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

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English language influences: Hitchcock, De Palma

While Park, Kim, and Bong’s movies in Korea are all different, spanning an ambitious range from westerns (Kim’s The Good The Bad The Weird) to bloody revenge thrillers (Park’s trilogy Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Lady Vengeance) to humor-laced though frightening crime procedurals (Bong’s 2003 Memories of Murder), they share some things in common: an emphasis on heightened emotion, violence, and startlingly intense performances, filmed in a tech-savvy style. Koreans themselves have dealt with longtime political turmoil, stemming back to the Korean War in the 1950s, and living under despotic rule from the late ‘70s through 1988.

“In U.S. films, there’s more explosive violence, gun fighting. In Korea, it’s more the violence is associated with everyday life,” said Bong. “There was dictatorship in Korean government. That’s why, when you look at my movies, you can see glimpses of that. … There is a lot of extreme emotion in Korean film. It’s because there are a lot of extremes in Korean society. Korean people are a little more aggressive, a little more similar to Italian people. Snowpiercer also deals with extreme situations and extreme emotions.”

That’s another risk all three directors are taking: transitioning from a distinct Korean style of filmmaking to one bound up in American and Western ideology and approach. Still, the trio – despite their own varied styles – adore and have also emulated some of Western film’s greatest directors.

Bong loves ‘70s auteur American films and Alfred Hitchcock, part of the inspiration for Mother (he watched Hitchcock’s Psycho) and Snowpiercer (Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, North by Northwest). Kim named a slew of directors as inspiration, from Hitchcock to Woody Allen, John Cassavetes, Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Thomas Anderson, the Coen brothers, David Fincher, and one of his favorites, Wes Anderson. “He makes films he wants to, no compromises,” Kim said.

Park cited Martin Scorsese’s Hugo as a recent English-language movie he enjoyed, though his favorite contemporary  English-language movie is David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method. “Cronenberg is my hero,” Park said. While Wentworth Miller drew on Hitchcock for Stoker’s script, Park said, the director himself channeled sleek, stylized, sexy Brian De Palma. “Stoker is a film with cross-cut scenes in it. In making such a film, I couldn’t help but think of De Palma,” said Park, who noted his favorite by the director is 1980 murder thriller Dressed To Kill. “Once upon a time, I used to write film reviews for a living, and I reviewed Dressed to Kill. While I was conscious of DePalma, I wanted to make Stoker differently. How could I make it different from DePalma, maybe through less use of slow motion?”

The Future

Coming to Hollywood and English language films is a huge opportunity, and risk, for Park, Kim and Bong, similar to Taiwan’s Ang Lee transitioning from 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to 2005’s Brokeback Mountain with Heath Ledger and Jack Gyllenhaal, or Hong Kong action master John Woo leaping into making American films with 1997’s Face/Off, starring John Travolta and Nicolas Cage, and then 2000’s Mission: Impossible II  (though Woo has since gone back to focusing on Hong Kong cinema).

“From the outset, I never decided I was going to make films only in the U.S., in the English language,” Park  said. “I always thought I would go back and forth between Korean- and English-language films, much like what Ang Lee does.” Park  confirmed he’s in active discussions to direct English-language crime drama Corsica 72 and western The Brigands Of Rattleborge. Meanwhile, Bong is preparing a project that’s half in Korean, half in English, based in both the United States and Korea. He looks to Mexican director Guillermo del Toro’s successful switch from Spanish language films to English. Kim said he wants to make films in both countries.

But will the three directors actually accomplish reaching a wider audience next year? Stanley Rosen, a professor of political science and an Asian film expert at the University of Southern California, voiced some skepticism. Chinese directors such as Chen Kaige and Xiaogang have had a harder time finding crossover appeal at the box office with English-language movies, he said, and Korean directors have already cast an influence on American and European directors, who generally remake Korean films with more box office clout. Park’s South Korean Oldboy, full of hyper choreographed violence, sex, and revenge-filled freakouts, for example, has set a high bar for Lee’s English-language version, starring Josh Brolin.

“Because of this, it makes good sense for the Korean directors to seek an American and international audience with English-language films that avoid dubbing or subtitling. But it won’t be easy,” Rosen said. “Ang Lee is of course the most successful Asian director. Although he started out making popular films in Taiwan — which did well at the U.S. box office — he learned English and how to make films while at NYU Film School. In general, the Korean directors don’t do as well with English, don’t have the same top U.S. film school background, and even many of the Hong Kong directors — such as Ringo Lam — haven’t been able to duplicate their success in the U.S.”

The field is also open for female directors such as South Korea-born So Yong Kim, who lives in New York and is fluent in English and entrenched in American culture. Growing up watching Korean films before being introduced to European and American movies, she just released her own first English-language film, the stark indie For Ellen, starring Paul Dano, and provides a female-centric outlook within a scope of directors that is heavily male dominated. “Each director has their own style, so it’s hard to blend them together into one expectation,” she said of Kim, Park, and Bong. “However, I’m excited to see how they transport their Korean-inspired visions of the world to English-language audiences.”

The future, then, for Bong, Kim, and Park in Hollywood is both sweetly plentiful, and unknown.

“We will have to see once the Last Stand releases, but I am hoping for the best. It is my first Hollywood film, and admittedly getting familiar with the system took some time,” said Kim. “I feel that I was not able to showcase everything I’ve got, and in my next Hollywood film I really want to show what I am capable of. The Last Stand has shown me all the possibilities in Hollywood, and I will continue to make films here.”

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‘Stoker’ trailer: Nicole Kidman and Mia Wasikowska are one disturbing family — VIDEO
Schwarzenegger’s ‘The Last Stand’ trailer: Arnold’s comeback?
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