No one can deny the groundbreaking cinema which has been coming out of South Korea for over the last ten years. Korean films such as A Tale of Two Sisters, Oldboy and The Host 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, Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho – 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’
This January, director Kim Jee-woon released the R-rated 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. With a production budget of around $45 million, it was considered a colossal failure considering it 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 genre-hopping work – 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’
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’
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.
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.