Coming to America: South Korea's top directors on hitting Hollywood with English language films -- EXCLUSIVE


Image Credit: Macall Polay

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Working with A-listers through a translator

One of the biggest challenges for the directors was communicating with their stars through translators. Each of them noted the power of emotion, speaking with one’s eyes and hands, a wordless language that still communicates a great deal, especially with seasoned actors who know how to gauge facial expressions.

“I’m amazed and impressed that these Korean directors will direct films outside of their native language,” said Cameron Bailey, artistic director of the Toronto International Film Festival. “That’s got to be a challenge for any director. Kim, Park, and Bong have all shown in previous films, though, that they have tremendous filmmaking skills, and know how to guide actors to deeply affecting performances.”

Take Kim working with Schwarzenegger. The director, who emphasized “actors are actors, regardless of nationality,” was at first completely overwhelmed by the possibility of working with the former California “Governator.” “Arnold was always smart, and not once did he complain,” Kim said. “Even when the 1st AD or the producer would tell me that we were running out of time with Arnold, he would tell them to give the director time to think and take my side. Arnold was able to clearly understand even the vaguest directions I gave him. I also love his aging appearance. He is no longer the Terminator, but a real person who exudes warmth from his wrinkles and deep eyes, and I love that about him.” Of co-star Forest Whitaker, Kim said he had “the presence of a mountain,” adding, “It seems as though all great actors, both in Korea and Hollywood, embody some sort of charisma and aura. … I had a chance to peek over at his [Whitaker’s] copy of the script once, and he had filled it with handwritten notes, even more than what I had written down in mine.”

Once, after a take, Kim felt something was off with a particular scene, and he started walking over to give directions. “But the actor saw me approaching in the distance and told me that he understands, even before I said anything,” said Kim. “I thought to myself, ‘I didn’t say anything, and you really understand? We’ll see about that.’ I returned to the playback monitors and called ‘Action!’ and amazingly the actor did exactly what I wanted to do. This type of artistic interaction that precedes spoken word is what moves me.”

Bong based Snowpiercer on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, which he bought and read on the spot in a Korean comic book store, he said. He also cast South Korea’s Song Kang-Ho, a talented chameleon actor who has starred in films directed by Park, Kim, and Bong. From French to Korean to English, Snowpiercer‘s storyline twists through a roller coaster of translations.

“If the translator is competent, there are no problems on set,” said Bong. “Even when I’m working with Korean actors, if they don’t connect emotionally or on a personal level, it doesn’t really work. As long as you connect on that emotional level, even if there are two or three translators in between, there are no problems communicating.”

Kidman, who was interested in playing the lead mother role in Stoker, Park said, was the director’s first choice, and also respectful of the language barrier. “Not only is she an actress who trusts in the filmmaker, she’s very passionate doing good work that would satisfy the director,” said Park. “It felt she decided very resolutely to be more considerate of a director from overseas. I felt very looked after by Nicole.” It also helped that Stoker co-producer Wonjo Jeong acted as a translator. “In order to reduce the amount of time lost on set because of translation and communication, I tried to have as much rehearsal time as possible with the actors,” Park sad. “During that, I went through each line of dialogue, I listened to what the actors thought about each line. There were arguments, but we were on the same page.”

Hollywood studios, a different system

For Kim and Park, working within the Hollywood studio system also proved to an uncomfortable adjustment, at least at first. Directors reign supreme in South Korea, “on top of the pyramid,” with the director’s decision always final, said Kim. For instance, South Korean directors are always referred to as “Director” as a sign of respect (no one says “Director Nolan,” “Director Eastwood,” “Director Spielberg” here).

“In the U.S., however, the director, the producer, the studio, and the main star are all equals, so when the director suddenly has a moment of creativity, sometimes there is difficulty in bringing a spontaneous idea to fruition,” lamented Kim. “Nevertheless, I pushed hard and convinced everyone for the most part, but this procedure was difficult and draining. Still, with Lionsgate providing a lot of creative room, and Lorenzo di Bonaventura being a skilled producer, we were able to finish shooting with flexibility and efficiency.” Park also said he became more comfortable with the idea of studio input after feeling pressure at first. “I decided to change perception, and these would be the people who would sit in the audience and watch my film,” Park said. “Once I changed my perception, I became more comfortable with the feedback.”

Bong, who didn’t go through an American studio, said that while the production was Hollywood-based, it wasn’t a “Hollywood” film. “I didn’t face pressures other directors might have faced. I had to follow SAG regulations, and didn’t have any other issues,” said Bong. “In order to protect my beloved actors, I followed all the regulations.”

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