Korean films nor the American films from imported Korean directors have been making the huge profits that keep studios clamoring for more. (Kim’s The Last Stand and Park’s Stoker barely made back their basic production costs in gross box office, even in worldwide release.) Studios hoping to get a boost by bringing in popular, acclaimed Korean stylists seem to be finding that those directors don’t have much name recognition in America, and it’s harder to remain a standout creative stylist while working inside an American studio culture. Though to argue in the opposite direction, South Korea has spent the past 15 years aggressively working to make its culture more exportable and profitable (not unlike what America’s doing right now in courting Chinese audiences), to the extent of the government funding a $295 million initiative in that direction. Whereas China is focusing more on its own markets, in ways that seem less likely to penetrate American sensibilities—like the recent decision to produce 55 propaganda movies aimed at the country’s ethnic groups. So it seems less likely that we’re going to see a wave of imported Chinese genre-film directors taking over Hollywood in the near future. But we’re comparing apples and oranges here: America’s attempt to court worldwide audiences by bringing in Korean directors and remaking Korean films isn’t quite the same thing as attempting to insert pieces of Chinese culture and references into otherwise American-original films to get them past Chinese censors.
At any rate, I’m less interested in which specific Asian country is likely to have more influence over cinema over the next decade or so, and more interested in what the Asian market influence is doing to cinema as a whole. One way China is getting involved in Hollywood is by helping produce and distribute films, in exchange for considerations like the China-shot sequences I mentioned above, and a guarantee that a percentage of the cast and crew will be Chinese. Looper, for example, was a Chinese/American co-production that got significant Chinese funding and support. And part of the deal wound up being that the film got different cuts in different countries: The American release kept the Shanghai sequence short and to the point, but Chinese audiences saw a different cut that spent more time in the country, and focused more on the relationship between Bruce Willis’ Old Joe character and his Shanghai wife. Rather than a monoculture, we could end up with more projects along those lines: customizable culture, with different areas of the world each contributing to production costs, in exchange for their own more culturally appropriate cuts of movies.
The big danger there is that all these specific cultural/commercial elements will overwhelm artistic considerations. They seem to work directly against Noel’s hope that import filmmakers (or any filmmaker, really) will be able to keep their work distinctive and personal: It goes against the grain to think of a film as taut and smart as Looper being padded for the Chinese market, just as much as it goes against the grain to think of Snowpiercer or The Grandmaster being hacked down to 90 minutes for American release, to appeal to a presumed audience of action-loving dunderheads who get bored at the 91-minute mark, no matter what they’re watching. If we want to hold out an idealistic belief that every movie has one perfect version that represents the director’s authentic vision, the idea of assorted versions for assorted markets is anathema. But allow me to suggest that different cuts for different countries shouldn’t feel that threatening: Different cultures do have different tastes. Would an Indian-market Looper with a few musical numbers for Bollywood fans really be that bad? Do we have to worry about multiple markets compromising our media, or can we accept that a movie’s core concepts and style might appeal to a variety of cultures, and that the material surrounding it is less crucial?
Scott: As someone who bristles whenever multiple cuts of a film exist for dubious reasons—don’t get me started on “unrated director’s cut” DVDs, as if anyone told Paul Schrader to leave things out of The Canyons, to cite one example sitting on my desk—what you describe, Tasha, is a nightmarish vision for me. The idea of different cuts for different cultures is art getting beaten down by commerce, with the side effect of limiting one of the chief pleasures of cultural exchange, which is experiencing the foreignness of another place. Of course, the movie business has always been about the melding of art and commerce to varying degrees, but in the best-case scenario, they aren’t at cross purposes. But the effect on mega-budgeted, globally marketed movies is to make them less personal and less distinctive, and that’s not a vision of one-worldism I can embrace.
To circle back to what Noel was asking, I don’t necessarily see the Korean invasion being any longer-lasting than the influx of Hong Kong filmmakers in the ’90s or the here-and-gone J-horror wave, though it depends on whether Korea can produce another generation of talented filmmakers and retain its prominence on the world stage. I’m optimistic that directors like Park Chan-wook, Kim Jee-woon, and Bong Joon-ho can find a place for themselves in America—despite the underperformance of Park and Kim’s English-language debuts—though they may be best suited to modestly budgeted quasi-indies like Stoker and Snowpiercer, which offer the promise of more artistic freedom. (And Noel, I didn’t mention Kim Ki-duk or Hong Sang-soo because I never thought their sensibilities would carry over here, unless one of them tried a one-off like Wong Kar-wai’s My Blueberry Nights. As you were saying, they’re the types that can’t be absorbed into somebody else’s system.)
But while I’m hopeful individual filmmakers can find their way to cross-cultural success, the bigger picture is discouraging. Noel, you said you’re not that stressed about cinematic monoculture, and cited Pacific Rim, a film you enjoyed, as an example. But that film straddles Eastern and Western cinematic traditions so perfectly that you couldn’t have ordered up a better crossover prospect. So few other films slip into the Venn diagram that I worry about the compromises necessary to make certain they do. But I’m a worrier by nature.
Noel: And I’m an “It’ll all work out” guy by nature, particularly when it comes to art and culture. I think back on all the great movies made under restrictive conditions—be it state censorship or financier demands—and I tend to feel that self-expression finds a way. Don’t get me wrong; I want artists to be able to do what they want, with minimal interference. But I’ve also long been fascinated by the context of creative choices made under duress, or made because of prevailing trends. Speaking again of the cross-cultural influence, I think back on the 1960s, when Hollywood responded to the various European New Waves by hiring away those countries’ ingenues. I watch movies from that era on TCM, and it seems like the heroes’ love interests are always speaking in thick accents. This works against the quality of those movies, I think, but it also marks them as products of their time, which is useful to me as someone who likes to study film from a historical perspective as much as an aesthetic one.
Maybe you’re both right that the more expensive movies at least are going to continue to be diluted by the demands of the international market. I’m certainly not rooting for that to happen. But even if it does, I expect plenty of excellent films will continue to pop up around the world, and I expect even the market for blockbusters will evolve in yet another direction, as it always does.
Tasha: I’m a worrier and a cynic by nature, but I’m still in Noel’s camp as a we-can-work-it-out optimist. The conflict between art-for-art’s-sake and art-for-money’s sake is as old as money, but we still somehow have vibrant art. There’s no question that the massive new markets will exert new pressures, but I’m confident they’ll bring in exciting new elements, too, like giving us imports from talented filmmakers whose work never would have made it to America a couple of decades ago, and whose startling new visions we can’t imagine now. When the next generation of Wong Kar-wais and Park Chan-wooks comes along, we have a better chance than ever of seeing what they do, and drawing on it to make our own culture richer, more complicated, and more vibrant. As much as commerce pulls us in the direction of one culture, viewers’ demand for novelty, fresh voices, and fresh visions will pull us back in the other direction. It’s what led to the J-horror wave and the Korean invasion in the first place, and it’s what will lead us on to the next thing as well.