The 2013 Korean Cinematic Invasion

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As much as I love Japanese films, (I did dedicate an entire blog to it, you know?), one cannot deny the groundbreaking cinema that has been churned out of South Korea for over ten years now. Films such as Oldboy, The Host, and A Tale of Two Sisters have amassed dedicated cult followings worldwide.

So it was only a matter of time before some of the biggest directors in South Korea’s New Wave of Cinema, chief among them being Kim Jee-woon, Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook, would wash up on US shores – Hollywood beckoning them to showcase their skills on the largest stage in the world.

Years from now, there is a chance 2013 could be looked back upon as the year of the Korean cinematic invasion of the United States, with not one, not two, but three English language directorial debuts by Korean filmmakers.

However, this movement has gotten off to a rocky start.


Kim Jee-woon’s ‘The Last Stand’

The Last Stand - Photo Courtesy of www.thelaststandfilm.com

The Last Stand – Photo Courtesy of http://www.thelaststandfilm.com

This January, director Kim Jee-woon released the rated R action movie, The Last Stand, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger (who hadn’t starred in a leading role for almost a decade). The critical response to the film was mixed (it currently sits at a “rotten” rating of 59%, just one percentage point from being considered “fresh,” on film review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes) and it was a flat-out bomb commercially. According to the website Boxofficemojo, The Last Stand yielded a disappointing $12 million in the United States, and with a production budget of around $45 million it was considered a colossal failure considering this film was expected to usher in a new era of Schwarzenegger films.

The American response to Kim Jee-woon’s The Last Stand is undoubtedly disheartening for fans of the director’s work which runs the gamut of genres – the 2003 horror film A Tale of Two Sisters, 2005’s gangster picture A Bittersweet Life, the 2008 ode to spaghetti-western The Good, The Bad, The Weird and 2010’s cat and mouse serial killer revenge thriller I Saw the Devil.

Jee-woon is known for his artfully constructed over-the-top actions scenes and yet still imbuing his films with solid characterizations and heart. The fact that Lionsgate Film gave him the keys to a $45 million R-rated movie – Liam Neeson was initially going to star – speaks volumes to his talents as a filmmaker and, hopefully, Hollywood doesn’t blame the lack of success the movie garnered on the Korean director.

So why did the film flop so badly? One must wonder how the movie would have fared had Liam Neeson stayed on the project. Unlike Schwarzenegger (who has been out of acting for nearly tens years and it’s not like the last several films he starred in before become a California governor were raking in the cash), Neeson has been able to put butts in theater seats on his name alone – The Grey, Taken, and Unknown are just a few examples – and hasn’t tarnished his reputation like Arnie (remember the whole extra-marital affair he had with his housekeeper? The one which ended with him having to publicly admit to having a child out of wedlock?).

The advertisement campaign for The Last Stand also didn’t help matters. The trailers made it appear that the obnoxious character played by Johnny Knoxville would be a major player throughout the film. There is something very wrong with playing up the appearance of a former Jackass member while downplaying the presence of Forest Whitaker, an Academy Award Best Actor winner. The fact that Lionsgate Film dumped the movie in the cinematic wasteland known as the month of January – a place where all films go to die – was another indicator this film wasn’t going to be successful.

Park Chan-wook’s ‘Stoker’

Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

I honestly doubt Park Chan-wook, perhaps the most famous of the three Korean directors releasing English-language films this year, is fretting over the poor performance of his fellow countryman’s The Last Stand.

This March saw the limited release of his film Stoker, a small-budgeted Fox Searchlight picture (it’s estimated to have cost around $12 million, according to Boxofficemojo.com) that stars Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman and Matthew Goode.

The film stays true to the artistic vision Chan-wook has employed over the course of his career in South Korea and, thematically, adds to his former body of work. The themes of inherent evil and revenge are present in Stoker as they are in his much lauded Vengeance Trilogy – Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance.

With such a small budget, Stoker doesn’t have as much to prove as The Last Stand did. In fact, the one thing Chan-wook had to prove was that he hadn’t lost his edge in making an American film. One just has to look at the film’s subject matter – a uncle/serial killer comes to seduce the wife and daughter of his dead brother – and any fears Chan-wook has sold-out will immediately vanish. Stoker currently has a Rottentomatoes.com rating of 68%, which is quite high considering it’s taboo subject matter and visceral violence. My review of Stoker can be found here.

Bong Joon-ho’s ‘Snowpiercer’

Photo Courtesy of Blastr.com

Photo Courtesy of Blastr.com

Snowpiercer, directed by Bon Joon-ho (The Host and Mother), stands the best chance of being a blockbuster hit. The film, based off of the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, takes place in a post-apocalyptic setting where Earth has been ravaged by global warming which triggered a new Ice Age. The only remaining members of the human race are stuck on board a train called The Snow Piercer. Very quickly a class system begins to develop on the train which sparks a rebellion.

The film stars Chris Evans (Captain America: First Avenger), Ed Harris, John Hurt, South Korean actor Song Kang-ho (who has starred in films by all three Korean directors discussed in this blog entry), Tilda Swinton and Octavia Spencer.

So far not much is known about Snowpiercer besides that it will be released sometime in 2013 and that it filming for it wrapped back in July, 2012. Supposedly, Joon-ho read the graphic novel while filming his fantastic film The Host and shared it with Park Chan-wook who loved it as well. Chan-wook would eventually secure the film adaptation rights of Le Transperceneige for Joon-ho.

Joon-ho has very wisely made an English-language debut film that will no doubt be alluring to an international audience. With the film being based on a French comic, its cast made-up of American, British and South Korean actors, Snowpiercer stands a great chance of being the most successful of the 2013 Korean Invasion films.

Final Thoughts:

Whether Kim Jee-woon, Park Chan-wook or Bong Joon-ho ever get another shot at filming more English-language films – or perhaps they won’t want to – it’s nice to see them leave their comfort zones and expose a different audience to their exceptional filmmaking skills.

If all three returned to South Korea to make their future films, more power to them, but here’s hoping the Korean Cinematic Invasion of 2013 leads to a more culturally diverse Hollywood – a Hollywood that treats Asian filmmakers and artists with the respect that they deserve.

‘Stoker’ Review: A near evil masterpiece

Rating: R
Length: 99 minutes
Director: Park Chan-wook
Screenplay: Wentworth Miller

Stars:
India Stoker: Mia Wasikowska
Charlie Stoker – Matthew Goode
Evelyn Stoker – Nicole Kidman
Richard Stoker – Dermot Mulroney

Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook’s English-language debut Stoker is somewhat of an odd duck. As a meditation on the inherent evil that resides in all of us – how this seed of evil can be nurtured and encouraged by another – Stoker is a beautifully macabre experience, filled with rich imagery and symbolism that, no doubt, make it a worthy addition to the pantheon of Chan-wook’s films (e.g. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Lady Vengeance and I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK). Unfortunately, Stoker’s script (written by former Prison Break star Wentworth Miller) often works against the films powerful visual storytelling, undermining it with several predictable revelations and some odd characterizations that will compromise the suspension of disbelief of many of its audience.

Evil is a common theme found throughout Chan-wook’s filmography and no where is it more prevalent than in Stoker. There are multiple murders committed throughout the film and they are often ghastly. With one exception, none of the killings are done in self-defense – they are lustful executions. One female character masturbates in a shower, reliving the image of a young man’s neck being snapped with a belt. Many viewers of the film will find this too appalling and off-putting to be able to see the larger message that Chan-wook is attempting to convey about the seeds of evil that can blossom in all of us.

The story focuses on Mia Wasikowska’s character, 18-year old India Stoker, a meek and sheltered young woman with porcelain skin, who is grieving the loss of her father, Richard (played in flashbacks by Dermot Mulroney), who was just killed in a mysterious automobile accident. Richard’s death prompts a visit from his brother Charlie, an uncle India never knew existed. Very quickly the family’s world is turned upside down as Charlie moves in and begins seducing both India and her emotionally unbalanced mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman who gives an great, icy performance).

As we get to know more about Charlie – he has just returned from a lengthy European business trip, he informs the family – we can immediately sense something is not quite right about him. Early on in the film, the loyal housemaid, Mrs. McGarrick, is seen shouting at Charlie, clearly not happy to see him return and inect himself into the Stoker family dynamics. Later, Charlie’s Aunt Gina visits and attempts to warn the mother and daughter about their new housemate.

It becomes quite evident early on it’s India who Charlie is ultimately trying to seduce. He sees an evilness inside of her that resembles his own and uses his good looks and charm to bring about a sexual and murderous awakening in his niece. Charlie begins to ensnare India in his violent web, making her complicit in his murderous actions and, you know what? India seems to love every minute of it.

As mentioned earlier, the main problem with Stoker is its script. Chan-wook does a wonderful job ratcheting up the suspense at all the right moments, masterfully juggling several taut and suspenseful intercutting scenes that all build into a crazed, blood-soaked crescendo. However, the big reveals are never that shocking, most are predictable, and no matter how damn good Chan-wook is at building up to the film’s payoff scenes (and he is that damn good), they are, in effect, flaccid and lacking the punch needed in a psychological thriller like this because the script shows most of its cards to soon.

It’s because of this that Stoker works best as a symbolic visual representation of how evil is attracted to evil – how the evil in all of us can be brought to the surface by the most unlikeliest of sources. Unfortunately, because of its script, Stoker never quite reaches the heights that it should, given its exceptionally talented cast and director, but despite all this, one cannot walk away from this film and not have a visceral reaction – which is something all quality art should evoke.

Sion Sono’s ‘Guilty of Romance’ is coming to the Boston Underground Film Festival!

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Photo Courtesy of www.fareastfilms.com

Photo Courtesy of http://www.fareastfilms.com

It’s March everyone, and that means the BUFF (Boston Underground Film Festival) is gearing up to showcase another stellar collection of bizarre, wacky and visceral films from around the world!

The big news for us who are obsessed with Japanese cinema? Well, Japanese auteur Sion Sono will have his 2011 film Guilty of Romance screened at this year’s BUFF event.

The festivals website, http://www.bostonunderground.org, describes Guilty of Romance as, “an eerie, boundary-pushing thriller from one of Japan’s masters of suspense. Always unorthodox, this acclaimed international gem starts off with a bang, as a dead body leads investigators to a demure housewife, leading a secret life as a nude model.”

Photo Courtesy of Eureka Entertainment

Photo Courtesy of Eureka Entertainment

Sono’s been on a bit of a roll as of late. His 2008 film Love Exposure drew rave reviews from around the world and made it on many best of the year lists. The four-hour film is one of my personal favorites.

Sono then released the macabre, somewhat-based-on-true-life events film Cold Fish, which continued to raise the director’s international profile.

 

For more information about BUFF, go check out their website: http://bostonunderground.org/ and make sure to support them.

‘Battle Royale’ Review: Opening up a whole new world, one arterial spray of blood at a time

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Battle Royale: Blu-ray addition

I’ve always have had a soft spot for “Battle Royale.”

Growing up, I was never all that fascinated with Japan’s entertainment exports (with the exception of PlayStation and Nintendo). It all seemed so fluffy and cutesy; art devoid of any meaning or message. What was a 17 year-old supposed to take away from seeing yellow stuffed animals hurling lightning bolts at turtles (Pokemon) and masked, rainbow-colored martial artists exchanging punches and kicks with monsters whose customs were made of foam and rubber (Power Rangers)?

My ignorant disdain towards Japanese entertainment came to an abrupt end my senior year of high school. Bedridden with hellacious bouts of both strep throat and the flu, my mother asked if there were a couple of books I’d like her to pick up for me at Barnes and Noble. I immediately requested “The Man in the High Castle” by Philip K. Dick, which began a long love affair with the late author (I’ll save that for another blog, another time), and then proceeded to rack my brain over the choice for a second book.

Then it hit me like a bolt of lightning thrown by that obnoxious yellow Pokemon: wasn’t there some Japanese film I kept reading about online that couldn’t land an American distribution deal due to its graphic subject matter? High school kids running around an island with an array of weapons killing each other? And wasn’t it based on a novel? One quick search on a laptop yielded the results I was hoping for: yes, there was such a book and, yes, there was an English translation version and, yes, it was in stock at Barnes and Noble.

“Mom, I’d like you to also grab me ‘Battle Royale’ by Koushun Takami,” I said. I can’t remember how my mother responded to that request, I’m sure her head almost exploded at the daunting task of having to remember the name “Koushun Takami.” Somehow someway, god love her, my mother was able to obtain me a copy of the book that would change my life.

I fondly recall being sick as a dog, plowing through the 666 pages of death, maiming and acts of heroism that were contained within Takami’s book. Reading and enjoying a story about student-on-student murder seemed taboo to me in a post-Columbine world and I was struck by the realization that such a work could never be spawned within the 50 states of America. A country, my country, that continues to find itself plagued by random acts of violence throughout its school systems. No, it’s safe to say if “Battle Royale” were to have been created in the States it would have been cripplingly self-conscious and unsuccessful or if it were successful it’d be a watered-down, bloodless soap-opera *cough*The Hunger Games*cough*.

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Soon enough my illnesses abated but my adoration for this quirky Japanese novel stayed. I began the arduous task of procuring a DVD copy of “Battle Royale.” Eventually, I was able to obtain a burned copy of the film, a Chinatown knock off – complete with not so great subtitles and poor picture quality.

“Battle Royale” the film, directed by legendary Japanese film director Kinji Fukasaku in 2000, was released a full year after the novel was published and never quite reaches the heights of its source material. However, it does a superb job of juggling a large cast of, at its time, Japan’s finest young actors and actresses. The movie only falters when it begins to deviate from the storyline of the book which, thankfully, does not happen too frequently.

The movie still has the same dystopian setting, where Japan is a member of the fictitious totalitarian regime The Republic of Greater East Asia. The alternate reality Japan has seen its economy plummet. 15% of the nation are unemployed leading to students boycotting school. Over 800,000 students walk out of their classes, we’re told at the beginning of the film. When crime rates involving children and teenagers begin to skyrocket the government enacts the Millennium Educational Reform Act (a.k.a. The Battle Royale Act) due to the growing fear and distrust the adult population has for its youth. The BR Act is meant to terrorize Japan’s children and teens, to arouse suspicion in one another thus making it impossible for the youth to galvanize and thwart the corrupt government.

Every year, one classroom (in the novel 50 classes participated every year) is chosen to partake in the Battle Royale event located on an abandoned island. In the film, it’s the forty unlucky students from Class 3-B that have been chosen at random to compete. It’s horrifying to watch a class of students be informed that they will have to slaughter every last one of their fellow students if they hope to leave the island with their life.

Legendary Japanese actor and director Takeshi “Beat” Kitano is sublime as the evil ex-teacher who is running the Battle Royale event. He wastes no time in letting his former students know how seriously he is taking the BR act when he presents to the class the dead body of their teacher and later plunges a knife into the forehead of female student, Fujiyoshi.

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As the movie continues we see 37 out of the 40 students killed, some off camera, in the most grotesque ways possible. What saves this movie from becoming nauseating to watch is the decision by scriptwriter Kenta Fukasaku (the son of the director) to instill black humor into the story. Clearly defined heroes and villains (those that try to fight back against the government and those who mercilessly execute their fellow students) also prevent the movie from becoming too soul-upsetting.

Kinji Fukasaku’s expert handling of the actions scenes, and gore they result in, should be applauded. One never thinks of cartoonish, over-the-top arterial blood spray as tasteful, and yet it was the least gratuitous of options for this film. Had Fukasaku gone the other way, and tried to make each death as realistic as possible, well, this would have been an entirely different movie and far too unsettling. Similar bloodshed can be seen in the movies “Kill Bill,” “The Inglorious Bastards,” and “Django Unchained.” Is it any surprise that director Quentin Tarantino has gone on record saying “Battle Royale” is his favorite movie since 1992?

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Those who have not seen “Battle Royale,” I implore you to do so. It is much easier today to find a copy of the movie than when I first did in 2005. It’s available on Netflix and available for purchase at Amazon. I would however, recommend you read the book before viewing the movie but I understand most people will be unwilling to do this.

“Battle Royale” opened the Japanese cinema and entertainment floodgates for me. Had I not read the book and seen the film I doubt I’d would ever have discovered the cinematic works of Akira Kurosawa, Takashii Miike, Sion Sono, Katsuhito Ishii and Hayao Miyazaki. I’d perhaps never have discovered Japanese authors such as Haruki Murakami, Kenzaburo Oe and Ryu Murakami. I probably would never have discovered the great films South Korea is putting out, such as Park Chan-Wook’s Vengeance Trilogy or Kim Ji-Woon’s films.

I found “Battle Royale” at the right place at the right time and it redirected my taste in film, literature and foreign cultures. No easy feat, right?